Monday, November 11, 2013

There ought to be a word for that...

For writers, both active and would-be:

SCRIBILUS INTERUPTUS:  Completely losing your train of thought in something you were writing because someone or something interrupted you.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Classic, classy, television

I have a shocking admission to make.  We don’t have television at our house.  Well, sort of.  We don’t have current television.

We live out in the country, so no cable TV.  We could get satellite TV, but we’re gone most of the time and it just wouldn’t be cost effective for the one or two weeks we’re home every other month or so.  We live in a metal sided mobile home with signals so crappy that I often have to take my cell phone out to the porch to carry on a conversation because the call is liable to be dropped if I stay inside.  I bought a flat panel antenna to try and catch at least the local channels on their digital broadcasts, but I guess I’m just out of range for something inside the house.  Maybe if we started staying home more I’d seriously look into getting an outside antenna (remember those on the rooftop of every house?) that might get me the local channels, but so far it’s just been not worth it.

Instead, we have movies and especially “old TV.”  In addition to a fairly decent collection of DVD’s picked up over the years, mostly on sale, we have bought a few of our favorite TV series collections.  The entire “M*A*S*H” series.  “Home Improvement.”  Several season’s worth of a few of my all time favorite comedy shows.  We’re currently collecting the “NCIS” shows, 10 seasons worth so far.  I have all 5 seasons of what I think is the best science fiction show ever on TV, “Babylon 5.”  Chris is currently watching the “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” collection I got her for this coming Christmas (yes, we start shopping early, and don’t usually make each other wait).  And then there’s “The West Wing.”

Every so often, usually about once a year, I get the urge to watch “The West Wing” again.  As is true of most of the other series we work our way though repeatedly, we usually see things we didn’t notice on previous passes, or we catch little subtle things that passed by too quickly to catch before.  With “West Wing” especially we often stop the playback to discuss the politics or other dynamics of what is going on in the episode.  Occasionally there’s something that I just want to watch again because I liked the scene in one way or another.

The Season 6, Episode 16, “Drought Conditions,” contains one such scene.  I watched it today.  Three times.  I wound up describing it as “the coolest, hottest, 60 seconds ever on TV.”  Now I know that’s going some.  The tension between the characters of the old “Moonlighting” show set a high bar, and I’m sure there are others, as well.  But this scene?  Holy Cow. Imagine Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” which is the music playing at this point in the show.  Two characters, taking a break from the activity going on around them are standing together, pretending to talk to each other so that they don’t have to talk to anyone else for just a few minutes.  It’s a fancy event and they’re both dressed up FINE, if you know what I mean.  There have been hints up to this point in the series and episode that they are both somewhat lonely and possibly looking around.  And then, right in the middle of a larger set piece, we get this little scene of each of them checking out the other, while the other isn’t looking.  Close camera moves around them, focusing just on their faces as the eyes flick back and forth, in near perfect time with the drum thumps of the music.  Nonchalance on display as real interest is portrayed against the background of sparkling lights and set to the tune of one of the iconic cool music pieces of the 20th Century.

Fabulous!  Cinematic magic suitable for the big screen, but perfectly sized for the small one.  A sparkling gem set against the masterwork that is “The West Wing.”  A classic scene for a classic series.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s pass through the series so I can watch it again.  And again.  And, probably, again.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


My computer files are littered with partially completed pieces of writing, various outlines, and miscellaneous notes with ideas for some future writing project.  There are, admittedly, very few completed pieces.  Occasionally I've wondered why that is so, and other than some "fear of success" meme, the best I can come up with is that historically the "cost/benefit ratio" for completing a writing project has not favored the effort.

