Event Update for October 2018

**EVENT NEWS**

Come see me at Alamo City Comic Con October 26-28 in San Antonio! I’ll have a booth in the vendor area with all my books and my limited edition comic. Lots of big names at this year’s event, including the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his first Comic Con appearance ever! If you’re planning to attend, please stop by and say hi. 

Click / tap here for event details.

Come See Me At Comicpalooza In Houston!

If you’re attending Comicpalooza in Houston at the George R. Brown Convention Center this May 25-27, I’ll have a table in the vendor area (Exhibit Hall, ground floor). I’ll also be on a few discussion panels as part of the literary track programming. Lit track panels and workshops will be on the third floor of the convention center. Hope to see you there!

  • Friday, May 25, 12:30PM – 1:30PM – The Storytelling of Star Wars
  • Saturday, May 25, 12:00PM – 1:00PM – Dystopian Universes: The Handmaid’s Tale and Beyond
  • Sunday, May 26, 12:00PM – 1:00PM – Story Engineering

Signed books available at my table in the vendor area.

Deconstructing SOLEDAD #3, Chapter Beats

SPOILER ALERT: The “Deconstructing SOLEDAD” blog series takes a look at the novel writing process step-by-step. For those who’ve read SOLEDAD, I hope you enjoy this “behind the scenes” peek into the creation process. And if you haven’t read SOLEDAD yet, you are hereby duly warned there are spoilers aplenty in the following posts.

DECONSTRUCTING SOLEDAD #3: Chapter Beats

In my last post (you can read it here), I described how I created a plot skeleton for my novel SOLEDAD by adding a lot more detail to my high-level 3-act structure. So I guess now we’re ready to write, yes? Well, no. I actually have one last step before I begin the actual composition of the prose: the chapter beats.

The “blocking” of action in plays and movie-making is a loose analogy to this step. In films and theater, “blocking” refers to the physical movements of the actors in relation to the camera (for movies) or the audience (for plays). When I write out the chapter beats, I’m essentially noting the physical action through a series of events that progress as the chapter unfolds. However, I don’t just limit the beats to the physical movements (this is where the blocking analogy breaks down a bit). I also note how a conversation progresses, any key reveals or insights the characters have, and I usually leave a “beat” for the end-of-chapter cliffhanger or surprise (you gotta keep those readers turning pages!). Maybe the best analogy here is a bullet list of what’s happening in the chapter, with each bullet unfolding from the one preceding it (i.e., a logical chain of events that move the story forward, aligned with the chapter summary I already created in the detailed outline). Actually, the beats often are bullet lists, so forget all that crap I said about blocking (clearly I didn’t outline this paragraph). Simply stated, the beats are a bullet list of the stuff going on in the chapter (or chapter section), and they follow a dramatic arc that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.

I can hear you out there. Good God, you plan WAY too much! This seems too restrictive! I need creative space, dammit! I can’t work like this!!

Everyone’s different of course, and what works for me may not be for you. But from my experience and sharing notes with writer friends, I can tell you what I’ve found to be a fairly universal truth: the more you plan ahead, the more you flesh out your story beforehand, the less editing you have on the back end. Some people like to sit down and start writing their novel knowing little more than the beginning and the end, letting their muse carry them through the story. The end result is usually a hot mess that meanders and has pacing and narrative coherence issues. These can be fixed, of course, with a lot of editing. And if that works for you, great, but I’d rather struggle with an outline early on than a 100K-word monster of a first draft. It’s easier (and more efficient) to fix the design flaws in a house before it’s actually built.

All right, I’ll stop with the preaching. If you’re not converted from your evil, write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ways by now, you never will be. But I will say one last thing about jotting down the beats of a chapter: it’s a great way to prepare for an efficient writing session. When I’m writing a novel, I typically get up at 5AM Monday through Friday and write for a couple hours. If I’ve done the beats of a chapter or section the night before, taking maybe 10-15 minutes to scribble them down, I’ve found my morning writing sessions are MUCH more efficient. I spend a lot less time pondering over the “what needs to happen next here?” question because I’ve already got my bullet list to follow as a guide. Fewer delays result in a more efficient writing session, and for someone who’s not the fastest writer in the world, every little practice that improves productivity is a win.

