Why I write

I write most days. Since September 2019 I’ve sat down to put words on the page, and bring ideas to reality. The idea came from On Writing, by Stephen King. He suggested, that if you want to be a writer, that, as obvious as it sounds, you must write. And so I’ve taken that to heart.
The formula from King is a minimum of 1,000 words; six days per week. Some days I’ve adjusted the writing for editing days, but always found time to do one or the other. The benefits have been profound. I’ll start with an unexpected side effect.

Now, when I need to write something out, be it a letter to a friend, details of work to a colleague, or just overall explaining my thoughts in words, I find that this happens with ease. I’ve removed the barrier and mental block of creating, or writing, of doing. This may not last forever, but it’s a gift that I’ve received, and I’m thankful for it. I no longer have fear of getting something out. If I need to explain a technical concept I start putting one letter after another and allow my brain to fill in the pieces.

The other results of my writing are public works. My first novel came out early this year, and the sequel comes out next week. I’ll write another novel in Q3, and hoping to finish at least one short story; that one is less certain. Getting stories out is possible when applying a daily commitment to create words. The novel third novel this year will actually be my seventh.

I wrote four novels prior, but doubt I’ll ever publish them. I consider them my early attempts at learning the trade of writing. At over 300,000 words total, it was an expensive training course, and somewhat unnecessary, however that’s not the point of this post.

Getting out words, and sharing them with the world is essential. I don’t do that every day, some days my words are reserved for myself, to clear my thoughts and figure out what I’m saying. But on the whole, the majority of my writing days are intended for others to read and, hopefully, gain insights.

Writing is a form of living for me. It’s similar to exercise. I run most days, getting outside into nature; rain or shine, wind or snow. Running brings me hope and life and energy. Writing triggers similar feelings. I’m eager to get to the page each day and add some words, share some thoughts. Much of this is just practice; I’m not expecting my words to become a masterpiece to wow the world. Instead I hope to hone my skills and keep trying, keep learning, keep figuring out what it means to share what I’m thinking.

My top 10 Audible books

I joined Audible in 2011, ten years of listening to hundreds of books. My iPhone app lists 372 titles in my library. I haven’t heard them all, and some are kid’s books, but I have gone through many of them.
The key to my reading has been to listen to stories across a variety of genres. I enjoy religious books, self-help books, business, history, biography, memoir, as well as a half dozen fiction genres. Changing up the book I read helps to keep the process enjoyable and reduces the chances of feeling burned out on anyone type of story.

A friend of mine requested a list of my top ten books. There are far more books I’d recommend, but I’ll start with ten, and share a brief paragraph on why I enjoyed each. I’ll keep this a spoiler free zone, and share across genres.

The Martian
Science fiction. Andy Weir has an ability to connect with the audience and characters in a way that brings depth and richness to his stories. The Martian is one of those rare books that I’ve read more than once. Instead of a story about a man who is trying to save the world, this book flips the script and has the world trying to save a man. Books and movies will sometimes evoke a feeling of humanity coming together; The Martian accomplishes this beautifully. If you don’t mind a little colorful language – the protagonist is in some dire straits throughout the story so it feels warranted – then I believe you’ll love this story. My favorite parts are the deep dives into the daily life of the main character, and the ingenuity required. It’s a lot of fun. Also, if you already read this book, I highly recommend Project Hail Mary, by the same author. It’s a spiritual successor to the book, and I enjoyed it just as much. Where the first book primarily follows a single character, Project Hail Mary follows a different type of story telling narrative. I love both, and don’t want to spoil either.

The Guns of August
History. This is the number one history book I recommend to friends. On the surface it sounds like a bit of a weird choice; a book about World War I. But as I dove into the story, I got lost in the political intrigue and wartime communications of the great powers of Europe. The author, Barbara Tuchman, has a way of ramping up the tempo, of bringing the story to a point, and pulling the reader with her. Her narrative view of Germany, Britain, and France, all pushing and vying for control of the continent, helps to convey the tension and emotion of the great powers. The key moments that cemented this as one of my favorite books came in the resistance from tiny countries such as Luxembourg and Belgium. Their attempt to slow down the inevitable march of the German clock, to give more time to the opposing powers, gave me chills and helped convey bravery individual characters forced into one of the worst wars of all time.

