February 24, 2013

Tomorrow... Tomorrow... I Love You... Tomorrow...

Last week we talked about ideas and where they come from. As it turns out I happen to get a good number of them. I currently have ideas for three novels and one short story plus another trilogy of short stories which could easily become a novel, with (knock on wood) more ideas to come. BAM! Another idea just hit me for next week's blog post [does happy dance].

The thing is, ideas are only useful if you actually do something about them. Ideas are wonderful little creatures but they also require quite a bit of attention. Just like the goldfish you had when you were little, if you don't feed an idea it dies, and much like a dead goldfish, a dead idea ends up souring the experience, getting in the way, and making it more difficult to bring another one into the picture. What you really need to do is flush it down the toilet or bury it somewhere. Whatever you do, just get rid of it and get rid of it posthaste. Dead goldfish stink and it's harder to get anything done when there's a something stinking up the room regardless of whether it's a dead fish or a bad idea.

Not every idea is going to be gold.

Some ideas are gold though (or gold plated, or just shiny enough to catch your attention), and those are the ones you have to take care of. The challenge with this isn't so much figuring out what to do about it as it is actually doing something about it. If it's one thing I've learned in my thirty[mumble] years of existence it's that if you want to get anything done you have to actually get off your butt and do something about it. Quite often, the amount of work you put in determines the success, or the quality of the outcome (though I would argue against the notion that it's linearly proportioned).

I have a job I really enjoy; two wonderful children; a wonderful wife; a gaggle of siblings, nieces and a nephew; loving parents and in-laws; myriad other family members scattered across the globe; lots of friends, some of them close and some peripheral (but there nonetheless). I also don't sleep well and there's lots of activity in my daily routine, so when it comes time to do something outside of all this, like, I don't know, finish my novel, my motivation levels are fairly low. Sometimes - a lot of the time actually - I just want to sit and hang out in front of the television or read a book or just lie on the couch and enjoy the dim lighting and the quiet. Oh how I love the quiet...

I don't need to finish the book to pay a bill, or because it's my job, or because I am contractually obligated to finish. It's not the last request of a dying family member or friend that I put my novel in their hands before they pass. It ranks lower than helping my kids with their science fair projects on my list of things to do (as it should). The only reason I can think of to finish it is to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I finished it. It will be a great accomplishment when it's done, and I will be extremely proud of myself when the day comes, but my problem is that day always seems to be at least a day away.

I get more stuff done tomorrow than any other day of the week. 

An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force; so I have to ask myself what are some of the forces that tend to get people moving, and which ones will get me moving? The one that stands out the most for me is commitment. If I make a commitment I really want to honour it.

When I was taking singing lessons in preparation for my fist ever vocal performance I practised almost every day. I found ways to rehearse even when I was sick or exhausted. I had made a commitment and I was going to honour it, damn it.

The same goes for when I was considering doing an Ignite talk. I was accepted once but declined because I wouldn't have been able to give it the attention it deserved. I finally accepted just a few weeks ago and delivered the talk on February 13th. That one took at least three weeks away from any writing I was avoiding, but I had made a commitment and I had a deadline, so that was that.

As it pertains to writing I made a commitment to post to my blog once a week, on Sunday, and here we are on February 24 and I haven't missed one yet - I even have my idea for next week's post! So why isn't my book done?

Simple. I haven't made it a commitment - to myself or anyone else. Well, nothing motivates much better than making a promise to the world, so here goes nothing... I have roughly 25,000 words left in my first draft and...

I will finish by March 31.

There you go. That's less than half the pace needed to win NaNoWriMo, which I did in 2012 (with a full day to spare!) I'll even take it one step further. Now, I have no idea how long it takes to do a second and third draft, or how long an editor will need to colour it red, but my Dad's 75th birthday is in October and I think a great present would be a new book for his e-reader. My book, to be specific.

