It’s Time to Stop Following Your Dreams

9318593026_2cd5885c86_k

I followed my dreams for years.

I followed them into loud bars with flashing lights and crowds of interesting people. I followed them to foreign lands, stately museums, and dark forests. To thin, ancient streets late at night. Sometimes I even followed them to the keyboard to peck out a few words, but who wants to sit at a screen when there are bars, forests, and thin, ancient streets to explore?

I followed them secure in the belief that surely, somewhere I would find the idea, the inspiration, the story that would enthrall my soul. Then I’d drift back to the keyboard and the hours of writing would fly by as pleasantly and magically as my other adventures.

Many of these journeys I do not regret. Yet even the best of these explorations got me no closer to where I wanted to be.

Why? Because “follow your dreams” is a terrible metaphor. It’s an awful blueprint for accomplishing any worthwhile goal, and one that I’m here to banish from your vocabulary forever.

To show you how terrible this phrase is, I’m going to break down word-by-word why “follow your dreams” is such a harmful idea.

Follow

This verb is the most seductive word in this insidious aphorism.  Following is easy. Anyone can follow. You find something – a light, a path, a butterfly fluttering across a meadow – and you amble after it. Following requires no thought, no agency, no effort beyond walking with your hands in your pockets and whispering a sweet tune.

Your

Sure, certain paths exist in real life. Good grades-college-job-promotion-promotion-vacation home-retirement-death is the most dominant, but there are others. Yet none of them lead people where they really want to go. The paths to true happiness vary by individual, can be traveled only in darkness, and are hacked out of dense underbrush with dull machetes. They are not presented to you; they are created by you. There is no road to follow.

Dreams

Have you ever had a dream that made sense? One that wasn’t full of impossibilities and internal contradictions? One that adhered to the physical laws of the waking world? Me neither.

Yes, I know that the more precise meaning of “dream” in this phrase would be “a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.”  But a lot of people place a surprising amount of importance on the random firings of their neurons while they sleep. And even the more precise sense of the word is vague. Rarely do these cherished ambitions come into the sharp resolution required to make them achievable.

So what’s a better metaphor?

Forge your life.

That’s the one I’m using right now. At least until I think of something better.

To forge a piece of metal, the furnace must be fueled and maintained. The iron will only bend after repeated, consistent striking. Forging is active, difficult, and creative. It requires both skill and endurance.

I’m trying to apply this approach to my whole life, not just my dream of becoming a successful writer, because people often attain a goal only to find that it hasn’t made them happy. So I have imagined the life I want in its entirety. I sat down one day and wrote it all out. What am I aiming for? Not just with my writing, but with my family, my health, my friendships. I saw that so much of this life is already formed and shining up at me from the anvil.

And the parts that aren’t? I’m maintaining the furnace. I’m embracing the heat. And I’m hammering away.

7709227120_008d860c6f_z

Thank You, Total Strangers

I’ve  been giving away my short story collection, Horizons, on Amazon for the past few days, and the response has been way better than expected. As of right now, I’m almost to 70 books given away, and with one more day to go, I’m hopeful that number can crack 100.

Why am I so happy to be giving away a book I worked so hard on? Partly, I’m glad that there are 70 more people who know my name and think that maybe when one of my novels comes out later, they’ll recognize the name and pick up a copy. But more than that, I’m simply happy to have written these stories. I’m happy to have brought these characters and worlds to life, and I’m happy that total strangers are entering into them and hopefully enjoying them.

So thank you to everyone who’s picked up a copy so far. And if you haven’t yet, the deal runs through the end of the day. All you have to do is click here.

Horizonsv2 (1)

A Crash on the Moon

buddy

I’m thrilled to share the news that my short story “Buddy” – about a mysterious spaceship crash on the moon and a nearby miner’s attempt to save the ship’s sole survivor – is now live on Perihelion’s website. Read it for free here.