On Writing
Non-fiction. Stephen King is one of the best storytellers I’ve read. I’ve listened to many of his books over the years. He has an ability to create connection and conflict between characters, to breathe life into them. On Writing describes the way he approaches fiction writing, and the process he goes through to bring stories to the page. This was an inspiration for me and helped give me the start I needed to write my own works of fiction. It’s written like a story, and carries with it the emotions and drama of Stephen’s own life as he sought to become a writer.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
Non-fiction. Lori Gottlieb, an accomplished therapist living in California, uses this story as the backdrop to explain what great therapy can accomplish, and why it’s important. She shares her own need to see a therapist, and breaks down what’s happening in each session while working through problems in her own life. The key takeaway is the realization that our brains don’t perceive distress as relative. While our analytic mind can say that our problems are smaller than someone else’s, our emotions have no way of recognizing the difference. It’s important to allow those emotions the space they need in order to work through them. This book was an inspiration, and I’ve recommended it many times to friends.

World War Z
Fiction. This book is pure joy for me. Warning, the book is about zombies. But it’s one of my favorite stories from that genre. It does something unique, using journalism for storytelling in a fiction story. Instead of following a single character, the book jumps across time and continents to capture the retellings of people who saw and felt the effects of the world’s change under a viral attack. This book helps to bring the feeling of human connection and humanity, all working together for a greater cause. Although the genre is different, this story captured the same feelings as The Martian. It’s one of the few fiction books I’ve read twice.

Circe
Fiction. The author is a genius at taking an exciting premise and breathing life into an ancient story. I knew nothing of the tales of Circe, the witch from ancient mythology. This character, a weak god among greater gods, must live as the lowest of all in the great courts of antiquity. Through various events she’s forced on a small island, and must live her days as queen of the island. It’s a premise that should lose my interest, but it doesn’t. Each chapter pushes the story forward and brings color and character to this mythical protagonist. The book was a joy to read, and I’ve recommended it several times to friends.

The Hidden Life of Trees
Non-fiction. The author spent most of his life in an ancient forest in Germany. His job is to hike the trails across the forest and investigate the health of the flora and fauna within. The premise is interesting for some with a specific interest in nature, but the book goes further than that. The author’s insights are valuable for a universal audience. He combines his observations with scientific understanding of nature and helps to bring the forest alive in our minds. I loved learning about the emotion of trees, the familial connections they make, and their resilience and intelligence across years and decades. It’s an amazing tale and helps with understanding the beauty of nature around us.

So Good they can’t ignore you
Non-fiction. Cal Newport is a brilliant author. I’ve read most of his books. He has an ability to dive deep into a topic, understand it, and describe learnings in a way that I can extract meaning. The major premise of the book is how to do work that is meaningful. Instead of following your passion for a career, he suggests that passion results from craftsmanship. Instead of jumping entire careers, he suggests finding the overlap from one job to another, and bringing insights from the previous forward into the next line of work. It’s a great career book and has insights for life as well.

Creative Selection
Non-fiction. Ken, one of the first half dozen engineers working on the iPhone, writes about his long history at Apple, and the opportunities he had to build some of the most used software in the world. Ken describes the creative process that his team approached to building software for the iPhone, the Mac, and the iPad. He also describes interactions with Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall. Throughout this narration of his time at Apple, Ken weaves anecdotes on the connection between design and engineering, and gives concrete examples on how to emulate that in our own work. I’ve read this book twice and will probably pick it up a third time.

Ender’s Game
Fiction. I disappeared into the world that Orson Scott Card created. Ender’s game is a story of humanity fighting together against a foe, and attempting to come out on top. The premise is not new, but the book has a unique take on how the protagonist will defeat the enemy. I knew nothing about the story going in and listened through to the end without spoilers. I’d suggest you do the same. Orson wrote the book in such a way that a second reading feels required. For that reason the author wrote a sequel, Ender’s Shadow, which relives the events of the first book through the eyes of a second character, giving color and meaning to the decisions you see in Ender’s Game.

I’m stopping at ten books for now, but there are more; so many more. I only went through about half of my Audible library so far as I thought through previous titles. I might have to come back later and write a second post with more favorites.

Writing without knowing

I’m a fan of writing into the dark, a phrase I picked up from Dean-Wesley Smith. I love to sit down with a blank page and write the first line. It’s taken some practice, but the joy of not knowing brings me back to writing, and pushes me forward. Often I want to start new ideas and explore them for a few days, but my goal setting and desire to push out full novels slows that down. Here’s a simple example I’ll share for fun. I’m going to think up a story idea, with no pre-planning. I’ll explain that process in a live format, live for me at least.