I have a feeling that I'm not alone in thinking this, but nothing motivates me much more than simply being told I'm not capable of doing something. So as I eluded in the previous paragraph, I have no idea if what I want to do is even remotely possible, but I just dare you to tell me I can't do it.

Go on, I dare you.

~ Andrew

P.S. I want to know what motivates you! What gets you out of bed in the morning? What gets you into the office? What gets the blood pumping, the wheels turning, or the pen writing?

February 17, 2013

Giving Birth

Wow, was there ever a lot of talk this week about meteors and asteroids! It's a good thing too, because I was in need of an idea for my post for this week. "What?!", you say, "How can you possibly tie meteors and asteroids into a column about writing?" It's a good question and one that I intend on answering.

  • First we get a meteor over Russia travelling at 54,000 km/h (that's 15 kilometres [9 miles] every SECOND), and exploding over Chelyabinsk, Russia. The shock wave created as this thing entered our atmosphere took almost 30 seconds to reach the ground, and when it did it shattered windows, damaged buildings, and injured over 1,000 people.

  • Then, just a few hours later and asteroid slightly larger than a Space Shuttle came from the south and at a distance of 28,000 km zipped between the International Space Station and a ring of weather satellites. I'm not sure I can put that into perspective. It's 1/10 the distance to the Moon. It passed INSIDE satellites WE put in space to monitor the weather. Astronomically speaking, that's about as close a shave as you can get.

Two completely unrelated events happening on the same day, both involving chunks of rock from space, and both causing quite a stir here on Earth. For some, these are the types of occurrences that spawn science fiction books or fantastical Hollywood blockbuster movies. For me, these are the types of types of occurrences that make me wonder where I get my ideas.

I can't figure out where my ideas come from, and there are times when it feels like I might never get another one that's worth sharing.

The idea for my current (and first) novel took more than a decade to form and started out as something completely different. It evolved slowly over time with the strongest and most adaptable pieces carrying on to the next generation. It changed from a film about one thing, to a short story about something else, back to a film about something close to the first thing, to a novel about that thing, to a novel about something completely different. The original film idea now sits on a shelf waiting to be fertilized and will probably be birthed as my third novel.

Other ideas of mine seem to be created out of thin air. I have a short story/novella idea that came to me when I was staring at the walls of an elevator. Hey, I thought, I think this would make a great short story. Something kind of Twilight Zone-ish with a feel similar to Ayn Rand's "Anthem". I got a bit of help with this one from a friend later that night, but 90% of this idea had formed in the 30 seconds it took to ride up 1 floor.

The idea for what will probably become my second novel came to me while listening to Metallica in my car on the way to work. It was just one scene that played in my head throughout the duration of the song "Nothing Else Matters" (which happens to be one of my favourite Metallica tunes). It was the most disturbing thought I've ever had, and within minutes I had created several main characters and a plot, pulling ideas from some well-known religious nut jobs, cultists, psychopaths, sociopaths, and serial killers.

It would appear that I don't lean toward any one "method" for coming up with ideas but I have noticed a few things:

  1. I get more ideas when I'm left alone
    Whether it's as I'm falling asleep, or when I'm in the shower, or driving to work in the car, or alone in elevators, my brain needs a certain amount of isolation to work its magic. I don't think I'm alone in this regard, but there are definitely people whose ideas come out of brainstorming with others - a sort of "think tank" mentality. This is definitely not me. My work even tends to be of higher quality when it's just me in a room with white noise pumping through my headphones.
  2. My ideas get better when I involve other people

    While I have a harder time working with others to come up with ideas, the ones I get (that I like) only get better as I bounce them off other people. Certainly the four ideas I mentioned above have only improved since I shared them (or bits and pieces of them) with some of the great minds I happen to know.
  3. I can't force ideas to appear

    Much like a baby, I can't guarantee its arrival. I need an idea - now! very quickly becomes I got nuthin'. Just the right set of circumstances and the right chemical reactions are needed to bring my ideas to life and as soon as I start to force them out they dry up and I'm left with nothing but cobwebs and tumbleweeds. 

