Sunday, November 30, 2014

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

I did my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, 50k word novel challenge in November), and I did it in a very public way - at least with those who are closest to me. I emailed friends and posted on Facebook about it. I asked for input choosing which project to work on (I had several projects I wanted to work on, and couldn't really decide).

So, when people actually did give me input, it made me feel like I owe them something in return. I have to win. (I.e., meet the 50K word goal, and finish the novel's rough draft). And I started out pretty cold. I had written a novelette that's a prequal to the novel, but I wouldn't use any of those 14k words for NaNo. I had an "Elevator pitch" for two short stories set in the same series, and I was going to tie those together for a novel-length narrative. Unfortunately, that didn't quite work the way I thought it would.

Normally when I write, it's on my own timetable. I have not sold anything yet, and I've been working on my first novel for years. If I feel moved to work on a short story, I allow it, and come back to the novel later.

I figured it would be difficult to find the time to write, but if I could make the time, 50,000 words would be pretty easy. After all, I'm generally pretty good at cranking out words. I've never really experienced anxiety or pressure about the blank page, i.e., writer's block. Until now.

I started out strong, but by the end of the first week I had fallen a couple days behind. Half way through the month, I also realized that I was running out of story. I wasn't going to have 50K words, and the plot was about to be resolved. What else was I going to write?

Historically, length has not been a problem for me, because I have tendency toward verbosity. I've been working on being concise this last year by limiting my short stories to 6k words. I even started using Twitter. And at the end of week two, it felt like I'd gotten too good at being brief. My scenes were running 400-500 words, whereas scenes in my first novel typically ran 2000 words.

So, I did what so many writers have done before me. I freaked out.

I'm staring at a blank page thinking, "What the hell am I going to write?" People are counting on me! Or, at least, I'd made promises, and would be ashamed if I failed -- after all, I want to be seen as a legitimate writer.

If I'm ever going to quit my day job and write full time -- the endgame here -- I'm going to be in situations where I have a deadline to meet, with a novel-length work, and I may have other competing projects, deadlines, commitments as well. So, I'm freaked out, but I'm glad. If I can get through it, I realized, and meet my goal, then I'll be more confident in my ability to actually do this for a living.

It boils down to developing my ability to manage my headspace. Some people say they work better under pressure. I've never really understood that. When I get emotional, anxious, I am less productive. I have trouble thinking straight. I learned in High School that if I calmed myself down I did a lot better on tests. Cultivating inner peace is a coping strategy I've used all my life, and I have a reputation for remaining calm in the face of adversity and conflict.

So, I was able to break out of that panic and find tranquility within by remembering the tools I had at my disposal. I pulled out my Oblique Strategies app, which I've only used occasionally. I pulled two or three cards, pondering each one, until I came up with "What wouldn't you do." This card freed me to be really creative. I came up with a plot twist that would make me want to put the book down. What if my near future crime noir techno-thriller suddenly turned into a ghost story?

The idea made me laugh. But then I asked myself how I could make the idea of ghosts work in the story. I decided that the next murder to take place would be made to look like a ghost had committed the crime. I searched online for a famous haunted location in Pasadena, and this gave me a new setting. While the detectives in the story don't really believe a ghost committed the murder, they each react differently to the notion of ghosts, allowing me to develop the characters a bit more. It even created a theme for me to revisit with later murders that take place in the novel.

And I did it. I finished the novel over the Thanksgiving weekend without even putting in a really big daily wordcount over the holiday. It was awesome!

Another thing I did was create a "novel soundtrack," collecting music videos in a YouTube playlist (more on this in another post later). I was inspired by hearing about and seeing how other writers used music in their novels, and I would listen to the growing playlist on endless loop to help me get or stay in the mood as I wrote.

NaNoWriMo also strengthened the habit of writing. In the evening after I finished the novel, I found myself with an empty span of time, and I missed writing that novel. This is maybe the core lesson of NaNoWriMo for most people, and it is useful for me as well. However, my biggest takeaway remains managing my own creative process, figuring out how to work under pressure and stay productive when that panic hits. It's a transformative test for me as a writer, not unlike my black-belt exam in Aikido. And I look forward to doing it again next year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Peripheral by William Gibson (Review)

I’ve come to the party late. 30 years late. I first read William Gibson’s groundbreaking and highly influential debut novel, Neuromancer, a few months ago. And I honestly read it out of shame. Since I work in IT and write science fiction, how could I not have read the book that essentially started the cyberpunk movement?