Below is an example of the “beats” for a chapter in SOLEDAD, from late in the second act. Sometimes I write these out longhand on a notepad, and other times I’ll type them in the “document notes” section of Scrivener. This is a longer chapter, with two parts separated by a section break (hence the “second half” notation).

  • SOLEDAD RELAXES, CONVALESCES AT MOM’S HOUSE…
  • MOM TELLS SOL SHE’S NO LONGER WITH HER FATHER…SOL NOT SURPRISED (THERE WERE SIGNS)
  • TALKS WITH MOTHER ABOUT HER POWERS, HOW THEY’VE DEVELOPED…HOW GUZMAN USED THEM…
  • MOM REVEALS SHE’S BEEN DOING THE SAME JOB AS SOLEDAD, JUST UNDER DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES

SECOND HALF:

  • NEXT MORNING…RAFA COMES TO BREAKFAST…MOM TELLS THEM HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO TELL NO ONE ABOUT KNOWING GUZMAN OR ABOUT SOL’S POWERS
  • SHE SHOWS SOL HIERBA, ASKS HER TO COME WORK WITH HER ON A JOB

I hope you’ve enjoyed this behind-the-scenes peek into how I planned my novel SOLEDAD. In my next blog in the series, we’ll back WAY up (prior to the outlining steps we’ve reviewed so far) and look at my process for SOLEDAD’s character development and world-building. This is the “Research and Development” stage of the novel, and it’s a lot of fun. Stay tuned.

Cheers!

For exclusive content, news on upcoming releases, and discounts, tap or click here to join my VIP reader list.

Deconstructing SOLEDAD #2, The Plot Skeleton

SPOILER ALERT: The “Deconstructing SOLEDAD” blog series takes a look at the novel writing process step-by-step. For those who’ve read SOLEDAD, I hope you enjoy this “behind the scenes” peek into the creation process. And if you haven’t read SOLEDAD yet, you are hereby duly warned there are spoilers aplenty in the following posts.

DECONSTRUCTING SOLEDAD #2: The Plot Skeleton (a.k.a. Detailed Outline)

In my last post (you can read it here), I described how I started the novel-writing process for SOLEDAD by planning out a 3-act structure with high-level descriptions of the major plot points. And since I’m a visual person, I used a nice 3-act structure graphic I found that helped the process (see it here).

One thing I like about using a movie-based 3-act structure (as depicted in the last blog’s graphic, again here) is that movies often use storytelling conventions around the length of the acts that viewers have come to implicitly expect from films. This structure (adopted from theatre) is a kind of shorthand between the writer and the audience, and it implies a certain pacing to the story. Whether we explicitly realize it or not, as moviegoers we all understand that 20 minutes into the movie, we’ll have a really good idea of the trajectory the plot will take.

Take, for instance, the “crossing the threshold” moment a character goes through, which signals the end of Act 1. At this point in the story, the character commits to a goal, leaving his or her “normal world” behind and passing beyond some point of no return. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke decides to leave Tatooine with Obi Wan. In Harry Potter, it’s when Harry leaves his Uncle and Aunt’s house for Hogwarts. Normally, in a movie the end of Act 1 comes no later than 20-30 minutes into the film, or roughly 25% of the way into the story.

The reason I mention all this is because in movies, the pacing we expect in a story translates well to a novel, especially a novel on the shorter side (like SOLEDAD, a work of around 65 thousand words in length). And for SOLEDAD, using this pacing meant that Act 1 would be the first 25% of the novel, Act 2 would be the middle 50% (where the bulk of the story is told), and Act 3 would be the final 25% of the story.

Since I already know my high-level 3-act structure, the next step is putting some meat on my outline bones, or filling up my 3 acts with scenes and chapters. To keep the reader engaged and turning pages, these scenes and chapters need to do several things simultaneously:

  • They must create an engaging world for the reader
  • They must build the story—in a cause-and-effect way—through the plot points I’ve already laid out in my high-level outline. My editor likes to call these the “tent poles” of the story. I like that analogy. 😊
  • They must move the reader along a compelling story arc for each of the major characters.

Now, obviously these are the basics, VERY boiled down. Scenes and chapters should do A LOT more than this, but since this is a blog and not a how-to book, we’ll keep things simple.