So, what works for you? Where do your ideas come from? Do they come out of nowhere and fall from the sky like a meteor (minus the exploding over Russia), or are they slowly cultivated over time; nurtured, pampered, brought into the world and given life? Are they a product of isolation and solitude or do they bounce around and off others like a stray particle seeking a cosmic partner.

If all the conspiracy talk after recent meteor/asteroid events are any indication, there is no imagination shortage out there, that's for sure. Now if only we can get Hollywood to step up and give us something original; because even with rocks falling from the sky what we're really missing is something with a deep impact.


February 09, 2013

I Fəəl Dirty

I think writing can be the easiest thing in the world to do, once you've figured out a few words and how to get them on paper. Watch a child who has just learned to write and see how effortlessly they write:
"I likə cats and rainbows. I wish my cat kud tock so shə kud tell mə if shə liks rainbows. I think shə duz."
 Yes, every "e" is backwards, there are several words spelled phonetically, and the colour choices make it difficult to read; but there it is in black and white (and a crayon box full of other colours). If a child at such an early stage can write, then anyone can do it. Right?

Wrong. Writing is also one of the most difficult things in the world to do. Not every story can be about cats, and not every idea just appears in your head like a rainbow in the sky. Good ideas are even harder to come by. Those are like the crystal clear double rainbow you see after a short summer rain where you can imagine giant pots of gold at each end and a bevy of leprechauns dancing a jig around them. Oh, and let's not forget that all this has to be interesting enough for people to read. That's like trying to describe your rainbow scene in such a way that someone would rather read about it from you than see the photograph of it taken by someone else.

I wanted to use http://ic2.pbase.com/g2/95/519495/2/55623816.1QMs4Uwa.jpg by Dan Bush at http://www.pbase.com/missouri_skies/image/55623816/large but haven't heard back from him yest. So, for now I'll be using one I took.

We needn't fret though because we've given ourselves the best out there is: we get to make stuff up! That's right, when it comes to fiction, we writers are blessed to live in a world where there are virtually no rules (and those who are editors can vouch for the fact that most of us take some pretty serious liberties with the rules that do exist), and this is where I start to feel a little dirty.

My background is heavily scientific. In high school I took chemistry, physics, calculus, algebra, and finite mathematics. English and French were thrown in just because I had to take something that wasn't math and science. I started university in applied physics, and was working toward an astrophysics major before I realized that a career in academia was not how I wanted to spend my life. I graduated with a non-specialized science degree and became a computer programmer.

At this point you're asking yourself, Why is this important, and why does it make you feel dirty? Well it's really quite simple... as a scientist I am not comfortable making stuff up. It feels wrong. Actually, when a scientist makes stuff up it IS wrong, and when other people make stuff up and try to pawn it off as science (or worse, the truth) it is just as wrong, if not more so. My friend Gordon Bonnet (a science teacher and a writer) has an excellent blog about people making stuff up and how it really grates his cheese. His post from Feb. 9 even has a rainbow!

So, when it came time to introduce a little science to my novel I was hesitant. I was a physics guy, and a slightly below average one at that. The science I needed was in the area of biology and to a lesser degree advanced computer programming and Internet security. I could bungle my way through the math and computers well enough that the average person wouldn't have a clue. Plus, I didn't want those details to overpower the characters in the story (it's not a book about computers, it's a book about people!) Anyway, after a while I got more and more comfortable with the idea of blatantly making up the biology parts just because I thought it sounded good.

A close friend gave me the idea to use HeLa cells. These are fascinating little cancerous cells that are almost impossible to kill. I did a little reading on them and after a few weeks came up with quite a nice twist that I thought worked rather nicely. Then, I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who happens to hold a PhD in biochemistry and who also happens to be one of the smartest and wonderfully scientifically minded people I have the pleasure of knowing. He was convinced there was a scientifically accurate way to do this and offered his assistance in finding it.

That seemed like a lot of work.

