Insomnia & A Brief Update

September 18, 2017

Over the years, I’ve suffered from a bit of insomnia.  During some occurrences, it’s not very bad.  I can usually get to bed by 1 or 2 am, and may have a little trouble getting up in the mornings, but can function throughout the day.  Other occurrences are worse, and I will be awake to see 3 am or later, and then be in and out of sleep for over an hour before I eventually get up. I often notice that I have insomnia on nights after I play basketball. My evening basketball run, a mainstay on my schedule since I started working with my current employer back in 2011, has been particularly sporadic as of late.  Even though I have had insomnia since I stopped my consistent attendance, it never seems to be that bad.  So, what might this have to do with reading and writing?  Well, a lot and a little. Writing takes a great deal of energy; even though I can crank out hundreds of words when I am half asleep (and sometimes rely on that half-asleep state to work through particular images), I usually do my best writing when I am well-rested.

Aside from the need to sleep well in order to write well, I find that I get most engaged with my reading when I’m well rested.  I’ve recently started reading a book that is somewhat appropriate for my off-again on-again relationship with a good night’s rest: Stephen King’s Insomnia. I feel like this 1994 novel is one of King’s lesser known works.  I’ve come across a buzzfeed list, or some other procrastination tool, which identifies Insomnia as King’s best work to not make a screen debut.  For this reason, it’s not Clocking in at nearly 800 pages, this novel would be the perfect book when you know that sleep isn’t coming any time soon.  So far, I’ve enjoyed the book, but it is still in the early going, and there’s only the slightest hint of anything fantastic or supernatural.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that Stephen King has a tendency towards an archetypal old loner.  Many of his works, and particularly those since 1990, have an older focal character.  InsomniaDuma Key, the Bill Hodges trilogy, and The Dark Tower series all have older protagonists who spend some significant portion of time alone (whether emotionally significant or significant in terms of duration). 11/22/63CellUnder the Dome, and Black House also have central characters who are generally loners.  This is just one of several parallels that I’m starting to see emerge from some of King’s more recent works.

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As for my own writing, my primary focus has been editing my current work-in-progress, Their Sharpest Thorns, but a new project is currently percolating on the back burner, and I am eager to start an untitled sports-related horror story when NaNoWriMo arrives in about six weeks.  Until then, I have a couple hundred pages worth of editing and amending.  I hope I can send a draft to my beta readers by November.  It all depends on how much energy I can muster in these next six weeks.  I suppose I could tie this all back into tonight’s theme of insomnia, but if I were truly an insomniac, wouldn’t that give me plenty of extra hours for editing?  Oh, well.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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Retro Vibes

September 11, 2017

Culture depends on many different aspects, including space and time.  I’m not about to start talking about Dr. Who right now, but this timey-wimey stuff matters.  Today, my 22-year-old colleague stated that It (2017) was going for that Stranger Things retro vibe.  The problem?  Aside from the fact that the source material for It predates Stranger Things by 30 years, the original It split time between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s.  Stranger Things puts its characters in the early 1980s.  I have yet to see the recent It movie, and it has been many years since I’ve seen the TV miniseries.  Regardless of when the source material was constructed, Stranger Things and It should be similar in how they present the World, as they are taking from the same era.

It hits me more and more often about how different things are from my childhood.  There are so many details that young adults today wouldn’t remember, or even understand. The wide availability of cell phones and smartphones is one big difference. One thing that I find odd is that amorphous treatment of the past. This was an era before cell phones; heck, cordless phones and pagers were relative novelties when I was a kid.  It wasn’t that long ago that MTV was changing the way that teens consume television, and that Stephen King wrote about an era that was in the then and now.  Now, even YouTube is becoming passe, and Stephen King’s heyday is now a Stranger Things retro vibe.  The 1980s don’t seem like that long ago to me.  At the same time, I barely remember the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which is perhaps the biggest event of my youth.  When I turned 22, the same age as this young man, the year 1980 was further away than 2040 is now.  I am now (barely) closer to the year 2050 than I am to the year of my birth.

There’s many things that I can remember that hardly seem like nostalgia compared to the collective memory of our culture.  I remember a time when TV miniseries were the big media event.  I remember the nightmares that I had after watching It, and the fear I had of being pulled into the sewer by a stranger.  I remember scrambling to find a pay phone if I was ever lost on a bike ride or needed to get home from practice.  I remember the treat of going to the local library, and the joy I would find at picking up books at our school’s book fair.

