Category Archives: Writing

Life in the fourth estate, dealing with publishers, opinions, and how self-publishing and user-generated content changes the world. And why bloggers are real people, too.

Last Nerd Chapter

Last week I did something I swore I’d never do, for reasons I never would have guessed, and yet I feel good about the decision: I broke an author contract. Earlier this year I signed a contract to update Professional WordPress: Design and Developmentfor a third edition, covering the major WordPress 4.0 update. I came into the project with good intentions: some new ways to convey the power of the WordPress platform, pages of good ideas from my co-authors Brad Williams and David Damstra, and a schedule that mostly consumed the summer months. A short run into the project, though, it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to keep my end of the writing and editing schedule, and continuing to make excuses was only putting Brad, David and the Wiley editorial team at risk for missing a short window with the production schedule.

Fortunately, the WordPress community is full of smart people who know how to write, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lisa Sabin-Wilson professionally and at WordCamps. She graciously agreed to come up to speed, join her co-worker Brad in editing the book, and picked up my end of the deal. Thanks, Lisa.

What went wrong? First of all, I am much busier with my day job than I anticipated. Writing requires concentration and a regular schedule; when I was working from home 75% of the time it was easy to carve out mornings and early evenings for writing; my daily commute eats that time. Second, or maybe a better first, I should have had an editorial calendar of my own coming in – things I wanted to see in the book, a list of edits and points to be covered, emphasized and explained, so that I felt I would have put my imprint on the printed product. But I’ve let my interest in the topic slide, so this become less a labor of love and more just one more project that needed attention. I think that’s the final disconnect: If you don’t love your material, it doesn’t flow and firing up the editor is suddenly work and not transcribing something more playful in its perceived value. You have to write because you love writing. It’s why I blog. It’s why I started playing with WordPress.

I let my co-authors down, which was never my intention, and I will remove my name as an author from the book, which hurts a bit as this WordPress book was the first of its kind and perhaps the book of which I am the most proud. But under-performing risked the quality of the finished product, and would be more injurious to everyone involved, including my own ego.

I’ve effectively written my last nerdy chapter, ending a run that started almost exactly twenty-five years ago, when writing about computer networking was a highly specialized and extra-nerdy endeavor. Three books, five co-authors, three editors, and three imprints later, I will readily admit that writing technical books was a huge impact on my career: it taught me to develop a story, to research the facts and underlying explanations (best career advice bit #4 from Sun Microsystems employee Neal Nuckolls: “Understand how the lower levels work before you work on the ones above”), and in some ways influenced my leadership and communication style. Most of that comes from a lunch I had with Tim O’Reilly in 1990, before he moved O’Reilly & Associates west, where he told me that a good technical book had to feel like you were learning by watching an expert play a complex game.

Mathematics Student, Summer 1979

Mathematics Student, Summer 1979 – Kazuko Suzuki and I have been friends for 33 years, and Christine Burnley and I worked together at Sun Microsystems. You never know where publishing leads.

I’m not calling the end to my book-writing endeavors just yet. Despite never having published anything outside of the math and engineering space (first publication: a puzzle solution in “The Mathematics Student” in the summer of 1979, in a newsletter that only had 20 issues), I think it’s time to dust off the hockey book (at least four people have asked about it in the last three months, including the main character), I’m going to spend a fair bit of time re-learning signal processing and elementary electronics so I can get to work on a few guitar pedal ideas (and tend to the growing pile of “simple fix” projects in my office). I started outlining a book about parenthood but I’m not sure I’m an authority or even understand how the lower layers work (OK, to be fair, I understand those lower layers from high school health class but the actual parenting part is an ongoing experiment). I may finally, with authority and passion, just listen to a lot of music and write about it for J. David and the Star Maker Machine, as I’ve been promising since the 2nd edition of “Professional WordPress” went to print.

I’ll sign the postscript on my tech pubs run with a request: Buy and read technical books. Find out what you don’t know, and what questions you don’t know to ask. Discover how other people approach problems and craft solutions. Internet search engines make it way too easy to find answers to our questions, even if they are narrow or undershoot the possible solution space. E-books, and ebook subscription services like Safari Books Online (DISCLAIMER: all three of my books are available in Safari) make it easy to consume lots of content. If you find a category that’s not addressed in a way to fires your passion, well, I know some good book publishers.