I explained to him that I didn't need it to actually be right, I just needed it to be remotely plausible to the average person off the street, and my only real challenge would be to sound convincing enough. I fully expect that anyone with experience in isolation and characterization of unsaturated fatty acids as natural ligands for the retinoid-X receptor, or even anyone with better-than-average knowledge of biology to call bullshit, and I was good with that.  He was not, and while he didn't say it out loud I think he was a little disappointed in me. Hopefully linking to his thesis makes up for it.

Now, all that being said, for every sentence I write that obfuscates reality just a little bit too much I feel a slight pang of disappointment as well. There's a fine line between artistic license and simply being too lazy to actually research something. So I've started interviewing people and doing some reading to help expose some truth - but not all of it - after all, if kids have taught me anything it's that it's okay to get a little dirty once and a while.

Oh, and if you know any good alchemists or mad scientists I can talk to, please let me know.


February 03, 2013

Choosing Wisely

On the day of what can arguably be described as the biggest day in North American sports, Super Bowl Sunday, I find myself in a minority position when it comes to giving a damn. I've never really been a football fan - hockey and golf seem to hold my interest - and I'm definitely not in the habit of worshipping the ground these best-of-the-best athletes walk on. Now I'm not saying I'm a perfect human - I'm far from it - and I've been lucky to make my mistakes in private without the world standing around judging me.

That being said, my kids are starting to pay attention to what's on the TV and are going to start to look to people that aren't my wife and I as role models. As such, I started paying closer attention to the famous faces that SportsCentre plasters all over their highlight reels and I noticed something: a lot of them are little more than just really good athletes.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a God-fearing fella with a few tattoos, a better than average passing arm, and seemingly no fear of running the ball. He takes the field for his first Super Bowl appearance today playing on the first professional sports team to openly support the gay and lesbian community. Now that's a really big deal, and one that San Francisco player Chris Culliver came out and said he was not OK with. Now, that's his choice, but I'll be the first to tell you I'm not running out and getting my kids a Culliver jersey any time soon. If anything, I'll be using him as an example of someone whom my kids should pay as little attention to as possible.

Unfortunately, the number of athletes on that list of mine is more than a few. It seems that for every incredible story on the field there's an incredibly idiotic one that's happening off of it. Pick your poison: religious extremists, misogynists, rapists, philanderers, racists, bigots, drug addicts, blood dopers, steroid abusers, liars, and cheaters. You can certainly find these people in among famous scientists, writers, and educators as well but the principal difference is the media is not often pushing them into our line of sight and hanging off their every word hoping for a sound bite they can use to open the show.

Now, the good news is we also have many respectable athletes to choose from as well. For every jerk with record setting statistic there's another one I'd gladly hang a poster of on my wall. Sidney Crosby, the poster boy of the NHL, lived with Mario Lemieux for the first 5 years he was in Pittsburgh - to help with his transition from a small town kid to a big city superstar.  Here was a full grown, voting age adult with a job making millions of dollars a year, and a full entourage of advisers, coaches, and support staff living with his boss and mentor. No controversy, no scandal, no embarrassing photographs... just a pretty nice guy who happens to be a pretty amazing hockey player.

I suppose my wish is for the media - and the general public - to do a better job of distinguishing good athletes from good people, because at the end of the day they're all just people. For all they do on and off the field, I think it's important to remember they have their own problems, their own hurdles to overcome, life lessons to learn, or growing up to do. They also have their own opinions - which you don't have to agree with. I know in a lot of cases I certainly don't, and I used to get worked up over it, but I try not to any more. I've just stopped putting athletes on a pedestal and touting their virtues to the world because they happen to be rich and good at their jobs. At the end of the day they're just a bunch of guys who excel at playing games.

I'll acknowledge that fact they possess remarkable athletic skill, and I'll be duly impressed by it, but after that I'll be keeping a close eye on the ones I point out to my kids, because superstar athletes have just as much chance as the next guy of being absolutely bat shit crazy.

Go Niners (most of them)!