What are some of the things that you remember from the pre-millennial era?  Feel free to leave a message in the comments section below, and don’t feel bad about feeling old.  You’re just thinking about a Stranger Things retro vibe.

Thanks for the read, and keep on kicking it old school with actual books!

Website Wednesday: Paula Hawkins

September 6, 2017

Hello, Friends.  Not much new to report here, except that I’m back with another Website Wednesday entry.  This little diversion, started in May 2017, has helped me learn a lot about author websites as I think about my own.  As mentioned in past entries, I’ve compiled this from a list of Amazon Best Sellers.  Obviously, this list changes over time, and it may be time to refresh the list.  If you have any author sites that you’d like me to discuss, or would like me to critique your own, please feel free to comment below.  Until next time, happy writing and happy reading!

Paula Hawkins

It may seem like Paula Hawkins, the next on the author website tour, came out of nowhere with her overwhelming ‘debut’ novel, The Girl on the Train.  It would be even more impressive if this was indeed her debut novel—but it wasn’t.  After four successful romantic comedies under the nom de plume Amy Silver, Hawkins transitioned to the thriller genre with 2015’s The Girl on the Train.  The novel spent thirteen consecutive weeks (about three months) at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller’s list, and sold more than three million copies in its first six months after release. Sales surged after the 2016 film adaptation, starring Emily Blunt, and total sales are now north of 15 million copies.

In many ways, Hawkins does not epitomize the New York Times Best Seller. Not only did she transition genres and come out from behind a pen name, she also has transitioned from non-fiction to fiction, including a financial advice book.  Ms. Hawkins is of British-extraction, but was educated in Zimbabwe until she went on to her sixth-form college (much like a post-secondary prep school stateside).

Ms. Hawkins has a visually stunning website, designed by Cal Poly-educated web designer Ilsa Brink.  It transitions across two background themes; at the moment, these both apparently tie in to Hawkins’ current novel Into the Water.  The novel has a basic format across the top, with seven text buttons below the banner.  Two of these highlight her most recent books, but there is no reference to her “past life” as Amy Silver; indeed, if you go on to Ms. Hawkins’ Amazon page, there is no reference to her as Amy Silver, and vice versa.

The Good:

If you’re looking for a modern website with some pop, look no further than Paula Hawkins’ website.  It doesn’t do anything unusual, but it provides well-designed, strong visual cues, including pictures of the beautiful artwork on her book covers.  Due to the need for visual appeal, the website does a great deal to keep writing sparse.  With the exception of “Events,” there aren’t many items that are heavy with text above the fold.

The text, where present, is persuasive.  Not only does she include the copy that one would typically find on the jacket or on the back-cover, she also includes a copious amount of positive reviews.  It seems to come from the philosophy ‘if 9 out of 10 reviewers agree, you must read this book.’

One of the first items below the fold (for each respective book) is a button for a reading guide.  I’ve seen this on a few other sites.  I like the reading guide as a means of continuing the conversation, and of allowing readers to take ownership over some of the concepts in the book.  Many reading guides offer open-ended, judgement based questions, as well as some questions that require higher level speculation; Hawkins’ guides are particularly strong in the former.

The Bad:

I’ve said it several times before, but it bears repeating. Yes, you are using a website to sell your books, but you don’t need to make it so painstakingly obvious.  Hawkins’ homepage goes directly to the books.  Right after you see the covers, you see buttons “Order US/UK/CA.”  Before you know anything about the books (aside from what you brought with you when you decided to visit the site), you’re already asked to order.  There’s a little slugline about Hawkins’ credentials, but not much else in terms of telling you what to expect with the book.

Overall:

The site is beautifully designed.  Beyond this, if I became a Hawkins groupie, I would know where to find her on any given night.  I can’t fault the designer or the author for this site, as they are doing much of what they’re supposed to do.  I guess the problem I’ve seen is that there’s not much to draw me to this site if I’ve already bought the book.  Whereas some authors include games, notes, and other interactive items on their websites, this website does not hide the fact that it is there to sell books.

Website Wednesday: Veronica Roth – Author of Divergent

August 30, 2017

Hello Friends.  It seems my Website Wednesday feature has not been so regular.  I hope to start that again.  Kicking off this latest round, Veronica Roth’s website has its good and bad qualities.  Like the website itself, this review is brief.

Veronica Roth

Those of you who don’t know who Veronica Roth is have probably heard of her work.  Roth, now just 29, published her first book in the Divergent series in 2011.  Now, more than six years later, her trilogy has spawned three feature films and an upcoming television series.  The series transformed Shailene Woodley from teen television star to big box office draw.  The books have sold tens of millions of copies, collectively, and the three movies based on those books grossed more than $750M.

