10 Books That Have Stuck With Me

I’ve seen this meme (or ones like it) on Facebook, G+ and over at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. I like it. It means a bit more than “favorite,” because sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not.

1. Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny – Lots of firsts here. First Zelazny for me. First real run in with the anti-hero. And Morningstar was the first character I can remember making me ache with a sort of deep, helpless loneliness. “Almost. It’s always almost morning” breaks my heart every time.

2. The Bachman Books by Stephen King – In particular, “Rage” and “The Long Walk,” but mostly “The Long Walk.” These books came in early in my fascination with the human mind pushed to its limits, and what happens afterward.

3. IT by Stephen King – Like him or hate him, you can’t claim that King doesn’t have a way with memorable imagery. IT was probably too long, but it did a lot of things right. He captured childhood very well, both the energy and the isolation. IT itself evokes the fear of the unknown very well. And of course, poor Georgie. “We all float down here.”

4. Heinlein Juveniles – They sort of clump together in my mind. Not the storylines, but the experience of reading them. They definitely had a strong impact on me as a kid, some in what I now consider to be negative ways (Starship Troopers) and others in more positive ones (Have Space-suit, Will Travel).

5. The Handmaid’s Tale  by Margaret Atwood – Hopelessness. Totalitarianism. Fear of religion and government. Beautiful language. This book really has it all.

6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury –  My first dystopia. This book helped me to learn that I have an existential horror of ignorance, particularly willful ignorance and destruction of knowledge. Montag’s impossible choice, to turn away from everything he knows or continue doing something he has realized is wrong, fascinates me.

7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Truly a marvelously crafted book, and it plays into my fascination with distrust of authority. Other themes, such as doing the right thing even though it’s hopeless, also resonate with me.

8. Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford – This book is beautifully written, and also deals intimately with a lot of the themes of childhood. Changing but being afraid to change. Strangely overlapping inclusion and isolation. The feeling that one’s parents are both vital but also alien. In addition, Ford’s consideration of the effects of extraterrestrial living on the everyday reality of life is exhaustive and fascinating.

9. Iron and Silk my Mark Salzman – The only memoir that I would say really “stuck with me.” Salzman’s story of his trip to China to teach English is fascinating. Salzman is an American who has studied Chinese and China, studied Chinese martial arts, and plays the cello. His frustrations with the bureaucracy, making friends, experiences of Chinese home life, and his studies with martial arts teachers paint a complex and living picture of life in China in the 1980s.

10. Stone Monkey: An Alternative, Chinese-Scientific, Reality by Bruce Holbrook – I partly fibbed in #9. There are memoir aspects of Stone Monkey. The value in this book wasn’t the specifics so much as the approach to thinking, and the concept of polar-completeness as an alternative to binary or extreme/spectrum thinking. It’s also interesting from the point of view of an outsider learning about another culture and way of thinking.

Writing and Soaping Update, 12/04

As I suspected, my NaNoWriMo novel didn’t hit 50,000 words during November. C’est la vie. I has, however, hit more than 20,000, and gotten to the introduction of the central tangle of conflicts that will drive the rest of the story. So I’m pleased, and I’m still making progress.

On the soaping front, things are going well. I have shaving soap samples out to a few people that agreed to test for me, and a few more lined up. That’s pretty exciting for me, and it looks like early 2014 is still a realistic goal to open up shop. I’ve also been focusing a bit more on face/hand soap, with an eye toward extending that part of my product line.

This has involved learning some things about cold process soap that I didn’t know before. Such as, the temperature of your ingredients really does make a difference. Not so much because of functionality (it will create soap either way) but because of the rapidity of trace (setting) and the “gel phase” process. I made a batch of soap for cold process and combined them when the oils and lye were both pretty hot. It traced rather abruptly and started a gel phase right away. Usually you have to insulate a soap and leave it overnight for that to happen. (Or make it by hot process.)

So, I ended up with a functional but messy looking soap:

Strawberry Shortcake Handsoap

Not exactly consistent.

I have a nice new silicon mold now, and plan to try making a hot-process batch. I think that HP soap that is done in a shallow container like the one I received this week will be easier to handle than the tall cylindrical molds I had been using.

