The Rough Draft

If you can't go through it. Go around it.

Off Road Gas Pump Harding, VT, Winter 2012

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer from PTSD. I’ve had the condition for about twenty plus years now. For the most part I manage my condition with sleep and keeping a close eye on my own internal barometers but lately it’s been a bit harder than usual as I’ve been struck with bouts of insomnia and with my wife and daughter working seven days a week for the last few weeks, I’ve only been able to get out on my motorcycle once. Which is hard because it really does recharge my mental batteries.

With my particular brand of PTSD (because everybody’s mental illness is custom tailored to your own brain) sleep is critical. When I’m overly tired my emotions tend to, “Surf,” as I like to put it. They rise and fall like waves on a beach and there’s no real indication of which one is going to hit the sand at any given moment. It’s frustrating because I’m a logical person who can usually step back from something but when I’m in the grips of the condition, it all gets very dark at the edges.

The funny thing is I’m still productive in this state. Sure it takes me a little longer to get out of bed in the morning but when I sit down to write, I can focus on what needs to be done and work my way through it and sometimes when I’m deep into the writing I can enter that state where my symptoms don’t control me. Of course we’ll see how I feel about stuff when I get to the rewrite stage of things.

I guess what I’m trying to say is having a mental illness sucks on so many levels but you can adjust to the reality and still be productive. The trick is to be able to recognize when you’re being self destructive and to counter those thoughts and behaviours when they crop up. Naps help, a good night’s sleep helps more and not indulging yourself because you’re a bit down is a good way to keep off the actual treadmill and lastly, do not keep it to yourself. Tell your family how you feel. They can probably tell that you’re, “Off,” and are there to help. And if it’s really bad, go to a professional. I went the psychologist route because I don’t want drugs to fix my problem or at least numb it out. One on one sessions are pretty intense but in the long run you’ll feel better.

Okay, time for me to be productive.

Take some time to check out my books.

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This one’s going to be about 3D printing so if that’s not your bag or it really doesn’t interest you, I won’t be offended if you skip this post. For those of you who are into the world of making stuff out of nothing, cool. I hope this is worth reading.

First the particulars.

I have over twenty years experience as a process TIG welder and Millwright building and maintaining equipment for food, pharmaceutical and dairy plants. I’ve also done some electrical and mechanical design on the side, though I leave the big stuff to the Process and Mechanical Engineers.

About twelve years ago, I was introduced to 3D CAD, which at the time really blew my mind because it allowed you to build a model of the space you were going to install into and then design and build a machine or object to fit that space. As the years went by 3D CAD systems became more user friendly and more versatile but they were at a price point that was still prohibitive for most people. That is no longer the case, if you don’t mind dropping a few thousand dollars on a 3D CAD program now. Which sounds like a lot of money but if you know what you’re doing, the program can pay for itself pretty quickly.

The program I’m currently using is Geomagic Expert (formerly Alibre). It has a part component, a sheet metal component and of course an assembly component. It fits my design needs perfectly and other than having to find where they put the buttons after every new iteration, it’s fairly simple to use and very powerful.

My 3D Printer is a Fabtotum, which was purchased off of an Indegogo funding campaign. It not only prints but also has a milling capability in three and four axis. I’ve yet to test the milling capabilities as my experience with G-Code is still limited but I’m learning.

The real benefit of the Fabtotum is its large print bay and it’s relatively low cost for what you’re getting. Because the Fabtotum was from a funded campaign, it is not quite as user friendly as I’d have hoped and there have been a couple of setbacks due to my hamfistedness and the fact that Fabtotum itself is very much a startup company with all the problems inherent in that situation. They’re also in Italy so there’s a six hour time difference to deal with which can be a bit of a bear as far as support goes.

The units shown in the attached photo are experimental vortex eliminators for my motorcycle a 2004 DL-650 V-Strom. One of the riders I’d met a while back never liked the airflow down around his thighs and midsection and had created some fins to put the air in mor laminar flow off of his front cowling. I’ve decided to make proper VTEs based on stuff I’ve observed in tanks with liquid. Yes I know liquid and air have different properties but that a function of compressibility and this experiment really isn’t about enhancing laminar flow as much as it’s about confirming the repeatability of the printed parts. I need six of these suckers and they all need to be the same.

