Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Definition of Stress

One of the best quips about stress I’ve heard holds that it is the result of the mind overriding the body’s desire to choke the daylights out of some idiot who desperately needs it.  The story of my life, as it were, at least in the last few weeks.  It’s rather amazing how others can create so much turmoil through negativity, refusals to work together honestly and cooperatively, or just because of idiotic notions of who has control over a project.  Having studied the tenets of buddhism in the past to find a way to control and divert my own reactions to some of the folks I have to work with, I find that it’s easier in theory to acknowledge that my stress isn’t caused by others, but by my reaction to others, than it is to actually go from reacting to actively shedding the emotions and regain balance.  Some days, physical exercise to exhaust the body works.  I walked 12 kilometres yesterday, but when it came time to get a good night’s sleep, it didn’t work.  I woke up at 2am, and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, which makes a change from sleeping until 4am and then having my geriatric dog waking me up.  This morning, when I finally hauled my tired behind out of bed at six, the old mutt was sleeping soundly for the first time in a week or more.  I just can’t seem to win on that front.

The IT world is full of the same jealousies and sabotage as any other workplace, and you’d think I would be used to it by now, but I’m not, and that is my problem more than it is that of the people who delight in knocking down any good work my team does.  Giving back as good as I get simply increases the stress and takes me off the high road where, I hope, virtue will eventually be its own reward.  Sure that sounds naive, but at my age, balancing out naivety and cynicism is a major task.   I just have to keep working on my ability to shake it off and carry on, as tempting as it may sometimes be to hoist the black flag, draw my sword and cut through the bovine droppings.

I’ll be spending the upcoming weekend working on The Path of Duty by incorporating my editor’s comments.  Sadly this week, I’ve been too tired fighting off turkeys at work do author stuff after work.

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Weekend Fun

Our pickup truck, affectionately known as the ‘Blue Beast’, is turning 13 this year, and its age is showing badly. It has served us well and we’ve driven it down to Florida and back more than a few times over the years. Sadly, the engine is sounding rough, the exhaust even rougher and rust is sprouting its red stains. I suspect that if we brought it to the auto mechanic, we’d be facing a few thousand dollars in repairs to keep it going for another year, and at some point, you have to cut your losses.   We’d already been planning on replacing it, and had been putting aside some cash to do so, but hadn’t quite decided on timing. Saturday, we bit the bullet and headed to the dealership to buy the next ‘Blue Beast’. Even though we had make, model, options and everything figured out ahead of time, it was an exhausting three hours, only thirty minutes of which were spent on the test drive, by the time I signed our savings away. Considering how little I got as trade-in value for the old ‘Blue Beast’, it was clearly at the end of its road. I’m waiting for the call to tell me when I can exchange old for new, seeing as how they didn’t have the exact pickup I wanted on the lot and had to get one shipped in. Hopefully, the next truck will serve us just as well and just as long as the old one – longer even. That pretty much took care of Saturday, so I didn’t get anything author-related done. I did serve up a pretty good veal Oscar for supper though.

Sunday, on the other hand, was pretty productive. I got another four thousand words down on Cold Comfort, and could have written even more since I’ve pretty much got all of Act Two mapped out, but chores won’t be left undone. More importantly, I got the first batch of comments back from my editor on The Path of Duty. In speaking with her, she’s happy with the storyline and figures I’ve pretty much nailed what I wanted to nail. She also raised a few points that I knew were questionable when I sent her the manuscript, but happily she has suggestions to sort those out. It’s always great when your editor can confirm that yes, the feeling you had about a particular passage being iffy was correct. All in all, she liked the story, and said the final editing, once I’ve incorporated her comments, should be fairly easy. Now I need to embark on the second re-write, so progress on Cold Comfort will be slow. I still hope to have the second Dunmoore ready for publication in early July, but that means I have to put in the hours after work and on weekends, which is getting harder with the good weather having finally arrived.

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Curses! Spoiled Again

As a lot of folks nowadays, Mrs Thomson and I have succumbed to the siren song of Netflix, the online streaming service that is slowly edging out network and cable television. Browsing through the massive selection of movies, documentaries and series, I stumbled on a large number of old tv shows I used to watch thirty or more years ago. Curious and a little nostalgic, I began to watch a few of them, just to see if they held up over the years and could still entertain me. I was expecting the sillier ones to feel dated, if not outright dumb, but to my surprise, they actually put a smile on my face. I don’t know if it’s because they evoke memories of a time in my life that seems simpler in hindsight (I wish I could tell my younger self to enjoy those days a bit more), or because they exuded an optimism or naivety that seems harder to find nowadays, but pure escapism after a frustrating day in the bowels of a demented bureaucracy is oddly therapeutic, especially when it comes without advertizing and on my schedule and not some network executive’s. My only complaint is that having all of the episodes of a given show available at the touch of a button is an invitation to binge watching on a scale that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. And before anyone says it, I know: that’s a personal problem, but it’s a fun one to have.

