October 19, 2020
Folks who know me, are aware how much I enjoy the West Wing. Josiah Barlett has one of my favorite character introductions, which occurs towards the end of the pilot episode.
During that intro he has a line, which starts “Breaks are good—I know how hard each of you work…”
The line sticks with me, and no matter how many times I’ll watch the episode, it never fails to trigger emotion.
I’ve had sort of a break from writing on this site and this letter. Not that I stopped writing altogether—far from it. I just finished review season at work, and I’m still making steady progress on The Traveler series.
There is a rhythm to writing. As long as I’ve tried to write more seriously, I’ve been mindful of its impact. When you’re in rhythm, the words seem to flow with ease and it can be too easy to forget how you struggled in the beginning.
That is, until you fall out of rhythm. Instead of slowing to a trickle, it feels like the bottom falls out and you hit a wall.
I’ve battled falling in and out of rhythm for as long as I’ve written. Most of what I’ve read online stresses the importance of developing “a writing habit”. The advice reduces to something along the lines of “do it over and over”. Apparently writing is easy once you develop a habit.
I’ve tried. Give myself deadlines. Talk about writing goals with others for accountability. I even tried the common tricks. 50,000 words in November or write everyday for a month. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get clear of the inevitable.
Eventually, I would fall out of rhythm.
Let’s have a sidebar about distractions. Writing is something I enjoy, but it isn’t the only thing I enjoy. And like any hobbyist, I struggle to find time for all of the things I find interesting.
“Focus, Rob”. It’s okay, I know you were thinking it even if you didn’t just say it out loud. To be fair, it is certainly part of the problem.
Not because I lack focus, but because of when I lack focus. Helping others focus is a regular part of my day job. When I get to my final hours of the day—the two or three which I can devote to my hobbies—I struggle to find the discipline to focus.
Worse even, the part of my brain that tells me to focus turns an enjoyable task like writing into something I have to do. Which makes writing as enjoyable as the last mile of a marathon.
I’m never happy with what I write in those moments.
Building a habit by rote repetition doesn’t yield the result I’m after, which is to write better. That requires motivation and a brain which isn’t addled by exhaustion.
So when the pressure from work ramped, I took a break. It wasn’t intentional, and it went for longer than I anticipated.
My secret to maintaining motivation? Breaks are good.
Breaks aren’t a problem. For me, they’re a fact of my ongoing attempt to write more seriously. And to keep going, I had to allow myself to be okay with taking breaks.
To go on sidebars. Be tired. Be motivated. To take a cheat day. All of these are okay…
… as long as I start-up again. Pick myself up and keep writing.
After acknowledging his staff’s need to take a break, President Bartlett rallies them together with a simple phrase.
Speaking of breaks, I’m taking one from work all this week. No promises, but I’m planning to make a big push on The Traveler series, including a behind-the-scenes post for The Banker.
September 22, 2020
Some weeks work against you, and this past week worked me over. It’s an excuse and I’m offering it as one. Fact is, I didn’t make it four weeks before I missed one of these letters. No excuses.
After I missed writing over the weekend, I planned to take the week off. I said “I’ll do it next week”, and gave myself permission to take a cheat week.
… and then I decided against it. I have something to say to my fellow middle-aged, white nerds.
A friend shared a hilarious TikTok video, which they found on Twitter. Go watch it, if you haven’t already. I laughed out loud. Actually laughed. Out loud.
Then I shared it with friends and family. And because it’s Twitter, someone else shared the inevitable reply. There’s always a reply.
And it was, of course, from a middle-aged, white nerd.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been—once again—reminded that I talk too much. I talk, when I should be listening. And when I do listen, I talk before I’ve heard what was said.
I hate this about myself. I want to stop. I try to stop. But I don’t.
This video has been around for years. I’ve watched it over and over. I’ve read think pieces that attempt to explain, so I have an idea of what I should understand from it. But if I’m truthful, I don’t understand it. And that bothers me, I want to understand.
All too often I’ll respond to someone by attempting to figure out or fix their problem. I want to help people, even feel compelled to do it. But not everyone talking about their problems is asking for help. Nor are they necessarily looking for me to solve their issue.
I see the problem before the person.
In principle, I understand how to be a better listener. And yet, I still suck at it.
When I watch this reply to the funny TikTok video, I see myself. It reduces a funny, lighthearted video to another person with a problem to solve.
Fellow middle-aged, white dudes—for fuck’s sake—take a breath, don’t rush to explain.
Shut-up and listen.
September 15, 2020
Always a great feeling when I get to publish a new story. I hope everyone enjoyed The Banker. I’m already working on the behind-the-scenes post where I discuss characters, and how I use technology. Look for that later this week.
Like the prior two stories, I found new characters during my first draft. I’m starting to get used to their sudden appearance. A strange feeling, but it encourages me to continue writing. How else am I gonna know how the story ends?
When I told this to a friend, they remarked “You’re watching a movie that you’re making.” It made me think.
Working from home, combined with remote learning has left my family feeling cramped in our quaint California home. If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that I’m loud. And as a manager, I spend the majority of my day in meetings. Talking. Loudly.
A noisy train station would be a less distracting learning environment for my boys.
To make it easier for everyone, the Architect built-out a new space for me to work. She started with an existing detached shed in our backyard. There’s two things you should know about her: (a) she is quite good at what she does, and (b) this is the second time she’s built an office for me. Her final result is a space made for thinking.
I love it.
After months of working on cramped laptop and iPad screens, I finally had room for my 34” cinema-wide display. It’s mounted to a spacious sit/stand worktop, which lets me spread out. Driving the display is a desktop Mac I received just before quarantine.
The difference is stark.
So much, I felt compelled to tweet:
I love the iPad and work full time from it on many days. But every time I use a Mac connected to a huge-ass display, I feel as though I’ve been thinking in pants two sizes too small.
The majority of my day job still involves the iPad. But since moving to the shed, I’ve done most of my writing on the Mac. This runs counter to the growing opinion that the iPad is the ideal writing machine because it removes distraction.
This conceit assumes the iPad’s single-tasking model leads to more focus. And focus is good for writing. You need to immerse yourself in thought in order to write. Or so goes the reasoning.
So why have I preferred the Mac?
As you can imagine, I’ve given this question much consideration. My working theory is this: Deep thinking requires more than focus, it demands space.
This is a screenshot of my Mac while I was editing The Banker. The center black window is my Ulysses editor for the story—the manuscript window, if you will. To the right is the preview window from Ulysses with a custom theme that matches this site’s design.
Having the preview render differently than my editor is an important part of my writing workflow. Especially when editing. A spelling mistake or word choice that gets lost in a text editor can become apparent when previewed.
To the left are my outline windows. The first is another Ulysses window with a numbered list of plot items. The bottom-most window is Things where I collect all of my thoughts (more on that in a bit).
I replicate this layout for each open writing project. Above you see spaces for this post, the aforementioned behind-the-scenes post, and the next story I’m writing. A three-finger swipe on my Magic Trackpad takes me from one project to the next.
From these previews, I can also see which projects needs work. The yellow bands in the editor window are notes for each section or scene in that project. When there is a lot of yellow bunched together, it tells me where the manuscript is incomplete.
Every story starts with a quick two or three sentence synopsis that I capture in Things. Below was the initial synopsis for The Banker.
This is my initial capture of the idea. For stories, I expand this synopsis on paper and eventually in a Ulysses sheet that sits in that window on the left. Here I convert the synopsis into events that set the plot. Thinking about plot moments at a high level lets me hone the characters’ movement within the story.
I want to ensure the actions of my characters drive the plot—not the reverse. Once settled, this list gets converted into notes which I embed into my manuscript using
%% tags in Ulysses.
As you can see, the Mac fills my peripheral vision with a complete picture of the project. From outline to final proof, I can visualize the story at a glance. And I can layer information on top of this as needed.
Safari windows for research. Photos. Even the text editor I needed to update my site’s CSS, so I could properly handle the images in this post. I did all of it in a single space.
This entire workflow is dedicated to a single task: writing. But this task requires multiple windows from multiple apps.
All of this (and more) is why I prefer the Mac for writing. But this is not an indictment of the iPad, nor is it a slight against it. Given that my 34” display is not portable, I have to consider an amended workflow when I travel away from my desk.