If you have not read anything by Gibson before, should you start with Neuromancer, his first novel, or The Peripheral, his latest (released today, Oct. 28, 2014)? Having just done the opposite, I say start with Peripheral. (And’s Annalee Newitz agrees with me). 

The Peripheral touches on some of the same themes as the earlier work, and is completely in tune with the current state of the “conversation” in Science Fiction. And for those who have been frustrated with Gibson’s work since the Neuromancer series, this can be seen as his “Return to Science Fiction,” although some will argue he never left.

As in his first novel, Gibson’s latest novel combines high technology (and how it fits into our lives and gets used in unexpected ways) with noir themes, and weaves a distinct linguistic tapestry of a dark future. The vernacular of the characters can be a little baffling at first. Gibson drops you into this new world with minimal explanation. But meanings will become clear from context and with a little reasoning, and the use of language makes you feel like an insider once you grasp it, which really isn’t hard to do.

The tech ideas blew me away in the first few pages. Imagine tattoos, one of the most ubiquitous forms of human modification today, being turned into haptic devices for combat troops, vibrating to tell a soldier when they are under threat, where to run, and where to shoot. Now imagine getting hypovibrochondria (phantom phone vibration) from that tattoo.

We still don’t have the kind of immersive virtual reality he describes, although Oculus Rift VR goggles are expected to finally become available next year (2015), and the company was purchased by Facebook – even Sony has decided to develop VR goggles for gaming, and the Samsung Note is being adapted for Oculus VR as well.

As for the noir aspects of the novel, we soon meet Netherton, a “misanthropic male” for hire (his services are PR instead of PI). When he gets involved with and tries to impress his femme fatale client, he inadvertently gets himself and others dragged into a perplexing conspiracy perpetrated by mysterious forces. Figuring out who those forces are, what they are plotting, and how to stop them is the central intrigue that spans the novel. But Netherton is not the main character of the story, which is probably a good thing because his pessimistic attitude would get overwhelming. However, the information we get from his point-of-view is crucial.

Flynne Fisher, in contrast with Netherton, is extremely sympathetic. Unlike her big brother, Burton (with the glitch haptic tattoo), she sacrificed her chance at a career in the military in order to stay in their home town and care for their ailing mother. Despite the tremendous obstacles in life, she’s undaunted, and struggles to gain her own agency and eke out a (mostly) honest living in a community that has done its best to shelter her from the shadier elements of a world dominated by corrupt politicians, illicit drug manufacturers, and greedy corporations.

When Flynne fills in for her brother, who has been working under the table as a video game beta tester despite his VA disability, she witnesses what seems to be a murder. At first, the game itself seems like it might be a First Person Shooter (like Call of Duty), possibly with a LARPing component. But as the reader, we are still trying to figure out how this world works and what it all means. That journey of discovery is the other major intrigue of the book. Gibson artfully doles out hints and passing comments that help the reader piece the world together.

There are many new themes not seen in Gibson’s debut novel. The notion of an in-game crime reminded me of Charles Stross’s Halting State, but this crime turns out to be far different in nature. I enjoyed Gibson’s take on imperialism, riffing on Cory Doctorow’s concept of Gold Farming (see his new book, In Real Life, or For The Win). The story is permeated by a looming economic dread, with only a thread of hope for the 99% whose livelihoods are often at the whim of the 1%.

There are a few themes that I wish Gibson had dug into more deeply. Flynne and her cohorts live in a rural Southern community that reminds me of my own roots in Eastern Kentucky. As in many rural communities there is a strong gun culture. This is important for the plot to play out, and Gibson represents gun culture respectfully, which I appreciate. However, he totally ignores concerns about gun violence. Less than a week ago there was yet another tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in, WA, where a cousin of mine is a student. Perhaps it would be difficult to address the issue in depth given the needs of the story, but there are so many other aspects of societal change that Gibson addresses skillfully and concisely. The issue deserves some recognition, I think.