Oh, and the Dapper Dragon himself is starting to take shape!

The Dapper Dragon

Bubble pipe, of course!

NaNoWriMo is almost certainly a “failure” this year

It’s November 25th, and I’m sitting at 19,200 words. It doesn’t take a degree in math to know that’s not nearly enough to “win” NaNoWriMo.

While I’m disappointed that things didn’t work out, I can safely say that it was never really in my hands to win or lose. I had a medical procedure (nothing big) that I expected to get me behind. But then my oldest got pneumonia, which put the rest of the family under a lot more strain. Things had to give, and totally voluntary writing contests are high on the list of things that have to shift first.

But still, I put failure in quotes for a reason. Because even if my word count won’t be hitting 50,000 this month, I have the beginnings of a good story down, and I’m much more in the habit of writing regularly than I was before the month started. So in that sense, I still benefited from participating, and that’s a win.

NaNoWriMo Continues, but not quite apace

What happens when you add a rush of orders to your wife’s pottery business, minor surgery, and a teenager with pneumonia to a month-long rush toward a manuscript?

Your manuscript takes a major back burner, that’s what.

I’m still working on it. Lifting the Yoke (working title) has been rumbling around in my head for a while, and I am enjoying getting it down on paper. But to finish the 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, I have to turn in just over 2500 words/day. Something tells me it’s not going to happen.

NaNoWriMo 2013 – Here we go!

At the last minute, I decided to go ahead and participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. My wife is behind me, and ready to work with me to be sure I get the time to write my 1667 words/day. If you’re also trying, feel free to add me as a Writer Buddy. My profile page is right here.

I’m going to be writing a secondary world fantasy story that I had already planned to do as my second novel. The idea came to me years ago, after thinking about weapons of mass destruction. Mages, I reasoned, are potential WMDs. Yet in traditional fantasy settings they are usually completely unregistered and self-regulating. I didn’t think that was very likely in any place with a semblance of government. In fact, I thought control would probably be very tight indeed.

My first attempt at playing with the idea was as a D&D campaign. Unfortunately, my ideas required a fair amount of house rules, and being in your late thirties doesn’t lend itself well to spending a ton of hours designing a campaign. It fizzled, but the idea remained.

So now the first day is done, and I’m a little off the pace but feeling good.

Word Count: 1328/50,000

A Scattershot Approach to Creativity

I haven’t been very active here since this summer, but I have been keeping busy. Fatherhood and a full time job will do that for you, regardless of your creative efforts.

Thankfully, I haven’t been idle on the creative front, either.

LadySea.net Updates

My wife is a potter, photographer, and knitter. She is selling her work over at LadySea Creations. Since I’m already conversant in HTML and CSS, and have a decent idea of design, I’m the webmaster and site author over there. It’s a pretty good creative outlet. I have always enjoyed programming for that reason. (I’m writing server side scripting in PHP.) Creative problem solving, followed up by translating those ideas into a structured language. It’s a fun challenge, and not entirely dissimilar to writing structured poetry.


I have worked a bit more on The Apprentice, and also a couple of short stories. It’s not as much progress as I’d like to make, but fatherhood and work continue to be very intense. My hope to write on the laptop or paper while being Parent on Deck hasn’t really worked out. The littlest munchkin is just too active, too curious, and too smart. She requires more attention now, not less. I’ll likely be hosting a story or two here in the near future.


I’m still really enjoying soap making. The last soap I made didn’t work for the house because I had forgotten that my wife’s tree allergies involved cedar.

The next thing I made (that worked) was a soft shave soap with shea butter. It really came out great. The lather is very effective, and the shea butter leaves the skin feeling marvelous afterward. I was trying for a lemon-lime scent with a touch of peppermint, but the peppermint oil was much stronger than I realized. I ended up with basically a pure peppermint scent.

Currently I am curing a stiffer version of this soap. I also plan to try a hard version. Whichever I like best will become the basis for my shave soap line. That’s right, I’ve decided to try selling soaps. I will call the brand Dapper Dragon soap, and sell it alongside Sonya’s pottery at Ladysea Creations.

