Ultimate Showdown!

Ultimate Showdown!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

From the Last 30 to the Next 30: Five Things for the Future

Tim McGraw's got a song called "My Next Thirty Years," about the reflection of a man on his last thirty years, looking back at what he's done and what he'll do different for (brace yourself...) the next thirty.

Well, tomorrow I will turn thirty. Dirty Thirty, as a co-worker says. The last time I left a decade behind, I was in Tarragona, Spain. I looked like this.



Now I look like this.



It kind of snuck up on me, you know? Like I knew it was coming and suddenly it's HERE, like a final exam. The closer it got, the more I heard Tim McGraw crowing in my ear, talking about eating extra salads and laying off the Budweiser or whatever.

Well, I'm a Mormon and he's not, so our Next Thirty Years lists will have some discrepancies. Nevertheless, I felt impressed to put together one of my own.

5) Then: I learned a new language. Now: I'll learn another.



I grew up in a bilingual household. In second grade, my folks sent me and my brothers to Spanish classes before school, and later I would start formal classes for credit in the 8th grade. I continued all the way through high school, used it at work after graduation, served a two-year mission for my church in Spain, and have kept up on it through casual conversation, reading, and music. I love what I've learned from being bilingual. I can even defend myself with basic French.

Now? Well, if I were to get serious with another language, the experience would be very different. My wife only speaks English, I'm not in school, and I'm not moving back to Europe anytime soon. Nevertheless, I feel like I could get proficient in, say, German by the time I'm sixty. And I'd like to. (I have how-to books on Irish and Scottish Gaelic, but the means to practice those are very rare and unlikely to make me fluent.) Thus, German is the goal. Check back in 2044 :-)

4) Then: I drove a quarter million miles. Now: Let's break half a mill!


I got my driver's license in November of 2000. I didn't get behind the wheel once the whole time I was in Spain, so really I've only been driving for 12 years, but last year I drove more in nine months (long-haul trucker) than I've done in any three years besides! Best I can figure, I logged around 250,000 miles in that time.

I'm not going back over the road in the foreseeable future, but I do plan to work hard, be successful as an author, go on tour frequently, and take my family on road trips twice a year. If I can make that happen, then breaking another 250,000 won't be a problem. Here's to another thirty years of adventure!

3) Then: I grew up, moved out, and explored the world. Now: I'll show my kids how to do the same.




The short version of this? I loved parts of my childhood, hated other parts of it, and was indifferent for a lot of it. The same can be said of my teens and early twenties. I'm very blessed to have gotten to see and do all the things I've seen and done.

At the same time, I know that if I'd had just a touch more ambition and vision, I could have done plenty of things that I now wish I had. Rather than reflect and lament a life of regret, I'm not going to worry about it. I have seventy more years to experience what this island Earth has in store. In the meantime I will figure out how to show my children what I didn't see, and let them go forth on their own. If they turn out to be better people than I am, I will consider that my greatest blessing.

2) Then: I read 700 books, I wrote two dozen of my own, and I drew on countless square feet of dead trees. Now: I'm only getting started. 

Rebel Heart (Engines of Liberty, #1)

Seriously, according to my Goodreads account (which has helped me keep track like a boss), I've got 700 books under my belt, 40 of which I didn't completely finish. (Others I read multiple times, so it balances out.) I've also been writing since I was eight, and it's a safe bet that I've done something in the neighborhood of 20+ manuscripts. Even got to publish my first one this year! And my drawings, oh man...there's just no way of knowing how many hours of my life on a pie chart are "drawing"-colored.

I have far too many ideas for me to handle all at once. I've planned some, plotted others, and put them on a schedule. Let me say it this way: if I finished every single book that I have even partially drafted, outlined, started and/or abandoned, and published them at a rate of two per year, I'd have work to do until 2029 when my son starts driving.

I can't even wait.

1) Then: I got married. Now: I'll stay that way. For thirty years, and forever.



There's little I can say about my marriage to Schaara without gushing and boring you; I suspect many of you know what I'm talking about though, when you meet the one who gets you and fills the gaps in your soul. Finding her was a long, winding, and sometimes painful road, paved with the ruins of many emotional exploits that left me feeling--at times--hopeless.

