In this episode, Terry and I talk about how constraints can improve any kind of art, including writing. Then we segue on to examples of artists who have continually striven to improve, such as Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade.
That leads to a discussion of all sorts of things, and eventually we get back to our ongoing short story, now titled "We Choose To Go..."
The tree above is from the park where we recorded the episode.
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Notes from the show:
TED book Six word challenge http://www.amazon.com/Things-Dont-Have-Complicated-ebook/dp/B00APTWKV8
Penny Arcade art improvement http://www.penny-arcade.com/2011/11/18/jonathan-gabriel-an-art-retrospective
Strip Search http://www.penny-arcade.com/strip-search/archive
Did you know? Seven short TED videos http://www.ted.com/playlists/19/did_you_know.html
What does the fox say? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jofNR_WkoCE
How to create strong characters http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/09/how-to-create-strong-characters.html
I’ve read lots of fascinating posts on the web about startups that failed. Maybe the idea was too far ahead of its time, or the cofounders didn’t get along. Usually the startup just ran out of money. Even if you’re lucky and get funding, it won’t last forever. It’s hard to build up enough revenue to get the rocket off the ground.
My story is a little different. I’m quitting before I’ve even really gotten started.
I had a lunch meeting yesterday with a friend regarding possible web development work for his company. The meeting was amicable, but there wasn’t any work available for me. When I came home I was disappointed, naturally, but it got me thinking about what I really want to do with my life.
One thing that’s not going to work is working at a regular company as a regular programmer. The language I’ve fallen in love with, newLISP, isn’t something that I can just go and get a job using. The industry has standardized on VB.NET, C#, PHP, Java, and to a much lesser extent Ruby on Rails. I can code in any of these if I had to, but they won’t make me happy, and if I’m unhappy I’m not likely to be productive and useful. I’d always be thinking about how much faster and more efficiently I could be coding in my own little niche language. I have real-world data to back this up. At my last job I was actually able to keep up in features (my application was better in performance and had fewer bugs) with a development team of five people including one manager who were rewriting my application using C#.
So when I thought about this, and believe me I thought about it a lot, I figured that a better plan would be to start out on my own. After all, if I can keep up with a team of five people, and only have to pay my own way, won’t that be a lot easier? It seemed like a natural fit. I would blaze a trail and develop amazing new applications on my own! Be my own boss!
What I didn’t realize is that being the boss is actually no fun, at least for me. It’s easy to complain about your boss when it’s another person. When your own boss is you, you’re perpetually mad at yourself. Why are you not working harder? Why aren’t you figuring out ways to make money? Why don’t you spend more time coding?
I spent amazingly little time coding. Because I was so efficient, I could get a few days worth of work done in a couple of hours. But then I’d stop. I set up a bunch of websites and got some neat features working on them, and then I’d waste time watching Starcraft or playing games. Why was I doing this?
I was thinking about it yesterday, when I went on my mid-morning run. I enjoy running, but I’m not a good runner. My lung capacity is pretty low, and I don’t push myself hard enough to improve my fitness level that rapidly. Starting a business is kind of like saying you want to run, not just for fun, but as a way to make a living. You need to be absolutely dedicated to it. You need to be a little crazy to run yourself right to the edge, to risk serious injury in pursuit of ever-increasing goals.
I remember running past long swathes of wild blackberry bushes in August and thinking that I should really go out and spend a few days just collecting them to freeze and make blackberry crisp. Instead, I would just grab a few berries as I ran, savoring the sweet taste but watching as thousands of berries just went to waste, picked by no-one, washed away by the rains and the end of summer.
It’s a lot like how I approached starting a business. It was fun to have a little taste of it, but I didn’t want to put in the incredible level of effort it would require to do it properly. And of course, there’s always the fear of failing. If you didn’t put in your best effort, you can’t be too disappointed in yourself, right? I know a few professional Starcraft players who had this approach. It didn’t end well for them. Success takes hard work. You have to slog through it to get what you really want.
But when I thought about it some more, it’s not like I was this lazy slob who didn’t put any effort into anything. I did write a whole web development framework from scratch. I did launch a couple of websites. I learned a lot and gained valuable skills that I can use anywhere that I go in the future. I can’t think of this as a waste of time.
Oh, and there was one other tiny little thing that I did over the last few months. I wrote an entire novel.
