Week 1 picks

Another football season is upon us. Tonight, Green Bay and New Orleans square off in the now-traditional season-opening Thursday night game.

I don’t pretend to know more about football than anyone, but I do like to throw my hat in the ring and see how my inner Jimmy-the-Greek is making out.

I definitely miss Death Metal Challenge, back when the Blog-o-rama was a swingin’ disco joint.

Here are my picks for the upcoming week of games.

ATL @ CHI – CHI – I picked the home team, but I don’t really know about this one.
BUF @ KC – KC – KC doesn’t look strong, but Buffalo doesn’t look like they’re going to beat anyone.
CAR @ ARI – ARI – Arizona could win their division. New quarterback makes them instantly credible.
CIN @ CLE – CLE – Cincy might be drafting #1 overall in April.
DAL @ NYJ – NYJ – Even Sanchez probably won’t throw too many picks against a Dallas secondary missing both starting cornerbacks.
DET @ TB – DET – Detroit is scary this year.
IND @ HOU – HOU – This is THE YEAR! WOOOO!
MIN @ SD – MIN – I’m probably wrong. Going with my gut. And I love McNabb.
NE @ MIA – NE – Probably won’t be close.
NO @ GB – GB – I didn’t like this game. I’m sure it will be close.
NYG @ WAS – NYG – Eli Manning versus Rex Grossman.
OAK @ DEN – DEN – With the new coach understanding that quarterback is a position and not a marketing ploy, Denver could win their division.
PHI @ STL – PHI – I think it’ll be closer than a lot of people expect.
PIT @ BAL – PIT – PIttsburgh is a mean and mad team.
SEA @ SF – SEA – If Cincy doesn’t take #1 overall, it’ll probably be SF.
TEN @ JAC – JAC – I just don’t like what Tennessee has, and as many holes as Jacksonville appears to have, they have fewer than Tennessee.

There. I said it, and I’m not taking it back. Go Texans, go Team Bisonweb in this year’s pick’em.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I decided earlier this year, after stalling out on yet another story, to start treating writing more like a job - in other words, to take a more disciplined approach and to go less by whim. To that end, I took Story Engineering by Larry Brooks out from the library and read it, taking copious notes the whole time. I'm not going to lie, the book was a slog. I don't read how-to books or even any stripe of non-fiction more than once in a blue moon, so it is a testament to my intention to take writing seriously that I made it through this book, armed with new tools to put to use in writing.

The Struggle

Despite the fact that Brooks mentions voice in his book as being a Core Competency, it is the worst part of this book. To be fair, there are long stretches where he just talks about the subject matter and his passion for storytelling comes through in a genuine way. But it almost feels like those are the times when he's not paying attention. On the flip side, the rest of the book, he's... is it macho? Is it condescending? It's probably some combination of the two, but it put me off every time I encountered it, and it made me glad for the notes I was taking, ensuring that I would not have to read the source material again.

The Payoff

What I got from the book is a set of tools - an exercise for each of the core competencies (minus Voice) that can help me lay out a story and take a lot of the frustration and uncertainty out of the process.

The Tools

Brooks talks about the six core competencies in his book - four structural elements and two required skills. The four elements are:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure

The two skills are:

  • Scene Construction
  • Voice

Concept

Concept is a high-level description of the story. It's phased as a "What if" question. So, something like, "What if we learned a meteor was headed to Earth to wipe out our population?" could serve as the concept for Deep Impact or Armageddon. You should be able to write your story as an answer to your conceptual question.

-- The concept section felt a little basic -- talking about it only because it felt like he should rather than because he felt he had anything to offer on the subject --

Character

Brooks takes the notion of a three-dimensional character and runs with it, defining for us what these three dimensions are:

  • Surface Detail and Quirks
  • Backstory/Inner Demons
  • Change & Response to Conflict

In defining these dimensions, he also talks about the traditional character arc in four stages (and how those stages fit into Story Structure). The four stages of a character arc are:

  • Orphan -- this is the character in setup mode, before the story has its way with them.
  • Wanderer -- After the setup, the character reacts to the first plot point -- every thing is a reaction in this phase
  • Warrior -- The character starts to overcome inner demons and becomes proactive
  • Martyr -- The character becomes the catalyst for the story's resolution

-- I've struggled with the concept of characterization, how much was revealing character, and how much was changing it. This section cleared up my questions nicely. --

Theme

Brooks says that theme can be as simple as having a strong character or or as complex as something that drives your entire story. He talks about exploratory theme where the writer plumbs the depths of a theme without really stating a conclusion. He also talks about theme as propaganda -- the writer takes a position and defends it. There is also a section on thematic intent -- if you hold the intention in your mind while you write, it will show in your narrative.