Marriage isn't a fairy tale; it's an epic. Epics are real. Epics run the full spectrum of life. You laugh, you cry, you know joy, you experience fear, you resolve, and you regret. Most of all, you push onward and you pick each other up when the journey starts to take its toll. That's Schaara. She is why I'm looking forward to my next thirty years.

***

So that's it. Mayhaps you have learned something about me today. I hope I have given you something that you can use for your next thirty. Go forth and conquer, my friends. Life awaits us all.

Let's get to it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Constant connection isn't about what you gain; it's about what you trade.

Five years ago this summer, I signed up for Twitter.

I'm hard-pressed to think of anything I've gained from it in five years. I've had a few neat moments, I've gotten to interact with some celebrities, and some interesting links have come my way. That's all good, I guess.

But.

But.

Am I a better person for it? Am I using my time better? Does it make me more productive? Is my average of 2,000 tweets per year of much benefit to the world, my posterity, or my legacy?

Those are broad questions, of course. You'll never get a black or white answer to them. On the whole, though, I feel like what I've given up is not equal to what I have gained in return from it.

The same can be said of Facebook, Reddit, and any other form of new media, or the Internet in general. It's a great tool for education, information and productivity, but it's also a whirling vortex of potential wasted time, depending on who you are.

Me, I have a problem. I spend too much time in front of the computer, not working, but playing and absorbing an endless stream of worthless junk that just bounces around in my head and distracts me from important stuff.

I find that I can't experience or respond to anything in my daily life without thinking of something I saw online somewhere.

This isn't making me a better husband, father, writer, driver, anything.

Yeah, the connectivity is cool. Yeah, the jokes are funny. Yeah, the information is (at times) useful. That's what I gain from it.

The list of what I've given up is longer.

I feel like I used to be more disciplined, more focused, and that I had a greater sense of initiative. Now my downtime is most often filled by whatever passing enjoyment I can derive from a few photons shooting out of my smartphone.

Don't get me wrong: technology isn't some supreme evil or something.

I'm just using it wrong.

Maybe a lot of us are.

And I'd be better served to walk away from it more often.

Last weekend I attended a convention in Salt Lake. I left my laptop at home. All I had with me was my phone, which I used with maybe a little less frequency than normal.

When I came back, I realized how much I'd gotten done by not parking my butt in front of the computer and hitting my favorite sites.

They're cool sites, sure. I like what's on them.

But again, the information is all leisurely. I gain little from it. And it weighs me down in the meantime.

I think I'd do really well to take more breaks from it. I don't see myself scrapping it altogether anytime soon...or ever...but I do see myself getting back to those traditions of discipline and initiative.

I'm a writer now. I've got stuff out. I've got more stuff on deck. Time to get it done.

Get back to work.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Fourths


Tonight, I want to tell you a story. Make that a couple of stories.

I'm a big, flamboyant, pragmatically jingoistic American patriot. You know this. I love our culture, our historical achievements, our optimism and our spirit. And Independence Day is a particular predilection, one to which I've added my own traditions.

I distinctly remember my last ten or eleven ID4s. In 2005, I had a barbecue dinner with an American family in Spain. 2006 saw a wrecked day at the lake, wherein I lost my car keys in the water and endured a severe sunburn. 

2007 was a major improvement: movies, Slurpees, barbecues, and park parties with fireworks, bombing around town with good friends and good music. 2008 was my first year in Provo, and even though I had to work that morning, I made a day of it with breakfast at Kneaders, a trip to the movies and the Stadium of Fire with a good buddy. 

2009? Mortars of questionable legality in God's open wilderness, with wonderful friends. 2010? Mom's house and a World Cup semifinal with my adopted Spain moving onto the final. 

2011 was my first married 4th, with food and fireworks at my brother's house. 2012 saw us doing the same thing, this time with the knowledge that in a few months we'd be parents for te first time.

And this is where it gets tricky, because in 2013...I was in a truck stop in Washington, away from my wife and son. I went for a 4th of July run for the 3rd year in a row, so that was cool...but still. At the time I really hated the distance, more on that in a sec.