The good news is, that’s not been a problem. There have been some feed issues for the filament but that has more to do with inconsistencies in the PLA diameter as it feeds off of the roll. The printer itself has banged out part after part. Which brings us to the speed part of the post.

3D Printing isn’t fast. On average there parts which are just over 2 1/4″ tall by 1 5/8 wide and 2″ at their longest, take over eight hours to print. I’ve had more complex prints with a lot more material take almost thirty hours (something not recommended by Fabtotum’s manufacturers). I’m not complaining by the way. Fifteen hundred plus layers at a height of a human hair are going to take a while to put together.

But the key thing here is repeatability has been met.

The next stage is to print some simple assembly parts and see how they fit together and the step after that will be a more complex assembly, which will make things very interesting. After that the Fabtotum as a proof of concept may need to be replaced with a more expensive. larger and more versatile industrial model.

But that’s down the road, we’re still making slow baby steps here right now.

I like to write with a theme in mind. I’m generally pretty effing miserable to be around until I figure a story’s theme out. Well that’s my story, my wife says I’m somewhat miserable until the rough draft is done… Well I’ve got to give her that one. Mostly because I’m not a fan of figuring stuff out that’s new territory and lets face it, every story is new territory.

The new book involves a lot of research into some pretty unsavory stuff. A fairly common occurrence if you write thrillers. If there’s one common theme that keeps popping up there, it’s no matter how twisted you might think the scene you just write is, a few days later you’ll come across an account of something somebody actually did that makes your scene look like a child holding a balloon in a park.

And right now, my research is trying to learn about the political, economic and criminal nature of an entire country. Not a big country to be sure but a complex one (without a doubt) and in that bulk of research, I was still casting about for a theme to be my anchor (and apparently being miserable about it). In one of my screenwriting classes I remember the teacher (I think it was Alan DiFiore) giving a solid note on what to do with characters.

“You fuck them over and then you fuck them over some more and just when you think, man they’re completely fucked, you keep fucking them.” Which turned out to be a pretty good analogy for my screenwriting career. Still, those eloquent words have stuck with me, especially in story meetings. Still they floated into my head the other night as I was trying to get to sleep and in a flash I realized I knew what my theme was going to be and part of it was going to be a fourth level fuck over for my main character.

A smile crossed my face and I went to sleep.

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked, this way comes.

Check out my Technothriller Devil’s Gambit. It’s less than a cup of coffee on Kindle.

So I’m suffering from some sort of stomach bug right now. Not the kind that makes you throw up all the time but it’s definitely telling my body that it’s keeping its options open. So for the most part I just feel ‘blecht.’

Which can make it hard to sit down and write. I still do, I’m just not super happy to do it. Then again, I’m never that supper happy to write in the first place. Getting a story down and me have always been a bit of a fight and the only time I ever seem to have an easy time of it is when I’ve been paid in advance for the draft. Then my brain is like, “They’ve paid me, I can write whatever the hell I want.” And I do and it’s marvelous. But when you’re pulling a spec out of your brain be it a script or longer form fiction, that for me is a bit tortuous.

I always start with an outline. I need to see where things are going to go but an outline doesn’t cover the nitty gritty of things. In a screenplay, it’s not such a big deal as you work in broad strokes, somewhere down the line somebody’s job is going to be figuring out the final fit and finish of the thing, as long as your dialogue and motivations are sound and you’ve mentioned all of the locations you need, the rest becomes a decision in somebody else’s meeting.

When you write in long form prose though, you need the research to be on the page but not so visible, the reader goes, “The writer’s done his research here.” Which is the trouble with military based technothrillers, there’s a lot of research to subsume into the chapters. Because if you don’t get it right, you will catch merry hell for it down the road. Right now I’m writing a lot. What I like to call writing fat. The rough draft is always the kitchen sink draft, everything goes in it. In the next pass, I’ll start trimming the fat and pairing everything down. The second draft will go to my editor and he’ll help me trim it down more until I’ve got something workable. Though I’ll admit, you can get lost in your outline too. It’s one thing to fly over something but once you’re down in the weeds, it can be hard to trust your compass and your map but the minute that sliver of doubt creeps in, that’s when you need to trust them most. Once the bushwacking is done, you can build a better path, then a road, then a highway. If it sounds like a lot of work it is and at no stage does it get much easier. You just hit a point where you’re done. As long as everything looks sound, you most likely are. I’ve seen people spend years building and polishing something to make it perfect in their eyes. And while I’m sure there are perfect works out there, most of them aren’t being read. Imperfections are where the humanity lies.