If I consider advantages, the Mac loses its edge when compared to an iPad in a portable setting. Even on the largest MacBooks, there’s too much overlap between windows to use my desired three-up Ulysses layout. And once I pare down to a two-window setup, I’m well within the sweet spot of the iPad.
Hard pressed, I can make do with an iPad and a paper notebook because every app mentioned exists on both iPad and Mac. They also work well on both platforms.
But when I really need room to think, there’s no better place than my desktop Mac connected to a huge-ass display.
A muffled scream cried out from Gertrude’s apartment. She shifted a basket in her arms, and thumbed the door open.
“I can’t see!”
The man she recovered from the alley was on the floor, writhing in pain. It was the fourth day he awoke panicked since she brought him into her home.
Gonna need a heavier sedative.
Gertrude fiddled with the controls on his med-cuff, then strapped him back into a chair.
“Sshhh. Easy. Give your brain a moment to catch-up.”
“Who are you? Where have you taken me?”
“You’re at my apartment, remember? I rescued you from the alley.”
“The alley? What are you talking about? Why can’t I move?”
The frightened man struggled under the restraints as Gertrude tightened them. His face twitched a few times before the sedative kicked in.
Now that he wasn’t going anywhere, Gertrude looked back to the door where she dropped her clothes basket. The contents were strewn about the entry.
Gertrude glanced back at the barely conscious man spread across her lounge chair.
“First time I’ve done laundry in two months. I sure hope you appreciate this.”
The stranger mumbled something back, just before he fell asleep.
“Have to get away…”
Gertrude grabbed a towel from the pile on the floor. She rinsed it with cold water, and dabbed his brow.
“Easy, partner. You’re safe here.”
“Where did the body land?”
A patrol hover-car was parked at one end of Franklin’s alley. The taller of the two officers asked the questions.
“Land? ’ell, I didn’t see no fall. Heard it, you get me? I look o’er dare and see’em. Layin’ on da street and not’a movin’.”
“If the body wasn’t moving, why isn’t it there anymore?”
Franklin appeared distracted by the cloaked man behind them, standing by the car.
“Huh? Oh, yah. I donna know, suit. He wa’ dare, then he ain’t.”
“Did you approach the body?”
“Did I... Ah ’course I did. He fell ou’ da sky.”
The two officers went silent. They stared at each other, then back down at Franklin.
“Da sky. Y’know, he a flyer. Rich bossa’s live up dare—”
Franklin paused to point towards the sky.
After a moment, he sighed.
“He ’ave cred, if he a flyer. I check for cred. But no cred on ’dis bossa. No. Fan-cy plush thread, but no cred in he pockets. No I–D neither.”
“So a man fell from the sky. Crashed into the street over there. You picked his pockets, no credits, and no ID... and then you left?”
“Welcome to the ground, suit. Grounders no interested ’less we see cred.”
Again the officers looked at each other. This time the shorter officer spoke.
“Okay, thank you for your time... mister?”
“Franklin, suit. Ma friends, day caw me Franklin.”
“And you live nearby here if we need to find you?”
“Man suit, I donna live anywhere, but right here. Here where you fine me.”
The officers stepped away and the shorter one called in the incident on their communicator. Neither appeared concerned about the fall, or the disappearance of the body.
Nor should they. Franklin had witnessed hundreds of similar suicides. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to jump. But usually they had enough credits to make it worthwhile.
Before the officers made it back to their vehicle, the man in a dark cloak approached Franklin.
“You said the body hit the ground over there?”
He pointed in the vicinity that Franklin identified earlier.
“Ya, suit. Dat’s what I said.”
The man reached into his cloak.
“Oh, right. Pardon me for not introducing myself. I’m not a police officer.”
The man waved his communicator over Franklin’s wrist.
“I’m Agent Stamford… from NeroCorp.”
“I donna talk to altar boys.”
“Please, Franklin. I can make it worth your while.”
Stamford produced a roll of paper credits. Enough to finance several fine evenings for Franklin and his cohort.
Franklin stared at the wad, then reluctantly grabbed it from the Agent’s hand.
“Ya man, dat’s where the body fell.”
“Curious. I don’t see any markings on the road… or indentation where the road broke his fall.”
The street crunched underneath Stamford’s shoes as he walked toward the spot.
Franklin watched the man, but didn’t wheel his chair over to follow him.
“Dat’s ’cause it hit a few tings on da way down.”
“I thought you said you didn’t see the body fall?”
Franklin was looking back towards the garage of Gertrude’s building. He snapped.
“I told you I ’eard it. Didn’t make a smashin’ bang when he hit. ’was softer, like a bump. I ’ear allot. Bodies fall all a’time. Sad ting.”
Franklin was still looking at the garage as the Agent walked back towards him.
The Agent followed Franklin’s stare.
“’Ere, take dis back. I don wanna your cred.”
The Agent smiled, then pushed Franklin’s hands—and the money—back into his lap.
“Keep it, Franklin. You’ve been very helpful.”
The man from the alley didn’t wake up again for a few days. When he finally came around, his eyesight had returned.
“What is that?”
The stranger look confused as he stared down at his right arm.
“Oh, that’s my med-cuff. Probably used to something a little fancier. It’s all I can afford.”
Gertrude was in her kitchen, attempting to cook.
The man tried to sit up, so his left arm could grab the cuff. Instead he groaned.
Gertrude set down the spatula next to a pan of crackling grease, then looked back towards her guest.
“Take it slow, mister. You had a nasty fall. Should’ve killed you, I reckon…”
“Fall? Is that why I can’t move?”
“Probably. It crushed most of your bones. Do you remember anything about it?”
The man shook his head.
“I’m having trouble remembering anything.”
“That could be the neuron in inhibitor I mixed with your sedative.”
Alarm shot across the man’s face.
“You… drugged me?!”
The man started to struggle more, reaching towards the cuff. His alarm turned to anger.
“TAKE THIS THING OFF OF ME!”
Gertrude took a step back and reached for a nearby kitchen knife.
“Listen, stranger. That thing is regrowing your bones. You wouldn’t get very far if I took it off.”
The stranger let out a gasp of breath. But he stopped struggling.
“... I drugged you to ease the pain. You’ve had a rough couple of days.”
The man unclenched his fist.
“I’m sorry,” then he let go of the air in his chest.
“This is a lot to take in. You can put that down… I’m sorry I snapped.”
He looked towards his right arm, again confused.
“Did you say this is regrowing my bones? I… what?”
Gertrude returned a curious stare.
“You act like you’ve never seen a med-cuff before.”
“Never heard of one that could regrow bones.”
He must really be messed up.
Gertrude was about to ask another question, when the man’s face turned grim.
“What happened to me?”
Gertrude rinsed another towel and placed it on his brow. The man touched her arm softly.
He looked scared.
“I was kind of hoping you could fill in some of those details. But you’re still in shock, and the drugs aren’t gonna do much for your memory. What I do know is that you fell quite a ways. I figure close to a hundred stories.”
“A hundred… stories?”
“Yup. Much more and you would certainly be dead… instead it just crushed a lot of your body.”
The strangers’s eyes widened. He looked confused, like she told him he had fallen from the moon.
“How did you find me?”
“Well, you kind of found me when you hit the hood of my car. It broke your fall… and is part of the reason you survived, I figure.”
The man from the alley lowered his head.
“Thanks… I guess.”
He swallowed uncomfortably, like he had a bad taste in his mouth. Gertrude gestured towards the glass of water next his chair.
“The meds will dehydrate you.”
The stranger drank from the glass, still fixated on the med-cuff.
“This thing is regrowing my bones?”
“Well, it doesn’t eat them.”
He chuckled before he thought better of the sudden movement.
Gertrude smiled back as she dropped four semi-solid blocks into the grease.
“What is that? It smells good.”
“Protein supplement. My mom told us it almost takes like bacon, if you fry it just right.”
“Mmm. It’s been a while since I’ve had bacon.”
Gertrude gave the man a sideways glance. Something didn’t add up.
It’s been a while since anyone has had bacon.
Must be the meds messing with his mind.
Gertrude wheeled the man’s chair over to a small table where she had laid out two plates.
“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten my manners. I…”
The man paused.
“… I guess I don’t remember my name either. I’m—”
“Your welcome, flyer. And my name is Gertrude. You’re welcome here for as long as you need to recover… As long as you behave yourself.”
The man smiled and nodded in return.
“Er, what did you call me? Flyer. Is that a joke about how we met?”
Gertrude huffed a laugh.