This year was quite a different treatment. Again I was away from home, this time for work of a different kind, at a writing convention. Friends, fans, and peers alike, while no replacement for family, were more than ample company.

To cap it off, a friend treated me to a Real Salt Lake vs New England match, in fourth row seats behind the goal box. We ended up on TV after the first points were scored. The home team won, and then we got to chill on the field for a fireworks display.

There I was, lying on my back on an actual MLS pitch, watching celebratory explosives fire into the night sky with such percussive force that I could feel it in my chest. I couldn't help feeling gratitude for the life I enjoy and the people in it, even though I missed my wife and son, and couldn't share the moment with them. 

As we traditionally celebrate our independence, and remember the cost of it and why it was earned, we ought to remember that every day in America is a blessing--even the hard ones. 

I have work to do, I have a beautiful family to take care of, and I'm grateful that I get to do it in a land of rampant opportunity. Yeah it's hard and stressful sometimes. That's life. I look forward to it, knowing that it I have nowhere to go but up. 

Happy Independence Day. See you out there.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How do artists get away with thinking that their work matters?

As I discussed in my previous post, sometime in my teens I began to ponder on the real-world merits of my future career as a full-time novelist. Why should I become a professional writer when the world needs more doctors, or engineers, or inventors, or [people who kneecap] politicians?

To this day I still ponder on it, and I've come up with some answers that have satisfied the itch. Maybe you'll agree, maybe you'll disagree, maybe you'll stop reading and go make a sandwich. (Spoiler alert, I don't care.) Just tell me if I'm right or wrong.

1) Art helps people to remember. This goes for songs and films as well. When something is really good, it leaves such a strong imprint on me that I remember where I was in life when I experienced that piece of art. I remember what I felt, good or bad, and I remember what that piece helped me to feel. Overall, I have had the great fortune of being exposed to (on the whole) uplifting and inspiring works. If I can capture that feeling and give it others in my own way, perhaps I can better their lives.

2) Art helps people to understand. Real life is never so clear-cut or simple as it is in the movies. Metaphors, allegories and parables can take any challenge, any dilemma, any stumbling-block and break it down into its component parts. Then, when executed and expressed correctly, art can paint a path through or around those elements and get you to the other side. I might even say that great art helps me to see the difference between right and wrong at times.

3) Dreaming is the forerunner of invention. In my 10th grade World History class, the textbook opened with a  brief chapter on human anthropology: sometime after the caveman days, our homo erectus ancestors figured out things like crops, tools, and the mass production of food. Once they put a dent in the daily need to hunt for food, they had time to sit back and dream. Dreaming led to trying, trying let to experimentation, experimentation led to invention, and invention slowly led to the expanded application of human creativity.

4) When real life gives you nothing great to emulate, the printed word does. With the caveat that this is only relevant in relation to one's core values, fictional characters can be fleshed out and developed so well that they seem like real people, possessed of virtuous qualities and quirks that we wish we had. When done right, a book can inspire you to become or achieve something greater than you might have thought possible.

5) Imagination is the hallmark of a society that will never stop challenging itself. The Vikings held their storytellers in high esteem. They called them "skalds", and their job was to tell stories about their kings (always with the proper, ahem, embellishments of victory and heroism.) Likewise the Celts had their "bards", which performed essentially the same service. Nowadays we have authors, who are the guards of the great tales and legends, chronicling the struggle between good and evil on a million fronts, ranging from the smallest personal conquest to the greatest clash against armies of insurmountable strength. As the skalds and the bards were meant to tell stories in a particular light, I consider it the duty of an author to fuel the imagination, and push readers to challenge themselves far beyond what they think they can do.

Side note: for a great novel about a skald, try ICEFALL by Matthew J. Kirby. For a great novel about a bard, try THE PARADISE WAR by Stephen R. Lawhead. 

After reading James A. Owen's stupendous DRAWING OUT THE DRAGONS, I couldn't help wondering what I might tell readers and aspiring authors that would be of any value to them someday. I haven't lived the life James lived, constantly fighting health issues while struggling to illustrate comics with a broken hand. However, I can relate my own struggle to understand why I feel the urge to write like I do, how I worked to find a purpose to what I do, and how I seek to help people by writing what I write.