Let's say I came up with a great idea for a short story.  I could sit down and grind it out, all the way to completion, but then what.  The way things have always worked up to this time is that once I have a completed piece, then the real work begins.  Figuring out the potential market for the story.  Submitting it to the editor, after determining if multiple submissions are acceptable or do I have to try one possibility at a time.  Send it off and wait.  When it comes back with a  rejection note, move on to the next likely market.  Repeat ad infinitum until someone accepts it or I've run out of places to send it.  Robert Heinlein, my favorite author ever, once wrote that completed manuscripts were to be kept constantly in submission until a buyer was found.  Like most of his rules for success in writing, I'm sure that was good advice at the time he gave it.  Over time, though, the world changed.  Slowly it seemed the magazines that used to buy and publish short fiction were going away.  Niche stuff, like science fiction, had an ever more limited market, even as ever more writers tried to get into the field.  I think at one time there were a half a dozen or so science fiction and fantasy magazines in circulation.  If each one published monthly with an average of 10 short stories, novellas, or serialized novels, you're talking a monthly market of about 60 pieces.  Add in the other general market magazines which might occasionally publish something in the SF realm and you might be up to 75 or 80 possible monthly sales.  Over the course of a year, then, there might be in the neighborhood of a thousand stories purchased and published, especially if you add in the occasional edited anthology of short stories published by the book houses.  With hundreds of would-be authors chasing those limited sales opportunities, the odds quickly stack against you.  That's not the end of it, of course.  At a nickle a word, a 5K word short story generates $250.00.  To make a living at that rate, you've got to be selling (not just writing to completion) a couple of  pieces a week.  I know all about filling the sales pipeline, and that goes back to Heinlein's advice to keep completed work in circulation until it finally sells, but still you've got to be very motivated to sit at the typewriter, notepad, or even computer, and hammer away on a piece when the odds look so badly stacked against you.

How does that explain all the uncompleted pieces in my files?  I realized eventually that once I got far enough into the writing process that I more or less knew in my own head where the story was going and how it would play out, I had just about received all the positive benefit I was going to get, unless I had planned on editing and publishing a collection of rejection notices.  Since I quickly grasped that there are only so many ways to say, "Sorry, you're work does not meet our editorial needs at this time," I instinctively knew that I probably couldn't even sell a collection of turn-downs.  I did have a rejection note from Playboy magazine at one time that I thought would make cool cover art for my hypothesized book of rejects, but as important as the cover art is to potential sales the lack of subject matter presented a serious deficiency in the whole concept.  So, once I had enough of a story written to satisfy my own interest in how it played out, my interest in finishing sort of fizzled away when I looked at the odds against me.

And that's just short stories.  Don't get me started on how the book publishing world is stacked against new authors.  Agents, publishers, long time frames, marketing plans requiring 500 page works as parts of 5 volume series before a publisher will even talk with you?  Come on.  I may have some masochistic tendencies, but to beat myself down writing novels no one will ever see is just not on my agenda.

I'm seeing a change in the world, though.  What's called ePublishing, or self-publishing (and not the vanity press self-publishing of the past) seems to be opening the way to a viable future for writers, and my dream is perking back up.  Maybe I can make the transition one of these days.  I'd certainly like that.

Toward that end, I pulled out of the files a partially written short story and finished it off earlier today.  I've sent it off to a couple of friends to look over for some feedback before I decide what to do with it now that it's done.  But  for the first time in a long time I can look at one of my writing projects, fold my arms and lean back with a self-satisfied, "DONE!"

It feels good.  I hope to feel that again real soon.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Earthquakes in Oklahoma?

Some of my family members in Oklahoma are all atwitter on the social networks about the current swarm of small earthquakes rattling the windows in Central Oklahoma.  There have been several of these swarms in the past few years, and I remember my reaction when I heard about the first fairly large quake in the area a few years ago.

"Earthquakes in Oklahoma?  That can't be right."

It's not like they are completely unheard of, but until recently they've been pretty rare.  So of course there are plenty of people ready and willing to offer their explanation for what's going on (or place the blame for it, as the case may be).  Here's an example from yesterday:

I'm sure the writer of the above is not the first, nor will he be the last to link fracking and earthquakes.  After all, fracking is this year's big environmentalist bugaboo.  It's being blamed for all sorts of stuff.

I'm happy to admit that the connection between fracking and swarms of low level earthquakes is an interesting THEORY, so far not backed up by hard research or evidence as near as I can tell. It might be right, it might not be. We'll see.

Reading the above article, though, leads me to another possible theory. IF the connection between earthquake swarms and fracking is actually there, is it possible that the overall effect is in the long run positive? Think about it for a minute.  The largest earthquake in recorded North American history was the New Madrid quake of the early 19th Century, long before any form of drilling or fracking ever occurred. Maybe the many little quakes allegedly being caused by fracking processes are actually releasing the build up of tension in the tectonic plates in small, manageable doses spread over large areas instead of one cataclysmic release at a single focal point like New Madrid.
Inject a little slurry, loosen up those tight plates a bit and maybe we will avoid another "Big One."  Would it not be better for everyone if a lot of windows got rattled over a large area and a long period of time than if every major structure in St. Louis, Louisville, Memphis, and Little Rock were collapsed at one time?