While it is apparent that Roth has started her own blogs through Blogspot and Tumblr, her main website is clearly professionally done.  Her rotating banner and professional photographs clearly illustrate a web designer’s touch.  It’s possible that Roth did some of this herself, as her website clearly lets her personality (and her less professional blog and Instagram account) shine through.

The website was clearly designed with “responsive design” in mind.  The banner menu across the top becomes a “hamburger” menu when viewed through a mobile browser.  The menus are just about what one would expect.  Of the eight items, the only one that stands out to me as unusual is “classroom.”  This might be because she is one of the few YA authors that I’ve explored.  Everything else, books, bio, events, blog, and the rest, could come from anyone from E.L. James to George R.R. Martin.

The Good:

Roth’s site is distinctly her.  Her blurbs are very familiar and informal, and are mostly written in the first person.  She / the designer has a good sense of white space, and doesn’t overload you with text.  The graphics are stunning, and the photography is clearly professionally done.  The individual book pages focus on the book first, and then work their way down to the film adaptations and the various avenues for purchase.

I was particularly interested in the discussion guides.  They are professional done, and each provides more than a dozen lines of questioning for educators.  Many of these lines of question reach several different levels of questioning, from recall to predicting and hypothesizing.  These guides are particularly useful when reining in younger readers, but anybody can appreciate the method that goes into good questions.

The Bad:

In general, this is a good site.  It does everything it should.  The one issue that I have with it is that it breaks one of the few rules that I have: place the books first.  If not the books, then some discussion of writing or of the author’s journey would be reasonable.  Instead, this site has a huge rotating banner that includes glamor shots, action shots, and a beautifully rendered graphic.

The Verdict:

On its own, this site is not really exciting.  It does everything it is supposed to do and provides a nice aesthetic.  There’s nothing wrong with it, to be sure, but also nothing that sets it apart from the numerous other author websites.

For Greg

August 25, 2017

Hello Faithful Readers:

Now you know the pattern of the Summer of ’17: another summer month, and another long delay!  As always, things are busy, and I am procrastinating.  This time, it’s little things, including NBA Live (the one game I still play regularly). At this point, I have another good reason to write a post.  There’s a lot of changes going on in my professional life, and many other things going on around the homestead!  Here’s another tribute to a good friend who is on his way out!

Thank you for your patience, faithful readers!

~Jim

For Greg

For the second time in a matter of weeks, I’ve been trying to process a change in my surroundings.  First, my team’s editor left our company after two years.  That was tough, as she was the heart of our team.  Now, we’re losing a colleague who has been there since I came on years ago; if Kacie was the heart, Greg was the nerve center and the spine.  He’s been a relentless worker, a good friend, and one of my biggest champions.

For many years, Greg has been a friend and ally.  When frustrations would boil over, he was the sympathetic ear who let you talk it out. However, when interoffice politics came to a head, he wasn’t afraid to be level-headed and impartial.  The need for these characteristics was infrequent, as he would try to plot a steady course through uncertain seas.  He was the first to think of the team when our office would undergo turnover. When he was promoted to upper management, he never treated himself as being above the team.  He is even thinking of his teammates as he is in the process of moving on to a new endeavor.

For many years, Greg was the man with all of the practical coding knowledge.  Whether we were designing sites, or querying databases, or trying to figure out our dodgy CRM, we knew who to ask.  If we had any issues with our home hardware — such as when I smashed my USB drive — we knew who to ask.  If he didn’t know, he would work tirelessly to find the solution.  Speaking of tireless, the man would often be working until the wee hours of the morning to make sure that the rest of the company kept with its deadlines; there were even a few times where he was working off of just a couple hours of sleep and putting in a full day. Greg put himself in many unenviable positions, but we never heard him complain.  All too often, Greg would take his work home in the evenings, but we always knew that he would put in the hours there, as well.  Of course, there were always the times where his wife would bring him dinner; we knew that those were the nights where even sleep became a luxury.  We’d even call him when he was vacationing out of the country, and he would put in the hours to get things done.

Every year, when we put on our conference, Greg would be the first one up in the morning, already piecing all of the technical equipment together by 7am.  Whenever any speaker needed some technical assistance, he was there before they would even say the word, and when we needed an emcee in a pinch, he’d be the first to volunteer.  At the end of the day, he would gather all of our employees and make sure that we let off steam; he’d be the first to suggest bowling, or karaoke, or the Mediterranean place down the street.  First thing that next morning, he’d be ready to do it all again.  Things didn’t change when he became management; if anything, he managed to cram even more duties on top of those that he already had.