I’m thinking about a man walking down the street, headed to a restaurant late at night. I’m going to jump into the scene, and whatever comes after this will be a first run example without editing. The words that appear will be as I first typed them, minus spelling or grammar issues.

James looked up at the night sky and watched for stars. The din of the city lights blocked out the view, and the buildings overhead made up their own stars of sorts. Ahead he saw a small restaurant, its neon light indicating that it was open, even at 2:00 a.m. He stepped forward and looked around. The street was empty, save for a single Uber car headed in the opposite direction. Inside, a smiling attendant motioned toward a table, and John slid into a chair. The attendant offered coffee, but he shook his head and pointed to the menu.

“Sandwich please.”

As he waited, he pulled out a small notebook and logged down the time. Then he looked around. The small restaurant wasn’t empty. A single woman sat in the corner opposite. She looked at him and nodded.

I typed that up in a single shot. Took me just a few minutes, and other than replacing a few words as I went, the story popped out exactly as it came to mind and into my fingers for the keyboard. I have no clue what’s going to happen next with James, but as I typed my emotions fired; in my subconscious I imagined some crazy things happening to him. Perhaps he’d turn out to be a superhero. Maybe he had a devious streak, or felt lost and empty. There’s an infinite amount of directions to take with this idea, and that’s some of the beauty of discovery writing. 

One area I still need to learn is how much editing I should bring to the page. The above short snippet of a story could use lots of work, or not. Now that I’m deep into discovery writing, I change little of my books after the first pass. Right now I’m editing 1-10%, leaving most words intact and allowing my creative brain to push my thoughts forward. I’m hoping to resolve that in my mind over the coming months and figure out what’s best for long term writing.

Emotion Thesaurus

I’m working on connecting to my emotions as an adult; it’s a crutch of mine, and I want to better understanding what I’m feeling day-to-day. Since 2019 I’ve written fiction, and much of my writing has been about how people feel, and what they’re doing. Emotion is a weakness for me. I’ve spent far too many words telling my audience what the protagonist is feeling, instead of showing. 

Here’s an example of a typical sentence I might write.

John understood she wasn’t coming back and felt the weight of that emotion roll over him.

Now, that sentence is passable. I wouldn’t mind if I had to ship it, and if you read through my books, you’ll find similar passages. Adding emotion, though, similar to my attempts to remove adverbs from my writing, is taking time and effort. 

Earlier this year I listened to a podcast episode by Joanna Penn, where she interviewed the author of The Emotion Thesaurus. The idea was like a bolt of lightning to my mind. I bought the book before I’d even finished listening. The idea is simple. You pick an emotion that you want to convey and jump to the section in the book. Each emotion has two full pages explaining the feeling and showing physical traits that help to define how a person would react. 

Back to the line about John. There are better ways to define emotion in a scene. 

Right now what I’m dealing with is a protagonist that is feeling loss, despair, and agony. He knows he’s about to lose the woman he loves and doesn’t know what to do. There are so many ways to write this scene and push the reader to feel what’s happening.

Before hearing about this book, I did my best to write something describing John’s feelings and move on. Now I’m pausing and trying to feel the pain and anguish of the protagonist. So, taking a metaphorical page from The Emotion Thesaurus, let’s try that scene again. 

John watched Elissa walk away, saw her silhouette disappear along the docks, fading into the fog. He swayed against the planks and held out an arm to a nearby street lamp. He touched the cold metal and slid down to the ground, burying his face in his hands.

I rewrote the scene based on what I was feeling, what I imagined I might do in a similar situation, and calling on times where my whole body felt a downward fall toward gravity, toward loss. There are other ways to write that scene, a million ways in fact, but I’m happier with how that one turned out than the first attempt.

Now, as I write this I don’t have the actual book in front of me. I reference it each day when I’m writing at home, but don’t always have it on the road. So, I’m guessing the book would suggest a better way to convey despair and loss. The point, though, is that it’s encouraged me to think about the external traits that a person shows when they’re feeling something. Too often I write wooden characters, bereft of affect, and following through the motions. That’s fine if you intend it, and the person is like that on purpose. However, for most characters, most of the time, that’s going to feel dull and boring. 

And so I persist, attempting to put myself into the scene day after day, trying to feel John in that moment. 