-- I kind of felt like Brooks was out of his depth here. He sort of contradicted himself and talked in circles. For whatever reason, that didn't bother me. It was almost endearing to see him flail. --

Plot Structure

This was the section where it felt like Brooks was his most confident. Which is good because I felt like this was one of the areas where I needed the most help. Basically, Brooks breaks down stories into milestones and goes from there. The milestones are:

  • Opening Hook: setup - Why do we care about the character? What are the stakes?
  • First Plot Point - The story gets its hooks into the character and his direction and conflict are set.
  • Midpoint Milestone - When the main character goes from reactive to proactive - gets something or overcomes something that gets him on his way.
  • Second Plot Point - The final piece that gets the character ready for the final conflict. Anything new after this should be well foreshadowed.
  • Resolution - Final conflict where the character is the catalyst for the resolution. There are also pinch points between the plot points and the midpoint milestone that shed light on the antagonist.

-- This section is, far and away, the longest of the book. It is the best thought-out, and the best laid-out. If I were the buying kind rather than the library type, this section (along with the character and scene sections) would have been worth the price of the book alone. Brooks shines in this section, dissecting stories and showing us their guts. Applying what he's showing us, however, is a different kettle of fish.

Scene Construction

Brooks talks about the missions of scenes, their exposition, their characterization, ad their purpose. He talks about setting up a scene minimally and arriving as late as possible into the scene to give maximum impact. What's most important to me, though, is that he talks about sequencing the scenes before writing them so that if something is missing or something doesn't fit, it can be added or cut with a minimum of impact on the narrative. I know this level of detailed planning sets some people's teeth on edge, but it seems like a good way to avoid rewrites. Rewrites, to me, are the biggest impediment to writing. I understand that there is a lot of emphasis on the process of drafting -- rightly so -- and I know that my own editing abilities are, as far as they've been tested, poor. When I see a structural problem with my story -- not something that is a polishing thing but something that requires I go back to a point and rewrite everything from there -- I generally know what it would take to fix it, but there's so much mileage between here and there that I just leave it and look at a new story that has less resistance. Finishing stories is a lot easier if you don't give up, and I want to see if plotting out the scenes can give me that.

Voice

Brooks has voice as one of his core competencies and I agree with that decision. But he says to go for a more neutral voice because that is safer. He does this in a voice that is grating and dismissive. I'm pretty sure that's irony, right there. I don't agree with his "be safe, sell more books" philosophy. I think that a skilled writer can subtly create a story that is more engaging with a little effort than someone who's playing it safe. I think, however, story structure and character and scene execution are important to consider in advance because when you know where you're going, you can concentrate on voice. I do agree with Brooks's assertion that voice is learned or earned, and I think that it's easier (and probably better) to tell a story naturally, in a style that doesn't seem forced, but I think that a story can be very successful in a particular style -- I'm thinking in particular of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King.

Conclusion

I want to say that Story Engineering is a book that can be an invaluable resource to anyone who is looking to write fiction but who has had struggles. The unfortunate thing is that there is too much other stuff -- other stuff being useless metaphors that don't illuminate anything, an effort to project an image that doesn't fit at all with trying to teach something, and a never-ending sales pitch to an audience who is already reading the book. If you're serious about a desire to write stories, and if you have patience, this might be the book for you, because it has a lot of good information.

Disclaimer

There are a lot of good things this book provides that I didn't go into detail about. There are a number of checklists at the end of the sections to validate your planning, there are depths -- in particular about the timing of story structure to help with pacing, and about characters and motivation -- that I didn't have time to explore in this already very long post. I'm not going to copy and paste the checklists because, even if it is legal, which I'm not sure it is, it isn't fair to Brooks who has very evidently put a lot of effort into his book.

Reading Rainbow

Olivia has an amazing vocabulary. She talks on and on, and it’s amazing to realize what she knows. She understands everything, and when she repeats stuff she’s heard, it’s in context and actually makes sense.

So, when she asked me to tell her a story tonight, I decided that she could help me out. Here’s what we came up with.

Olivia’s lines are in italics.

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Lolly. Lolly was going on a trip to the store to get some eggs.

