Sunday, July 27, 2014

Reason(s) for my Negativity

On Tuesday of last week, my last day at work before going on a long vacation which included trips to San Diego for Comic-Con and to London for WorldCon, a colleague asked me this question: 
"Why are you so negative?"  
I started to give her a glib answer as I typically do in such circumstances, but instead I thought and took a moment to think about it.  I tried to see if I could give her the most honest and truthful answer that I could think of.  My reply was: 
"Because, in my life, I get enough to survive but not enough to thrive."  
My colleague looked at me a moment.  She mulled over what I said to her.  She shook her head and said, "No.  That's not it."  
"Yeah.  OK."  I walked out of her office after that.  It was close, but it wasn't the answer.  Not the whole answer.  
I went to San Diego after that for Comic-Con.  It's taken some figuring on my part, and I had to talk with a former creative partner that was with me at the time, but I'm pretty certain that I've been going to Comic-Con every year since 1996.  Eighteen years.  Any child born the year I first went would be a full grown adult by now.  
It hasn't been the best of cons.  A cold I was fighting the last week at work settled in and I spent the first couple of days feeling run-down and tired.  I slept in each day, skipping the unencumbered writing session I look forward to on vacations like this.  Unencumbered by the necessity of cutting it short, even if I'm on a roll, in order to get ready for work.  
It hasn't been a bad con, though.  Not a productive con, in terms of getting something done, making some connection or pitching an idea to a publisher.  But not a bad one.  I've been thinking a lot about the question my co-worker asked me, trying to see if I could pinpoint the reason for the overriding negativity in my attitude toward life and work and such.  
There have been clues. 
Riding down on the train I met a young man named "Kamron."  Kamron was a very happy and pleasant guy, a little less than half my age.  One of the reasons Kamron is so happy and positive, I think, is because he is doing something he loves doing.  Kamron works for Apple Computers.  Not only that, he was recruited personally by Steve Jobs himself!  
His story went like this: After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in Computer Science (did I mention that Kamron struck me as a very bright guy?), he went to Stanford to get a masters in cryptology.  It was while attending classes in his major that a teacher, or a guest lecturer, I don't remember exactly which, told him he had to meet someone important and asked Kamron if he didn't want to come with him.  
Well, that "important person" was none other than Steve Jobs.  It seems that Steve also took a shine to Kamron, because he asked Kamron to come to his offices the next day.  When he arrived, Steve showed him to an empty office where he handed him a laptop that had some sort of problem with it.  He asked Kamron to see if he could fix it and left.  
About twenty minutes later, Steve returned and asked Kamron how he did.  Kamron told him he figured out the computer's problem and fixed it in about fifteen minutes.  
"Good," Steve said.  "You start tomorrow."  
"But, I..."  Kamron stammered.  "I'm getting my masters at Stanford."  
"No.  You're not," Steve said in return.  Kamron started the next day.  
One of Kamron's first projects was with the iPhone development team.  He worked on the camera for one thing.  Did you know that the aperture lens in the iPhone camera is made from sapphire?  It makes the clearest lens with the best resolution.  It makes the camera the most expensive part of the iPhone.  Kamron regaled me with stories about working at Apple.  It was clear that he enjoyed what he did. 
An artist friend of mine, with whom I've worked with in the past is like Kamron in this regard.  He said this weekend, "What I do for my job is what I do for my hobby."    
Sitting opposite me were two ladies from MTV.  They were going to Comic-Con to work on the Teen Wolf presentations there.  They made it clear, though, that there was no particular joy in going to the convention.  
"We're going there for work," one said flatly to me.  She then explained that when they arrived, the would be ushered through the "back way" and through the "warehouse part" of the convention center.  They would do what they needed to do then leave the same way they came in.  They never got to see any of the stuff going on above.  After Comic-Con, they'd be traveling to another show to put on another presentation.  They would keep doing this throughout the convention season. 
I found myself thinking about where I would fit in the spectrum running from Kamron at one end of the arc, and the MTV ladies on the other.  