Well, at least he’s cute.
Hammersmith had never visited the 1215th floor.
It required exiting onto the 978th floor, then boarding an all-glass lift that ran along the outside of the building.
“Thank you, Agent Hammersmith. Mr. Trumble will be with you momentarily.”
The lobby outside of the office was also entirely glass. It gave an uneasy feeling one could walk right off the edge of the building into the abyss.
After a few moments, Mr. Trumble’s assistant granted Todd entry into a sparsely decorated office.
“Good morning, Mr. Trumble.”
“Please take a seat.”
Trumble was seated behind a simple desk, facing the windows with his back towards Hammersmith.
“It’s an honor to meet you, in person. Sir.”
The seated man didn’t move. He sat with his legs crossed, and made no effort to turn toward his visitor.
“Spare me, Agent Hammersmith. I’m aware of what my agents say about me behind my back.
“Crazy Trumble sits alone atop his glass tower. Never meets with anyone. Manages from afar. Nothing like his father, the visionary. The great pioneer of NeoCorp.”
“Sir, that’s not—”
Hammersmith cut himself off after he realized he was still standing.
The older man spun his chair halfway towards Todd.
“Please, Agent Hammersmith. Do take a seat. There’s no need to come to my defense. I know that it was my father who recruited you. He spoke very highly of your talent when I was a boy. Indeed, you’ve shown so much promise through the years.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s very flattering.”
“Yes, I imagine it is. But flattery is not why I summoned you.”
“Yes, sir. If I may… why did you call for me?”
Trumble response came after an uncomfortable pause.
“You’ve lost someone, Agent.”
Hammersmith waited to see what Trumble would say next. When he remained silent, Todd continued.
“Only moments ago I heard from Agent Stamford. He believes he’s narrowed down Mr. Michol’s location.”
“Indeed. Based on Agent Stamford’s report, I believe I can do a bit better. I know exactly where we’ll find Michols.”
Todd noticed a map display inside of Trumble’s desk. There was a building and floor with a location pin highlighted on it.
“That’s wonderful news, sir. If you could send me the location, I would be honored—”
“Did you know that my grandfather was an investment banker?”
Todd appeared confused at the sudden question.
“Yes. He managed several funds. Amassed quite a fortune for the time.”
Hammersmith thought it best not to interrupt him.
“My father, on the other hand.” Trumble smiled. “He took a different path.”
Trumble paused for effect, gazing out the window into the distance. His back once again to Todd.
“My father made his investments in people, Agent Hammersmith. And his accomplishment dwarfed my grandfather’s. There is nothing more valuable than a person’s potential, he used to say.”
Trumble paused, then wheeled around towards Todd.
“He was a charismatic man.”
The bearded man stood up and walked over to his desk. He pulled a record out of a stack, and slid it across towards Hammersmith.
“He used to quote scripture: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Helped others see the beauty of our mission: To help our members find a new path.”
Trumble motioned for Todd to open the record.
“Our members mean everything to us. Agent Hammersmith, they must trust us, so we can protect them.”
Todd opened the file, and his eyes grew wide. He stared again at the pinned location on the map, and matched it to the address in the file.
“If we cannot protect one member, then none of them will trust us.”
“I understand, Mr. Trumble.”
“In 52 years, this organization has never suffered a Code 57. Go to the address. Retrieve Mr. Michols at all costs, but most importantly, protect our members and their chosen path.”
“I will protect our members with my life, as I’ve sworn in my proclamation of faith.”
“Use caution, Agent. A Code 57 is not to be underestimated. Our work is very delicate. Prepare every contamination protocol, in case they’re needed.”
“Agent Hammersmith, my father always said you would become our very best agent. Don’t forget the second-chance he gave you.”
“Thank you, sir. I have not forgotten.”
“Do not disappoint his memory.”
“Okay, let’s start again from the top.”
Memories had started to come back. Gertrude was trying to piece together the fragments, but it didn’t make sense.
“I remember being chased.”
“Yeah. I don’t recall their faces. Dark coats. Skin had a weird shimmer to it. And they were fast.”
“Do you remember the room where you fell? Do you remember any buildings?”
The man from the alley frowned.
“This is gonna sound strange…”
Gertrude handed him another glass of water. He’d barely touched his breakfast. Now that he had his strength back, the food must be getting to him.
I said it might taste like bacon.
The man took a sip of the water as he choked down another bite of protein supplement.
“I was in a warehouse. And I was running toward a loading dock. Thought I could jump on one of the trucks leaving. And then…”
The man hesitated, looking frustrated.
“And then what?”
“Well, the floor sort of disappeared out from under me. And there wasn’t any road. I didn’t realize how high in the air I was until I started to fall.”
“Sounds like you were in a flyer facility.”
The man looked confused, again.
“I don’t understand.”
Gertrude eyed him for a moment, then attempted to explain.
“Well… the dark men in cloaks. You said their skin was shiny?”
“More or less. It wasn’t like yours or mine.”
“Well, flyers don’t get pockmarks in their skin like we do, because they live above the acid rain clouds. Also they’re rich, and many of them get their skin polished.”
“A visual reminder we’re not as well off.”
It looked like the man was hearing this for the first time.
What if he never remembers? Who will take care of him?
Gertrude waved off the thought.
“This will all come back to you in time. Your long term memories are still fuzzy. Probably why you still can’t remember your name.”
The man shrugged his shoulders
“Anyway, you were up high. The flyers live and work in the tallest floors of buildings. That’s why this loading dock was in the air.
“There are rumors, of course.”
“… of labs where flyers conduct human tests on grounders.”
Gertrude thought better of it. Might be too much for him to take.
“They’re only rumors.”
Gertrude’s communicator chimed. She forked the last bite from her plate, then glanced at the stranger’s.
“Take your time with that. I know it’s not very tasty, but it should help with your memory. I need to get to work.”
“Are you going to be long?”
“Until the afternoon, at least. I haven’t met my quota the past few days, and I’m gonna need the money now that I’m feeding two.”
The stranger blushed.
“Wait, that reminds me. Before you go…”
He attempted to stand-up. Gertrude rushed back towards the man, as he gingerly took a few steps towards the counter.
“How long have you been on your feet?”
“Just started. Figured now was as good a time as any.”
The man stumbled slightly, and grimaced.
Gertrude grabbed his arm, worried he would fall. The stranger wheeled around with a folded brown bag in his other hand.
“Just something for your ride.”
Gertrude started to protest, when the stranger insisted.
“You’ve been taking care of me for weeks. It was the least I could do.”
Gertrude ran her hand up the man’s arm, and smiled in thanks. She wasn’t used to others looking out for her.
“Thank you. Now, let’s get you back into your chair.”
As she pulled him in close, the man put his arms around Gertrude and squeezed. The unexpected warmth from the man caught her by surprise. As she set him back into the chair, their eyes met.
Certain the man was about to lean in and kiss her, Gertrude made an awkward sound in her throat.
The stranger gave an awkward smile and settled back into his chair. Gertrude took a moment to regain her composure.
“Don’t try any more of that walking until I’m back, okay? I don’t want to return to you screaming on the floor again.”
Gertrude grabbed her communicator off the table, and made towards the door.
His voice was soft.
“I think I just remembered my name.”
“My friends. They call me Thad.”
Gertrude’s smile loosened for a brief second, then curled back into place.
“Well alright, Thad. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“I’ been looking for you.”
Franklin was waiting in the garage by Gertrude’s taxi—his face full of panic.
“He still dare?!”
“Is who still there?”
Franklin looked around, then lowered his voice. Gertrude leaned down towards him.
“You know who. Dat bossa who crashin’ to your taxi!”
“Oh. You mean Thad. That’s his name, he just—”
“Shh! Don’t go sayin’ he name.”
Gertrude had never seen Franklin this alarmed. His eyes kept shifting from side-to-side.
“Here. Take ’dis.”
Franklin handed her a giant roll of credits. Gertrude’s eyes went large. It was the most money she’d ever handled.
“You need to’go.”
“Go? Go where? Franklin where did you get all of this money?”
“Long story. I ’splain it to you ’nother time.”
“Franklin, you’re scaring me.”
“Gertrude, they are after a man. Da bossa you pulled from da street!”
“Who is after him?”
“Dark cloaks. Shiny, flyer bossa types. The workin’ wit da suits. Been swarming ’round here for weeks.”