Hockey (and WordPress) Book Update

Author Amy Julia Becker neatly summarizes what it takes to write a memoir, and upon further reflection I think that’s what my now decade-long effort to write “the hockey book” has become. Ten full seasons ago, I began scribbling notes on the back of printed rink directions and in a small reporters notebook I kept in my car, usually after one of my adult league games, reflecting on something I’d learned being a hockey parent. If the first step in creating a memoir is to actually live through the events, it’s clear that I was nowhere near done until I could neatly summarize that part of parenthood.

And so, with Bubba off to college, I think I’m at that point, a transition from living it to writing about it. No longer will I find myself mentally rewriting the ending, or extending by another half-chapter as I make some observation about a sport that we both love. A break in the action, both in the NHL and in the cycle of parenthood, should offer enough reprieve to get back up on the keyboard again.

It helps that Brad, David and I have just finished the major work on Professional WordPress, 2nd edition just in time for your deep winter reading pleasure. Should January show its receding face without the start of an NHL season, we’ll all have motivation (with code samples) to memoir-ialize.

“Game Face” Part 2: Yaroslavl Lokomotiv memorial

Here’s the second half of my fictional, hockey-themed short story. We pick up in a locker room in Chicago.

For the next three hours, we have more fun. It’s a repeat of yesterday’s pond adventure.

We beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, in their building, snapping a five-game losing streak. We win our next game, and the one after that, the first time this team has had a hat trick of wins since I was in high school and watching on television. And Dmitry has turned into a fan and media favorite. He’s still the fun loving, “Look at me I’m a Russian bear” guy in the locker room, but on the ice he’s a point producing machine. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s scoring, maybe it’s the fans in the stands wearing his jersey completing the virtuous circle. One possibility is the t-shirts that are an allusion to his Lokomotiv days, rather loudly proclaiming “D-Train coming through,” but I find the image of a train with arms, legs, hockey stick and helmet on top of Dmitry’s smiling mug more frightening than inspiring. It’s Thomas the Tank Engine as drawn by Salvador Dali on a bad acid day. But it’s working, so once again I’ll shut my rookie mouth and remain thankful my road roommate doesn’t snore like the Russian bear he purports to be.

The next three weeks are a blur, as our expected outcome for the year – a high draft pick – has officially been replaced by dreams of a second season. We’re only a few points out of the last playoff spot, and selling out every game down to the wire. Game 82 is really a Game 7 for us: win and we were in the playoffs for the first time in a long time, lose and we can all keep our early April tee times.

The last night of the regular season is what you dream about as a kid. It’s 16,840 people screaming for an hour before the puck drops, wearing anything with a logo on it, first-time fans dragged to the game by significant others and parents in the hopes that they’d bear witness to a small piece of sports history. I’ve never seen people so excited when faced with the opportunity to spend another $500 on playoff tickets, but there they are, part of something larger for one night. You can’t study this; you only experience it first hand.

We nurse a 2-1 lead into the third period, and every shot, every clearing attempt, every hit has the fans up from their seats. Dmitry slid to block a shot from the point with under two minutes to go, and misjudged the release. Instead of deflecting the puck off of his shinguards or pants, he caught it in the face, the pool of blood on the ice immediately silencing the fans. A towel pressed to his bloodied face, he leaves the ice wobbling, but waving. The place goes nuts, and that wall of sound alone was enough to carry us to a 3-1 win on an empty net goal.

Our GM comes to see us in the locker room, and tells us a story that I imagine is supposed to be inspiring. Seems he knew about the shinny game we played in the tundra called Chicago, and wailed that it was just an invitation to an injury. But nobody got hurt then, and he saw Dmitry walk off the ice a local hero after suffering an injury tonight, and that turn of events had changed his perspective. He was dispensing with superstition and hunches and going to follow our example of hard work and belief in positive outcomes. I’m not sure if he was channeling too much Phil Jackson on his way in, or if his belief system really was shaken by the last two months of hockey. The D-train t-shirts didn’t seem so weird at that point.

We get the playoff pairings early that evening, knowing already we’ll be going to Boston for a first round matchup. It doesn’t really matter, as we’ve accomplished the Rocky-esque ending simply by going the distance to another set of games. We lose to Boston in five games, but we had declared success before the series started. We accomplished something as a team.

Five months go by.

As a high school student I grew to hate Labor Day. It meant that I was going from a flexible, rule-free summer at the beach to more school, more rules, and more shoes that didn’t feel like flip-flops. This past summer was the first one in a decade that I appreciated in its entirety, despite – well, because of – its shortened duration due to an extended hockey season.