A lot of emphasis is put on getting your work out quickly to keep yourself in the Amazon algorithm. I don’t agree with this. You’re building a career. Fast work is not always good work and short works aren’t always the best way to explore an idea and as a reader if something is too short, I feel cheated. You need to take the time you need to get it down, to make it feel right. Word counts only matter when you’re publishing. As a daily thing, they just tell you roughly where you are on the rack, the same way an odometer does and just about as accurately.

It’s tough not to get discouraged sometimes. It’s not like you’re building a thing where as you assemble the parts, the whole starts to come into being. It’s more like building an invisible house. You hope the parts have gone together correctly and that you didn’t substitute a floor for a wall but it’s hard to tell sometimes. You just need to trust in yourself and push on. You’ve made it this far, keep going. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifteen or fifty the road is long and hard and while you learn to deal with and conquer each obstacle along the way, new and different ones you weren’t expecting get thrust in your path.

It’s interesting when you create a physical book. It somehow legitimizes you in people’s eyes. Never mind the fact you’ve sold hundreds more of the ebook (at a better royalty) or there are people reading your book on their Kindle all over the world, that pound of paper and ink is what makes you a real writer in other’s eyes.

And now I’m starting to ramble.

Press on.

What else can you do?

I’m the first to admit, when I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s no sin to seek help. That being said, I’m the kind of guy who likes to go my own way so yeah, it can get pretty schizophrenic in the space between my ears sometimes. Self publishing is a wholly new community to me. The need to engage in social media to the level I’m now forced to also feels weird. I know I’ve had a blog for a very long time but for me it’s always been more of an online journal. A way to keep family and friends in the loop of what was going on and sometimes, just a way to yell impotently at the universe. Of course the things to remember is if it’s on the internet, it’s there forever so you need to be careful what you say. We’ve all seen the backlash on people who don’t take a few seconds to have a think about how their post will be construed by others before they hit send.

As a writer you also come up against how the anonymity of the internet and distance from your physical being will instill bravery among cowards. I have had over the years had people say shit to me in an email or pm that had they been standing in front of me, I’d have been beating the shit out of them before my brain had a chance to catch up with my body. There have been a couple of low reviews for my motorcycle book that aren’t so much reviews as personal attacks. In a way I’m glad my writing can instigate such an apoplectic response but at the same time, you want to reach out and give them a slap and ask, “What are you really so angry at, cause I’m pretty sure it isn’t me.” But hey, that’s bikes for you, people get passionate and I’m no better.at times.

What is interesting to me, is I’ve spent a bit of money promoting Devil’s Gambit but to be honest, I’ve seen little in the way of returns from either campaign, both of which were based on Twitter. I don’t think Twitter followers translate into any possible sales as effectively as say Amazon’s, “You might also like,” bar. I’ll admit, I’ll often scroll through what pops up as I’m always looking for new writers. One thing Twitter does allow for is building relationships with other writers, which allows you to talk shop and glean better knowledge about this self publishing game from each other’s experiences. The best thing I’ve done yet, for Devil’s Gambit was put it in the Kindle Select Program which allows borrow from Kindle Unlimited. I know this has hurt more established authors but for those of us starting out it allows us to build our readership and still see a return. My books are priced at $2.99 which gives me access to the 70% royalty of $2.00 at an average return of $1.62 per borrow, I’m still doing okay and as far as I’m concerned, I’m building that readership for the next book and all that follow. Best of all, it’s free to enroll and if you’re not happy after 90 days, you can pull out and go wide but with the numbers I’m getting, I’ll probably stay in as I’m about 23% borrows to 77% sales right now and my monthly growth is about 30% which is nothing to sneeze at.

I did have a professional edit done and I also had a decent cover designed for the book. While my reviews aren’t all that many, they are five and four stars and they came organically, not through some service. I know Amazon is cracking down on such practices. I’m going to endeavor to put more of an enticement to leave a review in the back matter of future books but like I said, I’m still learning here.

I welcome comments and civil discourse, so if anybody has something to add or something they’d like to ask, I’m open to it.