One of the reasons I go to Comic-Con is to get over my negative feelings.  My assumption has been been that spending most of my time in the "real" world, surrounded by "normal" people, is the source of my negativity.  I've referred to the time in San Diego, and at other conventions, as being something like an "normalcy enema," where all those real world concerns get flushed out of my system.  
It's not working as well as well as it used to in the past, though.  Maybe a little stiffness in the nerd-pipes comes with age, just as one's physical body gets more and more out of joint.  I can feel time and opportunity running out.  
As I do every year since he started coming to the convention, I make a point of hearing J. Michael Straczynski speak.  The creator of Babylon 5 is like a preacher in the Church of Creativity and Self-Belief.  He will tell you how he is the least likely person in the world to succeed has he has done in the fields of comic books and science fiction television.  By the time he was seventeen years old his family had moved twenty-eight times in order to avoid creditors due to their poverty.  Growing up he lived in the worst neighborhoods and attended the worst schools, he'll tell you.  But now, he has his own studio, has been nominated for and won numerous honors, and is one of the leading creators in visual medial today.  
"If I can do it, anyone can do it," he told the people attending his spotlight panel.  All that counts is that you pursue your passion.  If you do that, he insisted, you can find gold.  
Pursue my passion.  His words made me think about how I came to the decision, or realization perhaps, that I wanted to become a professional writer.  I thought back to when I read "Tunnels in the Sky" when I was in Jr. High School.  Or about the same time, when I bought my first copy of Dungeon & Dragons, and how my friends would have me be the DM because I created better and more detailed adventures than they did.  I remembered how, back then, I told my best friend at the time how great it would be if I could DM for a living.  
That's my forgotten passion.  To be a DM for the world.  To take people on adventures in worlds made real from my imagination.  When I wrote that down in my journal, after writing a page of all the possible reasons for my negativity, I started feeling much less negative.  Maybe even, dare I say it, a little bit positive.  
I'll try to keep it in mind the next time I get asked such a question.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fun with Whale Poop

I sometimes struggle with writing this blog.  Especially recently, when my life seems dominated by the same old things, the usual struggles, those typical problems that always seem to come up.  
When I post an entry, I want it to be something interesting for people to read.  Actually...  I want it to be Interesting!  I want the people who read my blog to say in their comments how, until the moment they read the words I posted on line, they had never considered what I had presented to them before.  It was as if a light had suddenly been turned out.  
It was as if they had discovered...  Whale poop.
This is what happened to me last night, driving home from work.  I was listening to Science Friday on the radio.  Ira Flatow, the host, was interviewing a conservation biologist named Joe Roman who was talking about the impact whales have on the ocean’s ecosystem.  It is a bigger affect than what scientists had thought in the past.  So much so that he referred to whales as the “engineers” of the ocean ecosystems.  
And one of the reasons whales have such a large affect is because of their poop.  Baleen whales, which strain the water for their food, krill and plankton, dive deep to feed, but return to the surface to breathe and...  Well...  Poop.  Just like the dung from cattle, whale poop, or “fecal plumes” as Dr. Roman termed them, act like fertilizer to the upper levels of the ocean, providing nutrients that would normally be locked into the deeper levels.  
I found this to be one of the more fascinating stories I’ve heard on the show.  Mainly because, throughout my entire life I had never, not even once, considered whether or not whales pooped.  
And unless you’re a conservation biologist like Dr. Roman, who described following whales dragging something like a giant fishing net with a collection bottle, a whale-sized pooper-scooper, to get samples of their fecal plumes for study, I’m willing to bet that you’ve never thought about whale poop either.  
I like thinking new thoughts, or considering things I hadn’t thought of before.  Did you know, for instance, that whales poop where they eat, but they don’t poop where they breed or birth their offspring?  It’s not for sanitation reasons.  It’s because the whales fatten themselves up in their feeding grounds, then swim thousands of miles to less fertile waters to find a mate and breed, during which time they live off the blubber they built up while feeding.  This is a neat little tidbit that my mind has been stroking and turning over in my head, like a smooth rock or pebble you end up keeping in your pocket instead of tossing back to the ground.  All because of my first consideration of whale poo.  