There’s a funny story about that story, too. I had spent the whole year submitting stories to publications and had been met with universal rejection. That’s not a surprise for a newer writer like myself, but it does wear on you eventually. When I’d finished “Buddy,” I had planned to just publish it straight to Amazon and be done with it. I even had a cover made, which is pictured above. But I had just stumbled upon Perihelion (which is awesome, by the way) and figured, “What the hell? What’s one more try?” And it ended up being my first sale. So to my fellow struggling writers, in a nutshell, keep going.

Pokemon is Pong for the Augmented-Reality Era

pong

One day, we’re all going to look back at this current Pokemon mania and laugh. We’ll remember the rush, the giggles, the addictive delight of scanning a park with our phone cameras only to find a little monster laughing at us. And it will all seem so quaint.

I say this because, after reading Kevin Kelly’s Wired recent article on Magic Leap, I’m convinced that augmented reality will become our dominant technological interface. The technology isn’t there yet, but count me in the camp of people like Ray Kurzweil who think that Moore’s law will remain intact, meaning computing power will continue to increase exponentially for the foreseeable future. I’m also optimistic about advances in materials science, energy storage, and wireless communication, all of which will be necessary for the ubiquitous AR devices I envision.

Once all the bugs are worked out, here’s what I imagine our lives will look like:

You wake up to the sound of birds chirping, a distant church bell ringing, or the roar of the ocean surf, whatever you’d set as the wakeup tone for your earbuds, which you wear continuously, except for maybe in the shower. Before your eyes are fully open, you slip your AR glasses over your head. They are transparent except for a thin metallic line – above your field of vision, of course – that houses all of their computing and communicating components. You’re not much of fashionplate, so you have a clear plastic set that are nearly invisible to anyone who isn’t looking for them. They are so light and comfortable that you barely notice that they’re there anymore.

You get dressed and leave your house into the gloom of an overcast Chicago fall day. The sky has held a low gray ceiling of cloud for weeks now, and you’re sick of it, so you call up a sunny-day program. The clouds evaporate, and brilliant yellow light floods the street ahead of you, glinting off windows, filtering through the trees’ autumn leaves. The illusion is so real that your brain fills in the other senses for you; you feel its warmth on your skin.

You step into the coffee shop, where the wait time and a list of the day’s specials hovers outside the door. You order your drink and sit down. The shop’s system alerts you that it’s running a sim of a Florentine café overlooking the Arno River.

“Accept?” the prompt asks you.

“Yes,” you reply.

The walls drop away, and the street outside is replaced by a languid river. Your table is now outdoors, shaded by an umbrella. You hear the distant honk of scooter horns and the faint, metallic wheeze of a cheerful accordion tune.

You call up your newspaper, which floats in your hands, and you turn the pages to get to your favorite columnist, each flip making an unmistakable paper sound. Again, your brain is so thoroughly tricked that you swear you can feel the newsprint between your thumb and index finger.

Your glasses prompt you that the next bus to your office is almost there, so you leave the paper and rush out the door. Once you have your seat, you call the paper back up, and it’s already opened to the page you were reading.

No matter what you do for work, your glasses will figure prominently into your job. Programmer? They will spot errors in your code as you commit them. Editor? Blink at a word for synonyms. Bank teller? They will sense a customer’s elevated pulse and dilated pupils and will alert the security guards, just in case he’s a robber. I could go on, but the occupational possibilities of this technology are endless, and I imagine them being required hardware for most jobs, similar to needing to be able to check your work email outside of the office.

After a long day of work, you meet some friends afterward at the sports bar to unwind. The Bulls are playing and the bar’s bleacher section is running a sim of upper-deck seats, so you and some friends sit in the makeshift bleachers and watch the players race up and down the floor a hundred feet below you, their shoes squeaking amid the cheers of the fans in the stadium.