Outside of work, we would see each other about once per week, and we would play basketball in our regular games.  Greg, a lean man who is not of particularly great height, was the man who made the rest of us work harder just to keep up.  He was the first down the floor, and able to pick the ball clean from your hands as soon as it left the fingertips.  He was a gritty competitor, but was never so myopic as to put himself before the team.  If we needed someone to guard the 6’5″ former (German league) pro, Greg was the first to volunteer.  If we needed someone to guard the 19-year-old whiz kid, Greg was right there.  If we needed someone to play defense because the rest of us were too winded to make it past half court, Greg would take on all comers, even if they knocked him into the wall.  We’ve both stopped playing (at least, playing religiously, as we had for several years), and I miss seeing him on the court. Of course, I do not look forward to the day when he comes back to perform a chase-down block on me; if you can envision LeBron James blocking Yao Ming, then you know why.

Of course, there’s also the time that he helped me move.  I’d asked him to help, and he didn’t realize that he’d already committed to helping somebody else move; he ended up going right from helping one person move to helping another, and he even volunteered to do much of the heavy lifting.  I wish someone had snapped a picture of him crawling underneath a heavy metal desk so that he could push from the center and guide it through a narrow door.  Nobody needed to ask; he volunteered.

There are some key details that I’m missing here — aspects that I must keep private — but it nevertheless has been difficult to anticipate how we will manage his void.  We’ve delegated responsibilities, and scraped every last bit of knowledge out of our friend before he takes on future endeavors, but we will never be able to match his drive.

Ventriloquism: Or, Trying to Recapture my Early-Story Voice

August 14, 2017

I’m in the process of editing Their Sharpest Thorns, a horror book that is horror in the more traditional sense.  As I’ve written this novel, I’ve realized that this story will require a lot of editing — not just editing to provide more clarity of voice, but also to augment the initial tale.  That’s right, I’m editing in an attempt to add words.

It has been my experience that it is difficult to remove words.  I always want to keep my pearls, and always think that my novels show a cohesion that makes it difficult to remove any links in the chain.  Adding words is even more difficult, as I am trying to add something to my story without inherently changing the story.  The problem, more often than not, is that adding words does change the story — not necessarily because I’m adding plot, but because I’m adding a voice.  There’s two ways in which adding words adds voices.  Of course, added characters or expanded characters add voices to the voiceless.  Whether a TV show like Family Guy or a book like Game of Thrones, characters who were not so important in the early going become more important as the story goes on.  Beyond this, a person’s literary voice is always changing.  Yes, we all have our styles, but there are subtle changes that occur from project to project.  The deeper I get into a project, the more I tend to interject dialogue.  Action gets tighter, description gets sparser, and characterization becomes starker.  Now, months into a project, I am trying to add a character after the fact, and one of the most difficult things to do is to try to recapture my early story voice.  Thus, I am adding a voice to my story, while trying to recapture the early-story voice of my narrative.

I haven’t shared much about this story recently, in part because I’ve hit this voice-related block. I expect to share more this week, and will go Facebook Live at some point in the middle of the week.  Until then, faithful readers, thank you for the kind words and thoughts.

Review: The Dark Tower (2017 Film)

August 8, 2017

On Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Dark Tower, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, specifically The Gunslinger.  I’d read a lot of negative things about the movie, and was worried that the movie would devolve into one of those characteristic “1/4 plot, 3/4 fight scene” movies that seem to have infiltrated all of my favorite genres and franchises.  The short run time had me doubly concerned.  Nevertheless, I didn’t come away from the movie feeling particularly cheated.  In fact, I think that the movie was good for what it was.  At least, it didn’t try and fail to remain faithful to any one book.  Instead, it was the spiritual successor to The Gunslinger with a little bit of everything else thrown in for good measure.

I may not be doing my job as a long-time Stephen King aficionado, as I am not absolutely gushing over the movie.  Still, I showed up in my favorite Megan Lara shirt — probably the only one in the theater to do so, and ignored everything I’d read to that point.  I would have expected a full house on this first weekend, and was amazed that our local screening still had plenty of empty space.  We sat next to a few stoner teens.  We didn’t need to ask those teens whether they were fans, as they were chattering about their confusion pretty much as soon as they sat down.  It didn’t matter to me.  This was the weekend that I’d circled on my calendar months ago, and nothing was going to stand in the way of me getting a sense for the overall film.