A pit formed in Gertrude’s stomach as she glanced back in the direction of her apartment.
So Thad is being chased.
Gertrude was quiet as she tried to think. Where can we go?
She lifted her head, the beginning of a plan formed. She handed Franklin her communicator.
“Where you go?”
“If I said, you wouldn’t be safe. When the coast is clear, I’ll send you a message.”
She nodded toward the communicator.
“If they leave or things change, you let me know.”
“Any’ting for you, Gertrude.”
Gertrude eyed her taxi. They were gonna need a distraction, and her car can be tracked.
“Franklin, do you know how to drive a stick?”
September 07, 2020
Since today is Labor Day in the US, I decided to take last Friday off from work. The four day weekend was much needed. It’s given me space to think, spend time with my family, and write. I worked on the polish edit of my third story in The Traveler series: The Banker, which should be out soon.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the transition between this story and the next one in the series. I’ve fleshed out the major plot events and Friday morning I began the first draft of a fourth story.
In both of these middle stories (née, second Act), I work to develop and shape the principal characters by introducing a pair of supporting characters. These two were on my mind as I watched the British series Sherlock with my oldest son this weekend.
Friday evening we started A Scandal in Belgravia, which is the first episode of the second season. As the episode started, I remarked to my son “This is my favorite episode of the entire series.” It contains the best character introduction of all time for one of the great supporting characters from the original stories.
Sherlock Holmes was a genius, matched in intellect by only two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters: Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler. These are the two characters whose intelligence and cunning Holmes respected as equal to his own.
Conan Doyle created Moriarty as a means to kill Sherlock Holmes, and later adaptations have fashioned him as an arch-nemesis. Adler is much more interesting, especially when you consider the position of the Conan Doyle Estate that claims Holmes is “only described as having emotions in stories published between 1923 to 1927”.
According to them, the wily detective couldn’t have a love interest. It would violate his character. Instead Conan Doyle wrote Adler as someone that Holmes would admire.
Allow me a brief sidebar on pens, to illustrate the difference.
I’ve wasted a lot of time, and money, searching for the perfect pen. Expensive and cheap. Broad and fine widths. Fountain pens, loose ink, felt tips, and rollerballs. I can tell you about the different types of refills. Which flow better, which dry fast enough. I’m great at parties.
Let’s just say that I love pens. And saying that, you might be interested to know my favorite. My choice will disappoint you.
My favorite pen is the Pilot G2 Retractable, 0.7mm. I buy them by the dozen and stuff them into every pen pocket of every bag I own.
This is the pen I use the most because it is the one that writes the best for me. I know what you’re thinking: they’re made of cheap plastic, and disposable. Gross. Yeah, no one stops to admire this pen when I pull it out of my pocket.
Every “nice” pen I’ve purchased has been a gorgeous piece of art. I enjoy opening the box, feeling the weight and balance in my hands, and toying with the satisfying mechanisms. Then I would inevitably try to write with it.
I have a pet theory that fancy pens only exist so you feel awesome when you’re signing your name.
During any amount of long-form writing I’ve found the weight cumbersome. I’m sure I would get used to it over time. Reach a point where I don’t notice it as much. But then I would forget the pen on a trip or leave it on my desk at work. I’d have to fall back to my stock of trusty G2s and the whole damn process would reset.
Nope, the G2 is my pen. I admire nice pens as beautiful works of art. But I love writing with the Pilot G2.
Might seem silly to exhaust so many words on the difference between love and admiration. But it matters when talking about Irene Adler and how her character develops Sherlock Holmes.
A love interest is an obvious character to write. Love is a base emotion, complex and rich with tiny details that can add authenticity to your narrative. It’s an emotion you can expect your readers to have experienced. And it would be too easy to write Irene Adler as a sexual exploit—which is why nearly every adaptation does it. After all, what better way for your viewer to associate with a complicated character like Sherlock Holmes?
The only problem is that it wouldn’t ring true to Holmes’ actual character, as written by Conan Doyle. He wanted you to struggle with understanding Holmes. If Sherlock feels aloof and hard to predict, he is more believable as a tortured genius. Central to his character is the lack of emotion.
Irene Adler in the Sherlock series (as in the novels) is an object of desire for any man. Better still, Sherlock finds a match for his wit and intelligence. Sauce for the goose, as Mr. Spock would say.
Adler is the ultimate temptation. Conan Doyle doesn’t cheat either. Holmes sees her. Appreciates her as a beautiful piece of art, and desires her, just as the reader does. Holmes even refers to her as “the woman”. Not any woman—the woman.
Again, it would be easier for Sherlock to ignore her. It’s more powerful that he sees her like others, but doesn’t fall for her.
This is how Sherlock excels, when other adaptations fall short. Holmes desires Adler, but is not tempted by her. She articulates to viewers that nothing dissuades the detective from his addiction.
While neither of my supporting characters are as dramatic as Moriarty or Adler, I take inspiration from them and their adaptations. I can’t wait to share my characters with you and the backstory behind their creation.
Look for The Banker later this week.
August 31, 2020
My friend Daniel started writing a weekly newsletter back in March. The thought of a newsletter has never grabbed me, since I barely publish enough on this site as it is. However, I really enjoy Daniel’s process for writing his newsletter.
During the week Daniel thinks of a prompt (or theme) for the week. Then over the weekend, he sets a timer and writes for an hour. He’s often remarked how the result doesn’t always turn out how he thought when he started. It’s about where the writing takes him.
I like the discipline, but I’m still not crazy about the idea of a separate newsletter. Thus, The Sunday Letter is born.
Why Sunday you might ask? After all, I didn’t publish this until Monday. The reason is because Sunday is when I wrote it, and when I plan to write it in the future. And the point of this letter is to write it.
There’s no real format. I’ll write whatever comes to mind, and there may be a collection of links that I want to discuss. Who knows, this might be dumb.
I’ve been thinking recently about old technology that is still useful today. I wear mechanical wristwatches that are inaccurate by today’s standards, yet perfectly capable of telling me when it’s time for a meeting or to break for lunch.
A few weeks ago, I received a delightful gift from a friend. Earlier we had been discussing our favorite Apple hardware from years past, and the fifth generation iPod came up. It’s a personal favorite of mine. Sleek and compact. The best implementation of the iPod’s signature wheel control. It could play games, and movies & TV shows.
My friend had a fifth generation U2 model in mint condition and hoped I’d give it a new home. I happily obliged his generosity, along with a universal dock that included a 30-pin cable.
When I got home, I plugged the dock into my Mac and slotted the iPod into it. To my surprise, the Music app began to sync all of my non-Apple Music tracks which were already downloaded onto the Mac. While it was syncing, I opened my headphone drawer and pulled out one of my favorite pairs: the Bang & Olufsen H6 headphones.
The H6 headphones are wired, which became inconvenient about the same time wireless headphones developed satisfying enough audio quality. I even wrote a review about the Bose headphones which replaced the H6s as my daily drivers.
The experience of the iPod with the H6 headphones was a wonderful trip down memory lane.
When I navigated into the Music sub-menu, there was nothing but my music. The click wheel was fast and simple to browse my large library of music. And every selection was acknowledged by a satisfying hardware actuation.
Once a track started, I was greeted by a familiar low hiss. Treble was crisp. And the entire dynamic range filled my ears. Music sounded more alive than it had for years.
This was exactly the respite I needed after months of quarantine. My head buzzed and my heart swelled as five minutes turned into twenty. I became lost in music.
Since that evening, I went in search of the 2nd generation of the B&O H6 headphones which B&O no longer sells. I found them cheap from an Amazon affiliate merchant and they live up to the high praise reviewers gave them four years ago. I also found an iPod classic (160 GB) in mint condition on eBay for a pittance.
Listening to music on a decade old iPod through a wire may seem anachronistic in 2020, but it begs the question: Do I really need a general purpose computer to listen to music?
The iPod is purpose-built to play music. Its interface is designed for flipping through songs and albums. The display is no larger than it needs to be, and the battery doesn’t need to be recharged for a week. All this in a package that makes my iPhone 11 Pro feel like a brick by comparison.
An iPod just plays music—and I think it’s better at playing music than any other device I own. I’ve enjoyed using an iPod again the same way I enjoy setting the time on my mechanical watches each morning.
They’re both old, but still useful to me today.