Your girlfriend calls midgame, so you break out of the sim, both so you can hear her and your friends can no longer hear you. She’s at a club on the North Side that’s running a 1950s sim. It dresses all the girls in pink skirts, and the dudes get leather jackets and slicked-up hair. You pass. Last week you had a bad experience when your rave-going younger brother brought you out to that club downtown. The sim there had everyone emanating blue flames, and at one point the floor and walls dropped out, sending you plunging through space, only to halt you on Saturn’s rings right as the bass kicked in. You nearly hurled. The Grease experience sounds nice, but you’re not up for another full-immersion sim just yet.

You make plans to meet at home later, and you even call a cashier from your favorite restaurant into the bar to order takeout for later.

That night, you sit down together with some pad thai, blow the roof off your living room and chat under the starry skies until it’s time to go to bed. But heck. It’s a beautiful night. You don’t usually sleep in your glasses, but why not keep the roof off and sleep under the stars.

As you may have noticed from that thought experiment, the main advantage AR has over full virtual reality is that you can still interact with the real world. You don’t have to retreat from it into some kind of padded room.You take it with you as you participate in your real life, enhancing and improving the world you interact with every day.

You also might have noticed that no one whipped out a phone at any point during that day. There will be no need. Just as our smartphones have replaced our wall phones, cameras, video cameras, calendars, rolodexes, and gaming systems, our glasses-and-earbuds AR systems will replace our smartphones and our television screens, as well as many other physical objects that can just as easily be rendered through the technology.

So who am I to make this kind of prediction? No one, really. I don’t work in tech. I don’t code. I’m not a venture capitalist. I don’t have any special insights into the companies who make these devices.

I’m just a science fiction author who’s writing a book set in a world in which many of these advances have come to pass. This means I’ve spent a lot of time imagining the possibilities and gaming out the implications of this technology. Frankly, the possibilities fascinate me, and there’s a strong chance this technology will feature prominently in many of my stories to come.

There’s also a great chance I’m wrong. Maybe our computers move inside our bodies, as Kurzweil and many others expect, and the idea of glasses and earbuds will seem hilariously retrograde. Or maybe we hit a certain threshold of computing power, and before we know it there’s a great flash of light, and we’re all luminous pan-dimensional beings who start crafting personal universes for our own amusement.

Then I’ll look back on this blog post and think, “Isn’t that cute?”

To receive future blog posts and free stories, sign up for my newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/b7NnNz

The Conversation You Need to Have Regularly

stargaze

Courtesy of Anthony Goto, flickr

You’ve had this conversation before.

You’re lying on your back in the grass or in a lounge chair, staring up at the night sky. Maybe you’ve had a few drinks or enjoyed some of our planet’s botanical pleasures. You’re feeling good, with your mind and soul flung wide open.

“Isn’t it crazy to think that the light we’re seeing left those stars 65 million years ago,” you say to a friend lying next to you.

“Right?” they reply. “They could have exploded long ago, before the dinosaurs existed, and we wouldn’t know.”

“And how wild is it that there’s a storm on Jupiter that’s three times the size of Earth?”

“And we’ve put a robot on Mars. A robot from Earth is rolling around scooping up Martian sand right this minute.”

“Whoa.”

I hung out with my four best friends last weekend, and not long after the sky went dark, we had a version of this conversation. It’s a talk we’ve had dozens of times before, starting back when we’d hang out in each others’ backyards in high school, back before college, before marriage, before having kids.

Between our jobs and our families, it’s hard for us all to get together more than once or twice a year, but every time we are able to assemble, the conversation at some point always veers into expressions of wonder. It’s not always so cosmic. Sometimes we marvel at how rapidly technology has progressed or how strange our current lives would have seemed to the younger versions of ourselves.

At some point during last weekend’s conversation, right about the time we veered into amazement at how time slows near black holes, one of my friends remarked, “Oh man, how many times have we had this conversation?”

To which another friend replied, “It’s a good conversation to have from time to time.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. How we need to cultivate fascination, stoke our wonderment, and try to stuff big ideas into our little human minds.