That season ended five months ago, as summer waxed stronger and Labor Day was half a calendar away. Summer’s gone; today it’s crisp and you can smell the hint of winter in the air. Snow is around the corner. I shudder, not because of the chill but because I’m wearing a new uniform today. Custom suit, dark grey, not a Reebok jersey with a name and number on the back. No longer “team in front, name in back”, it’s just my face without a hockey card to prompt recognition. I’ve traded in my hockey career for something in the real world, working for an agency that represents athletes, arenas and other public people and places. Buoyed by draft picks and making trades on the appeal of joining a playoff contender, the Devils didn’t need the services of a fourth liner called up from the AHL. Rather than going back to my Jersey shore hockey life, I crossed that Labor Day line one more time and said goodbye to both the beach and bench. Coach’s final bit of advice to me was to do one thing well. I solve puzzles, and that just doesn’t come up a lot on the ice.

Today’s brain teaser, however, takes me back to the rink I called my office earlier this year. Dmitry and I have some unfinished business that involves two gallons of blue paint.

Dmitry was killed in a car accident exiting the New Jersey Turnpike, probably racing to the airport and missing his intended exit while running late the whole time. His agent insisted that what passed for a will put me in charge of his remains, and that I’d know what to do. The fact that all of those late nights in strange hotels had revealed the answer didn’t make me feel any better about it.

Dmitry’s real heart-felt wish was to “play for long time with this team.” And so I have his cremated remains in a small canister, and while the ice engineers keep careful watch, I sprinkle a little bit of Dmitry’s ashes onto the blue lines between coats, then mix the rest into several gallons of paint in storage. He’ll be with the guys for another season, and I’ll come to visit as often as I can, which I expect and hope to be often. When I’m working through a client problem involving promotional rights or contract clauses, my eyes glaze, my mouth hangs open, and I swear I hear Dmitry yelling “To open! To open!” I haven’t yet learned how not to mouth an answer to him. My work game face gives me away, and I’m not sure I want to practice to improve on it.

“Game Face” Part 1: In Memory Of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv

A year ago today, the plane carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (the NHL of Russia) crashed with only one survivor. The outpouring of support from the hockey community was incredible. My only familiarity with Lokomotiv was via a web site that sold Russian hockey jerseys, and my connection to the team was as tenuous as a school-aged kid who picks a favorite team based on their colors or logo. But the crash reminded me that there are many things larger in life than hockey and money and daily stress; perhaps stimulated by the number of air miles I cover in a year for my job, or the number of late-night trips down the Garden State Parkway after adult league at the Ice House; in either case this one hit close to the home bench. My personal feelings toward Ilya Kovulchuk changed as he began personally financing fundraisers and support for the players’ families, taking significant chunks of his own off-ice time. It really did affect hockey families half a world away.

The IIHF website has a nice piece on the one-year anniversary of the horrific accident. As we stand a week away from yet another labor stoppage in the NHL, my hope is that Gary Bettman, and the club owners, take the time to read and think about this piece. They are arguing over how much to pay grown men to play a game, when there are so many larger issues just past the runway.

That’s the front story. The back story is that two years ago I submitted a piece to Stymie Magazine for their sports fiction contest. I didn’t win, nor do I think I even showed, but it was fun writing it and I’d like to have someone besides my friend Lemon read it. The saddle point connecting the story to today’s anniversary is that a player from Yaroslavl Lokomotiv figures prominently in the story. Again, this was a year before the crash, and I picked the team for the story based solely on their logo and colors, as any kid forced to choose with limited knowledge would. I tried to write what I knew, following the age-old advice given to budding writers, and I drew on my interactions with Coach Joe, Coach Garry, my father’s best friend Tony, Jay from the Far Hills Hockey Club (Mr. Dangle Pie), four separate days of playing poker in Atlantic City that preceded this story and one trip to the Russian food store on Route 10 in Livingston. This is a work of fiction, as team locations and history have been altered or invented to suit my ham-handed literary approach, which is only slighty less (unintentionally) amusing than my adult hockey league approach.

In memory of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team, and in hopes that we see a 2012-2013 NHL season, here is part one of “Game Face” (presented without commercial interruption). Part two will be posted shortly unless people throw digital tomatoes.