Ultimately it's in the eye of the beholder, whether I am successful or not. I cannot make any demands of anyone concerning their inspiration. Like so many other things in life, I just need to do my part, and do my best. The rest is up to you, dear reader.

Thanks.

Monday, June 9, 2014

College isn't all it's cracked up to be, kids.

Sometime back in my teens, it hit me that a lifetime career as a writer of sci-fi and fantasy might not do a whole lot in terms of leaving the world better than I found it. A novel wasn't exactly going to cure cancer or increase access to inexpensive energy, right? And besides, there was already a butt-ton (metric) of people writing books. Why should mine be any more special?

I soon began to wonder what I should do with my professional career to sort of give back to the world, while I wrote on the side. My first thought was nursing school, given that a career in medicine is quite noble, and nursing would provide a good living in exchange for a valuable service. Everyone wins, right?

Well, there was a problem with that: nursing requires more than a basic understanding of chemistry, and while I can hold my own at math, I can't quite wrap my head around chemical equations in a 100-level college class. (I'm told it only gets harder from there.) 

So after maybe two semesters of hating myself and wanting to take a high-speed drill bit to the eyeballs, I abandoned the quest for a nursing degree and instead turned toward my true passion, which was writing. Maybe I could get an English degree, right? Major in the humanities, and then become a teacher or something...

...because that would totally let me pay back the $20,000 it would cost me to get the degree, while living comfortably on $2500/month to put up with crap from snotty adolescents.

That's...that's noble, right?

Ehh...

"You know what," I thought to myself, "screw this. Maybe there's not such a lack of nobility in simply being an author, because it's cheap and I'm tired of jumping through burning hoops in college. Also, I'm broke." 

Ever since then I've pretty much done what I've been doing ever since I entered the workforce at age 16: blue collar, sweaty, dirty-hands work. And you know what? I'm still not curing cancer, nor am I increasing America's access to cheap petroleum. But I am providing for my family, making a living, and setting aside for my future while I work on my craft.

That still doesn't answer the question, though: what's the point of writing novels? Is it making the world a better place? I drive a truck for a crane company in Las Vegas right now. I've helped deliver loads and move equipment for power plants, hotels, restaurants, schools, and hospitals--and that's just in the six months that I've been at this job. When I did long haul, I moved everything from adult beverages to food products to disposal medical apparatuses to huge rolls of paper to Christmas trees. 

And all the while, I wrote. Do you know what? I felt good about what I was doing. Better, perhaps, than what I might have been doing, had my novels been published years before, to great critical acclaim. 

How could this be? I'd wanted to be a writer for decades. Yet I also wanted to do something hands-on meaningful with my life, and that put me behind the wheel of a truck. No matter what I did, I felt like I wasn't quite reaching my full potential when it came to making the world better.

Well, I have a point, and you're about to get to it.

Seven years ago, I drove this truck for Lloyd's Refrigeration in Las Vegas. 



I printed out a copy and put it over my desk with a note reminding me to go to college, so that I wouldn't be stuck driving it for the rest of my life.

Now, seven years later, I am still in Las Vegas, I am not in college, I do not plan to return to college, and I find myself driving a slightly larger truck:




You know what? I have two things that I never had in college: happiness, and a sense of fulfillment.

I'm not embarrassed by the fact that I drive a truck to pay the bills. Pretty damn proud of it, actually. My Papaw was a trucker; I look at it as carrying on in his footsteps. Unlike my Papaw, I won't work all the way until I die, though.

At least, I won't work as a trucker. My books will have gotten off the ground, and I'll be working from the comfort of a home office, fighting to make deadlines and to produce great quality fiction and illustrations. Like anything else worthwhile, it'll have its own challenges, and there will probably even be things about it that I hate, and that's fine.

It's the kind of work that I love. That's all I should have been after in the first place.

Monday, June 2, 2014

One year ago this week, I wrote REBEL HEART.


Twelve months ago, this was still just an idea in my head. It wasn't making me any money, nor was it giving me much in the way of personal fulfillment. It was just a pleasant daydream.

And I got frigging tired of it, so I fixed it.