I’m considering doing a series of short videos on writing. I’d like to share my past experiences writing for film and TV as well as my current experiences as an independent writer of fiction. I know it all sounds sort of egocentric and I guess it is to a point but it’s really about passing on some of my experiences. No journey in the arts is specific, except to the person it’s happening to and these days it seems like a big chunk of the film industry has lost its mind until you sit back and realize it’s just another cycle. Right now the cycle is comic books. In the past it’s been westerns, space opera, dystopian futures, spy films, teenage beach blanket bingo type films (the campy bad ones – not to be confused with excellent films like Big Wednesday), Vampire films shiny and otherwise and the list goes on. Sooner or later, the comic book stuff will hit a saturation point and another cycle will take off.

I’ve had limited success and have been hurt by the cycle as my producers tried to clamber on to the market juggernaut instead of trying to forge their own path (a risk you always take with the money people) and with situations like that, I’d like to transfer some of the stories I’ve been telling at parties into video.

Of course, it’ll very much be a mad man screaming profanities into the empty wilderness or at least off of my back deck, which I’m sure will please the neighbors to no end.

This week has been interesting as far as my book sales are going. Things are steadily increasing. My sales rank for Devil’s Gambit fluctuates between the 29,000 and 18,000 mark and has even made it into the top 100 in Technothrillers a few times in the last couple of weeks. Borrows on the book out of the KDP Select program are also doing well. As a starting author, Select is good for me because it allows more people to discover my books and at the same time, because my price is relatively low, I don’t take a huge hit in commission.

It’s all very positive… My Scottish genes are having a hard time with that but we’re learning to live with it.

Went out to Chatham Moto Park for the Motocross season opener. This had a more local feel to it than some of the events coming later in the year. The shooting conditions while dry were a bit difficult and it was pretty damn cold. Will warmer weather ever get here? Still, I got some good shots and got to see some good old rolling iron. There’s nothing like the smell of a two stroke, first thing in the morning.

The vintage bikes

Waiting for the next race… I just thought this kids focus was pretty cool.

I love Snake oil, it goes good on fries.

My agent once told me that any book on writing, no matter what had one good idea in it. The question was, were you willing to spend the twenty five bucks or so to find out what that idea is? The resounding answer based on the large number of books and programs to help along the aspiring or established author would point to a resounding, “Yes.”

I would offer that there are even books out there that offer far more than just one idea but they in my eyes tend to be more about structure than about just one aspect of writing.

I just recently picked up a book about writing outlines. Why? Well I’ve always had a hard time doing it. Mostly because each story I work on tends to need a different style of outline. I don’t know why this is, it’s just been my experience and it’s directly related to how my head is wired. So I’m always open to a better way to do things.

See I operate from a story coming out of a single scene and then like a clump of cells, it grows from there getting bigger and more complex until you see it start to be come an arm, a leg, or an entire creature. But for me that main scene is what I write for and why I write to get to it and then as new scenes pop up in my process, I want to write to them as well. So my outlining process looks pretty messy. I’ll have scene notes tacked up on my corkboard (virtual or real) related to those core moments I want to hit. It takes a few weeks to filter it all through.

Now the handy thing for me, is coming from film, I’m used to getting the ABC of the story out and if you want a crash course in mythic structure as related to western storytelling, film is a great place to learn and because film can be so lucrative (ha bloody ha) there’s a ton of books about the craft and the why of it. Most are complete shit which hasn’t stopped their authors from making a ton of money off of them but then books on how to win at Blackjack are really popular too I hear.

But back to the book I got on outlining. I’m working my way through it and frankly as a tool for me? Not so much. I also disagree with the author’s central premise because it’s based on the work of a Hollywood writer / script doctor who’s approach just drives me nuts. So that’s a miss for me. I’m not slagging the book, it might work for somebody else, it just doesn’t work for me.

It does however lean towards the most human concept of a ‘secret’ way to success. Part of this I’m sure is linked to how our brains are always looking for patterns. Which is not a bad thing. Lot’s of discoveries have come out of hours of observation and putting two and two together, of course this need to make sense of things has also led to some pretty wild conspiracy theories. Of course, patterns aside, sometimes shit just happens. I my mind, the only secret to having that breakout book or script is hard work, a good story, a decent platform to get it into people’s hands and a bit of luck. Never underestimate luck, good or bad.

Still, because I come from film I prefer to work in traditional three act structure. Of course you can space this out a bit more for a book. At it’s core, essentially, it’s setup – conflict – payoff. Obviously the setup and the payoff are the shortest points of that statement. Where the real magic happens is in the conflict section.