Also, I wish Gibson did a better job with race and ethnicity issues. His representation of Asian cultures is particularly stereotypical. Sadly, this is a theme I wish he had not carried over from Neuromancer. As in his first novel, the Chinese are painted as this mysterious entity, an enigmatic source of black-box technology. There is also a terrorist from the Middle East, a cliché character who is paper-thin.

However, the cast of characters is diverse. The primary protagonist is a young woman (Flynne). Most of the important characters in Flynne’s cohort either have a disability, are people of color, or are gay or lesbian. There is even a transgender character. Gibson treats all these characters with respect, as he does with rural people/culture. 

The pace of the novel slows down for a bit in the last third of book to develop the characters and explore the worldbuilding. At the same time the threat of a powerful enemy looms over them, ever closer and more dangerous. Some readers might think the pace slows down too much here, but I enjoyed getting a slight breather before launching us into the climax, which takes conflicts from two settings and deftly resolves them from a single setting. 

Despite the bleakness, I would put this book in the Optimistic SF camp, along with Project Hieroglyph, Neal Stephenson’s latest project. Humanity does abuse and break the world, partially due to technology. However, technology also holds the key to fixing the world, if people will just take that goal seriously.

From the moment I picked up The Peripheral, I found it as much fun to think about as it was to read. It’s top-notch science fiction for readers who are interested in technology. There is a diverse collection of compelling characters and an engaging plot. It echoes some themes from Gibson’s hugely influential first novel, Neuromancer, but this is a very current novel that moves the conversation forward.

LA fans, Gibson will be reading/signing at Skylight books on Saturday Nov. 1 at 5:00 pm (buy book online from them to get ticket to the event). He has other tour appearances in other cities.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Secret Service: LA (NaNoWriMo 2014)

This is the working cover for Secret Service:  LA. (Thanks to everyone who voted on the poll!)

My profile on NaNoWriMo is now complete, and I'm ready to start writing on Saturday.

This is the excerpt of the novel that appears on the NaNoWriMo site:
The late afternoon LA sunlight casts a golden hue on The Southland. Maybe it’s the way the angled light reflects off the dust and smog particles, but it bathes everything it touches with a golden sparkle, a chiffon veil that masks little imperfections with its diffusion, like an airbrush that perfects beauty in a high-def world.

I try not to think of this as a metaphor for this town. But it is. LA: where celebrity comes to craft its image. This is where the action is. That’s why the Secret Service’s largest field office is here.

I love this time of day, though. The afternoon sun is one of my favorite things about living in LA. It brings over me a feeling of calm. It helps me appreciate the subtle beauty of the scrub and dry summer grass (fuel for brushfires as it is) that blankets the hills of this Mediterranean chaparral climate--at least, these grasses blanket the few hills preserved against development.

This gossamer lens almost restores the marred beauty of the recently deceased, nearly topless celebrity in front of us. She lay back against the hill as if she had merely been sunbathing in the dry, calf-high grass. However, the scratches, bruises, and bloodstains told another tale. The mangled car and the broken railing on the road above echoed her story.

The annoying crime scene bots had just cleared the area for our inspection, and Jackie Roberts, my partner, was docking them into the hydraulic lifts that retracted into the trunk of the car. It was her turn.

I reviewed the bots’ findings while Jackie chased after the capricious things, threatening to shoot them. I can’t understand how they manage to creep over a crime scene so meticulously but then try to escape as soon as you send them to their docking stations. I was almost done when she finally got them all docked and walked over to join me.

“At least she died happy,” said Jackie.

“I don’t think she was that high. . .” I said, flipping back to the toxicology report.

“She still has the rear-view mirror in her hand,” Jackie explained.

Cause of death: Vanity.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 Excerpt & Cover Art (Poll)

I am calling the winner of the poll: Secret Service/LA!

I've added an excerpt of Secret Service/LA to my NaNoWriMo profile, and I'd like some help choosing cover art. Please vote to select the most fitting image for the story. You may wish to read the story's excerpt first. The images are below the poll (You can vote for multiple).