First thing’s first: I’d recommend going to the film, if only to see how thousands of pages can be condensed into 95 minutes.  At the same time, I’d warn any Dark Tower reader that there’s things that you’ll enjoy, and things that will bother you a bit.  I’ve come up with five positive aspects and six negative aspects to consider if you’re on the fence.

As some of these deal with the climax or end of the film, or deal with novels outside of The Gunslinger, I’ll have to slap one big SPOILER ALERT to everything that you read below.  If you’re the type of person who hates spoilers, then this is what I recommend: read the bold text and then go see the movie.  You can get back to this later.

Things The Dark Tower Did Right:

1.) Continuity Nods: Granted, I probably didn’t catch everything, as it might take a few stop frames to do so, but the production crew certainly put in a few details that are nods to other books in the series or other Stephen King books.  the number 19 comes up several times. As does 1408, a nod to a Stephen King short story.  We don’t hear about “the beam” in quite the same way, but we get to see a beam of light attack the tower.  They refer to “the shine” more than they do in the books, which is a nod to The Shining and Dr. Sleep.  Finally, there’s a small discussion in which Roland draws a wheel with the Dark Tower at its hub, evoking a favorite saying about “Ka,” his world’s answer to fate.

2.) Casting Idris Elba as Roland Deschain: I’ll get grilled for this one in certain circles.  Yes, Roland was supposed to be a skinny, tall dude with piercing blue eyes.  Elba is at least tall, scraping the skies at 6’3″.  He’s not exactly skeletal, and it looks like the man could handle himself at the weight bench.  I think that the thing that really makes Elba stand out is his gravitas.  Yes, you could get someone like Keanu Reeves out there to play the role of the solemn hero, but Elba lends power behind his solemnity.  The only thing that I didn’t like about his characterization is the implication that this would have for a future conflict between Roland and Detta Walker. My wife would also mention that Roland smiles too much (i.e., at all).

3.) Streamlined characterization: Considering that they’ve pulled five books into one film, they did a great deal to make the movie less complex.  There’s no Eddie, no Odetta or Detta or Susannah, and no Susan Delgado, either.  As far as Roland goes, there is no love interest — or any real interaction with women.  Jake makes eyes at a young girl, but the story relegates most characters, outside of Roland, Jake, and “Walter” to the third string.  The only “second stringers” are Jake’s mother and (maybe) Sayre.   Considering how much they’ve condensed, it’s surprising that none of Roland’s other ka-tet is even mentioned.

4.) Shift in Focus: Do you want to make a movie with mass appeal? Put a kid in it.  Yes, The Gunslinger included Jake.  However, Jake doesn’t appear until the waystation.  He becomes important to the story, and to Roland’s characterization, as Roland nears The Man in Black, but that’s it.  The Dark Tower movie focuses on Jake, and starts with Jake’s experience, wherein he sees things that are not of his world.  Jake’s quotation from the book “there are other worlds than these” does not appear in the film (except on the promotional poster), but it is reflected within the movie — just in the reverse of what one might expect.

Ultimately, this aids in making viewers relate to the movie.  By the time they’ve seen the film, viewers have either been a teenage boy or have met one.  They have not met an otherworldly gunslinger.  Some purists may hate this switch, but I understand it.  One stoned-off-his-gourd guy sitting near me quipped that the movie was like Harry Potter.  I can understand this; the tropisms are evocative of Harry Potter, for all of the right reasons.

5.) Left It Open Ended: If this is all that we get of The Dark Tower, then at least we’ve seen a little of everything.  However, this movie is like a new series Dr. Who episode in the sense that the story resolves the main plot, but leaves with the characters ready to go on another adventure.  In this way, the movie does something that we don’t always see in individual books within the series — it ties together everything that needs to be tied together.

Things The Dark Tower Movie Did Wrong:

1.) Run time: I like long books.  I also like long movies.  I’m not talking about Lawrence of Arabia long, but 90 minute run-times are usually reserved for comedies, not epic action-fantasies.  Heck, Superbad was 1h 53 minutes, that’s 18 minutes longer than The Dark Tower.  Eighteen minutes would have been just enough time to add some backstory about how Roland knows The Man in Black, or why Stephen Deschain and Walter were at odds.  Eighteen minutes could have been enough time to show The Man in Black hold greater dominion over his underlings, or create an extended fight scene between Roland and The Man in Black.  1 hour 35 minutes was just a bit too short for the genre.