For those who want to keep track of more important things, like sequels, my editor has told me I’m getting the first review comments on The Path of Duty later this week, and I’ve completed Act One of Cold Comfort, all ten chapters of it, over the long weekend, which means I’m a little over a third done on the first draft.

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Adjusting the Heat

One of the best known axioms in advertising is “sex sells” and if you look at the stunning popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray, you can certainly see some truth in that. I haven’t read it myself, nor do I know anyone who’ll admit to reading it, but out of the 32,000 or so reviews on Amazon.com, almost a third of them are one and two star, with a common theme being the lousy quality of the writing. I’d be willing to bet that given the same quality of writing but a much tamer subject, we wouldn’t see this kind of success. However, well done to the E.L. James; she’s managed something almost none of us will ever be able to do when it comes to being an author: write a bestseller.

I completed the first re-write of the next Dunmoore last weekend and am currently writing the next Decker and I’ve had occasion to reflect on my differing approach to including sex in my books when it comes to either characters. First off, I’m not one to write steamy scenes, seeing as how I’m writing space opera and not erotica, but it’s more than just that. There is absolutely no romance or sex in the Dunmoore books (nope, none in the second one either). Why? Because the story revolves around a starship captain, in space, and unlike over-the-top characters like James T. Kirk of Star Trek fame, a captain doesn’t reach down his or her chain of command for hanky-panky, otherwise morale among the crew is going to take a hit. Therefore, adding sex to a Dunmoore novel makes no sense outside perhaps some shore leave (she doesn’t take any, so that’s not a problem) and would only be sheer titillation that doesn’t advance the story.

The Decker character is different. First, he’s not in the military anymore and is thus free to find companionship anywhere he wants. Second, by his very character, he’s a randy bugger and his liaisons either get him in trouble or out of trouble and through that, they do advance the storyline. Yes, there’s a bit of adult fun in the one I’m currently writing, just as there was in the first book, and yes, it does advance the storyline.  More importantly, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards so it doesn’t detract from the plot.

I didn’t consciously make Dunmoore celibate or Decker randy when I developed their characters. They simply unfolded that way, and I cannot think of them differently now. The thought of writing about an amorous starship captain simply makes me shudder, and an ex-Marine who isn’t interested in the raunchier side of life would simply be wrong (see General Patton’s famous line on the subject).

One reader whom I know quite well did note the absence of sex in No Honor in Death. I haven’t yet heard if he got his normal quota reading Death Comes but Once. I’m sure the racier bits in the Decker story aren’t to everybody’s taste, even though they’re hardly explicit, but then I don’t expect folks who liked Siobhan Dunmoore to like Zack Decker in the same way, or vice-versa for that matter.

Onwards and upwards, and hopefully when it comes to The Path of Duty my editor won’t send me sideways.

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On Time and On Target

The first re-write of The Path of Duty (Siobhan Dunmoore – Book 2) is complete. Now it goes to my editor for the first of several reviews and critiques. Her job, for this first round, is to tell me all about the weaknesses in the storyline, the loose ends, dangling subplots, unbelievable decisions and actions by my main characters, and all those things that need to be sorted before the novel is reviewed for grammar, spelling and typos. At this point, the story comes in at around 111,000 words and while it is self-contained, i.e. no cliffhangers at the end that force the reader to buy book 3, it continues along a broader arc that I started in No Honor in Death.

I’m already almost a third into the first draft of Cold Comfort (Decker’s War – Book 2), and that’s what I’ll be working on while my editor does her magic. I’d be further ahead with Cold Comfort, but I decided to realign the story a week ago and had to go back and essentially rewrite what I’ve written to date. The same thing happened with The Path of Duty several months ago, so I’m not surprised.

With the weather abruptly changing from an annoyingly cold spring to something that feels more like early July, the weeds have sprouted in their teeming masses, and I need to spend more time tending to other things. Combine that with the weekly hike in the woods, and my weekend time available for writing is feeling a sharp drop. I think I’ll be taking a hiatus after publishing The Path of Duty in early July, and since I hadn’t expected to put out Cold Comfort until sometime in the Fall, I’ll give myself time off this Summer to enjoy our brief bout of warmth. Working seven days a week can get tedious and make Eric a cranky boy (see my blog post of May 6 below). That means the as of yet untitled Siobhan Dunmoore – Book 3 won’t be out until 2016. I’ve already got the general concept of the story, and a more precise idea of some of the scenes, but I won’t be fleshing that out until Cold Comfort is undergoing the editorial review process.

I want to wish my mother, my mother-in-law and all mothers out there a happy Mother’s Day.

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Do Writers Make Cranky Readers?