Game Face

“Just about two gallons of blue paint” is the answer that pops into my head. My left hand is holding a red Taj Mahal $5 chip on top of my two pocket cards while my brain muddles through a series of math problems to focus my attention away from the growing pot in the middle of the poker table. “How much paint do you need for the blue lines in a hockey rink” is the latest question I’ve conjured up. My head has gone into its own helmet-less hockey rush: two lines of two by eighty-five feet, painted in two coats is just shy of 700 square feet, which is what you’d get out of two gallons of paint. I file these random puzzles away for times like this, when I need a true poker face to hide the fact that there is a pair of kings under the likeness of Donald Trump on that chip. My roommates and I used to come up with all varieties of sports teasers, and they’d torture me about my glazed look until I came up with the answer, no matter how obscure the trivia domain. It’s easy to have a good poker face when you look like you’re completely out of the game. “Game face” was the nickname they gave to our late-night nerd fests, and replays of those sessions have served me well at the poker tables in Atlantic City.

I have a real job as well. It’s real in the sense that I get paid by a meager monthly direct deposit, and it also involves playing games. By day and some evenings, I’m a left wing for the Atlantic City Devils, the recently moved AHL affiliate of the same-named NHL club. The big club has been mired in a season of immense mediocrity, showing no relationship whatsoever to the team that won three Stanley Cups when I was a New Jersey youth hockey player. I’ve been a Devils fan all my life, and when my playing days at Princeton University were done, I showed up undrafted, unannounced and most likely unwelcome at training camp. I played the Jeff Halpern card, and it worked.

The Devils offered me a contract to play in their ECHL affiliate in Trenton, and unlike most of the other liberal arts majors in my graduating class, I had a job before college football season hit full stride. When the AHL team moved down the Parkway to Atlantic City, I moved up in stature and joined them. Through the last full winter season I’ve been a full-time resident of America’s Playground, supplementing my minor league salary with poker winnings, giving my parents mixed feelings about the “real world” skills I acquired on their dime. The truth is, my real world education began the day I was cut from the big club, and moved into a shared apartment in Trenton to play hockey for a living while putting those Ivy-colored plans aside.

Raking in a nice-sized pile of red chips, I feel my phone vibrate, and step away from the table but miss the call anyway. It’s a number that I recognize, somewhat terrified, as the NHL and AHL Devils general managers’ shared office in Newark. My stomach lurches as I play the voice mail, and then again when I play it a second and third time as I’m racing to the cashier and the valet.

My linemate and Russian roommate turned-quasi-brother Dmitry and I are being called up to the big club. Today. And I’m supposed to get Dmitry to the practice rink in Newark because they still don’t trust his English or driving skills enough for him to navigate on his own. It seems that injuries and a worse-than-usual start to the season have cleared two roster spots, and they’re ours to retain.

On any given summer Sunday, driving the Garden State Parkway for a hundred miles between Atlantic City and Newark is pure torture, an adventure in accidents, construction, congestion, and everything else that gives Jersey a bad name. You’re emotionally exhausted just going from Point A to B. That’s the feeling I get when I show up at the practice rink the next morning for the pre-game skate: heads are down, guys go through the routine with perfunctory precision, but no passion. I vaguely know the head coach, as he stood behind the visitor’s bench when my Tigers played Cornell a few seasons ago. His players liked him then, and his players like him now, a coach who knows the hard work that goes into playing this relatively simple sport professionally. It’s not at all clear to me why the team isn’t performing well. There’s speed, there’s skill, there’s definitely coaching ability, but there’s little in terms of organizing effort. I’m tempted to call it a game of professional shinny, but opt wisely to keep my rookie mouth shut, even if the coach gives me the slightest perceptible nod of recognition the first time I’m on the ice.

Our first week is what I expected, with two games in which Dmitry and I each get about seven minutes of ice time. We’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath of hockey – first do no harm – loosely translated as “bigger back check is a bigger pay check”. Translation is my larger role in the locker room and in our temporary housing, as the more formal travel and dress requirements, tighter schedule and generally faster pace of life on the big club are pushing Dmitry to his legal language limits. I’m never sure how much of this real-world helplessness is an act, and how much is his longing for some local family. He’s been in the country for over a year after leaving Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Russian Kontinental League. One afternoon I drive him over to the Russian supermarket on the other side of Essex County, and he’s in heaven, chatting with the clerks, finding a taste of home in New Jersey, and trying to explain all of the strange canned foods to me.

