Thursday, June 19, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Buy, beg, borrow a boat

(Originally published June 27, 2004, on the Lifestyle page of The News Herald)

Buy, beg, borrow a boat 

No one who knows David Angier would consider him a trusting soul. He's a crusty old cynical courts reporter, after all, which makes his decision to offer me the use of his boat during my recent vacation all the more mystifying. Unless, as he said, the insurance was all paid up and he'd like a new boat anyway.

Now, I know about as much about boating as I know about flying an airplane. That didn't improve much after an afternoon's "training" voyage out on the bay with David, even with a handy-dandy notebook he supplied.

(Some representative notes: Sandbars bad. Avoid hitting other boats. Sunscreen good. Slow down before approaching a pier.)

As a longtime reader of David's "Dangierous Waters" column in the Waterfront section, I took the offer with a grain of salt. This was, you know, the boat that each month refused to run, went in for repairs, wouldn't go in reverse, sank to the waterline or otherwise tried to get out of doing its job.

My fear was less that I would hurt the boat, and more that it would hurt us. I had visions of being stranded with my family in the middle of St. Andrew Bay, in sight of land, and having to resort to cannibalism to survive.

However, the boat cranked and performed just fine on the Sunday evening David put it in the water and I drove it from the Panama City Marina. (So what if I steered close enough to the pier to count barnacles - I didn't technically hit anything.) And we crossed without incident to our waterfront campsite at St. Andrews State Park, where we anchored for the night.

The plan was to take the boat to Shell Island on Monday and return it to David that evening, but when the boat wouldn't start Monday morning, I figured it was a bad sign. It wouldn't start any of the other times I tried it that day, either. David finally returned my frantic voice mails after he got off work, talked me through steps to flush the engine, and we tooled around Grand Lagoon that afternoon.

"Keep it another night. Bring it back tomorrow," he said. So Tuesday, we took the boat through the narrow pass, around to Audubon Island and the Hathaway Bridge, circled almost to East Bay, then back to Shell Island. We played in the surf, collected sand dollars and snorkeled on the bay side. We saw dolphins everywhere. The weather was perfect; the water was crystal clear.

It was cool. It was also hot and sunny, but you know - it was cool.

My wife caught boat fever, and I came to a conclusion that I never had considered before experiencing the freedom that a boat provides: If you live close to the coast, you should buy a boat. And then loan it to me.



And here's David's column of the same date, telling his side of the story. It appeared on the Waterfront page, under the column header "Dangierous Waters" :

My baby's back, and all in one piece 

I honestly wasn't too worried when I loaned my boat to co-worker and friend Tony Simmons earlier this month. "It's insured," I told him, smiling. "Just be safe." I had no idea what I was doing. There I was, standing with arms folded and pained grimace, watching my boat head toward the Panama City Marina's seawall with Tony at the helm. But he swung it around and missed, by a frog's hair, before steering her cleanly out into the gulf.

I resumed breathing and put it all out of my mind.

The boat was running great and I didn't think there'd be any problems with it breaking down. How much trouble could he get in? He was just taking it for 24 hours.

I had given him a crash course (so to speak) the day before on a few hundred of the things he would need to know when he was in charge.

Tony, his wife Debra and daughter Jessica joined my dog and me on an afternoon trip from Watson Bayou to Shell Island. The water had a light chop and there was a spattering of traffic, both good for a lesson.

I talked nonstop about things to keep in mind: plugs, gas, oil, lights, life vests, etc. Of course, boating is the easy part compared to preparation, launching and recovery. I went through all those until my head hurt.

Then came the big moment; I allowed someone else to drive. First Tony took the helm, then Debra. They had problems with the finer points of working the throttle.

Debra, I discovered, is a very literal person. Tell her to get ready to slow down to take a wake, and you get a sudden pull back on the throttle. I'm just glad my boat has a walk-through, or in this case a fall-through, windshield.

Tony, on the other hand, has an interesting bump-and-grind docking technique.

But overall, both did fine.