2.) Fight Scene Rather than Palaver:  In The Gunslinger, Roland’s interactions with the Man in Black are less about the fight than they are about the testing of wits.  As much as Roland’s struggle is a physical journey, it is also a psychological challenge.  In the book, Roland kills everybody in Tull after The Man in Black has poisoned their minds, but he only has a brief physical fight with The Man in Black, everything else is verbal.   In the movie, Walter’s silver tongue is nothing compared to his telekinesis.  Yes, he uses the power of suggestion multiple times for some important scenes, but the last scene is only a fight of the mind in the sense that Walter’s telekinesis is moving things with his mind.

3.) Condensed Narrative: It was clear that the writers were trying to get as many nods in to the book series as they could before their run-time was over.  After all, if this is all that we, Dark Tower fans, get, then it might as well have a little bit of everything.  We didn’t get Shardik, the giant bear, but we did get some forest predator.  We didn’t get Roland slipping into the mind of Jack Mort, but we did get him raiding a gun store.  We didn’t get his reunion with Sheemie, but we did get a look at the psionic blasts directed at the Dark Tower.  With items spanning five books, The Dark Tower series may need to reshuffle some material, or bring in new material entirely, in order to help frame any future installments.

4.) Too Much New York: Yes, New York has a few vital scenes in the series, but there isn’t anything except a little backstory until The Drawing of the Three.  Before Roland meets Eddie, he doesn’t spend any time in New York.  During this iteration, much of the action takes place in New York.

5.) Too Little Backstory: Aside from the encounter in Tull, one of the major omissions from the movie is Roland sharing what life was like in Gilead before the fall.  There is no mention of Roland’s mother, nor of Roland’s ability to outsmart Cort.  We get much more about Jake’s background, something that we only briefly glimpsed in the novel, than we get of Roland.  This, in part, works to the movie’s great benefit, but I think it comes as a great detriment to Roland’s characterization.

6.) No Oy! For everything that The Dark Tower introduces out of sequence, the one thing that bothered me the most was not the inclusion of the house, or too much time spent outside of Mid-World, it was the ommission of a little billy-bumbler named Oy.  The creature, which is like a domesticated raccoon, is the mascot, if not an important character, for Roland and his cadre of travelers.

For Kacie

August 4, 2017

Hello Faithful Readers:

I am sorry for the long delay.  Things have been very busy over here.  I have various projects, and my work time is starting to bleed into my home time.  Of course, what do I end up doing with all of these projects?  I end up procrastinating,   I end up researching dead-ends that go on forever, and I end up watching clips of the Simpsons on YouTube before I nod off.  Ironically, I was never as much of a Simpsons fan as my friends.  That’s not why I’m here this evening.  I’m here to gather my thoughts and write a fond farewell to a colleague of mine in the hopes that she will see this.  Sure, she’ll get a card, but this will be a bit more free-flowing.

No, no, she’s not dying or anything — heaven forbid.  My day-job editor of the past two years is retiring.  She is the first person to retire from my company in the six-plus years that I have been there.  We’ll replace her, sure, but we’ll never quite replace her.  I know I talk about my work life on here more than I should.  Ironically, I don’t like talking about work and I don’t intend to talk about work when I blog. If you’d like to learn a little about my colleague, read on.  If you’re looking for any of my regular features, on writer’s websites, my writing, or any writing, I’ll catch you next time!

With Kacie being such a film fan, and a benchmark film in my life on the horizon (Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, as if you couldn’t guess), I put two and two together and here I am.

Thank you, faithful readers.  Keep reading, and keep writing!

~Jim

For Kacie

In a past life, I was the editor at this company, my current employer.  Because of this, I was now on the interview committee whenever we needed a new editor.  I’d interviewed and recommended several people as my replacements. Some turned out good, and some were… well, let’s not dwell on that.  Kacie came into our office and breathed life into a place that some had (not so) jokingly called a morgue.  Her cheer was a salve that helped smooth over some rough patches and help get our motley collection of cogs working harmoniously once again.

I remember when Kacie first came into our lives.  It was a hot day, and our building had invoked Murphy’s Law; we’d gone without air conditioning for perhaps the first day that we’d ever actually needed such a thing.  I was out of practice with interviewing people, and had added perhaps a few too many questions to my standard repertoire.  She’d answered all of the questions that I had in great depth, and added levity to the interview that few will do in such a situation.  It was the perfect interview; not only was she not desperate for the job, she had another more pleasant alternative facing her if she didn’t get the job: retirement.  She interviewed because she wanted the job, not because she was in any great rush to jump back into work. After what must have been an hour of interviews that included our other team members, I gave her a test; this test was toward the end of a long day for us, as well, and it was something that I’d had to compose just a few hours earlier (as our old test had disappeared).  Thank you, Kacie, for your patience that day, and thank you for your candor!