I hadn't realized it was a full year ago until I left work today and saw a notice on the window about the annual "DOT Blitz" this week, wherein all cops everywhere inspect every semi-truck they lay eyes on. I recalled last year's Blitz, when I was in Aurora, CO for three days because I had four bad tires on my truck and the shop was super busy.

So I hammered out a trilogy, and the making of it is kind of its own story.

The genesis of REBEL HEART proves that endurance and thrift can produce better results than long foresight and planning. I wrote the first version of this tale, called TECHNOMANCER, in the fall of 2011, intending to post it to DreadPennies.com (my now-defunct website) about a thousand words at a time. Slap on a (horrible) drawing, and boom, you've got a chapter to an online serial.

I think I made it through 12,000 words online before I pulled it off the Internet, being wholly dissatisfied with the results. Not with readership or traffic, mind you, but with the quality of my own work. I didn't care about the story, the characters, the art, whatever. I was just glad to be putting something out, and that gladness had dried up. So I shelved the story and moved on to other things, like my agented manuscripts.

Last spring I parted ways with my agent and started looking at new options for many of my shelved and underdeveloped projects. Self-pub's appeal waxed powerful in my eye, though not without its shortcomings. So I mulled it over, came up with an attack plan, and went to work salvaging some of my "trunk novels."

Foremost among them was the discarded TECHNOMANCER, a problematic book with no shortage of gaps and holes to fill in every aspect (characters, worldbuilding, etc). The basic gyst of it was that Brits had magic, Americans had technology, and they were at war.

I sat down and took the time to patch up the damage, write a character roster, condense my long plan for the series (six volumes) into a trilogy, and outline the whole thing. Once I finished that, I drafted the first two books in the series. All of this took three days.

How?

Well, I was motivated, for one thing. For another, I was stuck at a truck terminal with nothing to do but hang out in my sleeper berth, or watch Swamp People marathons with large and unattractive men. And now, after a year of working on it between other projects, it's fully edited, fully illustrated, and it's getting feedback out in the world.

I still plan to traditionally publish with a big house one day. There's just too much satisfaction in finishing a project and getting it out there on my own terms in the meantime, especially when I've been at it this long. And I'm going to keep at it, keep getting better, and keep building my base until I'm too big to be ignored.

You can do it too.

Now get back to work.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It appears you don't all hate the same things I do...

In response to last week's call for bad high school reads, your answers kind of surprised me. Not that I'm super in love with any of these in particular, they just didn't garner my eternal apathy and/or contempt the way that other titles did. Here were the main responses:

Lord of the Flies: Given the glut of modern-day takes on this story (most notoriously is James Dashner's Maze Runner trilogy) it's still popular fodder for parody, analogy and general meme-ery. I didn't mind it all that much, and found its overall message to be rather pertinent, but I can see why the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts for many readers. In the end, my opinion is that I didn't get to read this in high school, because I was busy choking on other crap.

Ethan Frome: Until David mentioned this book to me, I had never heard of it. I guess it's about someone in New England committing suicide, which...eh, I can't make a suicide joke. Just can't. I'll take David's word for it and not waste my time.

Watership Down: This was assigned to me all the way back in sixth grade, and I didn't mind it because it was about talking animals, and there was a seagull that cussed like a sailor. For a class project, we also had to illustrate one of the characters from the book on a huge sheet of poster paper. I ended up illustrating everyone. (Wasn't hard, 90% of the characters were rabbits.) Nevertheless, it's a depressing book.

Old Man and the Sea: I didn't read this until almost two years ago. I had an overall positive experience with it, after some post-reading analysis. (Not a skill I learned in high school.) So I can't agree with this one beyond saying that if I'd read it as a high school assignment, yeah, I might have hated it then.

Brave New World: This is one that I'm glad I read, but then again, I did so for my own leisure. Don't judge me; I'd just seen Finding Forrester and had decided to try my hand at reading literary fiction, to see if I enjoyed it. It has definite merit, but like other books on this list, one would not enjoy it if one was forced to read it and attribute to it the same value that some stuffy old academic claims it has.

In the end, I can't say I hate all of these the way that you guys do, but that's okay: there are plenty of books I do hate, and that's what counts.

I think. I don't know. Have a drumstick. K bye.