Living computers

I’ve seen the Living Computer Museum‘s neon green sign fly past for five years now, and only this weekend did we stop in. And thank god we did. What a trip.

It seems modest enough at first, though as delightful as you might expect – all neon and big displays and the bright colors you’d expect of an exhibit on modern technological superpowers, like self-driving cars, virtual reality, and big data. There was a display on Barbie’s influence on women in tech, a digital studio section, and an old Cray unit. All very cool.

But then we went upstairs, to the living computers.

We all pulled out our smartphones in awe, to take some 20+ megapixel photos we could instantly share with people we felt like sharing them to.

And I immediately thought, How quickly we take it all for granted.

The sounds! The recent past was a constant tapestry of high-pitched whines, whirring fans and hard drives, clattering keyboards and ka-chunking switches. Somehow we lived and worked beside that sound, day after day of it singing through our brains.

The time it took to complete simple tasks now seems staggering. Back then it was the latest, the quickest, the newest. Something to compare to what your friends’ families had.

I walked from thrumming machine to stuttering screen, in awe of human ingenuity. And so much of what I saw at the museum was predicted in some form by speculative authors. The imaginations that play with the future shape the future.

How far and how fast we’ve come, how accelerated our acceptance of change. How young and unprepared so many of the icons were: Bill and Paul and the Steves, especially. I saw photos of Bill Gates in high school, looking 13, his hands on a keyboard. (Where else?)

Yet with every decade of silicon I wandered past, I wondered, how many times now have we faced the same questions and assumed the answers would be different, because “the world is so different now”?

It’s really not. The world is never different. Nature goes on, with or without us. The tools we’ve got to contend with the dull parts, those change a lot. But the things about a life that make stories timeless, the struggles and the triumphs and the quiet happiness, those don’t go away.

If we keep thinking our tools will change the world, we’ll keep making the same mistakes.

Attention almost-authors! I want to interview you.

Do you have a book that’s nearly there? Are you a few drafts — or even just a few cover letters — away from being a published author for the first or the tenth time? I’d like to interview you!

I think it would be interesting to interview writers who haven’t gotten to the finish line yet. Because we’re all there on something in our lives. It can be a lonely and disheartening place to be, that place of partial project completion.

I’d like to chat with people who have a story, a dream, and a plan for how to turn the other two into a published book. I’m interested in talking to writers who are going the traditional route, would-be indie authors, and everyone in between.

If you’re in the pits of despair, wondering if you’ll ever escape the editing nightmare, let’s talk. If you’ve got a 27-step strategy for landing a publishing deal, but can’t seem to gain traction, let’s talk. Maybe by talking me through your roadblocks, you’ll think of ways to get past them.

Reach out to me if this is you! Email me at augustwritesabook@outlook.com, or message me on Facebook.

Writerguilt

writerguilt, n. the intense feeling of failure and existential doubt that occurs when words are not being applied to pages

Writerguilt is the nagging feeling that the world is waiting for your words. Writerguilt is also self-indulgent. Breaking news: The only person waiting for you to write is you.

But someone’s waiting on me! I hear you insisting. Fine, sure. Deadlines are real things. But editors, agents, and publishing companies work with writers who produce. Readers want to read, well, books that actually exist. Spend your time despairing, and you’ll have nothing to show for it except a steaming pile of intangible angst.

As it turns out, writerguilt is very, very easy. It’s certainly easier than slogging through a thick research book, or crafting yet another post about how you’ve been absent from blogging but “oh this time I’m back, with a vengeance!” Or any of the thousands of other ways you might practice the craft of writing.

My theory is that we writers revel in writerguilt because feeling guilty about not writing is an activity mutually exclusive to writing. And if there’s one thing writers can agree on about writing, it’s the sincere and professional practice of avoiding it.

When I indulge, my own writerguilt takes on the form of a question wrought with existential agony: how can I possibly know which project is right to focus on next? As I’ve gotten older, the sharp edges of this quandary have been honed by the acquisition of knowledge. These days, I know all too well the myriad ways I might make the wrong decision.

At age 10, I had a very particular way of dealing with my writerguilt. I kept an inventory of works in progress, and I coded a random generator so I could select my stories one at a time and dedicate a tiny block of time to each.

Those five-minute writing sprints added a few sentences or mere words to each document. But I was making progress. On everything. Decisions be damned.

Trick thyself into creativity is my creator’s motto these days. It’s a nod to the irritating ingenuity I displayed 18 years ago: By deciding not to decide, I made a decision anyway—the decision to write. To produce. To put something down, even if it was just a single line.

At least that’s one more line than I’d had five minutes earlier. And eventually it adds up to a book.