So, on a fine Sunday afternoon, Tony set off from the marina and pointed the bow toward St. Andrews State Park. He called later to say that he'd made it safely.

He called the next morning to say he couldn't get the boat started.

Should have seen that coming.

Flooded motor. I talked him through getting it started and told him to just let it run. I was certain, however, that Tony wouldn't be confident enough in the boat to venture anywhere with it and thought I'd have to spend a few hours taking it back to the marina myself.

But by this time, Tony was proving that he had the right stuff to be a boater - blind faith and unreasonable optimism.

The boat started for him the next morning and that was enough for the Simmons family. They spent the day riding around, exploring the bay and soaking up all the benefits of access to areas that only boaters know.

They even took the boat out of the water, cleaned it and parked it in my front yard.

It all worked out.

Yeah, I know, I can't explain it either. But then, I'm not going to try. See I've been a boater long enough to know that you never question a miracle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Blog Hop!

My friend Windy of the HouseBlend blog tagged me to play along in a "blog hop" Q&A. The Rules: Answer the following questions, then tag someone else (or someones elses; up to 5). I shall endeavor to play by the rules.

What am I currently working on?

Besides my day job, and the house that needs painting (etc.), I'm working on a novel about a sentient zombie. I have two notebooks full of notes, scenes, character sketches for a steampunk novel set in an alternate post-Civil War America, and another novel that is a sequel to my most recent manuscript (Caliban: Giants in the Earth, which made the quarter-finals of this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, but did not make the semi-finals, alas). My answers below will relate to my fiction writing, not my reporting or columns.

How do I write?

After years of working just in the digital realm, I have returned to writing longhand in unlined journals with a pen for my first draft. Then putting it all together and editing as I go with a keyboard. I tend to write with the keyboard late at night; I make notes, sketch scenes, etc., whenever the idea hits me throughout the day. (I try to keep my notebook handy.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

OOof. That's the most difficult question on this list. I like to think my stories have unique approaches stylistically as well as a willingness to be unblinkingly honest about everything, from a character's spirituality to a description of a violent act. Caliban, for instance, is a multi-generational Southern Gothic/Lovecraftian horror/fantasy. My steampunk novel will explore a Native American response to Euro-American expansionism, among other topics.

Why do I write what I write?

Because I can't stop it. I can't take a weekend trip with my wife without coming up with crazy story ideas. I hear a song and stories form in my head. I  see a movie and think how I would have done the story instead. I overhear a conversation at a coffee shop, and imagine the backstory. These things go into text so I can see what I'm thinking, and so I can revise and clarify them, and maybe make somebody feel something real. So few people ever read what I write, that I don't write for them at all.

How does my writing process work?

Like I said, I write down ideas, characters, scenes, questions, notes all the time. I will sometimes write a brief outline to help me recall my thoughts later, but when I sit down to the actual work, those outlines mean nothing. I color outside the lines until I find my way through. I try not to revise as I go, but keep moving forward to the end. I take chapters to my writers' group to get their edits and suggestions, then dive in to revise.

Who wants to play along?

Let me tag Mark Boss, author of One Bullet, and Milinda Jay, author of Her Roman Protector.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ironic advances in technology?

PANAMA CITY BEACH — We were in the car earlier this week when my wife started talking to her phone. Not talking to someone via her phone, but actually speaking to the device itself.

I’d seen her do this before. She speaks to her texting app rather than typing a text message. The phone converts her voice to text, but she then has to correct some of the words manually before hitting “send.”

I was, and am, amused and flummoxed by this. I somewhat facetiously asked her if it wouldn’t be simpler just to call the person she was voice-texting to. Save the phone a step. Save herself the time correcting the words. Use the phone as, I don’t know, a phone?

As usual, she put up with my snark for longer than I deserved.

But then I wondered if the recipient would respond by talking to her phone in order to send a text back. Why not send the recording of her voice? I asked her what was next, would phones let you talk to them, convert the words to text, send the text message and then read the words aloud to the recipient in a robot voice — or maybe using your original voice recording?