This week's links:
- Marco Arment’s review of the 2nd generation H6 headphones. I still use my wireless headphones for WebEx meetings and FaceTime. For music, there are no finer headphones than these. They sound great connected to my iPod and my iPhone. Bonus: there’s nothing to charge.
- Airlink Bluetooth Adapter. I bought this dingus a few years ago. It works reasonably well to convert my H6s into bluetooth headphones. It affects the quality modestly, but I only notice it in direct comparisons. Also, I never clip this thing to my shirt like the photos show, I just slip it into my pocket.
- The reMarkable 2. Speaking of dedicated devices, I pre-ordered the reMarkable 2 last week. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of e-ink. Drawing tablets based on e-ink seem to becoming more mainstream and the reMarkable is the best of the lot. Mine doesn’t ship until November, but I’m excited to give it a try.
August 07, 2020
When I published The Traveler, it was a one-off story. It was safe. To publish the next story, I would need to commit to the world I had created, and a broader narrative.
The Taxi Driver was a hard story to finish.
I was confronted with a host of writing challenges in The Taxi Driver, foremost the character of Gertrude. Recently, my writing has favored female protagonists. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps it’s the challenge.
As the protagonist, Gertrude needed to be a strong, well-defined character. As a male writer, I cannot rely on personal experience or my own instincts to understand how a woman thinks.
I prize characters who feel genuine, and I tend to model their behavior after actual people from my past. It takes more than that, however. To get into a character’s soul, you have to understand how they think. Only then will they become a real, breathing person readers can recognize.
As a character, Gertrude could have been written as a man or woman. Her strength defies her circumstance, one of the familiar traits of the hero archetype. Gertrude has little to live for, and nothing left to lose.
She is backed into a corner, metaphorically speaking—a construction of fight or flight. That is the source of her strength.
But it’s her fierce independence that reminded me of several influential women in my life, so I chose to write her as a female. She adopts many of their mannerisms and personality. She is the right mix of stubbornness and defiance—yet she’s still unsure of herself.
In the end, I hit my mark. Gertrude is looking for a reason to live—something, someone, maybe a cause. Then suddenly, purpose falls out of the sky right onto the hood of her taxi.
My original draft of The Taxi Driver started with dull exposition:
“The day she met him started like most others. Gertrude Weathers walked along the alleyway, side-stepping the usual detritus which littered her path to work.
When she reached her car, she pulled back the shabby cover that protected it from rain.”
As I developed the story, I needed more characters to help move along the narrative. The purpose of my original draft was to figure out Gertrude and describe her situation. But there wasn’t enough for a story. Her environment needed character.
I found Franklin in the second draft, while asking myself: what is the usual detritus that littered Gertrude’s path? Who put it there, and how did that person experience life?
Franklin is the balance to Gertrude’s poverty. She’s right on the edge, but still works hard to improve her circumstance in a rigged society. Franklin doesn’t have that luxury, for reasons implied—but not explained—in The Taxi Driver.
Franklin is confined to a chair, but I don’t say this anywhere in the text. As you read more of Franklin in later stories, you might notice how everyone glances down towards him. He struggles with a sense of direction, and has a habit of sneaking up on people.
I went back and forth on how and when to describe Franklin’s disability, but never found a place where it worked in Taxi Driver. After a few failed drafts, it occurred to me: Gertrude sees only Franklin, not his chair.
You may notice I don’t provide a lot of physical description of my characters. To be honest, I enjoy the efficiency. I prefer to leave those details to the reader’s imagination. Let you fill in the gaps from your own experience.
I still describe my characters, but their appearance is less interesting than how they behave or talk.
There is one insignificant physical detail for Gertrude that slipped in: The neon green bolt of hair. It’s not important to the story, but it does connect Gertrude to a woman from my past. Someone whose personality provided inspiration.
During my junior year of high school I briefly dated a senior. I’ll call her M to keep things anonymous. She was fierce. Independent, stubborn, and possessing a flair for the dramatic.
M had an old fashioned name, the kind most women receive as a middle name in honor of their mother’s favorite great-aunt. A name like Gertrude.
She bleached a streak of her brown hair platinum blonde, and her favorite pair of shoes were lime-green Chuck Taylors. For a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC in 1995, this was quite exotic. Especially for a sixteen year-old boy.
In real life M was a woman at a time when I was still a boy. She was mature for her years, with a severe outlook on life. Part of a military family, she moved across the country as a teenager, and didn’t like for people to get close.
She searched for purpose. For a reason that would make sense of it all.
We lost touch after she graduated and moved away. I like to think she’s figured things out and is off conquering the world. My memory of who she was lives on in Gertrude. And maybe that’s why she reads genuine to me.
I can only hope you enjoyed her story as well.
“What’s the point, anyway?”
The day she met him started like most others, with her voice muffled by a pillow.
Gertrude Weathers was alone.
I could do it. Really do it this time.
She held her breath, and pulled tight.
A lump formed in her throat. It begged her to let go. To take that life-saving gulp of air.
She held her grip on the synthetic pillow case, and prepared herself for the end.
Her vision sparkled until it closed in and went black.
An hour later, a chime on Gertrude’s communicator startled her back to life. Her head pounded and pulsed.
Finally, her eyes focused on the communicator: she already had today’s first call.
“Time for work.”
She grabbed yesterday’s shirt off her bunk and pulled her pants on, careful to lace her feet through yesterday’s underwear.
Gertrude’s neighborhood was rough, like all of them on the ground. Walking out the door, she was careful to avoid the usual detritus.
Syringes, empty bottles, and puddles of piss.
“Still around the corner in the alleyway, just where you left it.”
“Jeez, Franklin. Did you have a big party last night?”
“Heh, you know me. Fella on Elm found a body with a bunch of un-used cred in their pocket. Looked like they was thrown from a few hundred floors, so we figured they didn’t need it anymore.”
“And you didn’t save any for me? I’m hurt.”
“That’ll be the day, Mizz Gertrude. You know where to find us, any night you want to join.”
“I don’t think your pals could handle me on a fix.”
Franklin looked up at her as she waved her communicator past his wrist. A soft ching! sounded.
“Always the quiet ones who surprise you.”
Gertrude’s late-20s model taxi was in the alleyway, just as Franklin had promised. Her car bore the familiar government seal on its doors. A sign to patrons the vehicle was part of the Human Taxi Program created after the Welfare Reform Act passed in 2043.
The program provided jobs for grounders who couldn’t get work because of automation.
“Elm and 27th. Six hundred and seventeenth floor?”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows when she glanced at her communicator. She pulled back on the yoke and climbed towards the cloud line.
Her taxi fell into the line behind a hoverlimo. Its polished metal sparkled in the harsh sunlight.
When she reached the platform at level 617, a man in a red waistcoat and wig directed her toward the waiting area.
“Good morning, mum. Please scan your license credential.”
Gertrude raised her communicator to the scanner. Then the doorman flipped through his manifest.
“Thank you, Miss Weathers. Your fare will be down momentarily.”
Gertrude nodded. There was a regal curl to his voice.
The flyers are always so formal.
Their palaces rose high above rest of the world. Few of them ever went below the clouds. Or rode in human taxis.
“Good morning, m’am. Can we make it to Ash, and 727th before 11am?”
An athletic man in fitted clothes and a dark cloak climbed into the back seat.
“Ash and 727th?”
This prince must be after loose women, and gambling.
“Can I recommend a good casino after your appointment? I know a guy, he’ll take real nice care of you.”
The man stared at Gertrude through the mirror, obviously startled by her suggestion. She wasn’t used to driving flyers, and had an unfortunate habit for saying the wrong thing.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She glanced down at her console. “Let me take a quick look at traffic.”
Flyers often booked human taxis when they needed to be inconspicuous. Every grounder knew flyers liked to drop-in for surprise inspections to ensure their businesses ran smoothly.
Must be his first time.
As she tapped her console, Gertrude risked an upward glance into the rear mirror. Her passenger’s skin wasn’t pockmarked from the harsh rains like those who lived under the cloud line.
It looked irresistibly smooth. Polished, with a shine that matched his bleached hair.
Gertrude was staring.
As she pushed her hair over her ears, a bolt of neon green fell back into her eyes. When she brushed it back, their eyes met.
His were a soft grey. And his smile revealed iridescent teeth. He’s smiling!
Gertrude suddenly looked away.
She cleared her throat and brought it back to business.
“Skyways four, and ten are blocked. We’ll have to go around, but yeah...”