I think this is why young children appear to be happier than adults for the most part.  Not because, while still in diapers, they can just go ahead and poop whenever they want.  Or not just because of that.  I think it’s because every other thought for them is probably a new one, something considered or encountered for the first time.  
There is a video I saw on Facebook that illustrated this.  In the video, there is a baby sitting up on a couch.  A few months old at best.  From the left side of the shot a pair of male hands come into view, presumably the father’s hands.  They are holding a piece of paper.  The baby looks at the paper.  He or she reaches out as if to touch the paper, clearly fascinated.  
With great deliberation, the hands grab the top of the page...  And then tear off a strip of paper from the rest of the sheet.  
The baby, seeing this, starts to laugh.  And not just a cooing, ticklish sort of laugh.  It is a big, boisterous, barking, “Oh, MY GOD!  THAT is SOOOO FUNNY!” sort of laugh.  
The father tears off another strip.  The baby laughs some more.  Another strip and the baby laughs even harder.  With each tear of the paper, the baby gives in more and more to the joy of discovering that paper can be torn.  Soon you’re laughing along with the baby because you can’t help yourself.  Or maybe because you remember what that joy of discovery was like.  
If a grown-up laughed like this over something like that, someone would say, with great sarcasm, “What?  You never saw a piece of paper being torn before?”  
The baby could honestly reply, “No.  I haven’t!”  
Recently I’ve been feeling a dearth of new ideas.  As I’ve gotten older, and my life has settled into the series of routines associated with modern life, I seem to be thinking the same things over and over and over again.  It’s almost felt as if I’ve come to know everything there is to know, and that this is all there is.  
That’s why I’m glad I’ve learned about whale poop.  I don’t know that it’ll ever be of much use to me in a practical sense.  Nor do I envision myself writing a story about whale poop.  But with this tiny discovery, it has opened, to some tiny degree perhaps, areas of speculation that I’ve might have missed.
Such as...  Do spider’s poop?  They do actually.  Thinking about whale doodoo made me wonder about insects and spiders, so I looked it  up.  I found out that the skin condition rosacea, where the skin turns red and blotchy, is caused by an allergic reaction to the excrement of a skin mite, a distant cousin of the spider, that feeds on the  oils in a person’s pores.  These mites don’t have anuses, so their excrement builds up inside their bodies until they explode, which is when the skin reacts.  
Now isn’t THAT and nice new thought to have fun with!  

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Recognizing Story

I have a cousin that repairs and restores televisions, radios and the like.  He learned his craft working for his dad, my mother’s brother, who only recently retired and closed the TV repair shop he owned and operated for decades in Arcadia, California.  I worked for him in that same TV repair shop one summer when I was 13 years old, cleaning up and organizing components, eventually learning how to test for problems and do very basic repairs.  
About four years ago, my cousin was in town visiting his dad and I went over to visit with them.  He told me about this interesting restoration job he was working on.  A local TV weatherman had an old Crosley stereo from the 40’s or 50’s he wanted restored and made functional again, specifically the turntable.  My cousin took the job and discovered something interesting while taking it apart.  
Inside the stylus, instead of the magnetic coil that should have been there to translate the grooves on the record into electronic signals that would later be amplified into sound, there was a small mirror and a tiny photovoltaic cell.  Photovoltaic cells were invented in 1954, but the Crosley looked to be a decade older than that, and he had never heard of photovoltaic cells being used in stereos until decades later.  And yet, the tiny mirror and cell inside the stylus cartridge looked as if it had built into about the time the stereo was built.  