For me as a writer, this exercise is especially critical. My love for these massive ideas is part of what drew me to sci-fi. Without the challenge of tackling concepts that shake my foundational perceptions of reality, I couldn’t sustain the interest necessary to show up at the keyboard consistently. And my success as a writer depends in no small part on my ability to provide my readers with flashes of this awe.

Even for non-writers, this generating amazement is important. You’ll find peace in shrinking yourself, shrinking your problems. You’ll use new parts of your brain and give the worn-out practical parts a much-needed rest. You’ll feel better.

The sky is clear in the Midwest tonight, and Jupiter is looming large in the western sky. Go outside and track it down and think about that big-ass storm and try to get your mind around the idea of a planet made of gas.

Even if you’re alone, have that conversation with yourself. And think about how crazy it is that your brain lets you talk to yourself. Whoa.

The Joy of Hunting Tics

thetick

So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?

How to Write Faster

…according to 1.5 books on the subject.

I’m going to keep this post short because I don’t have much time to write today, and I want to spend most of it working on my current novel.

Since the “not much time” dilemma is a persistent theme for me these days, I recently read through one and a half books on how to write faster, with a goal of getting more out of my scant writing time. One book was good (2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron), and one was not (1,500 Words Per Hour by N.P. Martin).

Despite their varying quality, they both had the same basic message:

Plan your novel. Extensively.

Figuring out what you’re going to write — before your butt hits the chair — frees you from doing your heavy “where am I going with this” thinking at the keyboard. It allows you to focus all your mental resources on settling into a flow while composing. Extensive planning also helps by preventing major mistakes that require you to scrap and rewrite large portions of your book. You know, the “Oh wait, when did my protagonist lose the superpower that would have made the climactic battle a non-event?” kind of oopsies.

I actually arrived at some of these conclusions on my own via another path. On my last short story – which will be released as part of a collection I’m putting out this summer – I tried extensive planning, purely with the aim of writing better. My goal was to craft a story that was deeper than my previous work, and I knew that would require weaving certain themes consistently throughout the piece. I had just read a great post by Steven M. Long about outlining, and my guess was that imagining almost every beat of the story in advance would help me develop that depth. It did. I’m happier with that piece than with a lot of my other stories. But the unexpected bonus was how quickly I was able to compose it.

2,000 to 10,000 was a lot better in fleshing out these concepts. The writer, Rachel Aaron, has produced a ton of well-received novels, and she walks the reader through the plotting and diagramming process that she has honed over her career. The examples are supremely helpful, and I’m employing many of her methods as I map out my current project. The Martin book is less detailed and mostly repeats itself ad nauseum.

Both of these books could have used better line editors. They are riddled with typos, which undercuts their argument that writing quickly does not mean writing poorly. The Martin book was far worse in this respect — to the point where I stopped reading halfway through — and even had an egregious error in the first sentence of the first chapter.

Speaking of first chapters, I’m hoping to start laying down words on my new novel this weekend, so I better get my outline done. I wouldn’t want to start writing without it.

I Love My Kindle, But…

I just read six pages of a book while waiting on a dark train platform. I’ll probably sneak a couple pages during visits to the espresso maker at work this morning. And each day usually presents the occasional four-minute stretches between tasks where I can sip down a scene or two. Add it all up, and by the end of the day, I’ve done a respectable amount of reading, probably more than 90 percent of Americans.

None of it would happen without the Kindle app on my phone. While it is physically possible for me to carry around a book all the time, it’s just not practical. My phone though? As long as I’m conscious, I’m going to have it on my person. Also, no one questions me for busting out my small screen for a bit. My coworkers might not take it as kindly if they saw I was skipping conversations at the break-room microwave to leaf through Battlefield Earth.

So as much as this post is a love letter to my Kindle, it’s also an “I miss you” to paper books. I miss their weight. Their smell. The lack of glare.

But it’s not just the physical experience. It’s also the abundant free time that enabled me to sit down for hours to read instead of stealing pages here and there.