She shrugged. “—we should be make it by 11am.”
He still had a smile on his face. Despite her best effort to conceal it, Gertrude was flush with embarassment.
She disengaged the air brake, and pressed heavy on the accelerator, in an attempt to deflect the awkward moment.
The taxi made a sharp dive for the cloud line and the handsome stranger’s smile was replaced by abject fear.
Once underneath the layer of thick clouds, Gertrude leveled off. The glare of the sun was replaced with the glow of signs and the mist of a light rain.
They were in the Heavy Industrial Zone, where millions of plant workers slaved for meager wages.
Animated billboards advertised everything from anti-fungal cream to enhancement surgeries.
One advertisement stood out amongst the crowd. Bright red and massive, with bold yellow letters.
Unhappy with your life?
Find meaning with NeroCorp,
and alter your path.
As they passed near it, the displays in Gertrude’s taxi lit-up with a simple invitation: “Submit your questionnaire today.”
“Have you ever thought about doing that?”
What was that handsome?
Gertrude almost forgot about her glossy-faced passenger. She tried to swallow the cotton in her throat.
“Sure. Hasn’t everyone? I know I’ve thought about it.”
Is he fucking with me?
“You don’t strike me as the type desperate enough...”
“Ouch. I’m not desperate...”
“...to fall into their trap?”
“...because I want to believe in something?”
“Suit yourself, flyer. I can’t afford a religion that costs that much.”
The man rubbed his left breast, just over his heart.
He was rubbing something in his coat pocket. Was he upset?
Oh God, he’s one of them. Probably trying to convert me.
“Hey mister, I’m sorry.”
The man smiled dimly, then glanced at a tablet he thought was concealed under his cloak.
“... I didn’t mean anything ugly by it.”
Her insides churned as she replayed his retort.
Gertrude submitted a questionnaire three months ago. It took her four years to save enough, including several nights with an empty stomach.
After all of that, she heard nothing.
Gertrude swallowed the knot in her throat. Then she turned the wheel, and her taxi slid off the skyway.
“Worst of the traffic is done. We’ll be there in about 10 minutes.”
The rest of the trip was quiet. No more sideways glances or small talk. When they arrived, the man thumbed the screen for his fare, and stepped out onto the platform.
He left a gigantic tip.
Gertrude hollered out to him as he walked away.
“Hey thanks a lot mister!”
The man turned back and leaned into her window. He glanced at her credential on the dash, then bowed his head.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Weathers.”
He waved his communicator towards her console. A chime rang as his number was added to the address book.
“If you ever change your mind, I would love to discuss it.”
As he pulled away, his finger touched the side of her cheek. Her skin heated and she blushed once again.
I really hate choir boys.
... but it was the first time she had smiled in a month.
The stranger’s unusual tip was the highlight of Gertrude’s work day.
“You know, I’ve always preferred human drivers to those computer driven monstrosities. Wouldn’t you agree, love?”
The rest of her fares were to the nearest liquor store, or plant workers looking for shops that offered payday loans. Except this obnoxious flyer couple on their way to the Opera.
“Actually, I’ve never ridden in an auto.”
“Silly me, love. Of course you haven’t. I imagine you drive yourself wherever you need to go. That’s why the Human Taxi Program is so brilliant. Gets you gutter rats off the street so you can provide a valuable service to society.”
Gertrude forced a smile towards the rear mirror.
Stop calling me love.
“Charles and I only take human taxis. It’s our civic duty…”
Civic duty. These assholes run their mouth about charity. Their opera tickets are worth more than Gertrude makes in three months.
At least they left a pleasant scent in her car.
Gertrude used the roads to get home, instead of a quicker trip in the air. Under the program, each driver receives a stipend for energy cells. She pockets a portion of the stipend by spending more time on the ground.
A protest erupted a few blocks from her apartment, so she took a different alley to her building.
Halfway down the alley, a body fell out of the sky onto the hood of Gertrude’s taxi.
A large thump sounded through the dash.
She forced the brakes, and the body slid onto the street.
This drunk asshole couldn’t have killed himself in another alley?
Gertrude pulled off to the side, then approached the body. As she went to pull it off the street, a voice startled her.
“Oh lookey here. 'Nother cold gift from the sky.”
“Dammit Franklin, don’t scare me like that.”
“Sorry, Mizz Gertrude. Are you alright?”
Gertrude looked back to her taxi.
“Left a nice dent on my hood, but I’m alright. She’s a tough ‘ole bird.”
She looked down at the corpse. It was a man’s frame. Moderate build, and skin that didn’t show signs of exposure.
“Can you help me move him off the street?”
When she grabbed his arms, they were warm. She checked his pulse.
“He’s still alive.”
“Well, I’ll be. This be one pissed of flyer, come mornin’. Either he jumped, or he’ll be after revenge for whosever pushed him.”
Franklin looked disappointed.
“No cred or chip card in his pockets. Or ID badge.”
“Maybe he can tell us more after he wakes up.”
“... and we can collectin’ our re-ward.”
“What makes you think he has money?”
“Look his clothes. Feelin’ softer than your panties, me-thinks.”
His clothes were not lavish, but felt softer than any synthetic Gertrude had ever touched.
“No grounder have anything this soft. Which mean he‘ave cred.”
Gertrude looked up and down the alley. It was empty, no doubt since it would be dark soon.
The body wouldn’t be safe outside.
“Guess you’re coming with me.”
The Lucky Odds casino was loud for an early afternoon. It filled the corner of Ash and 727th Street with the sound of electronic slot machines.
A man in a dark cloak, and polished features approached the covered entrance. He glanced back towards the departing cab.
She was cute, even for a grounder.
The man thumbed his communicator.
“This is Hammersmith, I've reached the coordinates. In pursuit.”
Just inside the covered entrance was a valet stand. The attendant was young, with an untidy clump of dark hair, and tiny pockmarks on his face.
Hammersmith produced a grainy photo of middle-aged man. The caption read “TZZ-34663”.
“Have you seen anyone like this? Did they go through those doors?”
The valet glanced down towards Hammersmith’s right thigh, where his unlatched cloak caught on his holster.
“Don’t talk to suits, boss man.”
Hammersmith considered him for a moment. Then he pulled on the underside of the valet’s chin, matching gazes with the boy.
“It’s important I find him. There’s a lot of money involved.”
Hammersmith raised his eyebrow. Then he tapped his communicator on the valet’s console. His identity lit up the display.
The boy swallowed before his response.
“Dont’a talk to church boys neither.”
With his left hand, Hammersmith grabbed the valet’s head and smashed it into the stand. The console cracked, which opened a wound on the side of the boys face.
“You’re going to answer my questions.”
“Hey you, bossa man. Get’n yer ‘ands off that’n boy!”
Two oversized gorillas, posed as security guards, ran towards the stand. Hammersmith drew his pistol with his right hand.
“I’ll drop both of you if you take another step.”
He still held the valet’s neck in a grip with his left hand.
“My friend here was just telling me where I can find that man.”
Hammersmith nodded to the photo on the stand.
“Take me to your video room, and no one gets any holes in them. Okay?”
The security guards took a step back, and nodded.
“J’okay bossa man. No trouble. Floor manager set’n ya’up inside.”
Hammersmith snapped the safety, and re-holstered his weapon. He loosened his grip on the valet, then tossed him a handkerchief.
“Here kid. Put that on your face and apply pressure. If you see this man, you’ll be sure to contact me directly.”
The boy nodded without making a sound. He glanced down at the identity on his cracked display:
Todd walked into Lucky Odds and made for the manager’s cage in the back.
June 21, 2020
I’m gonna come out and say it: acting is hard. In interviews actors talk about “the work”, and I’ve always found this characterization odd—is it really?
After my fourth take of the same three lines, two hours after we started filming, I felt it.
I feel like a jerk for ever thinking it wasn’t work. Like much of art, acting is easy to criticize, and incredibly difficult to master. Not everyone can do it, either.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. The entire experience was exhilarating. But as someone who cares about doing things well, I realize I’m not very good at acting.
I thought talking to a camera would be similar to a stage presentation in front of a live audience. Both are performances, right?
The difference is apparent by what the camera doesn’t show you—the dozens of people behind the camera.
Light and sound crews, camera operators, story producers taking notes, the person advancing your slide deck, and an “A.D.”—Assistant Director—barking at everyone to keep them on task.