Do you remember how I told you I’m a planner? Well, you’re about to see just how much of a planner I am. Every time I’ve shown this next file to fellow authors, they usually react with wide eyes and, occasionally, rolled ones. If you’re the kind who likes to write by the seat of their pants, please stop and take a deep breath before reading onward.

My “plot skeleton” file (see screenshot below) takes my plot points and blows them up into detailed scenes and chapters. It also enables me to document how each of the main characters are progressing through their journeys. Let’s take a look.

Here it is in all its glory. And while I’d love to give credit where credit is due, for the life of me I can’t remember where I found this tool online. So thank you, whoever you are. If this is a bit hard to read on your screen, here a a couple higher res versions (here it is in PowerPoint and here it is in Excel).

Above is the plot skeleton for the beginning of SOLEDAD. It takes us through about half of the first act, right up to the “inciting incident,” the catalyst that propels our main plot forward. The entire skeleton, obviously, is a lot longer than this snapshot (Soledad has 25 chapters, and this is only the first four), and it took a fair amount of time to create.

Starting left to right, the first two columns are labeled “outer journey” and “inner journey.” The outer journey column captures what’s happening in the plot at the surface level, or the actions taking place in the physical world. In Star Wars, this would be things like Luke arguing with his Aunt and Uncle about school, Luke acquiring two new droids from the Jawas, and so on. The inner journey column tracks what’s happening in our main characters’ voyage of discovery, or how they’re evolving as a character over the course of the story. Luke hates his boring life on a moisture farm and longs for excitement, for example. Note that in those first two columns I left in place the template notes as reminders (increased awareness for change, show “normal world, etc.). These serve as my road signs for the story arcs.

In the next two columns (with the same exact header titles), I put in the outer and inner journeys for my story. As you can see I didn’t write too much in the “outer journey” column. That’s because SOLEDAD was based on a short story I wrote, so I already had a very good feel for the whats and wheres of the first few chapters, all of which mirrored the shorter work. In the inner journey column, though, I go into some detail about my protagonist’s state of mind.

I use the space in the “chapter summary” column to write a short paragraph summarizing what happens in that particular chapter (he said, somewhat redundantly). Each chapter is like a self-contained little story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and I try to capture those beats in this chapter summary section of the skeleton. The next column is reserved for that chapter’s surprise or twist. Not all my chapters end with twists / surprises, but I like having this column here so I can ensure I have enough of them along the way to keep readers engaged and turning pages.

The next column is “setting / location.” Self-explanatory, yes?

The remaining columns are reserved for the story arcs of the minor characters. We can’t forget about them, can we? Our minor cast of characters shouldn’t be two-dimensional or mere stage decoration—they should go through their own journeys as well. Using Star Wars again, think about Han Solo. The story’s not built around him, but he certainly undergoes a change over the course of the film, from a selfish rogue who puts money before everything to a hero who comes to value friendship and loyalty.

So that’s my plot skeleton, and its creation is phase two of my outlining process, taking things from a pretty general visual 3-act structure map to a fairly detailed chapter-by-chapter summary, documenting the whats and wheres along with all the main the character arcs.

So now we’re ready to write, yes? Well, no. I actually have one more mini-stage before I start drafting my manuscript, and I’ll cover that in my next blog.

Cheers!

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Deconstructing SOLEDAD #1, Plotting the 3-act Structure

SPOILER ALERT: The “Deconstructing SOLEDAD” blog series takes a look at the novel writing process step-by-step. For those who’ve read SOLEDAD, I hope you enjoy this “behind the scenes” peek into the creation process. And if you haven’t read SOLEDAD yet, you are hereby duly warned there are spoilers aplenty in the following posts.

DECONSTRUCTING SOLEDAD #1: Plotting the 3-act Structure 

Authors generally divide themselves into a couple of camps of writing styles: planners and pantsers. In a nutshell, planners are the ones who do outlines and other pre-work, while pantsers just sit down and write by the seat of their pants (hence the moniker).

I’m a planner, big time. Always have been, always will be. I’m one of those people who, when confronted with a new and unfamiliar task, immediately does a google search or buys a reference book on Amazon. Oftentimes both.