If you want to break it down into numbers, roughly 25% is dedicated to the first act, fifty percent to the second act and twenty five percent to the third act. In the first act, you’ve got your characters (all of them, at least the ones who matter even the bad ones) the world they live in and its rules and the setup or event that propels everything forward. In the second act, you’ve got the rising tension towards the midpoint of the story, which is an event that will turn everything ninety degrees towards the second to third act transition that will be the ultimate climax or the event that turns the story one more time towards its ultimate conclusion be it good or bad. The third act will deal with the aftermath or the return journey with their spoils or knowledge. Chris Vogler, covers this much better in his The Writer’s Journey or you can go to his source material, The Hero has a Thousand faces.

As usual, for me it all boils down to this. Write a good story, you believe in as best you can. If you keep doing that, who knows what you’ll achieve. But always be wary of Snake oil salesmen and the true value of that one good idea.

At the lake on a very warm January morning, with my son Colin.

At the lake on a very warm January morning, with my son Colin.

Some weeks with my son are easier than other weeks. This week was a bit of a rough one and when you add the need to get a new outline figured out for my next book, the stress can get to you a bit. Not that there’s much you can do when Colin’s behaviors are an issue. It’s not like he can communicate what’s causing his stress to you all you can do is redirect his attention and hope his brain will click onto the newly offered track. Sometimes this works, other times he’ll redirect for the length of the activity and then go right back into the behavior when it’s finished. This can be pretty disheartening.

So when today rolled around and I had the opportunity to head up to A Vicious Cycle in New Dundee for their open house I was good to go. I needed a ride to clear my head a bit and having a place to go to to shoot the shit about bikes for a few hours with other like minded and afflicted maniacs is a welcome diversion.

I’m at the far left.

If there’s one thing I like about the Adventure rider community is how even it is. There’s not a lot of ego amongst riders, maybe it’s because we’ve all had various dumb get offs trying to do stuff that might have exceeded our grasp at the time or maybe it’s just that we’re all looking for the next road or ride to have a go at and like to share what knowledge we possess about roads or tracks we’ve taken. We look at each others bikes and ask about this or that modification and how its worked out. Today was interesting because there was a lot of talk about extra fuel storage. Which lead to discussions about the evil of Ethanol and how it eats fuel pumps. Knock on wood, my bike is still going strong and I’ve had fuel in it at times that was so shitty I was amazed it even started.

Of course there were also plenty of bikes to look at and for a change, it was a really good variety, not just the usual Beemers, KLRs and V-Stroms. Some Veradaro’s showed up along with a Tenere and a Husqavarna (Which I’ll admit, I was lusting over a little).

It was on the ride back while I worked my way up through the gears, I realized I needed to create a whole new opening for the new book. Which isn’t such a big deal as I’m not cutting anything out, I’m just making sure that everything that comes after makes sense. Character motivation shouldn’t be a mystery. I mean how else can you identify with somebody if you haven’t a clue as to why they’re doing stuff?

So the bones of the chapter are laid out, I just need to fill in the gaps. It’s been a while since I’ve built something from scratch, it’s nice to know the muscles are still there.

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Sometimes you have to make the hard call and put a current project on the back burner. I had to do that last week. This was no seat of your pants story either. I had a very complete and detailed outline with a good arc and plenty of action. But when it just ends up being an exercise of putting words on a page and you’re not feeling the story anymore or the pull of writing, something’s not working and you need to pull back. Then again, this particular story always did have a difficult second to third act transition and I’ve been banging away for years at it to make it work. Once again though, it’s beaten me. The other side of the coin is it was more of a supernatural thriller and right now my feeling is that it wouldn’t be doing my ‘brand’ any favors, such as it is. I had hoped it could turn into another trilogy and it still may but now I think I’ll wait till my other two books in the, “Devil,” series are done before tackling it again. Distance and time always work well to shed new light on a problematic story.

That’s the bad news… at least to me.

The good news is, I’m working on the outline for Devil’s Salary and coming across all sorts of juicy research, a good chunk of which will find its way into the book. I hope to have it out by sometime in the Fall. It’s really clawing around the inside of my skull right now trying to get out.

Hold on tightly, let go lightly…

 

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The contest to win one of five copies of Devil’s Gambit is on till the 30th. Click here to enter.

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