The truth is, while I was struggling to find motivation to be a software entrepreneur, I was already running a startup of sorts. Being an author is a lot like starting a business. You have to put in the effort to make a decent product (in this case, books and short stories), you have to spend a ridiculous amount of time on marketing (authors have to relentlessly self-promote on Twitter and blogs and their own website, as well as doing giveaways and appearing on radio shows and podcasts and writing panels) and you have to do all of these things consistently to try and grow a tiny revenue stream into something that (hopefully) becomes profitable.
It turns out that all this time I was doing all of this, and doing it consistently. I wrote 1,000 words every single day, without fail, and every day I would read blogs about marketing and go on Twitter and try to get the word out about my writing. Even though it wasn’t generating much revenue, it was more than my web-based businesses were doing (which was zero!)
At some point, I had to decide what I really wanted to do. Which would I keep as a hobby and which would I take seriously as a profession?
My wife, who knows me better than anyone in the world, including myself, found a way to help me decide.
She held me from behind, and put her hands on my chest, and squeezed gently.
“How do you feel about programming?” she asked.
I had to answer honestly. “I feel like I’m being crushed,” I said.
“Okay, now let’s try this again.” She released me and then grabbed me again in the same way. “Now how do you feel about writing?”
I wasn’t sure. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. But she wouldn’t leave it at that. She did the exercise again. I still felt like I was being crushed when I thought about programming as a career. But the feeling when I thought about writing was different.
“I feel like I’m uncrushable,” I said.
So I had my answer.
Now, I’m not going to stop programming. I’m still planning on developing JetCondo, for example, my RSS reading platform. But I’m going to develop it for myself, as a hobby, and not try and make it my livelihood. I’ll still work on newLISP on Rockets as well, and if any future employer can get some benefit out of my work with these tools, great. But it’s not necessary. Ironically now that I’ve made this decision I feel like working on it more than I did before. Isn’t that weird?
It also doesn’t mean that now I’m going to take on the stress and pressure of making my fiction writing be my sole income. The artist Lynda Barry had a great quote about this: she compared art to a beautiful baby, and how artists are immediately expected to jump on the baby’s back and yell “I’m riding you all the way to the bank!” It doesn’t work that way. You have to care for and nurture the baby, and when it grows up maybe it can take care of you. In the mean time, there are other ways to make a living.
Writing is my baby. It’s time to nurture it and let it grow.
Smashwords is an amazing site, and it’s been invaluable to me in publishing and promoting my fiction. They have a new feature called Smashwords Interviews where the author can answer a series of questions and have the interview instantly appear on the site. It’s pretty cool!
I actually had more fun doing this interview than I thought I would. Rather than being a chore, it was a fun trip back into my childhood to find some of the reasons I started writing in the first place.
I hope you enjoy reading it!
In this episode of Knotty Geeks, we take the premise we discussed in Episode 28 and use it as a springboard to creating a short science fiction story.
We go through, step by step, the basics on how a writer creates a short story from scratch, starting from setting, then characters, then motivations, then plot.
Going through the process with another person was a new experience for me and I found it quite enjoyable and fun. I hope you do too!
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In this episode of Knotty Geeks, we are joined by local Star Trek expert Brian Palfrey, and we talk a little about the new Star Trek movie, the failings of the Star Wars prequels, and generally let our Geek-o-Meters(tm) go to 11.
It’s a crazy romp through the two most popular science fiction universes, and we even mention Schlock Mercenary!
Links from the show:
Howard’s best 2013 Movie Ratings
Red Letter Media reviews Star Wars Prequels
Boycott of Ender’s Game Movie
No True Scotsman
Star Trek Series Writer’s Guides and original scripts
BONUS: The Cat that doesn’t like this thing in particular
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As writers, it’s our job to inspire as well as entertain. But science fiction writers have an additional duty, and it’s a monumental one.
Some of the earliest science fiction writers were scientists. Johannes Kepler, who figured out the laws of planetary motion and thus paved the way for Isaac Newton and modern physics, wrote a short story in 1630 about a trip to the moon. It was called Somnium, Latin for “The Dream”, and it featured a young student traveling to the Moon. Some consider this work the very first science fiction story, for even though it featured supernatural elements, it treated the setting with scientific vigor. The traveler was affected by gravity and observed planetary motion as understood by Copernicus. Of course, in Kepler’s time there was no conceivable scientific way of actually getting to the Moon, but it was the dream that mattered. The dream wouldn’t go away.