Thanks so much to all who voted on my next novel - I really appreciate your support! The article set a record for how quickly it got page views. It rose to my #2 post within just a week (136 page views). Here is the vote tally as of today:
  • Secret Service/LA: 10 votes
  • Unwinder: 6 votes
  • Culture War: 4 votes

NaNoWriMo encourages attaching a cover image to the novel's profile. I happen to have a couple left-over credits on iStock, and thought it might be cool to use one of these stock images as "working" cover art for the novel.

I selected the images of LA Sunsets to reflect the golden afternoon LA sunlight described in the opening scene and excerpt. (There's an interesting essay in LARB on David Lynch and LA's magical lighting, an aspect of LA that I fell in love with about 20 years ago). The images of a scantily clad woman hitchhiking to Hollywood represent the sensationalistic voyeurism that is central to the story's world-building.

Choose your favorite "working" cover images for Secret Service/LA.

Sunset 1 (Skyline)

Sunset 2 (Palm/Car)

Hitchhiker 1 (Standing)

Hitchhiker 2 (side)

 Hitchhiker 3 (front)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Project Hieroglyph: Scientifically Responsible Fiction

"The reason that I think that the Hieroglyph project... won't work is because of the 'should' element."
- Jonathan Strahan, 09/13/2014, episode #201 Coode Street Podcast

Gary Wolf and Jonothan Strahan debated each other (and themselves, as they so charmingly are wont to do), for nearly 20 minutes about the new anthology, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (about 39 minutes into ep. #201). The aspect of Project Hieroglyph that they object to is the notion that Science Fiction - meaning the genre as a whole - should have a purpose. But is that what this anthology is really about?

I attended the Los Angeles book launch of the anthology last week. To be honest, I did get the impression that Lawrence M. Krauss and some other scientists present at the event, really do feel that science fiction should have a function. I think it's clear that Neal Stephenson thinks it is a good thing for at least some science fiction to have a function, and is proud that some of his work has both inspired scientists and engineers. Perhaps the stronger sentiment, though, was that Science Fiction should be more optimistic.

The notion that science fiction can provide a vocabulary of ideas for engineers within large institutions to use as short-hand when working together on projects is one that I find appealing. For much of my IT career I have often been reminded of concepts from science fiction and been a little frustrated that most of my colleagues are unfamiliar with these concepts. But perhaps they have helped me to be a better programmer, analyst, and project manager because I have these concepts in my own head.

Even if those involved with Project Hieroglyph are making a value judgment on science fiction based on its function, I can't bring myself to get too excited about that. It's the nature of art. There will always be differing opinions, and I think that is fine. I like the idea of science fiction sometimes serving such a purpose, and it does reflect on the value of the genre as a whole, but I don't think it all needs to. And this is ultimately what Strahan and Wolf seem to agree on toward the end of their podcast.

In addition to being scientifically responsible (reflecting good science, and ideas that are useful to science and related fields), Stephenson and Krauss said several times during the talk that it was essential to have a good story. So, it's not just about the science, not just about the ideas. Stephenson talked about moving away from a certain period in the genre's past where character and plot were unimportant.  Readers will have to judge if Hieroglyph is successful in this.

I simply look at the book as a themed anthology. I hope it is successful, and I hope there will be more. At the end of the talk, I got to ask a question of the panel. What new opportunities for writers might come out of this project?

That proved a tough question to answer. I thank Stephenson for taking my question seriously. He acknowledge the issue of compensating writers for their art, and said that could be an hour-long discussion all by itself.

I was hoping, though, that he might provide more details about future anthologies, or even novels, sponsored by Project Hieroglyph. Perhaps this project, along with the MIT's 12 Tomorrows anthologies, will emerge as a new trend in publishing. Could it contribute to a resurgence in short fiction? That would be an important development for the future viability of a full-time career for writers.

On that front, Strahan also reports in the podcast, Kathryn Cramer, one of the editors of the Hieroglyph anthology, has tweeted that there will be more projects to come.