I know the writers reading this are also afflicted by writerguilt. It comes and goes, and contrary to expectation, not in the inverse of inspiration. When guilt and ideas hit at the same time, the storm of despair can be monumental. You can really spin your wheels trying to decide which project will be a bigger hit with your audience, or bring in more passive income, or…whatever your Big Project Questions may be.

If you’re wrestling with writerguilt, do something for me, right now. Pick something you’re working on (randomly, if you have to). Open it up. Set a five-minute timer. Write at least one word. It’ll be one more word than you had before. Maybe it’ll alleviate your writerguilt, just a smidgeon.

The only way off this hamster wheel is to make a decision and write.

crows

crows
laughing
and bouncing
and sharpening their beaks

crows
rustling their feathers
lost in their own shadows

crows in a jagged line
on a telephone wire

crows
dipping in a rosy puddle

crows
gathered round the fallen

crows
streaming towards the sunset
weighing down the boughs
allopreening,
lost in a private moment

crows
swooping in front of cars
and stooping on the gas station roof
and rooting through the trash

crows foraging in trios, loosely bonded
or crows gliding in pairs, trading who leads

or crows alone, mourning.

Cooking and writing

I’m extremely lucky to be married to a former chef who catered for sitting presidents. Yes, I certainly get all of the consumption benefits of having a chef under my roof — but more importantly, I get a world-class firsthand education in how to food.

I haven’t just learned “how to make a dish that tastes good.” That’s actually pretty simple: Follow a good recipe. What I’ve really learned is how food behaves. What the system of food is like. The science of food, the art and craft of choosing proportions for desired results. I’ve always known what good food tastes like, but now I know why.

This systematic knowledge took me from following recipes step by careful step in 2013 to freestyling it with substitutions and eliminations as the whim seizes me today. It’s also allowed me to develop a distinct style — I’ve come to love certain combinations of ingredients, and increased my ability to experiment within those flavor profiles.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation in my writing, too, though inversely. I used to freestyle too much; I’d sit down with a first line or a vague notion and punch out a few pages of something unstructured and full of interesting frayed ends.

Ultimately, those weren’t stories that held up under much scrutiny. I’d bore of them and wonder why I couldn’t finish anything.

In the last few years, in addition to the “writing about writing” books I’ve always read, I started scrutinizing good stories in all forms of media, and studying writers’ systems of crafting plots and characters. This has given me the vocabulary for my instinctual sense of how to story.

Now I can flip through a draft I wrote a few months before and not only spot the holes, but name them, and understand how to find fixes for them. I’m no master of fiction, but I’m a much more confident writer than I used to be.

The ingredients, the proportions of a good story — these are things I know when I meet because I’ve been a voracious reader for so long. But now I understand them and have the toolbox at my disposal to fix them in my own works.

Such is the magic of learning how to cook.

The Parentheses Process

I love details. They’re sort of the hallmark of my style, especially in my short stories — I choose very specific but arbitrary details, putting down broad strokes about a world I hardly know yet. I’ll describe how the clay coins of the realm feel in one’s hand, for example. Or the name and earthy smell of the new-fangled liquor everyone in the land is addicted to.

But sometimes, instead of getting caught up in exactly what I should call the god-leader figurehead role of a nomadic ice planet society, I need to crank out the skeleton of a scene. I can’t always afford to stop and get lost in random generator land. So instead of agonizing over a detail and allowing it to slow my roll, I use what my producer/hub calls “the Parentheses Process.”

In reality, I don’t use parentheses, I use curly braces. {These ones.} They make it easy for me to use Ctrl+F (the Find function) and track down all the places I left blanks without running into false positives, since I sometimes actually use parentheses. But whatever. Parentheses Process is catchy-ish.

I used the heck out of this method while I was working on my novel Daugment. I didn’t know much about Daugment when I started the book, other than the main character being a human-turned-dog, so I ended up leaving a lot of world-building details unspecified as I went along. Or, I would specify them, later remember that I’d made a decision but not what that decision had been, and then just put the general idea in brackets so I could come back to it later and cross-reference to my heart’s content, once I was wearing my editor’s hat.

The Parentheses Process is especially useful for NaNoWriMo and other speed-writing scenarios. If you’re trying to crank out an essay, wrap up your manuscript in a couple of weeks, or complete the first draft of a novel in a single month, stepping away from the details is a must. Plus, this method strengthens your stories and your world-building skills by letting the details percolate in your mind as your world and plot unfold in a more structured way.

Yes, even “pantsers” who don’t outline will benefit from leaving some things until the end. The brain naturally tends to make loose ends click into a neat package, if you let it sit idle on the problem long enough. Thanks to the fact that brains like patterns, yours will passively work to sort things out and make connections where you may not have seen them at first brush.

The basic premise of the Parentheses Process is, if you can’t come up with it nearly immediately, put it in brackets and move on.