So it comes as no surprise that when I write a novel, the actual writing part of it comes nowhere near the beginning of the process. Far before I begin writing, I have the main characters pretty well fleshed out and a plot framework–a kind of story skeleton–in place. I try to leave a bit of room in the skeleton in case great ideas come to me later on, but for the most part I begin the writing process already knowing who’s doing what to whom, the story’s beginning, its major events, and how things will turn out in the end.

When I decided to write SOLEDAD, I knew a few things before starting out. I knew I wanted to write a relatively short novel, around 65K to 70K words (most novels these days are 100K words or more), and I wanted to keep the storytelling structure somewhat uncomplicated, meaning a single character point of view (POV). Why did I go this route, you ask? Well, it was my first novel and I wanted to keep things simple, and when you have less moving parts (single POV, for example), you have less things to worry about, and not insignificantly, less things to screw up.

Anyway, after a bit of research (planner, remember?), one of the first things I came up with was the story structure and its main plot points. For the sake of simplicity, I used a 3-act structure, a storytelling model most often used in movies. Given my desired novel length, a 3-act structure seemed like a good fit. I’m also a very visual person, so for me it was helpful to overlay the main story points onto a diagram (I found the great graphic below on Ingrid Sundberg’s blog on writing*).

Here’s what the 3-act chart looks like before I added my story notes for SOLEDAD:
a higher resolution version can be found here

Now here’s what it looks like after I added my plot points and notes (the colored rectangles):
a higher resolution version can be found here

Now, I know this may look pretty thin, but keep in mind that this is only the broadest of brush strokes, the “tent poles” that hold up the large canvas of the story. Let’s look at them one by one.

ACT 1

Fiona’s place in the world – Who the heck is Fiona??? Well, Fiona was the name I used for the main character before I settled on Soledad, and I never went back and updated this document, which I created pretty early in the process. Anywhere you see “Fiona,” just think “Soledad.” Anyway, this is where I “set the scene” of Soledad’s current life, her place in the world. She lives in a desert camp, using her special powers in the service of Guzmán. She’s in his inner circle, but not really “family” (the true nature of family is a big theme of the book). She’s also miserable. In act 1 we’re setting a baseline of sorts, establishing the “normal world,” introducing the main players, and grounding the reader before we go and start throwing chaos into the mix.

Fiona [Soledad] discovers Abner is alive – This is the rock that comes through the window, the event that shatters the integrity of Soledad’s everyday existence. Also known as the “call to action” or “inciting incident” or “the catalyst.” It’s the thing that happens that changes everything in the main character’s life, that turns their world upside down. In our story, this moment comes when Soledad sees Abner, a family friend who suddenly appears in Guzmán’s camp one day, someone she thought had been killed with her parents. If Abner is alive, she thinks, then her parents might be alive too! Finding out what happened to her parents is the obsession that drives Soledad for the rest of the story.

Her trusted bodyguard stops her – Here we have Lela, Soledad’s bodyguard / caretaker, acting as a “threshold guardian,” or someone who tries to prevent the main character from moving forward, oftentimes for what seem like good reasons. When Soledad sees Abner, she runs after him, but Lela stops her, preventing her from finding out more.

She forces the trader to take her to the north – This is where Soledad schemes to escape Guzmán’s camp and find her way to the north. She scams a crusty old trader (referred to as “blond ponytail” in the story) to serve as her guide to Dallas, where she thinks she’ll find Abner and the answers to her past. When she escapes the camp, she’s “crossing the threshold” into act 2 of the story. Soledad’s exodus from Guzmán’s camp marks a kind of point of no return, when she makes a decision from which there’s no going back. And with that, she enters act 2.

ACT 2

Trials in the desert – In act 2, Soledad has some ups and downs. She encounters obstacles in the form of drone attacks and unexpected barriers. Along the way, she also has some small victories, all while the stakes continue to rise and people and events try to push her further from her goal.

Bodyguard executed – If you look in the text of the novel, you’ll see that the stoning of Lela comes almost right at the 50% mark of the book. This is the real “mind fuck” moment for Soledad, where she suffers a huge loss. You might also notice there’s a note that says “trader re-captured.” Remember how I  mentioned that I like to keep an outline loose, in case I get a better idea later on? This is one of those times when I decided to stray from the outline. In the original plot skeleton, when Soledad escapes the Fundies at Lake Conroe, she forcibly takes blond ponytail with her. For a number of reasons, though, this didn’t quite seem to work when I was writing this section. It made more sense for the old crook to disappear from the narrative for a while, so I had him slip away instead of accompanying Soledad to Dallas. He reappears in Dallas in Act 3.