I intend to make bath and facial bars as well. Hopefully I can include some in the products on display when Sonya does local craft sales.

Visual Arts

This is one realm where I haven’t kept my hand in this year at all. I’m not really happy about it, either. But there are just too many things to do, and not enough time. However, I have checked out the newest Krita for Windows. I really like the way it works. It is similar in many ways to MyPaint, but since it uses the KDE libraries, it’s not affected by the Gnome/GTK issues that killed tablet functionality in MyPaint for Windows and GIMP. And it’s open source!


That’s the state of my creative life these days. Look for more, and more frequent updates as I get these projects rolling.

Time to go back to paper and ink

One of the challenges of being a writer and the father of a young child is when and where to write. When is its own special kind of difficulty, and involves orchestrating time with the kid(s), time for the SO (if any) to not have the kids, and other activities that keep you paid or sane. It also depends a lot on how the child is feeling. Sometimes a pre-schooler or toddler just want you around, like a home base they can come back to from time to time. They don’t necessarily want to play with you, or need you to feed them, or anything else right then. Other times they require 100% attention.

Where ties to when. If your writing is tied to a particular place or device, then that place can’t be used when you’re watching the little one, unless it’s kid-safe. Using a computer, I’m of the opinion that such places are never sufficiently kid-safe for writing. For one thing, little kids are fascinated by lights and buttons, and will turn your computer off without warning. Not a good thing for a work in progress. In my office, there is also a craft desk covered with beads, pens and ink, and soon an easel and oil paints. Nowhere a toddler can be left to play without constant supervision.

We own a laptop. I could use that while watching the toddle play, but I tend to hurt the tendons in my elbow when I use it in my lap for extended periods. Go go gadget RSI! Plus, my daughter uses it for homework and my wife uses it as well. It’s not something I can just lay claim to when inspiration strikes. Similarly, writing on my tablet is untenable. So what’s a guy to do? I want – no, I need – to write more frequently.

Once upon a time while having difficulty developing momentum for scripting my graphic novel, Celerity, I switched to pen and paper to do my writing. The change in format seemed to break something loose, and I got a ton of writing done. I filled up a couple of notebooks, and finished the first draft of the story. I decided that would work. I can always grab a lap desk, TV tray/table, or just the dining room table to write on. I can also carry a notebook to places where a laptop wouldn’t work. Plus, it gives me an excuse to use my fountain pens more regularly.

Poking around in my office, I found a few quality notebooks and pads. You can’t really use generic binder paper or school spiral notebooks with a fountain pen. They bleed through the paper, and out, ruining your lines and legibility. Also, part of the joy of using a fountain pen is the extremely smooth, effortless writing experience. The rough surface of cheap paper ruins that. So you need a fairly tight-woven paper with a light tooth to it. I turned up a Clairefontaine notebook, a leather bound Italian notebook that I tried to use for painting class, a Moleskine, and an A4 sized Rhodia pad which would meet my standards. The Moleskine was mostly filled up with the first draft of the first novel I wrote. The leather-bound book is nice, but it doesn’t like to lay flat, plus I hope to go back to painting soon. I’ll use it for more notes. The Clairefontaine had been chosen to be a personal journal. So that left me with my Rhodia, which is not a bad thing to be “stuck” with at all.

For pens, the main contributor was a no-brainer. My best pen, and my favorite to write with is a Pelikan m600. It’s got a nice italic ground nib customized by Richard Binder. It writes incredibly smoothly, and results in an interesting, calligraphy-like hand. I wanted to have at least two pens with me, though, in case the Pelikan ran out of ink. (It’s a piston-fill, which means no swapping cartridges.) I have a small collection of pens, and there isn’t one that I dislike using. In the end I ended up going my an antique – an Eversharp lever-fill pen with a slightly flexible nib. I loaded them both up with Noodler’s “bulletproof” black, in case of spills, rain, or other disasters.

It’s already working out well. I brought them with me to work today, and in between tasks an on breaks, I can jot down a sentence, a paragraph, or an idea. It’s not as fast as the word processor, but the output seems to be more steady.

Pens and notebook

Rhodia pad, Pelikan m600, Eversharp lever fill, pen case, and blotter.