I love my life. I wouldn’t trade the things that keep me so busy – namely my two amazing daughters – for any amount of reading time. Maybe there are other tasks I could lose or reduce, but for now, reading volume has slipped far down my hierarchy of priorities. Part of why I’m pursuing a writing career is to have more time, or at least more control over my time.

Until then, I’ll be reading my Kindle. I won’t be hating it. But still…

Review: Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

musk

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a thorough and readable investigation of one of the most fascinating people of our time. Ashlee Vance reconstructs Musk’s rise to wealth and fame through hundreds of interviews with current and former business associates. This exhaustive research allows Vance to provide well-founded insights into Musk’s thinking, motivations, and behavioral patterns. While Vance touches on the major points of Musk’s personal life, the book avoids most of the armchair psychoanalysis so common in many biographies.

It’s worth nothing that Vance is a business journalist, so this book focuses heavily on Musk’s methods as a businessman. The book also delves further into SpaceX than I’d expected, which was a pleasant surprise. While Musk is probably most well-known as the head of Tesla, SpaceX best epitomizes his grandiose ambitions and manic work ethic. And, as a sci-fi author, it’s the company I’m most interested in.

Bottom line: If you are interested in Musk as a businessman, especially the story of SpaceX’s founding and his plans for that company, you’ll find this a worthwhile read.

 

The Magic Book to Make Your Minor Discomforts Vanish

2016-05-13 10.46.31

I’m writing this while tired. Very tired. We have a four-month old who still wakes up twice a night for feedings, and my nine-to-five job is actually a six-to-five. Once I’m home from that, I spend a few hours chasing around my four-year-old daughter, who expends enough energy in an hour to power the Vegas strip for a week. Then, after everyone’s asleep, I approach my keyboard with red eyes and a wrung-out mind.

And yet after reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the sad violin I play for myself has gotten quite a bit smaller and quieter.

The book tells the story of English-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s failed crossing of Antarctica in 1914. The expedition went awry when his ship became trapped in a field of pack ice and crushed to pieces before his party could even reach land. Shackleton and his crew spent the next 500 days trying to survive the most hostile environment on Earth and trying to make their way back to civilization in three poorly equipped, 20-foot boats.

The punishment they endured was staggering, travails so severe that they would be laughed off as unbelievable if anyone survived them in a work of fiction. Months camping on ever-shrinking ice floes. A full year in frigid air and wet clothes. Weeks near starvation. Five sleepless days at sea, battling choppy water and dodging icebergs that threatened to sink their boats. Boils. Frostbite. Blisters that froze, forming pebbles of ice under their skin. Months eating little besides seal and penguin. A 720-mile journey across the world’s most dangerous seas in a glorified rowboat. Waves like skyscrapers. Bailing, watching, bailing, watching. Days of thirst without clean water. A full day rowing furiously against the current to avoid treacherous rocks. A traverse of a craggy, inhospitable island of stone and ice with nothing but a fifty-foot rope.

Endurance was published in 1959, so the language is somewhat antiquated in spots. However, Lansing’s prose is clean and crisp and tugs the reader along without speed bumps. This book was gripping throughout in a similar way as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. But even the torments Krakauer’s Everest climbers suffered were far shorter in duration.

Endurance forced me to reflect on the human capacity to withstand suffering, both physical and mental. It gave me a new perspective on the unfathomable coziness we First Worlders are surrounded by every day. Climate-controlled dwellings. Running water. Warm clothing. Abundant, nutritious, inexpensive food.

This security and convenience has put much of our resilience into hibernation. We avoid the outdoors if it’s colder than 50 degrees or warmer than 90 degrees. We drive three blocks to buy groceries, instead of walking. We hire out physical chores whenever possible. But that strength is still there, untapped.

With that in mind, that knee I jammed the other day isn’t so sore anymore. The tightness in my wrists from constant typing seems trivial.

And, yeah, I’m still tired. But suddenly I don’t mind so much.