The Watch I’d Wear

I’ve had a love hate relationship with watches for my entire life. I remember saving up money to buy a cheap Walmart brand as a nine-year-old. The watch was everything I could want. It told the time and looked cool. The problem, though, came with the destructibility. The connection to my strap broke, and I scuffed the screen within a few weeks of use. I was not a gentle kid; I was clumsy, and unaware of the strength or length of my arms and legs. Attaching a watch to my body seemed to throw off my balance, even though that sounds impossible. I went through several cheap watches, and have memories of changing batteries, fixing broken straps, and repairing pins.

Fast forward to my teen years, and I wore an expensive (by my standards) digital watch with water resistance, alarms, and a few other fun features. It was sturdy and held up to the damage I inflicted. The features were hard to figure out though, and I spent far too much time trying to take down tiny notes, or set the three different alarms.
Then there were the straps. I was a tall, skinny kid, with an even skinnier arm. The strap wrapped around my wrist, and then slipped out at the end, far from the two loops meant to hold it. No matter how much I adjusted, the straps always felt off; bumping up against things, or looking unseemly. Even as a teenager I had some sense of style, though my wife would disagree on my clothing choices. Having that strap hang out made my wrist look like a stapler with the bottom hinge floating loose. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like the strangeness of an object attached far down on my arm, swinging around with my long limbs, at risk of bumping into something.

And so for various reasons I stopped wearing a watch by the time I’d turned 20. In my twenties I avoided watches, and resorted to pulling a cellphone out of my pant’s pocket to check the time. I tried, a few times, to pick up a watch, but never liked the bands; let alone the watch face.
Then there was the Fitbit. I bought a few different devices: the Charge HR, Fitbit Versa 2, and maybe another one somewhere in the mix. I tried them, synced them up with my phone, tracked my steps, and attempted to bring each into my lifestyle. They never stuck. It just wasn’t useful enough to put back on after recharging. And there was that ever-present problem with my long arms, I’m still not 100% in control of bumping them around, and sometimes my wrist swipes a hard countertop a little too hard.

Now, in 2021, I’m looking around and trying to decide what a watch would mean for me. My friends own Apple Watches, Garmin, Nike, and a host of other interesting devices. I’ve thought about this for far longer than seems necessary, imagined the uses, the value, and what I’d do with the device. I’ve never worn an Apple Watch for more than a few minutes, and I haven’t been sure if the use case was there for me.
What I’m looking for with a watch seems simple enough. I’d like a device that allows me to leave my phone at home. Watch and AirPods, and I’m gone. I head out, can make calls as needed, review my list of to-dos, check my calendar and email, and in a pinch take down notes. Those are all doable on the Apple Watch, and it seems the device would match perfectly for those use cases. But that’s not all. I’m also looking for an extension of my audio habit. If I’m not actively talking to someone, I’m probably listening to music, podcasts, or a book. From what I can tell the Apple Watch and Audible do not play well together; syncing has been a problem since its inception.

I like to listen to Spotify, Audible, and podcasts. And, until recently, each of those were better suited to the iPhone. Based on my research – but not firsthand knowledge – getting audio through the watch is challenging, and requires syncing to your iPhone.

Apple Watch is my most likely go to moving forward; but I’d love to see some more of a disconnect from the phone, where it fits in my device lineup as an equal partner, and not subservient to another computer. I wonder if Apple will separate the watch from the phone, and if the limitations are technical or more related to keeping users within the ecosystem. Given the power of WatchOS, and the yearly leaps in silicon technology, I’m guessing that we’re fast approaching a world where the watch can live on its own. I hope that’s the case.

I’m pretty sure Apple solved the problem with bad wrist bands. I should probably just bite the bullet and try one for a while. It’s hard to justify that much money on something I might like, so I’ve held off. This has been a pattern of mine throughout my life. I think like an early adopter, but don’t buy most products until years later. Even though I’m an Apple enthusiast, I only got the iPhone with the 4th model, and my first iPad was the Pro model. My first MacBook came in 2010, years after working professionally on Windows devices.

I am excited to see how watches continue to evolve. As a gadget enthusiast from a young age, I dreamt of something on my wrist that captured notes, told time, and acted as a bit of a second brain. We’re in that era now, I’m just not on board yet. I might end up with a tech watch and an analog watch, both with beautiful materials and an aesthetic that’s elegant but not bold. That’s part of the reason I like GORUCK backpacks. They are useful, sturdy, and simple, without being gaudy or annoying.