While the supermarket triggers some happy memories of the northern parts of Russia, the weather has been cold enough to inspire some Siberia jokes. The belts in my car complain all the way to the charter jet terminal as we load up for a trip through the Midwest, where it is colder, gloomier and more snow-covered. Outdoor hockey weather, according to our Canadian teammates, but really an uncanny and unfortunate depiction of our collective mood.

Our day-off practices on the road are usually held at a local rink that’s equidistant from our hotel and the major city arena. You can count on seeing some out of market fans there, looking for an autograph or just watching practice. Our equipment guys do their best to make sure what’s likely a pair of high school locker rooms feels like home for a few hours. Hence our collective shock when we walk into the practice rink in suburban Chicago to find everything but our skates and gloves missing from the locker stalls, jerseys replaced by heavy sweatshirts. My locker nameplate should have proudly announced my arrival in the Windy City but was taped over with a note that simply read “Shinny on the pond. 11:30. Mandatory”. Had our general manager, or player’s union lawyers seen this, they’d have gone apoplectic.

We file out the side door, skates tied and tossed over shoulders like schoolboys going down to the local hockey pond. In the middle of the deep, dark ice was a pile of sticks – our pro quality, nickname-embellished sticks – dwindling rapidly as the coach grabbed and alternately tossed them at the nets. Like riding a bike, the motions of putting on our skates while literally freezing our butts off and warming up without taking out errant figure skaters came back to us as the childhood memories I suppose they were meant to resurface.

Pond hockey is harder than indoor hockey. There are no boards to corral shots wide of the goal, or to help you angle a player to gain position. It’s about passing and precision and playing until you know where your short-term linemates will be at any time. There are no offside calls, no faceoffs, no whistles. We come out stiff, for maybe ten minutes, but realize that this really is our practice.

The fun begins.

One of the rookies flies by a veteran defenseman, hollering “dangle pie” on his way to the net. There was no dasherboard into which to check him as punishment. Dmitry and I manage to get one shift together; I hear his “To Open! To Open!” call for a pass and I give it to him with “To shoot! To shoot!”. His English has improved to include the use of infinitives in all cases, especially when he’s scoring. I’ve almost forgotten how much fun it is to skate with him when we’re playing well. He stands at rapt attention when we’re on the side of the pond, listening carefully to every word from the coaches, the players, maybe even the louder fans who have come to watch, because he is being a “student too.” Someone leaked my back story to him.

We are perhaps the first professional team to have Starbucks deliver a Coleman canister of hot water to a rink’s exterior so that we can thaw our frozen water bottles at the halfway point. We escape from pond hockey unscathed by cold weather and probing questions from the press, perhaps utilizing the same luck that lets our GM survive league meetings. I’m not sure how he’s seen by his peers, since he bought the team as its fortunes were fading, and his eccentricities for drafting players based on lucky numbers, or demanding that his hunches be played out on the ice or in trades, sometimes make it feel like we are managed by a tarot deck.

The next night, our lines are shuffled more than a little, enough to make the broadcast crew wonder exactly what happened at yesterday’s practice. Coach’s pre-game speech is his simplest of the year.

“Boys, I’m done trying to play someone else’s poker hand.” I get a quick but obvious stare.

“This is a gin game; it’s about finding what will work with what to help us win. You proved to me you know how to play and have fun and figure out how to make things work. Do that.”

Scalzi/Wheaton Book Of Awesomeness

One of my summer projects was to spend more time writing, and I used a variety of writing contests (Erika Napoletano, ESPN/Stymie and Scalzi/Wheaton) to force action on that thought. I think I had the most fun working on the Scalzi/Wheaton fanfic contest, mostly because it was the first time I’d written science fiction, fan fiction, or even any kind of fiction excepting a few Little League board meeting minutes that needed the extra sauce.

I didn’t win the fan fic contest, but it was fun.

The winners, along with stories by Scalzi, Wheaton and others (and some insane stuff like a song, an interview with Scalzi, and sci-fi poetry) are now published in Clash of the Geeks. This is beyond awesome in so many ways: it’s free, it’s DRM-free, it’s instantly downloadable, and it’s free. But it’s also meta-awesome, because if you want to download the book, you really should also make a contribution to the Lupus Alliance of America, per the directions and incentives on the right sidebar; the whole project started as a fund raising idea and if you are inclined to participate in the “free as in beer” part of the deal you should support efforts for some “free as in freedom” for those suffering from lupus.

Last Writing Contest: Vote For Me! Don’t Win Anything!