My cousin’s story fascinated me.  When I got home, I started researching stereos like the Crosley and photovoltaic cells.  I began writing about a young handyman, a nerdy, socially inept character that rarely contacted other people, being given job after job by some wealthy guy that had similar anachronistic features.  Machines and devices from earlier times that had parts that hadn’t been invented for decades after their manufacture.  I spent about a year and a half writing and adding and rewriting what I had put done.  
Nothing ever came of it, though.  I never finished the story because there was no story to finish.  I had an odd little fact that I was trying to stretch into a story, but which wouldn’t stretch far enough.  
That’s what’s been on my mind this week.  Not this particular story seed thing that is still sitting there in my computer files.  But the recognition of when a story exists and how to handle it.  
Writing about the three stories that I’ve had accepted/published so far, one of the features they shared was the certain knowledge I had at the time that “This,” whatever I was working on, “Is a Story!”  
How did I know that?  It depended on the story.  With Random Access, I just knew.  It was an inspirational burst that came over me.  A burst inspired by a desire to get the girlfriend that had decided to become my ex out of my head ASAP, no doubt, but even that wasn’t consciously perceived.  By the time I started writing Shadow Angel, I had enough experience writing to recognize it wasn’t a story that I had, but an idea.  A line of dialogue actually.  I knew other parts needed to be added to it before it crossed the threshold from “idea” to “story.”  
How had I learned to tell?  
Well, one thing I had come to realize is that for me, as far as writing one story as possible, writing is something of a “chicken and the egg” problem.  To write a story, I need to have it figured out.  It’s possible that I have it figured out intuitively, like with Random Access.  With the rough draft of my novel, I had a very basic framework in my head; a beginning, a situation and knowing how it ended.  With that, and four months of time, I was able to finish a 216,000+ word rough draft.  With Robot Boss, I had the story figured out the same day I got the idea.  The next couple of months were spent writing and rewriting when I got stuck.  
That’s the egg part.  The chicken part of the problem is that I often figure stories out BY writing them.  Or writing about them.  Shadow Angel is the best example I can think of, where I started with that first line of dialogue, “I want you to take me to Broombridge before this gets sent to me,” and added to it, bit by bit.  
At the time I started working on the idea about the anachronistic stereo, I couldn’t tell the difference between an idea and an actual story.  
One way I can now see that I have a story is by writing a logline.  This is the first step of the Snowflake Method I wrote about last week.  The easier it is for me to summarize into a fifteen word or so logline, the more certain I am that I have a story.  
Here’s an example: “Shark terrorizes seaside resort.”  That’s only four words, but everyone knows, or ought to know, that this is the story behind the movie “Jaws.”  Of course there is loads of information left out, but that is part of how the story is told, not the story itself. 
It is also why ideas can’t be copyrighted or protected, but stories can.  That logline, “Shark terrorizes seaside resort,” can produce as many versions of the story as there are writers on this planet.  That’s because each one of them will take that story and emphasize different parts of, and bring in different characters to tell it.  It’s the work of bringing that story to life that is protected.  Not the idea itself.  
And that touches upon another aspect of story that I’ve learned over years of attempts.  Story is not about what takes place.  That’s plot.  Story is about what you want to tell people and why.  
Shadow Angel, for instance, was a very important story for me to tell.  Not so much for the “What” part, which was my expression of the duality of human existence, how we are most ourselves when at rest, but we express who we are when engaged in something important.  But the “Why,” part, which touched upon my own desires to create a world where my stories could be planted, take root, and produce a crop to be shared with the people that read them.  I worked hard to discover the story in Shadow Angel, and “get it right” because, rightly or wrongly, I felt it would be my one best chance to stake a claim for the viability of my future vision. That’s why it took so long to find the way to tell this story.  
Which gives me this: To recognize that I have a story to tell, I need to be able to summarize it in as compact a way as possible.  I need to be clear on what I am trying to tell people and why it is important for me to tell them.  And, when I see that I don’t have a story yet, I need to write out the things I don’t know to add to the seed that started it, to grow a story as quickly as possible.  
Does that sound about right?  Let me know if you think otherwise.