Both Fundies and Guzmán chasing her – Here, too, I made some changes to the original outline. When Soledad is in the home stretch for Dallas, it’s only Guzmán’s forces that are closing in (vs. both Guzmán and the Fundies). Again, for story reasons that had more to do with books 2 and 3 (planner, remember?), I let the Fundies and Reverend Wright fade into the background after the battle at Conroe.

Discovers parents are alive – Soledad finally makes it to Dallas, where she finds her parents are indeed alive and well. Her happy reunion, though, is short-lived when she finds out her parents’ dark secret and the danger this knowledge puts her in. The horrible revelation concerning her family’s history is Soledad’s “inmost cave” in the parlance of the 3-act structure, where she finally finds what she is looking for and she goes through her big change / decision point (i.e., her epiphany). This epiphany marks the end of act 2. And, sorry, the bad news she discovers is the one spoiler I won’t give away, so if you haven’t read the book, go buy it! 🙂

ACT 3

Unleashes the rogue AI – Now that she’s decided upon her final course of action, there’s a final push toward resolution. For Soledad, “resolution” means destroying the world her parents live in (overreaction? well, she’s young), and she unleashes a powerful technology that leaves Dallas defenseless and vulnerable to Guzmán’s troops, who subsequently take the city in a final battle.

She reconciles with Guzmán – After the battle, the climax of the story, we’ve got our denouement (which I like to wrongly pronounce “de-nowee-ment” as often as possible), otherwise known as the “falling action” or “resolution.” In a typical film, this would be the last 10 minutes or so, where all the loose ends are tied up (or left deliberately untied as a connecting event for a sequel). In the falling action, our main characters take a breath and settle into their new place in the world, for better or for worse, armed with the new perspective forged from the story’s events. For Soledad, this comes in the form of an unexpected reconciliation with Guzmán and her redefinition of what a family truly is. The question of what defines a family is the central theme of the book, but for the sake of space I won’t go into that here. I may do a deeper dive on theme in a separate post.

I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of my novel SOLEDAD. In part 2, we’ll take a look at the next step in my “pre-writing” process, a more detailed “plot skeleton,” which I use to document the story arcs for the main characters and the main events for each chapter.

Cheers!

For exclusive content, news on upcoming releases, and discounts, tap or click here to join my VIP reader list.

*Original source of the 3-act structure graphic can be found on Ingrid Sundberg’s blog at this link

The Pope of Greenwich Village, Katniss Everdeen, and Mark Watney

If you knew me in my late teens / early 20s, you would have known about my obsession with the movie “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” At the time I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I simply loved the movie, watching it over and over, marveling over Mickey Rourke’s naturalistic acting technique that echoed Brando at his best. I viewed it so many times I could recite nearly every line of dialogue (still can).

In hindsight, what appealed to me about Pope was less an individual performance than the vividness of the characters. There are no good guys, no bad guys. All the major characters–even the minor ones–are richly complex and morally ambiguous. None of them are particularly likable, but their situations are utterly engaging.

I recently re-watched this movie for the first time in ages, and I thought about how this “my moral compass doesn’t always work” kind of character has always fascinated me, both in the books and movies that I love, as well as in the stories I create myself. In “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” one of the greatest moments happens when a character–who’s spent most of the movie making self-righteous speeches about right and wrong–steals a shoe box full of money (originally stolen from a mafioso’s safe by the main character) and disappears, leaving her ex broke and vulnerable to the killers who are hunting him down. And insult to injury, she leaves her ex a recorded voice message justifying her actions. It’s a wonderful “holy shit!” moment, and I just love it when the sanctimonious go bad. And I love it just as much when the baddies have an unexpected display of magnanimity. In my books I try to do this, making my characters complex, contradictory, oftentimes difficult to sympathize with, but hopefully, in the end, engrossing. You’ll never find a BAMF Katniss Everdeen in my work, walking the moral straight and narrow and kicking butt after butt (I can already hear the haters cracking their knuckles, readying themselves to write their long rebuffs…that I’ll ignore). You’ll also never find a square-jawed Mark Watney, smirking and making jokes about disco music while he does life-saving math problems (so cool under pressure…what a hero!!!). If you like that sort of character, good on you, but you might want to skip my stuff. 🙂