My crew was just shy of 25 people. They all had more experience than I did, and they rarely made mistakes. And if they did, they apologized to me!
Which is insane, because of how many mistakes I made. Flubbing words, shifting my weight out of frame, bouncing out of their focus line, or sounding like a zombie.
There is a director, too. Their job is to help you get your best performance, and maintain continuity across a host of other performances.
The whole machine is setup for iteration. Even if you “nail it” on your first take, you do another. When you get a “good take”, you experiment with the next one. Try things that might fail, then try it another way.
As a developer and designer, I’m familiar with iteration. Only those iterations are private, not in front of 25 people executing their job perfectly take after take.
I felt relief every time the director said “check the gate”. That meant it was time to move on.
The script is very different from stage presentations. For the stage, I typically write key points I want to hit upon in my speaker notes. Something I would glance at, never something I would read.
If you read on stage, you break eye contact with your audience. You can’t see their reactions, nor can you make them laugh.
On stage it is just you. You advance your slides. You determine transitions. There is little coordination with others, so you can ad lib and you’re the only one who knows.
On camera, those 25 people need to do their jobs. And to do their jobs, they need to know what you are going to do. They need a script.
Fortunately for me, there was a fancy teleprompter that allowed me to look directly at the camera and read my script.
Problem solved, right?
About one times in three I flub the word “statistics” when I say it out loud. I avoid it in conversation. It isn’t the only word I struggle with either.
Truth be told, I’m extremely self-conscious about my speech.
That sounds weird coming from someone who likes to talk as much as I do, but there you go. Only real talk on this blog.
Back to the script. When I was writing I didn’t think about reading it. I thought of it like a presentation: I wouldn’t really say all of this, I’d come up with something that sounded more natural in the moment.
I focused on narrative. Story arcs, reveals, emphasis, and transitions. I built it like a story that one would experience by reading, not hearing. And I did not consider words I struggle to speak.
Writing fiction has taught me the importance of dialogue. People speak in incomplete sentences. They offer half thoughts, and are often prone to ramble.
If you write a character that speaks effortlessly in complex, multi-clause sentences without a breath—well, that character better be a robot.
Filming reinforced this lesson in dialogue.
It was hard not to become meta and critique my writing while trying to perform in front of the camera. I made it through the day by treating commas as periods. Phrases where I stumbled, like “an example implementation”, were simplified into “an example”.
The experience was wonderful, and I learned a lot about acting and writing for the screen.
I’m not sure if I will ever film like this again. Maybe if the project is right. But I will never again wince when I hear an actor talk about “the work” during an interview.
I’ll just nod and think to myself: “That’s why you get paid the big bucks.”
May 01, 2020
The idea first came to me on August 9, 2019 while sitting at a traffic light. I tapped the Ulysses butterfly and wrote:
Military Space Novel
Main character is told to sit out upcoming mission
I let the story marinate for the rest of the drive. Worlds, characters, events. Friends, foes, and palace intrigue.
My favorite part of any science fiction story is the history. What is the connective tissue from now into the imagined future?
As I wrote the history for Nebula Squad, I thought a lot about the power to lead. Where does it comes from? Ancient kingdoms were ruled by leaders believed to be chosen by God. How does a reasoned society yield power to a leader?
Democratic republics were formed on the equal promise of prosperity. What happens if prosperity evaporates? What would fill the vacuum?
For my story, I created a destructive event that would push humanity from reason. Force them to question the most basic assumption of any free society: security.
The world of Nebula Squad is set far in the future. Humanity colonized deep space using generation ships that traveled for hundreds of years. When they arrived at a hospitable system, they built interstellar gates to travel back.
At the edge of known space they discovered a mysterious disease. It spread quickly through the interconnected systems, and soon no one would survive past the age of sixty.
Nebula Squad takes place generations after the blight first spread. Society is governed by a small ruling family, who form the Grand Tribunal. They are the offspring of a miracle—a woman born with an immunity to the disease. A genetic immunity that can be passed on to her children.
The Grand Tribunal, and its regional tribunals, divine power from this immunity. They are “God’s chosen”.
Most dystopian futures cheapen the value of life due to expected over-population. Because of the blight, I can write the opposite with my dystopian future.
The founding principle of the Grand Tribunal is that “murder cannot be tolerated”. Life is sacred. Anyone convicted of homocide commits their family to a lifetime of military service for the next seven generations.
Under the stress caused by the blight, intelligent people of reason consider this a rational response to the economic crisis. It’s not hard to imagine, considering the examples of humanity’s past.
Many today hold a certain contempt for people of faith because their beliefs can be distorted by the morally corrupt. History has shown us that reason and science can be equally misappropriated.
This is one of the themes I hope to explore in Nebula Squad.
When “military space novel” first appeared on the page back in August, I didn’t expect to write such a contemporary story.
As a friend once told me, “Life has a funny way of leaking into your writing”.
Like many others during shelter-in-place, I’ve relied on my AirPods Pro to communicate with my team. Eight hours of calls is a lot to ask of your ears, regardless of your headphones.
To provide an alternative for my ear canal, I picked up the Bose 700s after reading enthusiastic reviews of their new microphone array. They’ve performed great in my first day of calls, and sound better to my ear than the QC35s.
I expect to split time between these and the AirPods Pro for video meetings.
April 23, 2020
With each new story published, I plan to follow with a behind-the-scenes look at how it came about. This allows me to put each story in context, and dive into some technical details, which you might find interesting.
The Traveler started life in my writing journal as a writing exercise.
This past November I was in Salinas for writing vacation. Over a long weekend I parked myself in a hotel to plan and draft the first part of my novel: Nebula Squad.
Each day I slept-in, wrote for 4 hours, took a break for food, then wrote for another 4-8 hours. It was four glorious days in The Zone™.
During one of those food breaks—after ordering the Prime Rib special, with a root beer—I tapped out a quick story on my iPhone:
A traveler from out of town sits down at a table.
He sits facing away from the door. Towards the TVs showing a regional sports favorite.
“I'll take the prime rib special with a house salad. Root beer to drink.”
Nothing more than a simple, boring description of what I was doing. From there I imagined a conversation between the stranger and another patron of the diner:
An older woman from an adjacent table speaks up.
“You're not from around here.”
“Do I stick out?”
“You blend in fine, I reckon. But you ordered the Prime Rib special. Lou in the back tries to sneak in horse meat on the weekends.”
At the time, I didn’t know the stranger’s name or that the older woman would become Eunice. They were pieces on a chess board, not characters.
As I cut into my delicious prime rib, I considered life as an out-of-town stranger. Imagined my lunch as a story.
Then I put it away and moved on with the weekend. It was a writer’s exercise and never meant to be anything more.
Months later, I needed material to publish for the site launch. None of my short stories were polished enough, so I thumbed through my writing journal.
I chose The Traveler as the first piece of fiction I would publish. Warm memories of that prime rib, and the sense of adventure in the midst of my writing trip drew me back into the story.
However, it needed work before it was fit to be my first impression. The story needed to grow past a poor documentary of my November lunch. That required defined characters, with obstacles in their path.
In addition to pages of story fragments in a writing journal, my Ulysses library is littered with pieces of three novels and several short story projects.
The backstory for one of those short stories centers around the abduction of Thad Michols. I found a place for my stranger and importunate diner patron, and a world where horse meat masquerades as beef. Most of all, I found conflict.
After a week-long edit, the published version of The Traveler became a prologue for a larger story.
The response to my first story has been a warm welcome back to the web. The site launched earlier this week without analytics. I wasn’t confident in that decision, until the tweets and text messages starting rolling in.
The enthusiasm has exceeded my expectation—and caught me a little off guard. Many of you have asked: “When do we get to read more of the story?”
At the beginning of this week there wasn’t an immediete plan to finish this untitled short story. But after your response to The Traveler, I’m making one.
The story is already plotted, and character biographies have been written. I even have a few pages of manuscript.
It occurred to me that I could publish the story as a serial. I’m not sure the schedule or frequency just yet. But I'm running with this idea.
Once I have more manuscript drafted, I'll let you know.
Thank you for reading!
April 20, 2020
Everything clicked during a conversation about a bathroom remodel. It was a typical evening with friends. Glasses of wine, a few cocktails, and conversations about our kids. Only there was nothing typical about it over FaceTime.
My moment of zen happened after someone asked Amanda about her remodeled shower:
“I really like the tile… except this one line of grout near the top of shower. It drives me crazy.”