It was remarkable!  Here was an editor candidate who not only admitted that spelling wasn’t a particular strength, but joked that what set her apart as a candidate was her age!  She did well on the editing test, but she’d already done so much to win us over.  Two years ago, we were happy to see her come aboard; now, two years later, we’re sorry to see her say goodbye.  Thank you, Kacie, for winning us over, and proving our gut feelings right!

One thing that is inherent in my position (as well as suited to my talents) is silence.  I often work for hours without any interaction with my colleagues — not because I don’t relish it, but because it’s what I need to do my job particularly well.  I go in, plug in, and stay quiet.  Every morning, and on many evenings, she would come into my office and chat about affairs of the World, music, books, and most of all… movies.  I couldn’t add much to the latter, as my taste in movies extends all of the way from Highlander to (hopefully) The Dark Tower. However, I’d hear something about a new movie about once per week.  It was interesting, because Kacie should have been a movie critic or a book critic, and probably would have been one of the two if our local paper still had such a thing. Every conversation would leave me thinking about something new about characterization, remind me about mood and tone, and about the way good fiction can raise your spirits.  For all of that and more, I want to thank Kacie for breaking the silence.

I was always happy to put little factoids into my work, because I knew that she’d pick up on them and make comments.  I’d even put in a few quips or some flowery language because I knew that it would give her a laugh.  For reference, I almost never put such a thing in my business writing before, and may have to curb what little I do now that she’s on her way out.  As I look at my latest business writing, a task that I am also addressing as I draft this, I think back to the last little easter egg that I’ve written: “Defining success takes much more than a feeling.”  Yes, it’s subtle, but isn’t that what we strive for as writers?  Thank you, Kacie, for laughing at those intended references, and even those that I never intended in the first place.

SIDE NOTE: One of these days, someone should figuratively hit their audience over the head with the symbolism of… a brick.

Unfortunately, I am under the weather. I am running short on evening hours, and do not want this to be a prolonged illness.  I would like to write more, but my energy level is waning, and I want to wrap this up before I set it aside.  Thus, I must abruptly bid you adieu. I hope you have all enjoyed this small tribute to Kacie.

Thank you, Kacie. The team will miss you.

Make Writing a Practice

July 17, 2017

“Listen, we’re talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, we talking about practice.” – Allen Iverson, 2002

Outside of writing, my one most consistent hobby over the years has been playing basketball.  For the past six years, I’ve been a part of an ever-changing group of guys that gets together once a week to shoot hoops at a local gym.  There’s a few hard-liners from when I arrived on the scene — men who are now in their forties or fifties and have been playing together since long before I knew any of them.  When I was showing up regularly, getting my shots in, and taking care of everything else, I was playing good basketball — not the best of my life, but far better than you’d expect for someone who’d spent the better part of a decade away from the game.

Now, as one of the relative old-timers, I’ve seen a lot of players come and go.  A few years ago, a trio of brothers started playing with us.  The baby brother, one who was far more athletic than his older brothers, was like a puppy running across the court.  Then in his early twenties, he had only fairly recently picked up basketball as a hobby, and it showed.  He could run circles around most of us old codgers, could nearly touch the rim from a standing start, and had some of the quickest hands and feet in the gym.  Sure, he’d draw blood half of the time he tried to steal the ball, but there was no getting around this kid’s athleticism.  The problem was that he didn’t know basketball.  He’d pick up the ball and travel half of the time he tried to drive to the basket, and you didn’t need to defend him for any shot outside of (maybe) ten feet; you simply needed to box him out for the miss.  Even lay-ups were somewhat of a 50-50 proposition.

After the brothers were established as regulars, they started to miss a few games; months passed by and I didn’t see the little brother.  Part of it came down to a few absences on my part, and part of it came down to a change in his work schedule.  Then, one day, he was back on the court.  I was guarding him, and he pulled up from about 20-feet away (we don’t have a three point arc, so it’s tough to say).  I waited for the shot release and immediately boxed him out.  There was no need.  Swish.  A few plays later, he tried the same thing, but I was guarding him for the shot.  He put the ball on the floor, and got around me.  A friend came over to help me on defense, and this young man pulled up for a fifteen footer.  Maybe he banked it in, I don’t remember.  What I do remember is thinking “uh-oh, now this guy can shoot.  What do I do now?”