 

The Strangest Book Sale I’ve Had (So Far)

First, let me preface this blog entry by saying I LOVE selling books at pop culture / comic con events. It’s great to meet and chat with readers and see friends who I’ve only previously known from social media exchanges. But sometimes things can get a bit…weird. And for those of you who sell at these events, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Case in point, an experience I had at last weekend’s event in San Antonio. At every event, there’s a certain percentage of folks who like to talk. Not buy, just talk. Sometimes these chats are with writers looking to share notes and experiences. Sometimes they’re with folks interested in your cover art or your novel’s subject or something else. 99% of the time, these are pleasant exchanges that break up the monotony of the sometimes longer-than-you’d-like gap between book sales.

But then there’s that other 1%…

Last weekend, a retiree-aged gentlemen stopped by my table and I told him about my novel. Usually, I can tell within a few seconds if someone’s really interested or just browsing or wanting to chat. He was the chatting type. So no problem, we talked about work, the weather, and so on. Nice guy, and we had a pleasant conversation. Until I mentioned my day job.

It seems I work for a company that he bought a product from some years ago (a technology product) that never worked as advertised, and it couldn’t even power up properly. The support line was zero help, and the replacement product he got was little improvement, lasting less than a couple months before he returned it for a refund. After ten long minutes of listening to this, nodding and wondering when the harangue would end, I made the mistake of saying our market share was twenty points higher than our next competitor, so we must be doing something right.

Wrong thing to say, Dave.

That set him off. Maybe it was our success that made us blind, he hissed, getting visibly worked up. Maybe that’s why people like me couldn’t see the problem. Maybe that’s why we ignored a glaring error in our product that literally EVERYONE on the internet was talking about. Keep in mind, I’d told him earlier I worked in an area nowhere close to the product he’d had an issue with. But that didn’t seem to matter. He had some things to unpack, and your friendly neighborhood author got the brunt of it.

Torturous minutes passed as I listened, growing less patient as I imagined potential readers passing by my table. By now he’d been standing at my table for around fifteen minutes.

So finally I fixed him with a glare and said, “So are you going to buy a book or are you going to keep bitching about my company?” That’s an exact quote, word for word. Needless to say he was taken aback. But instead of arguing back or stomping off (I expected one or the other to happen), he changed the subject and a couple minutes later HE BOUGHT A BOOK! Granted, he admitted he probably owed it to me after giving me such a hard time, which was a concession I actually admired. So oddly enough, it turned out well, and now all I hope is that he enjoys the book and I get the chance to chat with him next year.

For the record, I don’t advise using rudeness and profanity as sales techniques, but hey, whatever works. And it got me thinking about my writer friends and the strange experiences they might have had.

So tell me, what was your strangest book sale???

 

The Sh*t I’ll Never Say on Facebook

I’m not myself on Facebook. There, I said it. But then, no one really is. Social media isn’t really us, is it? Like every other social media application, Facebook profiles are the drop-down selection, check-the-box version of us. The self-serving, digital distortion we choose to present to other drop-down, check-the-box digital distortions.

If you’ve known me in person for any length of time, you know me to be much more sarcastic and pessimistic than I ever am online. On Facebook I’m the nicer version of me. The cocktail party me. The polite me. The watered-down, best-behavior, heavily redacted me. I can’t be the real me, of course, primarily because Facebook has become, sadly, an amplification tool for hate speech. One “wrong” word can trigger an avalanche of judgement from the countless trolls (Left, Right, Christian, Atheist, 2nd amendment activists, anti-2nd amendment activists, and so on) who live to use the safety and anonymity of social media to scream self-righteous judgement from the mountaintops. I don’t fear getting crushed by that avalanche. I simply view it as a monumental waste of time and energy. No one ever wins or loses an argument on Facebook. No one ever changes an opinion with an I’ll-set-this-S.O.B.-straight post. So what’s the point of clogging up my news feed with bullshit?