Turns out most of the grout lines are the same width, except the one right at eye level. The grout line staring back at her every morning in the shower.
Will others notice it? Not likely. But that isn’t the point.
I built my last site so I would write more. The middle of 2016 is when I hit my stride. The words started to flow, even with a line of grout staring me in the face: There were too many steps to publish.
Statically generated sites are straightforward technical beasts. They are the simplest way to customize your site down to an individual HTML tag. However, publishing requires
FTP and an
The process wore me down. I never stopped writing, but I slowly stopped publishing.
Everything is written in Ulysses. And what I really wanted was to export from Ulysses directly to my site. Bonus points if I could schedule a post in the future.
In mid-2016, one could publish directly from Ulysses if that site was powered by Wordpress. I know what you’re going to say, but hear me out. This is my therapy session.
Ever heard the phrase: “The final 20% is where a project dies”? That’s where we’ll start with my adventure in Wordpress themes. It wasn’t
PHP or performance concerns, rather the tiny, very significant-to-me typographic flourishes, which I struggled to replicate in Wordpress.
I found workarounds. Mostly.
For eight months I meticulously built a theme, and imported older posts by hand. I was down to a final bug: render the footnote return character on iOS without a godforsaken emoji. It proved to be the hill my Wordpress dreams died upon.
Eight months of work, and there were still irregular grout lines.
Cured of my delusions for using a framework out of my control, I decided to write my own publishing system. Sigh. I wrote a server in Swift. And built an iOS app to push posts to the server, and generate static HTML. It was a wonderful system I affectionately named Agatha.
It took me an entire year of nights and weekends to build. Now it was 2019 and two years since I had published anything. To add further insult, the introduction of SwiftUI was a sharp reminder that I would continue to waste precious writing time keeping the iOS app going.
Oh, and I still couldn’t publish directly from Ulysses. Shit.
Agatha taught me a lot about Swift, but its best gift was focus: I wanted a great way to share my fiction. The structure for this site started as the four different post types I created for the Agatha system.
Accordingly, each post falls into one of four buckets:
- Short Stories: complete stories of fiction, written by me.
- Selections: from my writing journal, fragments of fiction.
- Annotated Links: short comments on things that grab my attention.
- Blog Posts: non-fiction blurbs about writing and other things that interest me (like music or watches).
In addition to fiction I’ll publish here, I hope you’ll enjoy a behind-the-scenes peak at my in-progress novel, Nebula Squad. It’s my third attempt at writing one, and it’s already off to a good start. In February, I shared the first third of the story with other writers (i.e., friends), and their feedback was positive.
This was my watershed moment. I’m writing with purpose, and it’s time to publish again.
I’ll keep my old page going at rd2.io until I’ve migrated its content over to this domain, and setup proper redirection. Oh, and we should probably talk about my new pen name. All in good time.
There are still irregular grout lines, but will anyone else notice? That isn’t the point.
This is a start.
David Jonathan Ross:
Fonts of the month include distinctive display faces, experimental designs, and exclusive previews of my upcoming retail typeface families. By diversifying your font collection at a minimal cost, the club can push you to try new and interesting type in your work.
If you love typography like I do, then you’d be crazy not to join this club. It’s a steal at $72 for the year (that’s $6/month). Even better, you can purchase past months for $12. That’s dirt cheap for high quality typefaces.
The titles for my fiction posts are set in Roslindale Condensed Bold (June, 2017).
Thad Michols had just switched the ignition for his truck, when a tap-tap on the passenger window startled him. The window tapper was a clean-cut man, in a dark fitted shirt and trousers.
Thad reached across to roll down the window.
“My car broke down, and I need a lift to my sister’s farm. I think it’s down that road a few kilometers.”
The stranger pointed left towards the road at the next intersection.
Thad appraised him. Clearly he was not a farmer, which meant he probably came down from the city. Thad figured he was out this way for a specific reason. If his sister was as handsome, the trip would be worth a few extra miles.
He unlocked the door, so the man could climb in.
“Thank you, friend.”
“Certainly. My farm is down the same road.”
Thad pulled out of the diner parking lot onto the main road. As they approached the light at the next intersection, his curiosity got the better of him.
“What did you say your sister’s name was?”
Thad shrugged as he turned left. Large apricot orchards overtook both sides of the narrow farm road.
“Not a creepy stalker or anything sinister like that. There’s a few farms down this road, just need to know which one?”
Thad flashed a grin at the man who nodded back. He produced a piece of paper from his shirt pocket with pencil markings scribbled on it.
“She wrote down the address for me.”
A name would’ve worked all the same, Thad thought to himself. Must be his first time out of the city.
When Thad reached for the paper, the man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into a headlock. His other hand held a cloth to Thad’s mouth and nose.
The truck swerved off of the road and into an orchard, as Thad struggled with the stranger.
Thad remembered turning the wheel to avoid a tree right before everything went black.
“Well, he ordered the prime rib special and a root beer... As if the special wasn’t weird enough. What kind of grown man drinks a root beer?”
“I’m sorry m’am, what’s weird about the special?”
Before the older woman could answer, an oversized man barked from the kitchen.
“Stop spreading those rumors, Eunice. I don’t serve horse meat!”
Eunice leaned in toward the detective and whispered.
“It’s horse meat. Never order the Prime Rib on the weekends, our local paper caught Lou. One of those in-ves-tigative pieces.”
Then she raised her voice so Lou could hear.
“... everyone knows he prepares it right during the week. When he has to serve the feddies.”
“STOP SPREADING THOSE LIES, EUNICE! I should ban you and your blue-haired friends.”
The detective rubbed his temples.
“M’am, I’m not here to investigate the kitchen. I need you to tell me everything you remember about this traveler.”
“Well, as I was saying. He had a dark shirt. Real fitted, and tight—like he was one of those spies on TV. Dark trousers. And real light blonde hair. Almost looked white like my cousin Henry’s little boy, what’s his—”
“Thank you m’am. And you said he ordered, but left before his food came?”
“Yeeesss, very odd. I tried talking him out of the Prime Rib, so maybe he caught wise and skipped before it showed up.”
“Possibly. Did you notice if he left before or after Mr. Michols left the diner?”
“Y’know I think it was right after Thad left that this man started acting so strange. Here I was trying to warn him about his dinner, and chit-chatting with him—like being a friendly neighborly type. It was clear he stuck out like a sore thumb and I was just about to ask him where he was from, when he suddenly stood-up and walked out. Completely rude. Young people—“
“Thank. You. Missus—“
“Oh you can call me Eunice, detective. We’re not pretentious around here. You city cops are always so formal.”
“Well thank you, Eunice. Did you notice anything else strange about him?”
“Did I mention the root beer?”
The detective flipped his notebook closed, then pulled a business card from his jacket.
“I’m Detective Singh, and the woman interviewing Lou over there is Sergeant Christopher. If you think of anything else, you can reach me at those numbers.”
“The owner—Lou—didn’t get a look at the man. What did Eunice have to say?”
Sgt. Christopher raised her eyebrows and sent a half-smile towards her partner. The gravel beneath their shoes crunched as they approached their squad car.
“Nose down, Sergeant. This is probably the most exciting thing to happen in this town for a while.”
Detective Singh switched the remote to unlock the doors, waiting until they were both inside before he continued.
“Eunice told me enough to get a reasonable description of our suspect. And he appeared to time his exit to Mr. Michols’ departure. He definitely wasn’t a local, probably a city dweller from the description. Which means we should be able to match any prints we lift from the truck.”
“We might find Michols’ grandfather’s prints for all we know—that truck is ancient. Hasn’t even been modified for flight. Honestly, how do people get around out here?”
Singh pulled out into the road, heading back to the scene of the crash.
“Personally, I enjoy all of this road driving. Reminds me of when I was boy. You young kids are spoiled.”
When they got back to the scene, the investigators already had scanned for prints.
“Only one set. Likely Michols, considering we found similar prints on the trunk and on the latch for the hood.”
“Our suspect was smart enough to wipe his prints?”
The lead agent directed Singh to the space around the truck.
“And cover his tracks—although I can’t figure out how. Yesterday’s rain left a healthy amount of mud. You can see it turned up where the tracks skidded before the truck hit the tree.”
Singh looked at his partner, who was also confused.
“There aren’t any footprints leaving the vehicle?”
“None. It’s like they vanished after the crash.”