When she got to the store, she ran into a really mean dragon. The dragon wanted to fight and Lolly wanted to get eggs. So she decided to fight the dragon. She grabbed her key and then what did she do to the dragon? Opened it. She opened the dragon and all his guts came pouring out and he fell to the ground dead. Yes. Then she went into the store and got some eggs. She opened an egg with herkey. The egg said, “No! Don’t eat me!” Lolly said, “Yes.” So she took her egg to another store where she came across a dragon. This dragon was hungry and said, “Please let me have an egg. I’m so hungry.” Lolly said, “No.

This story continues, with Lolly running across dragons, denying them food, until one dragon dies of starvation, but then I made Lolly give that dragon an egg, and then Lolly traveled the countryside feeding eggs to dragons. It may not be Lord of the Rings, but it’s something. We both got a kick out of it, and I hope we get to do it again sometime fairly soon.

Three Years a Ruralite

Averse to Change

All my life, I've been happy to keep doing the same thing. I know that the best times in my life have been when I embraced a frightening change and launched myself in a new direction. I'm thinking specifically of the decision to go to university, meeting Kim, getting married, and buying a house, not to mention the decision to leave Halliburton, a place where I had job security and an almost guaranteed spot until retirement, to pursue a career in software development, and the ensuing decision to leave Intuit. Things got better in my life after each of these decisions, but the fact is that inertia has always had a pretty big hold on me. All this to say:

I Mostly Didn't Want to Move Out

I was happy in the house in Millwoods. We had a life there. We had a baby there - literally, right there, in the kitchen. And it was a big change. I didn't know how we would do, moving out of the city. But it was something that Kim and I wanted - moving out to the country. A chance to have some space. To not have to live cheek-by-jowl with neighbours who would argue loudly, well into the night. So we did it.

I Mostly Didn't Want to Live In the City Anymore Either

Between the drug dealer across the street, the Hell's Angel, and the jerk kid on the next block over, I was just as happy to be getting out of the city.

Those Transit Blues

The fact that I was bussing between an hour-and-a-half and two hours every day to my job on 124th street made the idea of having a car very enticing. The idea of cutting my commute time by at least twenty minutes every day by moving farther away was even better.

Selling the House

I was incredibly stressed out the entire time we were trying to sell the house. It was a lot different than before, when we had a buyer lined up before we decided to even sell, and the only stress was moving and the transition period when we were in between homes. We lucked out and got an offer on the house the day before we were going to pull the house from the market, and I managed to crunch numbers sufficiently to let us get out of the city.

Signing papers

I was away -- away from cell connections, away from the city, and away from any ability to talk with Kim or our realtor in the week before we moved. I needed to get an appointment with the lawyer so we could sign papers, but I was at scout camp, riding horses. Fortunately, I got into a car accident, and Nick and I got to go home early.

Moving

With the help of our friends -- for which I am eternally grateful, we got stuff out of our old house and into our new house in two days. The experience was a lot different from moving into the Minchau house, where I used pent-up anger and the fact that I was six years younger to drag things across town, before I ran out of energy and had to call on help -- for which I am eternally grateful.

Settling In

It didn't take me as long to settle into this house as it did for the Minchau house. I wasn't ready to leave the condo when we did, and I didn't really feel at home in the Minchau house until we'd been there for maybe two years. It was only eight months or so in this place.

Home

I've come to the conclusion that the house doesn't matter so much to me. The city doesn't matter so much to me. I need a place where I can get work, and I need a place where we all fit. Beyond that, where Kim and the kids are is home, unsettling or no.

Fell on Black Days

I don’t want to say that I’ve overcommitted myself, but I’m starting to believe that’s the case. I’m working a full-time job, working on a project on the side that I need to make progress on, I’ve committed to doing two websites, I’m doing this summer blog challenge, I have a reading challenge I’m trying less-than-desperately to catch up on, and oh yeah, I have a wife and three kids.

So, I’ve been dropping non-essentials when I can.

Gone is the pithy daily update for the summer blog challenge. I liked what I was doing with it, but it was a lot, two posts per day.

I’ve put the side-project back on the side. I haven’t really worked on the websites at all. So, I’ve been blogging and reading, parenting, and doing my full-time job.

I’m not trying to complain, but I do feel that the quality of what I’ve been writing has been slipping, and in three more days, I’ll go back to sporadically posting things I’m happier with.

Is this a cop-out post? I’m sure it is. But at this point, I’ve written 51 posts since the beginning of August, so I feel I’m entitled to a couple of cop-outs.

Will I still do the SBC next year? I have no doubt. I like it, I like how it pushes me, and I do like the quality of a number of things that come out of it, but I might go back to having a theme to it, even if it means that nobody reads it.