Your goal should always be to get through the first draft as fast as you can. Even if the first draft is really a “zero draft,” just a few sentences that sketches out what you’re going for, you benefit from having something to work with rather than nothing at all.

It’s how you eliminate the fear of the blank page. Know that this is something I spent fifteen years of denying, despite reading all of those trusty books about writing, wherein every author ever coaxed me to get the first draft down quickly…

But I digress. Here are some examples of the Parentheses Process in action.

“{Something inspirational and foreshadowy!}” Leyla cried, one edge of her blade gleaming in the low-slung sun.

Dialogue isn’t easy. If you can’t hear it in your head yet, you may just not know your character well enough. That’s totally reasonable! Put it in brackets and move on.

He picked up the gleaming {swordthingname}.

Well, crap, you know you named that sword-thing in an earlier paragraph, but it’s at least four pages back, and you’re kind of on a roll… Put it in brackets and move on.

Their eyes met over the candle. Hers gleamed, and his answered with a mischievous twinkle.

{Cute thing that becomes an inside joke}

They were full of wine and sleepy, and even the promise of more kisses couldn’t keep them awake. They fell asleep with their arms around one another, their clothes disheveled in an innocent, sleepy way.

Sometimes you have a general idea of what needs to happen in order to make a plot point down the road feasible… But you don’t have any experience with that kind of scene and you’d like to read or watch a bit of research material. Put it in brackets and move on.

Fair game in the Parentheses Process:

  • World-building details you already selected*
  • Lines of dialogue
  • Names you haven’t chosen yet
  • Physical characteristics
  • Emotional content
  • Portions of scenes
  • Entire chapters
  • Literally anything

*Pay special attention to those details you feel the need to look up over and over — such as names of places, people and things; character continuity details; and timelines. If you need to reference stuff regularly, you may want to develop a system for yourself so you can easily reference it again.

If you’re anything like me as a writer, you want to make sure you get worldbuilding details absolutely straight. Especially if you know you wrote something down already, whether it was in your meticulous notes or your messy draft, you shouldn’t stop your writing flow to hunt it down! Getting out your first draft should always be more important than the details. That’s what editors are for. You should know this. Consider this a gentle love-whap. First drafts first.

The Parentheses Process is all about ensuring you stay in your flow when you find it. The most important rule is: Give yourself just enough to know what you meant later, and move on quickly to maintain your momentum.

(Another rule: Be consistent. If you use {curly braces,} stick with ’em. If you use [square brackets,] stick with those. Otherwise you’ll find your Ctrl+F process is much harder than it needs to be.)

The Parentheses Process eliminates a huge excuse that many writers rely on to keep from actually producing — research. Yes, research is absolutely key to a successful project. Yes, you can and should have research phases in your writing process…just not in the middle of your writing time. Random generators and web searches are just an excuse not to write, most of the time.

The biggest secret to my success is that I know now, the writing portion of the process should be satisfying. I try to exploit this fact by using the Parentheses Process to jump to the stuff I’m interested in writing right now.

If there’s something you’re excited to write about or want to get out of your head, jump to it. Jot down any notes or thoughts you don’t want to forget in brackets {like these}. Then get to where you want to be!

That’s it. That’s the whole Parentheses Process. It’s how you get through drafts, and fast. It’s how you plow through all those little distractions that add up to writer’s block. It’s how you identify details about your characters and world that are important to write down somewhere else for future reference. (Planning on turning your stand-alone novel into a series? Better hope you’ve kept track of the stuff that’ll matter for the next book and beyond!)

The Parentheses Process is not the same as “not knowing what happens” — i.e. not plotting your story or series. This method shouldn’t be used in place of outlines. At the very least, even if you’re a true “pantser,” you should have some vague notion of what your character’s motivation and goals are.

However, used in tandem with an outline, loose or otherwise, the Parentheses Process lets your brain work its magic. It will find patterns if you tell it, “Look, brain, I know what needs to happen, just not how it happens.” It’s likely that your story world already has a way for that plot point to not only be feasible, but probable. You may just not have unearthed it yet.

Put it in brackets and move on.

View from the office

Moving sucks. Especially when you get caught in an inch of snow for three hours, five minutes away from each of your two homes (former apartment, future home).

But, this place was totally worth it.

This is the view from my desk, or something like it, when we eventually get the combination library-office set up. (!!!!!)

No complaints here.

The whole studio team is here, too, all under one roof. The Shames have, as they say, arrived. Now to get the whiteboards up…

Why Daugment is free for libraries

Thanks to Smashwords’ super cool distribution plans to Axis360, OverDrive, and now bibliotecha (as well as their Library Direct program), my novel Daugment is available for free to libraries. I could charge for it, but…first of all, that seems horribly mean, and second of all, I have three good reasons for making it free.