Pen with written notebook

Looks like it’s working so far.

Calling All Aspiring Authors – Charity and Critique, rolled into one!

Over at Pat Rothfuss’ blog, they’re auctioning off critiques (some with editing) by a variety of publishing professionals. People donating their time and brains range from agents to authors to professional editors.

If you’ve got a manuscript that needs some love, or will have one in the near future, you should definitely check it out, and maybe lay down a couple of bucks for Heifer International.

My Characters are Not in Control

It is possible that I’m just a curmudgeon. Maybe there is no poetry left in my soul. But it drives me crazy when I hear people talk about their characters refusing to do something, or taking the story in an entirely new direction.

I think it’s because I have a pretty strong negative reaction to the categorization of anything mundane as mystical and ineffable. It just feels lazy to me. It’s something I picked up while studying martial arts, which are perhaps the single most romanticized pastime in the US. Writing, like martial arts, is work. And if you don’t do the work, counting on mystical forces and autonomous characters to do it for you, you’re going to end up with a crappy end result.

I am not talking about organic modification of characters or plot lines as you make decisions. Sometimes I can end up with a story running into areas I didn’t envision when I first outlined it. Sometimes I make decisions about my characters that make your original plan for them feel forced, or not make sense at all. I may choose to move in this newly recognized direction, or I may choose to go back and change my character to make them fit the original idea. Either way, the operative word there is I. Every bit of that hypothetical situation rides on the back of my decisions.

Those decisions aren’t always conscious. Sometimes they regress back to something that was decided off-the-cuff without a thought to how it might become important later. Sometimes they are truly subconscious. My mind will worry at a character concept in the background the same way it does a story idea.

Mystifying the mundane leads to lazy thinking. It can even lead to complete fallacies becoming canonical and being handed down between generations of practitioners. To return to my martial arts analogy, taijiquan has been notorious for this. “Taiji practitioners are 100% relaxed.” (No, they’d fall down if that were true.) “Taiji makes no use of external (muscular) strength.” Tell that to Chen Xiaowang when he’s in a horse stance with his thighs parallel to the ground. One of my training partners who was largely a rational man used to claim that he wasn’t using his muscles when he did the form. He would “prove” this by pointing out some muscle group he wasn’t using. He didn’t take it well when you poked him in a fully engaged, well developed muscle six inches away.

Writing is the same way. At the end of the day, there’s no net. No recourse. I wrote it. I made the decisions that led my story where it is. I can hide my head in the sand and blame the muse, or failing inspiration, or “characters taking over the story.” Or I can own my part in it, examine what I’ve got to learn why it came out that way, and figure out how to make it better.

I know which one I’d rather do.

(This post was inspired by some awesome discussions we had in the #shutupandwrite chatroom on Freenode IRC. It also inspired a post in the /r/shutupandwrite subreddit with which the chat is affiliated. You should come check it out. Some  of the best no-nonsense, results oriented writing advice and support I’ve run into.)

50,000 Words in the Rearview

Click to view daily statisticsLast night, I crossed the 50,000 word line. It feels like my story is on track for a decent length, somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 words. I’ve identified some things earlier in the story that require fleshing out, as well.

It’s been interesting, going through the writing process. Things have been changing here and there, primarily to add more subplots and ideas. When I started, I really only had the main thrust of the story in my mind. It’s grown, and I like it.

The main arc that takes my character from a victim to an active agent in her own life has been joined by a romantic subplot, some intrigue and a lot more detail for the antagonists, and an internal struggle with an alien being. A group of characters that had been intended as a footnote, almost a part of the scenery, is now an engaged group of supporting characters.

Writing is really agreeing with me, and I’m getting better at taking the reins and getting my writing done when it’s possible, rather than when I’m feeling like it. As a father, IT nerd and husband, getting “feeling like it” and “possible” to line up is why it has taken me three months to hit 50k words.

I’ve been feeling the itch to do a bit of visual art, but time constraints are really a pain there. I’ve thought about splitting my creative time between writing and painting/drawing, but the fact of the matter is that drawing is a much slower process. I can’t get nearly the same amount of stuff done. (I also think I’m better at writing, but that’s not saying that much.)