So maybe you’re feeling a bit ripped off, a bit under-served. Well, you have been, I’m sorry to say. But in the interest of I’m-not-quite-sure-what, I thought I’d jot down a few things that’ll give you some insights into the real me. The one you’d get to know if you had beers with me or went to school with me or worked with me. Call it the NSFF (not safe for Facebook) list of my beliefs / thoughts / opinions. Enjoy.

  • Woody Allen’s personal life grosses me out, but I love his movies.
  • With very few exceptions, most military science fiction is the literary equivalent of a mindless Bruckheimer action movie.
  • Private gun ownership should not exist. The average person is far too stupid and irresponsible to own a firearm.
  • I have several litmus tests I use to assess people. This is wrong and I know it, but I still do it all the same. Here are a few: your opinion of Sarah Palin, your opinion of the movie “300”, what you read, how much you mention God.
  • The death penalty is stupid. I’m not a libertarian, but the idea that the state can get the death sentence right every time is ludicrous. The state shouldn’t have this power.
  • The jury system is crazy. Do I really want twelve semi-educated, easily duped, reality TV-watchers deciding my fate? No fucking way.
  • Ditto direct democracy. See above point.
  • I could never be a starving artist. I’m too bourgeois, first of all (a shameful admission). But also I’m too frightened of the nightmare of being poor in this country.
  • George Lucas can’t write, and Star Wars Episodes 1-3 should be a business case in MBA textbooks. Those 3 movies represent how horribly wrong things can go when a rich, powerful person surrounds himself with those whose livelihoods depend on them agreeing with every idea the boss has, no matter how ridiculous.
  • I still can’t wrap my head around how we’ve arrived at a point in this country where a contemporary P.T. Barnum is a hair’s breath away from occupying the White House. We are a nation of rubes.
  • In my personal experience, there’s a nearly 100% correlation between how much someone talks about religion and how much of an intolerant, bigoted asshole they are.

Surprised? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t worry. If you don’t think you’d like the person who wrote these words, you can always check out the Facebook David. I hear he’s a lot nicer.

The Hardest Job I Ever Had and What It Taught Me

As people age, many tend to look back a lot more than they look forward, assessing the good, the bad, and the ugly of their lives. If you’re like me, you very nearly obsess over it: second-guessing the roads not taken; shaking your head over bad decisions; whistling in amazement at how much chance and dumb luck play a part in your cradle-to-grave journey.

I sometimes reflect back on all the jobs I’ve had, and specifically, what I learned from them. And from just about every angle, there was one job–the hardest, most stressful job I ever had–where I developed tools and skills that have served me well, even long after I left the job. Was it my fast-paced consulting gig after grad school? Nope. My stint at a software company where I covered Asia Pacific and Latin America? No. Was it my nearly two-decade career at a Fortune 100 technology company? Not that one, either.

The hardest job I ever had–and the one that taught me the most–was waiting tables in college.

While that may sound odd, for those of you who’ve spent any time slaving away in a restaurant, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

Here’s what you learn when you work as a waiter, especially if you’re employed at a popular, busy restaurant:

  • Dealing with pressure. One of the most intense, stressful, fast-moving environments is a busy restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night. If you can’t think on your feet and move your ass, you’ll get run over. Day traders, ER doctors, you think you have it tough? Puh-lease. Try dealing with getting triple-sat on a Saturday at 8PM.
  • Making quick decisions. Get the salads out, take the appetizer order, open a bottle of wine, refill ice teas. A busy shift for a waiter involves hundreds, if not thousands, of on-the-spot decisions. You keep a running list in your head of a couple dozen tasks that need to get done NOW, and the list constantly changes and gets re-prioritized. New items hit the list (sugar packets just ran out on table seven!) as fast as you can check off the existing ones. It’s a torturous mind-fuck of a thing–many can’t take it and melt down or simply walk out. And after your shift ends, it takes hours for your mind to slow down enough for sleep.
  • Engaging in the art of small talk. When you wait tables, you learn how to have efficient, meaningful, friendly conversations with total strangers. This is an underappreciated aspect of the job, and once you’ve mastered this skill, you’ll use it countless times over the course of your life. At cocktail parties, at conferences, at any place where you have to strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met.
  • Dealing with assholes. Few jobs teach you how to handle the angry, rude, or just plain mean members of the general public like waiting tables. Your choices are to smile and take it or find a way to de-escalate the madness. Arguing and smart-assery will get you shown the door, so you learn to deal with the jerks if you want to stay employed. And (surprise!) once you’re finished waiting tables, you’re not done dealing with the ass-hats. They’ll follow you into the corporate world (usually in sales or finance), the PTA, the charitable organization, or wherever else you end up doing work. And the skills you learned the hard way–by getting bitched out by every fragile-ego jerkoff who needed a self-esteem boost–will come in handy for years to come.