The altruistic reason: Libraries and librarians are awesome.

Several of my good friends are librarians, and of course, avid readers themselves. They help people every day find information on how to improve their lives and their knowledge bases. Pretty dang cool. Plus, I spent I can’t tell you how many hours in libraries as a kid, gleaning information on forbidden topics from books I didn’t dare take home. I feel like I’m paying it forward.

The sneaky reason: I commission weird covers. People will take chances on weird books…when they’re free.

Almost every bizarre book I’ve ended up adoring, I read first from the library. Once I was old enough to earn a little money from babysitting, I began to invest in my own book collection and I’ve never stopped – but I rarely buy something I don’t already know I love.

People make snap judgments about covers all the time. Here’s a question anyone in a bookstore or browsing an online catalog will ask themselves: “Is this cover worth $5? $2? $0.99?” Usually, the answer is an easy, “No.” But if the question is instead, “Is this cover worth 10 minutes of my idle curiosity?” the answer is more often, “Why the heck not!”

If my book’s at a library, it’s already free for the customer. Making it free for the libraries gets it into a lot more libraries.

The marketing reason: To find my future readers.

Every single piece of advice on ebook marketing I’ve read advises giving away a book, or a story at the very least, to get readers’ email addresses and attention. While I plan to run promotions as well, Making Daugment free for libraries allows me to give away books passively and reach readers I would never have otherwise found.

Even if I run really savvy social media campaigns, I can’t easily target niche readers. These are people whose tastes might not usually overlap with the keywords I use to promote my book, but who visit small-town libraries. Smaller libraries may have more modest budgets, meaning the librarians may turn to the free section of the ebook catalog in order to give their patrons more for the money they have.

If you’re a librarian, and can’t seem to find Daugment through the ebook channels you use, please contact me so I can get you as many copies as you’d like!

My debut novel: Daugment

Daugment cover

Did you obsess over Brian Jacques’ Redwall series and Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars tie-in novels? Do the names Clare Bell, Deborah Chester, and James Gurney ring a bell? Are there tattered Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis books on your shelves? Then I proudly present…your next read.

Daugment is the (I’m so sorry) tail of Pitney Scolan, Pit for short, a brilliant military mind on the brink of retirement to his own private planet, where no one will bother his intensely introverted self. Unfortunately for Pit, his arch-nemesis General Tristan has assassinations on the brain – and Pit is forced to become a dog, party up with some well-meaning scoundrels, and face a galactic conspiracy to force him to make friends.

Yes, my debut novel is as ridiculous as it sounds.

It took 22 years of perseverance, but I’ve done it. I decided at five years old that I would become a novelist, and since then I’ve gone through six or seven unpublished manuscripts and at least 100 short stories. Now I’ve published this delightfully ridiculous soup of talking dogs, sci-fi tropes, and friendship themes that I accidentally pun-titled Daugment. (Accidentally because it was meant to just be a code name. Let this be a lesson to myself.)

If you love animal stories, soft science fiction, and adventure stories without a strong romance subplot, Daugment is tailor-made for you. You can buy it on Smashwords for all e-readers, and it’s also available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Amazon, iBooks, Inktera, as well as other distributors, and — if you ask, because it’s free for librarians to order! — your local library.

The adventures of the Damn Shames

I’m one of those creepy writertypes who doesn’t really disguise the fact that she rips her characters straight from the pages of her friends’ proverbial books. Luckily for me, I’ve got pretty cool friends who then help me develop some of those characters until they’re just plain awesome to write about. That’s how the Damn Shames came about – I started with the idea of writing about my friends as a bunch of space pirates, and they graciously gave me a bunch of ideas for how to go about doing that. (It’s also the brand we use for our studio collective.)

We’ve chosen to set the Shames in the Star Citizen universe for the time being, because it’s an inviting one for us as content creators. We’re allowed to use a lot of material freely to tell our own stories; it’s a little like being invited to make fan videos and write fan-fiction for the Star Wars universe, thirty years ago. The game thrives when its community is engaged and making content, so we’re indulging. Our space pirates will have plenty to do when Star Citizen launches — but for now, you can read all about their adventures at PiratesIn.Space.

I’m writing an ongoing serial novel called “A Mutiny of Pirates,” which I’m posting chapter by chapter so readers can follow along. The story is very loosely based on “Treasure Island,” but mostly based on the true-to-life misadventures my squad would have if we somehow became spacefaring chaotic neutrals, all at the same time. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Star Citizen universe, I try to provide enough context that you won’t be lost (my mother-in-law reads it, and she doesn’t play Star Citizen).

PiratesIn.Space is the easiest way to keep up with my writing in between my novels — speaking of which, stay tuned, because “Daugment” launches today!

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