(In fact, something very similar is coming in the next generation of iPhones, I’m not surprised to learn.)

I thought advances in technology were supposed to make tasks easier? In my mind, I can see how this process of voice-to-text would allow illiterate people to send texts, which I suppose has some utility — but then who’s going to read the reply to them?

Yes, I know the idea behind voice-to-text is to allow hands-free texting so you can text while driving or cooking or whatever without having to type. But that’s not as funny. And besides, I would argue that texting already has rendered too many people illiterate. I mean, can you decode that gibberish? (lol, jk)

If you think about it for a minute, I’m sure you can think of ways technology has made life more complicated, or at least ironic.

For instance, I recently realized I use my home DVR so I can decide not to watch something later. It’s a delayed programming delivery and deleting platform.

The thing is, the DVR has a limited number of hours it will hold, and we have an unlimited number of TV series and movies we think we might want to watch if we ever have the time. That leads to something of a bottleneck, so I have taken to culling old programs from the DVR even if they haven’t been watched. If I’ve had it on there since November of last year and haven’t viewed it, yet, then I probably didn’t need to have recorded it.

On the other hand, I greatly enjoy Facetime. It’s like having my own little “Space: 1999” commlock communicator (the 1970s-era TV show used the handheld devices to open doors by remote control, keep track of the time, and talk to each other on tiny black-and-white video screens).

With Facetime, like Skype, you can see the person you’re talking to, show each other projects you’re working on or something crazy happening in your vicinity. My wife once Facetimed with our daughter, Jessica, during a concert, so she could see and hear her brother performing; her brother got the audience to say hello to Jessica.

If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

My phone also lets me listen to every song in my iTunes library in alphabetical order, which I’m sure must satisfy some programmer’s personal OCD.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Writers on Writing: My Approach

Milinda Jay (from GoodReads)
(NOTE: My friend Milinda Jay, whose novel "Her Roman Protector" was published by the Harlequin Love Inspired imprint this spring, has been running a series called "Writers on Writing" on her blog. It focuses on the Love Inspired writers, but she invited some others to play along (including me). These are my answers to her questions about my approach.)

1.What time of the day do you write best and why?

My day job is writing for a newspaper and destination website, so I’m writing, interviewing and editing all day. But I have found that I’m most creative after noon; I tend to write my more personal columns later in the day. I’ve always been a night owl, however, when it comes to fiction. That’s what I did as a teenager and college student, either writing into the wee hours or waking with an idea and writing in the middle of the night. As a young father, I found that I could only have uninterrupted writing time after the kids (and usually, the wife as well) were in bed, so I would work into the night, getting a few hours of sleep, then getting up to help get the kids ready for school and heading to the day job. Now, with the kids grown, I still do most of my creative writing late at night. I don’t know if it’s connected to my own weird biorhythms, or if it’s something I’ve trained myself to do over the years, or if it has anything to do with that contract I signed in my own blood, but all my best work has corresponded to the witching hour.

2.How long do you write every day when you have a deadline looming?

I live with deadlines at work, and they have a way of cutting through the bullshit. You write what needs to be told, without embellishment, when you’re on deadline. It makes for lean prose. In my fiction, at least so far, all my deadlines have been self-imposed.

3.How long do you write every day when you don't have a deadline looming and why?

I’m going to give an answer related to my night-time activities: about two hours, give or take. Some nights I’m surprised to see how late (or rather, early) it is, because I’ve been in the trance state that a good night of writing induces. Some nights are a hard slog for every word. And some nights I have to say ‘screw this’ and go to bed at a decent hour.

4.How do you begin writing a novel?

The short answer: I have no idea.