Until tomorrow,

Liam

Great Scott

[This post is the third in the 20To39 series, outlining at least part of my time in University. The last post talked about my ill-fated trip to find a home.]

Have you ever been friends with someone and not known why? Have you ever found yourself hanging out with someone with whom you could not relate, and just wonder where this came from?

I met Scott in my first Computer Science class. That is, I heard him talking before class. Another student had some etch-a-sketch watch and Scott was fascinated, loudly.

I don’t remember the situation where Scott and I actually met, but I do know he needed help moving. I always help people move. It’s kinda what I do.

Maybe, hearing that he had to move two or three weeks into the semester should have been a warning. But it wasn’t.

He wasn’t drinking, holding out until the end of the semester. Despite this, the second time I saw him outside of class, he was drunk.

I know I’m drawn to boisterous extroverts. Somehow, their tendency to fill the air with sounds keeps me from having to do the same. Scott liked to talk. A lot. Like, a lot.

I never felt entirely comfortable with the guy. But I spent a lot of time with him. He’d been a personal trainer back home and, when we went to work out together, he was unimpressed with the weight the big guy was pushing on the leg press machine. Despite this, he seemed to talk more than he worked out.

And he had to move out of his second place before the end of the semester. Yes, that should have been an alarm bell, but somehow, and Sean, Daryl, or Brad could probably tell you a more unbiased account of this, or just blame me for being a dumbass, but Scott ended up sleeping at our house for a little while.

During that time, he had a screaming match with Dylan over the difference between Fire Star and Firestorm, had a two-day inability to understand the definition of a lateral in football, and talked through movies, loudly, telling us when parts were or were going to be funny, or were not funny, and why or why not. For a situation that was supposed to be laid-back and casual, it turned sour quickly.

I don’t remember the conversation. I remember Dylan volunteering to have it with Scott, but the guy had to go. It was a stressful situation that I’d brought into the house, and I felt bad. I don’t think Scott handled being forced to move out of a third place in a single semester. We didn’t talk much after that, which made me feel guilty, but mostly relieved.

I remember one time, when we were hanging out, he and some other guy were throwing a football in the hallway. It was inappropriate, and I remember being embarrassed about it, but that went into overdrive when Scott hit a librarian’s yogurt and knocked it into her dress. He then proceeded to have a screaming match with her, ending with “I don’t CAAAAAARE!” and storming out of the area, the other guy on his heels. I don’t think I looked up from the notes I was studying for a good hour after that.

For all the things I couldn’t relate to with Scott, I can’t say it was all bad. He had my back. I can’t go into specifics right now, since that’s a story for another night, but he kept me from making an even bigger ass of myself when anyone else would (and did) leave me to it.

So, Scott, wherever you are, I hope you’re laughing too loud and over-explaining this post to someone. The next time I laugh too loud and yell “That’s FUNNY!’ it’ll be for you.

Liam

De Doo Doo Doo De Daa Daa Daa

Daddy Daughter Night

When Lily was younger, the worst part of the week for her was grandma nights. She was old enough to see what she was missing out on, and still young enough that she couldn’t spend the night at grandma’s house. She would wail and gnash her teeth, rend her garments. You know, all that affected railing against the unfairness of the universe.

Now that she’s old enough to go, Lily loves grandma nights. However, Olivia isn’t quite so lucky. Instead of one older sibling going away for the night, it’s two. Effectively, everybody but her.

Tonight, Kim had a reiki session with a client, and so it was just Olivia and I. We dropped Kim off at her appointment and went out for Daddy-Daughter night, which Olivia alternates between calling Deedee dawdaw and dawdee dadoo night. It’s awesomely cute.

Daddy-daughter night started a couple of weeks ago, when Kim was taking her Reiki Master training, a five-hour class. Originally, I had intended on taking all the kids out to visit my sister, but my sister was camping. So were the rest of my kids. So, Olivia and I hit the town. Dinner at IHOP, off to some hardware stores and running a search for desk chairs. The next week was the same, except that Lily and Nick were at Grandma’s house, and Meghan was home, so that Daddy-daughter night was spent in Leduc, eating at Smith’s (Smitty’s), spending a little time at the LRC (formerly the Black Gold Centre) and then at Meghan’s house.

Tonight’s Daddy-daughter action took place at West Edmonton Mall. Olivia’s old enough now to take good notice of her surroundings, something I can’t guarantee was the case even when we went to get hermit crabs. She’s come so far in her awareness, in her language skills, and in her imagination, just in the past month, that it kinda makes my head spin.