The list of life lessons from waiting tables could go on and on. You learn about yourself, how much you can take before you break, how much bullshit you can deal with. You learn about the general public, much of it ugly and disappointing. Stereotypes get broken. The super-rich can be the nicest, most patient and polite people you’ve ever met. The dedicated churchgoers of the middle class can be the rudest, least tolerant, and ugliest humans on the planet.

For those of us who spent our college years waiting tables or bartending, you know what I’m talking about. We got a lifetime’s worth of lessons, good and bad, about ourselves and humanity.

A Critique Group Write-Up of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Hi Frank,

I really enjoyed your submission this month (even though it was about 175K words over our normal 10K limit…Side note: please try to respect the submission rules. We’re here to help, not be abused). It was a fun read and there was lots that kept me interested. You’ve created a really interesting world (even a map!) that was engrossing and an interesting cast of characters.

My main critique points are as follows:

  • You head jump constantly. This is a real ‘new writer’ kind of thing to do, and it won’t get past most slush pile readers. Show us what the characters are thinking by what they do, how they react, what they say, etc. Don’t just jump into their head and italicize I don’t know if I can trust this Fremen dude. Too easy!
  • The scene where Kynes is dying ventures into the classic ‘as you know Bob’ pitfall, just with the hallucination of his father substituted for Bob. It felt very data dumpy. You might want to figure out a better way to weave this into the narrative.
  • The Harkonnens feel a bit one dimensional to me. They struck me as just a group of “baddies just being bad”. Do they have a backstory? Why are they so angry? I felt like this was a gap in the story.
  • I’m not sure I buy the Baron H’s weight problem. Seems like a fairly advanced civilization not to have lap band surgery. This kept pulling me out of the story. Please reconsider this character trait.
  • Duke Leto is kind of the perfect white male hero everybody’s trying to get away from these days. You might want to consider re-shaping him into something more believable. The SJWs are gonna kill you on this one, I promise. I have to admit, I cheered a bit when he met his demise.
  • The whole “there’s a limited resource of immeasurable value concentrated to a small geographic area” felt a bit heavy handed to me. Oil? Hello? We get it. Then we have the locals who aren’t taken seriously, abused by corrupt overlords who don’t respect their religion, way of life, blah, blah, blah. Is this a story or an extended critique of modern western capitalism? Just something to think about. If I might offer a suggestion (which, yes, I KNOW we’re just supposed to say what didn’t work for us, not how to fix it), you might consider turning down the obviousness a few notches.
  • So let me get this right, at some point in the far future, everybody just kind of STOPPED using high-end computers, did I read that correctly? All of humanity just kind of collectively agreed to stop using them, and instead they rely on these brainy Mentat people who drink some kind of stuff that stains their lips (honestly, I kept thinking of my two-year-old with a grape juice mustache). And none of these ruthless, ambitious royal houses–even though they lie and cheat and steal at every opportunity–EVER secretly developed advanced computers to gain an advantage? I’m not sure I’m buying that. Ditto on the ‘no nukes’ prohibition. It just seems too easy, Frank. You need to pump up the plausibility here.
  • Fremen dialogue. I have to be very honest here, these guys talk to each other like ten-year-olds trying to imitate Shakesperian English, who come off sounding ridiculous (like laughingly bad). I know that sounds harsh, but try reading their dialogue out loud. If you can get two sentences out of your mouth without laughing, I’ll buy you a latte.

Well, those are my main points. I had fun reading “Working Title: Sandy Planet with Big Worms”, even with all the rough edges. Your story has great potential and best of luck with the edits! And don’t forget, next month it’s a firm 10K word limit. Have a good week and keep writing!