I also contacted some of the faculty in University of California Riverside's Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies program. All three Professors of the department were present at the Hieroglyph talk: Rob Latham, Sherryl Vint, and award winning author, Nalo Hopkinson. In an email conversation after the event, I asked Dr. Vint if there might be a UCR sponsored anthology, or maybe a series of on-campus talks with the writers. She did say she was talking with Arizona State University, who partnered with Stephenson to make this anthology happen, but it is unclear if anything will come of that:
"Ed Finn [Director of ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination] and I have begun a dialogue to explore opportunities to collaborate in the future. We have yet to work out any details." 
- Sherryl Vint, Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies, UC Riverside
This is shaping up to be a momentous year for science fiction at UCR. There are lots of exciting possibilities, and also some challenges. They received a prestigious $175,000 Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will include public talks on "ethnic futurisms." The Eaton Collection (world's largest collection of SF/F that's publicly accessible) received a $3.5 million gift.

But prior to that gift, concerns emerged about the Eaton Collection being threatened. Then it appeared that Dr. Steve Cullenberg, Dean of the college that houses the SFTS program, would try to facilitate a dialogue and help address the faculty's concerns about the collection. However, Dean Cullenberg later announce he was stepping down from his position. After the event in LA, I emailed Dr. Latham and asked about where things stand with the Eaton Collection, but he said there would not be much to report until later this fall.

“We hope to have more clarity soon after the Fall term begins. A new college-level committee will be in place then to address some of the faculty’s concerns, and the Senate-wide Library Committee will also be addressing the issue.”
- Rob Latham, Professor of English, UC Riverside
In 2009 Annalee Newitz called UCR a "haven for science fiction studies." I hope this reputation continues. (If you would like to support the SFTS program it UCR, you can donate here.)

As a UCR alumnus and current member of the staff, I would be proud and excited to see UCR participating in Project Hieroglyph. That would be a sign that the project is successful. And the turnout at the talk in LA is another. Reservations for the event filled up before some of my friends could sign up, and the auditorium was packed, people watching from the lounge TV outside. And as soon as I arrived, I purchased the very last copy of the anthology that the bookseller, Skylight Books, brought to the event. They continued to take mail orders and hand out book plates for signing for the rest of the night.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this personal blog are my own unless otherwise explicitly attributed, and not the official opinion of my employer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Annalee Newitz Moderating Hieroglyph Talk

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, and contributor to the project, did a great job moderating the discussion on Project Hieroglyph with Neal Stephenson and Lawrence M. Krauss at LA MOCA last night. The event was expertly run by Zócalo Public Square.

After the event, I got the chance to chat with Newitz about publishing. Unfortunately, I was extremely inarticulate and couldn't remember names of any author that I wanted to mention in the conversation. Chalk it up to the fact that I was totally geeking out, plus tired from a long work day followed by an hour plus drive into LA for the event. But it was well worth it. Thanks, Annalee for the well wishes and drinking a toast to my writing career.

One tidbit I overheard Newitz telling another writer who was speaking to Newitz before me: The best way to get io9's attention if you want to write for them is to submit information about your interesting blog posts to They may be interested in using your story or at least a link to your blog.

Below is a full video of the event. At 61:12 I got the chance to ask a question of the panel (which I'll discuss in another post).



(Note: You can play the video while it's downloading, but you cannot fast forward past the point that has downloaded.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 (Poll)

As I wrap up revisions to my first novel, I'm planning to participate in my first NaNoWriMo this November. I’d like some help deciding which novel idea to work on next. Please vote for your favorites. I’m happy to answer questions (e.g., by Facebook, twitter, email, etc.) about the projects if you’d like to know more.


Which novel would you be most interested in reading?

Note: Secret Service/LA will consist of a series of cases which the detective will work. I have already drafted a 14K word novelette where society's demand for reality/voyeuristic entertainment (YouTube, etc.) and the perils of fame have decimated the US population and forced the government to become the biggest advocate of privacy. That will serve as the first case. The second case is titled "(CS)I Robot," about the moral and legal problems, and general shenanigans, that arise when crime bots start editing their own code. The third and final case is the one that ties all the stories together and is described in the poll.