My first published novel, Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century, started with a short story idea about a meat cutter married to a Vegan. It was more of a concept about ridiculous situations that grew as I came up with more characters. My second published  novel, The Book of Gabriel, evolved out of a set of dreams over the span of several years that I mined during a daily writing regimen I had created for myself in 2008. My third novel (really, a novella), Dragon Rising, was an attempt to write a space opera for my kids, who were at the time ages 10 and 13, something we could share. My current novel project, This Mortal Flesh, also began with a dream (a disturbing one) that made me want to explore the mindset of a sociopathic homicidal narrator. And my manuscript that’s currently in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest is the result of a childish power fantasy story that evolved over thirty years until I was mature enough and had enough words behind me that I could tackle it.

Each one of these began in a different way. I have copious notes and scenes written for a new project that started during a long drive, after the names of towns we passed suggested the names of characters, and I asked myself who these characters might be.

5. Are you a before you ever write your novel planner? If so, how do you plan? Do you use any outlines, books, formats when you plan your novel?

The only novel I have ever outlined in advance was This Mortal Flesh, and I have fallen so far off that outline it’s ridiculous. However, I often write outlines during the process, to help shape the major beats of the plot. Going back over these notes, I’ll often argue with my earlier decisions and make new notes. Then, as I’m writing, I ignore the outline, just sort of finding my way through a vague idea of the landscape.

6.If you aren't a planner, is there a point in writing the novel that you stop, look back and plan? If so, what is your method for doing so?

See above. I will do read-throughs to make sure details match up from chapter to chapter, or to plant the seeds of a plot device, a clue, or create a repeating image from something I came up with in a late chapter. That way, it looks like I always meant to do that. Also, I will never admit to that. You can’t prove it.

7.Where  did the idea come from for the novel you are working on right now?

I awoke in the middle of the night from a nightmare. I had dreamed that I was a flesh-eating zombie, that I had become aware of what I was, and that all the other zombies around me in the ruined city were still mindless. I knew what I had to do to survive (i.e., kill and eat live people), and in my dream I decided that I could do this. In fact, I was okay with this. That’s when I awoke. Did you ever wake from a sad dream and feel like crying? Did you ever wake yourself up laughing at something you dreamed was funny? I awoke with the disturbing realization, convinced at least until the dream had faded and I fully awoke, that I could kill if I had to. What kind of person did that make me? The kind I wanted to explore as a main character.

8.Do you use any visuals for inspiration? (or anything else!)

Not consciously. I have been looking at lots of steampunk items online to fuel a new project’s early conception, but I tend to avoid looking at, reading, or watching TV or movies about the sort of thing I’m currently writing. It makes me feel like it’s been done before, which of course it probably has, but that’s just death to momentum.

9. How do you get through the "murky middle" of your novel?

That part is almost desperately painful. I’m struggling with it right now. I skipped the “muddle” and went on to write the ending chapters, so now that middle ground is all bridge work, but you still have to keep it active, with obstacles and injuries and so forth. Sheer force of will. Stubbornness. Self flagellation.

10.Do you revise every day? If so, how do you organize your revising? What is your revision technique?

I do not revise daily. Going back kills momentum. I do, however back up and re-read previous segments to get me back in the rhythms of the work, remind me where I have been recently. I try to revise as I get notes from my writers group, then do a read-through to note places that are clunky or need more attention, then do another read through to strengthen verbs, increase the specificity of my language, and so forth.

11.If you don't revise every day, when do you revise and why?

See above.

12.Do you have a writing group, or a trusted reader for your novels? If so, how does that work? Do you meet weekly, or only when you have a novel due? Do you share your materials online or in person?

Yes. I’m part of a group that meets twice a month. We email each other almost daily about some aspect of our lives and work, but we send each other chapters when it’s meeting week. We each make notes on each other’s chapters, and review them in the meeting. Some prefer using printouts, and others forward their notes via email.

13. What have you learned about your method of writing after publishing your book(s)? Has it changed? If so, how?

I have tried to experiment with my approaches to fiction throughout my adult life. What I’ve learned is that your approach is only as effective as your ability. Find what works for you to get those words on paper (or screen). Don’t get hung up on how you plan to do it. Just do it.

14. What advice about a writing method would you give to any new writer?

See above.