 I think I'm going to call this idea the "Simmons 'Fracking as Global WD-40' Theory." You have my permission to disseminate it under this title as you see fit.

 Now, I realize that proving the connection could be tough, but that's not my job. I came up with the theory.

Does that make me an expert?

When I grow up...

It has often been said (sometimes by me) that while growing older is mandatory, growing up is optional.  I find a great deal of truth in that, depending on how you define "growing up."  I define it as losing the sense of inquiry, adventure and fun that young people bring to their everyday life, and I hope that I can avoid growing up in that sense for the rest of my life.

There is another meaning, though, found in the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  In the days of my youth the implicit presumption was that at some point a person settles into one job or career and remains there until retirement.  History has not been kind to that presumption, however, and it is now frequently observed that most people will have a series of jobs or careers over their working lives.  This has not come as a surprise to me, nor has it bothered me, because somehow I think I had always known that the jobs and experiences we have along the way are part of the journey of life and not the be-all and end-all of that life.  That's why whenever I was asked as a young person about my future career goals even as I answered with my goal du jour, whether architect or teacher, fireman or cowboy, or whatever, there was always in my mind a qualifier which sometimes got added to the answer and sometimes not.  That qualifier?  "But someday I want to be a full-time writer."  That's where my journey was headed, I thought.  I'll admit that in those days I really envisioned writing science fiction, which was pretty much the only thing I read while I served my time at Enid High.

By the time I got out of school a decade or so later, though, my interests had broadened a bit to include the religion and theology which had been the subject of my college and seminary degrees.  My exposure to professional educators in the graduate school at Kansas State had made me aware of social and political trends which also came to be a big part of my interests, and I began reading history and political theory as well.  Along the way my wife had suggested I needed a hobby, and what began with a visit to a model railroad shop developed into a borderline obsession with the past, present and future of railroads in general, passenger trains in particular, and with the overall transportation industry as background.

I'm a poster child for the "new normal" about multiple careers and employers.  I've worked in retail, service (including food service), manufacturing, telecommunications and transportation fields.  I've served as the pastor of a small town church, been a struggling missionary in one of the tougher parts of the US for church work, been an annoying telemarketer calling people at inconvenient times to sell them something they didn't know they wanted or needed, a telephone technician, and a truck driver among other things scattered here and there.  I've been a member of several unions, including the United Autoworkers, and I'm a lifetime member of the Owner/Operator Independent Drivers Association for independent truck drivers.  Along the way I've earned a BA degree with a major in religion, a Master of Divinity degree, and almost earned a Ph. D. in the field of adult education, lacking only the writing of my dissertation when I finally ran out of time, interest and money (not necessarily in that order).

But what about that "full-time writer" thing?  Ah.... well there's the rub, now.  It's been well over 40 years since I graduated from high school, and it seems that writing has always been a back-burner item for me.  School, supporting wife and child, all that stuff that fills the days and leaves you staring empty at the TV at the end of the day tends to crowd out the dreams we start out with.  I've had a few opportunities along the way to dabble a bit.  A couple of well-written letters to the editor of a local newspaper turned into a year long gig writing a weekly column.  That was an eye-opener, for sure.  Writing on deadline is tough, and when you're just beginning to try to find your voice it can be even more challenging.  Some of what I wrote in those days was pretty decent, some of it was pure dreck.  But I got some positive feedback, enough to make me think I had something to bring to the table if I had a chance.

But I'm running out of time.

You should be closer to your ultimate career goal by the time you pass 60 years old than I am, and I have to do something about it if it is ever going to happen.  Fortunately for me I'm hitting this point just as the publishing industry is being turned on its head and the field seems to be opening up for aspiring writers as ePublishing lets the writers become their own publishers and bypass the old gatekeepers of the legacy industry. I'm optimistic about the possibilities, and starting a blog is a first step toward making the next to last major transition in my journey.

I have a little bit to say about a lot of things, and a lot to say about a few things.  Some of my writings will be short, some long, some funny, and some not.  If you've read this far, I hope you'll come back for more.

Thanks for listening.