At the end of the night, after he finished piling up the points, I asked him if he’d been working on his shot.  He said “not particularly, but I’ve been playing every day.”

Sometimes, I forget how much impact an everyday habit can make. However, seeing this young man go from a “kid” who looked like he’d never played the game to a legitimate scoring threat made me realize that many of the players on the floor were still improving because they were able to get there on the hardwood/blacktop every day.  Writing is very much like playing pick-up basketball every day.  You won’t win every time, and there’s a lot of “meaningless games” in between you and your goal, but turning in 100 words per day or 2,000 words per day will help you become a better writer — eventually.

In retrospect about the past decade of writing, I think that the best writing that I’ve ever done came when I was committing 2,000 words per day to paper.   Not all of it was beautiful, and only about two-thirds of it survives, but I was a far better writer because I practiced.  If you haven’t yet made writing every day a habit, do yourself a favor and try it. You’ll thank yourself later.

(And, because basketball related puns are mandatory… “Give it a shot!”)

 

Website Tour: Gillian Flynn

July 14, 2017

Apologies for the delay, folks!  A few late nights at work have thrown my writing schedule off!  I am back with another website tour.  As you now know, I’ve discussed some of the best practices for author websites.  Along the way, I’ve taken a sampling of author websites and identified what works and what does not work about their sites.  The latest stop on the tour is acclaimed thriller author Gillian Flynn.

Gillian Flynn

You may have heard of Gillian Flynn.  Her Gone Girl book is just one of several critically acclaimed novels, and is her first work to be adapted into a motion picture.  Two of her other books have also been optioned into visual media, with Dark Places reaching theaters in 2015.  In 2016, Ms. Flynn released The Grownup; this was on Amazon’s bestseller list when I started my website critiques about a month ago, and is the next stop on this author website tour.

Ms. Flynn’s website opens under a large banner, one that takes up half of the screen.  Below that Flynn has a number of basic buttons and pulldown menus, followed by the image of her book, a brief list of its accolades, and her picture.  Her pull-down menus include a few interesting tidbits: a section titled “For Readers” and a button for contact information.  The remaining buttons / pulldowns, including “Home,” “Books,” “About Gillian,” and “News & Events” are everything I’ve come to expect from an author site.

The Good:

The “For Readers” section is a riot, regardless of whether she is trying to be sarcastic or trying to be serious. The section includes a short blog post that introduces her.  It’s riotously funny, and makes Ms. Flynn out to be someone that you wouldn’t want to invite into your home — or would you? She tells some personal details that some might find offensive, but she does it with a point.  If nothing else, it illustrates her sharp wit and frankness.

The other item of interest is a little box at the side, which includes book club questions for her first three novels. I love this idea, as Ms. Flynn has made the effort to help extend the conversation surrounding her book.  Some of these questions are softball questions, yes, but some of them are the type of questions that you would find in any undergraduate literature course – particularly the literary analysis courses. Here, you find a variety of reader response questions, but also questions about symbolism, themes, and other open-ended questions.  In essence, Ms. Flynn is doing what you see in a lot of websites for other disciplines: she’s supplementing her product (the book) with questions that help extend the book beyond the words on the page.

The Bad:

There’s not much to hate with this site.  It centers upon the books, helps you form a “relationship” with the author, and is generally pleasant in its aesthetics. There are two things that I don’t like, and they both relate to what you see above the fold.

First, the only description we get about her most recent novel, The Grownup, is just a list of Ms. Flynn’s other books and accolades.  The same can be said for information about her other books – at least eight bullet points each about sales figures and accolades, but nothing to tell you about the books themselves, unless you click on the books to go to the books’ separate pages.  As a sub-point to this, the only other information we receive about the book is a list of websites and brick-and-mortar stores where one can buy The Grownup. At least she’s fairly subtle about it, but it is still very much verboten in my mind.

The other item I don’t care for is the size of the banner. This is splitting hairs, yes, but the banner takes up a little less than half of what you see above the fold.  From the perspective of aesthetics, this makes the page itself less busy, but it also means that not much information exists on the page’s first screen.

The Verdict: With a few minor flaws, Gillian Flynn’s website does exactly what it is supposed to do.  There are a few nice additions, including the humorous essay and the series of questions for reading groups, but the website does what it sets out to do well.  It isn’t the kind of site that will knock you out with visuals or with features, but both form and function meet an author website’s needs.

To visit Ms. Flynn’s website, click here.