15. Is there anything you would like to add about writing?

Our mutual friend Mark says it irks him when someone moans about how they hate writing but love having written (as Dorothy Parker famously said). He says he loves the act itself. I can understand what he means, but I guess I have more pain in the process than he experiences. It is difficult. It is work. Some nights, when it feels like your imaginary world is coming together, it is joyous. When that scene works perfectly, it is bliss. When the ideas are coming fast and freely, it is delicious. But making it make sense to the reader is a job. It can hurt. (My back is killing me right now, for instance.) It will drive you crazy.

In a discussion from lunch recently, I compared writing a novel to a love affair. (I’ve never experienced this sort of thing in my love life, but I read a lot. I believe it is true.) I said my problem with working on a novel is that, once I get past those first heady chapters and am facing the weight of time, I suddenly have an idea for another novel. It’s fresh and new, exciting, sexy – but here I am, stuck in a long-term relationship with the current story. I’ll find myself sneaking off to make notes on the new idea, doing research that won’t help me in the current work at all, basically courting the new idea while still trying to keep the faith with the “old” one. I get mad at the current work, standing between me and my heart’s newest desire. In the past, I’ve even let myself abandon the old work for the new one.

My advice: Finish what you start. The new idea will still be there, waiting, maturing, ready to be set in type when the time is ripe.


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Off the grid, on my mind

Photo by Jessica Simmons
HALF MOON KAY — Standing in cool sea water so blue and clear it looked like a swimming pool, with soft white sand under my feet and a towering thunderhead on the horizon dropping a sheet of rain against the blue sky, I could sense how far off the grid I was.

My phone, which has become both a lifeline and a distraction in recent years, was in a stateroom on the cruise ship that had brought me to this place with my family. It had not been employed for a few days, though my daughter continued using her phone for taking photos and keeping up with the time.

For a week, I did not surf the web, update Facebook, post to Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or any of the other social media that sucks away my moments. I didn’t send or receive a single text or a phone call. Because I’ve stopped wearing a watch (trusting my phone to carry that burden) I didn’t even know what time it was for most of the journey.

And I plopped down in the water, felt the sun drying salt on my face, and knew it was all good.

No sooner had we returned to port and “civilization,” than all of us turned our eyes to our phones and tried to catch up on all we had missed. The car ride back home was quiet as everyone (except the driver) busily reconnected with their cyber lives, myself included.

Just a few years ago, I was one of those Luddites who thought he would never need a cell phone. Then I thought I would never need one that allowed me to text messages rather than place calls (I still would rather talk to you than trade half-conversations via text). Then I thought I would never need a “smart” phone.

I was wrong about all of that. It’s a necessity in the multi-media business, and has become so in private life, where I’ve been known to work myself into a tizzy (use of that word proves I’m old) if my wife or children don’t respond to repeated attempts to reach them by call or text in the space of an hour or so. Not to mention being able to watch videos, listen to music, take HD photos, talk via Facetime and so forth.

But for a week, it didn’t matter what TV shows I missed (my DVR was saving them for me anyway), or what breaking news I caught later in the day. I wasn’t checking my phone to ensure I hadn’t missed someone’s message or email. Time was only important when dinner was approaching or to be sure we were back from an excursion before the ship sailed.

The world, as I experienced it, slowed down. It was quieter. I could take my time with something, relish a moment rather than trying to snap a selfie in the midst of it. (My daughter, however, took more than 250 photos on her phone, and my wife shot nearly as many on her camera, so the trip was still well documented. I don’t mean my comments here to devalue their effort.)

I read a book and a bunch of old comics I took on the trip. I watched the deep blue sea drift by. I spoke to strangers, helped my family/team win a trivia contest, held hands with my wife as we walked the streets of Nassau, joked with my kids. We made midnight visits to the buffet or to get ice cream.

But best of all, being off the grid gave us each other’s undivided attention, and provided me the chance to look them in the eyes and tell them how much they mean to me, and how wonderful it was to be with them on this adventure and in this life.