In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a story called From the Earth to the Moon, which took the technological advances of the recent American Civil War and applied them to peaceful pursuits. While his idea for a massive cannon to launch space travelers wasn’t actually practical (the muzzle would have to be too long and the acceleration too great for human survival) he made an attempt to do some rough physics calculations to make the story seem plausible.
In 1903, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a refutation of the physics in the popular tale, and was inspired by the story to ask the question: if cannons wouldn’t work, what would? Out of this came the theory of rocketry: Tsiolkovsky calculated a relationship between the mass of a rocket, its fuel, and its velocity. At the time no foreign scientists appreciated his work, but a German translation of his book found its way to a young engineer by the name of Wernher Von Braun, who filled it with his own notes and calculations. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Von Braun led the American team that finally landed a man on the moon in 1969.
This is only one example of science fiction influencing reality. Young men who watched Star Trek as boys would often go on to invent some of the things they saw on the television show: talking computers, portable communication devices, and hand-held electronic displays. While it may seem as if progress in space travel has slowed since men landed on the Moon, people like Elon Musk—who wrote science fiction-themed computer games as a kid—are now developing the beginning of commercial space travel with SpaceX. There is a direct line between imagining something is possible and making it possible.
You can’t go to space without the appropriate technology, but you don’t get the idea for the technology without science fiction. Instead of predicting the future, the goal for science fiction writers should be to invent it. How else are we going to get there?
In this episode of Knotty Geeks, we get fueled up on coffee and doughnuts and it takes us all the way... to the Moon!
Starting with a discussion of the Amiga computer and the Video Toaster, we segue over to the Raspberry Pi and tiny robots-- and if you can launch lots of tiny robots, could you build a moonbase? We think you can, and we’ll be developing this idea in future episodes.
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Links from the show:
Mars One opens for applications
newLISP on Rockets is my rapid web application development framework, which powers this blog and other sites. The code is available for free under the GPL at the newLISP on Rockets Blog.
I decided that I wanted to have a little nicer-looking logo and front page graphic for the framework than the little cartoon rocket I started with. So I whipped up a new model in Blender using simple cylinders and basic commands like Extrude and Size. Blender is really easy once you get the hang of all the shortcut keys, and those keys make things MUCH faster than using primarily mouse-driven 3D software.
I UV-unwrapped the model in Blender, got a free stock metal texture from newlisp.org.) The background picture is from a NASA weather observation satellite.
Eighteen days ago, I made a decision that changed the fate of my third novel.
I decided I would write a thousand words each day, every day, without stopping, until I was finished.
At first it was hard to know if this was even going to work. My writing schedule for the first two novels was maybe 350 words on weekdays, occasionally doubling that if I was really productive. It took about a year to finish a novel, as long as I didn’t get distracted or miss too many days in a row.
I worried a bit that I would just be writing crap to make the word count. Sure, I could always go back and fix it later, but what if it was unfixable crap? It turns out that’s not how it happens. The fixed word count policy actually increased the overall quality of the text.
How could this be possible?
If you don’t take a day off, even on weekends, your brain never stops thinking about the story. Every day you have to have something to write, so during the day your mind is always thinking about what you wrote the night before. When it comes time to write, you rarely feel blocked.
I chose to write in the evening, on my laptop, just before I go to sleep. To avoid staying up all night, I installed f.lux, a free application that changes the color temperature of my laptop after sunset to look less like the daytime sun. This ends up working perfectly. By the time I’m finished writing, I’m satisfied and ready for rest.
I’m going to keep writing every day in this way until I finish my novel. It really is a great way to write. If you find yourself struggling for motivation, I definitely recommend doing this.
This week on Zombie Geeks, we eat brains. And when we eat brains, we discuss why eating brains is so prevalent in modern-day society, when there are many other delicious food choices available.
Like all mindless zombies, we went to Starbucks for coffee to do this podcast. Terry, Brian and I talked about why zombies are so popular these days and what to do about it.
Links from the show: BRAAAAAAAINS!
Here's a quote from one of the academic papers that Terry found on zombies:
“…expresses, with unique force and intensity, at least one important aspect of what the horror film has come to signify, the sense of a civilization condemning itself, through its popular culture, to ultimate disintegration, and ambivalently (with the simultaneous horror/wish fulfillment of nightmare) celebrating the fact.”
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I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.