I’ve noticed a rather less than pleasant trend in the last few weeks when it comes to a number of authors whose series I have been reading over the last year or several years, both indies and those published through the traditional publication houses.   I’ve found them boring. The latest was a book far advanced in a series where the story has been advancing by inches and which I removed from my kindle’s reading list when I was just short of halfway through. I realized that I didn’t care anymore about the multi-book story arc, nor did I care much about the characters. The author’s writing is decent, and he paints good word pictures, but after many books chasing down the object of the ‘quest’, I found it hard to stomach yet another battle, similar to all the other battles that came before, knowing none of the main characters were going to die, and knowing the hero was going to add another member to his team. I got bored, pure and simple. By then the author had gotten a fair chunk of change from me, but he won’t be getting any more, because I stopped caring about the end-game. I no longer feel the urge to find out how the series ends. This was the fourth time in the last six months something similar happened. The first was a traditional print book, part of a series by a prolific, well-known author. Three-quarters into it, I gave up. I just didn’t care anymore, even though this wasn’t a multi-book, long drawn out story arc, but one that was self-contained in that one volume. The second was an ebook series by an even more prolific and very successful indie author. I began reading the latest installment, and gave up part-way in, because I didn’t care any more. The same happened with another series soon thereafter. Sadly, because of this, I hesitate in buying the latest book in another of his series which I found pretty decent up to now, on the basis that I’ve already tossed two partially read books into the electronic recycling bin. I made it through the latest print book of a traditionally published author earlier this year, but it was struggle. I can’t say the same for the latest from one of my biggest favorites, which I returned to the library half-read because again, I really didn’t care any more about the characters I’d been following for years.

I don’t know whether this phenomenon is one related to authors stretching out a lucrative series well beyond the point where it should have been ended and it’s first cousin, the use of the serialized novel concept to keep selling books by not wrapping up a story arc, or whether I’ve simply become more critical now that I’m deeply mired in the creative and editorial process myself. Or maybe I’m just cranky at spending money on books that don’t give me the satisfaction of a well defined story.

I know I’m not the only one out there. I’ve read the reviews of those books and series that came to disappoint me and many people have made the same observations I did, so it’s not just me being a curmudgeon. As an antidote, I’ve picked up a non-fiction historical analysis that may actually give me story ideas. As to future fiction reading, I’ll have to be more circumspect in my purchases. Just because I’ve enjoyed a given author’s work to date doesn’t mean I’ll continue to enjoy it. Some of them become stale or their storylines become stale or they simply put less care and time into their books in the drive to increase their volume of sales. Writing is a business after all, even though we scribblers would like it to be a labor of love.

There is, however, one conclusion I’ve drawn from all this. Just because a mainstream publishing house has put out a book by a well-known author, it no longer implies that it is of better quality than the best of the well-known indies. I’ve abandoned books from both sources in equal numbers.

And now, back to polishing The Path of Duty so I don’t bore anyone who enjoyed the first book in that series.  I’ve already decided that unlike other science-fiction heroines, Siobhan Dunmoore won’t be the subject of a never-ending series of books, each more turgid than the previous one.  I think I’ll be bored writing them well before I start losing readers.

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Beauty in Decay

With the weather quickly approaching summertime warmth during the day, Mrs Thomson and I decided to do our first woodland hike of the season today. We went back to our usual spring opener, a relatively flat 6 kilometre trail that wends its way through second growth forest, swamp and marshland. We weren’t the only ones feeling the need to shed the last of the unnaturally cold winter’s cobwebs from our brains, and the trail was well traveled, even if nature still looked a tad bare thanks to the late spring. Leaves are only beginning to emerge from their buds, while the ducks and geese aren’t as plentiful as they’ve usually been in early May. Comparing from year to year, nature is a few weeks behind. I hope that we’ll make up for the missed weeks of warmth with a later than usual onset of winter, but I doubt we’ll be so lucky.

With most of the greenery still coming from coniferous trees, the layers of decay in the undergrowth were particularly visible. One rotten tree trunk in particular caught my attention as it was proof that there was artistry and beauty even in putrefaction. It hadn’t caught my attention last year, probably because it was still mostly whole, and I know it won’t be there, or at least won’t be in that form next year.

Rotting tree trunk. Canon 5D Mark III; 70-300mm lens @ 75mm focal length; f/7.1, 1/250, ISO400

Rotting tree trunk.
Canon 5D Mark III; 70-300mm lens @ 75mm focal length; f/7.1, 1/250, ISO400

There is a trend in science-fiction to write stories about or set in decaying institutions, empires, republics and what have you. It’s not a new trend, but in recent years it has become more widespread and in your face, or at least so it seems to me. Whether it’s a reflection of the pessimism many feel for the future of our current civilization, that malaise that seems to permeate western societies, or simply a fad is up for question. But like as not, some stories set in a universe filled with rot can really grip the imagination, showing that even there, we can find beauty in decay.

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