We took in the sights, she lamented over the fact that we didn’t have skates. I noticed that the game store of my youth is no more. Play Me has been replaced with a gigantic home furnishings store. We walked down the long hallway to the Deep Sea Adventure where she wanted to go on the boat. Not the big boat that has a bridge over to it, but the little rowboat in the middle of the water. And also into the seal tank. And also on to every stage that has a sign saying, “Stay off the stage.” And also up and down every single escalator that we passed, though we didn’t pass any without riding on them. I couldn’t do much about the limited-access places, but I’m good with escalators. We ate a cinnamon bun at CinnZeo by the movie theatre. We checked out the dragon at the theatre, though it was under repair when we went in, so we’ll have to go back at some point.

I can’t imagine that Olivia will take the memories from today with her through her life. She’s pretty young to be remembering any of it later in life, but I want her to remember the impression of tonight, that Daddy-daughter time was fun, is fun, and will always be fun. During the course of our lives, we will come into conflict. It’s pretty much inevitable, if you ask me. However, if she is secure in the knowledge that I’ll take care of her, and that when we have time alone, it’s a good thing, I’m happy with that.

I’m Gettin’ Too Old For This Shit

I’m Gettin’ Too Old for This Shit!

I was meant to be a writer. That’s what I always believed. I carried around a binder chock-full of snippets, plots, plans, character outlines, maps – you name it, it was in there. So I was meant to be a writer. After all, my first paycheque from the Chinese restaurant in high school went toward a typewriter, and my first paycheque after high school paid for a computer.

High School, for me, was a perfect blend of me not giving a crap and the teachers not giving a crap. I’d given some thought to my future. I knew I’d get a job and work. I knew I would work hard and do reasonably well. Post-secondary education wasn’t something I cared about, or even thought of as a possibility.

So, I went to work. And I worked hard. And I did well. But my back did not do well. I’d had back problems intermittently since I was fifteen, and one particularly bad bout in the spring of 1997 convinced me that I could not count on my back to see my through to retirement.

I had contemplated a clerical school, some career computer college, where I would get the skills I needed to do office work — typing, filing, spreadsheets, all that kind of thing. My dad talked me out of that job, though, and I got a calendar from the University of Lethbridge.

The University of Lethbridge – a school some of my friends attended and, coincidentally, one I could get into — was linked to the University of Saskatchewan in that Saskatchewan accepted students every year from Lethbridge into their journalism program. So, with that in mind, I figured that I was meant to be a writer, and more specifically, a journalist, once I transferred over.

To the calendar: There were so many compelling English classes. I could do it. I could excel in those classes and get accepted into Journalism.

Could I? There were only two people accepted each year and wasn’t I just the guy who was only going to school because his back had given out? Well, I was determined to try, one way or the other.

I could have taken Geography. Maybe Logic and some other things. I needed four sciences. Chemistry, Physics, and, likely, Math, were out of the question. Those were my weakest subjects in high school. But I could have found enough.

Probably, if I’d settled on those classes, it would have ended there, and you’d be reading the blog post of a very different person. But I couldn’t decide.

Then I did.

I told you before that my first paycheque out of high school went toward a computer. It wasn’t much — just a 286 with 8 MHz and maybe 512 kB of RAM. But it got me into computing at a time when most people weren’t interested. And that, along with associating with others who were into computing, got me into programming. It wasn’t much, at first. Just a little dabbling in C, getting my head around arrays, functions, and the like. It was a hobby, nothing more. And one that I had been neglecting.

Seeing the Intro to Computer Science course in the calendar threw a switch that I hadn’t even known was there. They taught computers in University. I could fill up my sciences with Computer courses, and walk away scot-free. No Chem, no Math, no stupid Physics.

Intrigued, I started looking at course-descriptions — systems programming, networking, graphics — Hell, writing your own compiler?!

At first, I remember feeling disappointed that there were so many classes that I wouldn’t be able to take — only so much time for a guy who is working to become a writer, after all…

When it came to me, I was scared. I was meant to be a writer, wasn’t I? I couldn’t just throw the whole machine in reverse, could I? After all, computers were just a hobby.

I don’t think there was ever a lightning bolt of epiphany. I think the writer part of me was just eventually ground down under the logic of the arguments that programmer me was making, and I hurried through the course selection for my first semester before I could change my mind.

I didn’t need to worry. No matter how my resolve would be tested over the next years, it never again occurred to me that I was pursuing the wrong goal.