I’ve entered one final writing contest this summer: Erika Napoletano challenged readers to come up with 300 words describing a picture. I made it well under the wire (time and count wise) this time, and you can see my tribute to urban cruft in the comments section of the entry announcing the contest.

Vote for a winner. I won’t even try to game the system and tell you to vote for me, because it’s not like I’m giving out great prizes over here to my loyal dozen or so readers (discounting family members paid to look for typos). But, like, I could use the prize, even if it’s a bag of Cheetos needed to complete my lying-down dog yoga pose.

Robert Heinlein Had His Bad Days, Too

Robert Heinlein was the first science fiction author that I read. Not read as in one book or one story, but read as in going to the library (pre-Amazon days), finding every single piece of his work, and checking them all out early in the summer and using those long, hot days by the YMCA pool to work through what is essentially the sci-fi canon. In the 35 or so intervening years I’ve taken the same approach to Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Greg Bear, and others, but Heinlein definitely imprinted a love of the genre.

Scalzi has a blog entry about Heinlein as seen through a new biography of his life, as part of Tor’s online forum dedicated to Heinlein. What I liked about Scalzi’s commentary was the way in which he captured Heinlein’s bad days as a writer. When I half-joked about crossing “writer” off of the potential career list, I did so knowing that there are authors who are more prolific and creative than me, and many late-night slots, plane trips and hours spent in proximity to outdoor water are made wonderful because of them. I never thought that being a writer meant having a bad day at the office. Scalzi shines the same light on science fiction authorship that Rush drummer Neil Peart aims at the rock and rock lifestyle in Road Show.

When New Magazines Go Old School

Here’s a point-counterpoint of the new and newer that’s left me scratching my head a bit. EPSPN Magazine and Stymie Magazine jointly announced a sports fiction contest, with the winner(s) gaining a highlight in ESPN, Stymie, or somewhere other than the tearsheet above the men’s urinal (or maybe there too, courtesy of the afore-mentioned bathroom print vehicle). The supposed deadline for notifications was “on or about July 15,” according to the rules posted online.

July 15th has come and gone. I called ESPN’s magazine editorial offices, left three messages, and haven’t heard a thing. No word back, not even a “not our department” return call. That’s not a healthy kind of arrogance, even if it’s just ignoring a call you have no idea how to handle, and it’s certainly not the kind of reader appreciation the print industry should be expressing at this juncture. I see issues getting smaller, not thicker, which means the print ad market isn’t supporting the editorial content like it once did. There’s nothing on the ESPN or ESPN Magazine websites that even acknowledges this contest, let alone an update on number of submissions, notifications or

The real story and timeline can be found on Stymie Magazine’s Facebook page. Not their website, mind you, but their other online home away from their online home. Turns out they didn’t get the submissions from ESPN editorial until July 18th (read down the update list), and they’re just now bucket-sorting them. So those of us who pushed to meet the deadline, met the length restrictions and otherwise played by ESPN’s rules will enjoy a much closer relationship with Stymie’s loosely-run and looser-knit community, while playing the waiting game.

And there’s the difference. Stymie, an online (until now) magazine, has an open line to its readers, makes them feel part of the editorial process, and lets them see the issues being crafted. ESPN, which I started reading when I felt Sports Illustrated wasn’t keeping pace with the changing face, faces and facets of sports, feels horrendously old school right now.

My Next Career Isn’t In Writing

I decided to spend some time working on writing projects as I’m between jobs. Seemed like a good idea – dust off some short story ideas, enter a few writing contests, polish up the blog a bit, and of course finish the mythical, much-discussed but oft-ignored hockey book. What I’ve really done is write two stories, polish a book excerpt as a short story, ignore the book and spend more time promoting Professional WordPress.

Here’s what I’ve learned about life as a scribe:

You’ll need a real job to pay the bills. Industry standard payment rates for short stories range from 5 to 10 cents a word. So that 3,500 word sci-fi story that involves faster than light travel and quantum wave fluctuations will net you about $250 if you’re lucky. Do this for the joy of seeing your name in print, or to grow your own brand awareness as a writer. Or better yet, because you love writing.

You need a lot of ideas. I’d always thought of writing as a serial affair, cranking out one idea and then moving on to the next. It’s a portfolio management exercise, like any other job. At any time, you need a good dozen ideas kicking around, so that if get a sudden flash of creativity or think of a clever artistic device you can immediately apply it to a work in progress. I guess this is why writers keep notebooks; I use Evernote to clip ideas from lifestream to appropriate wordstream.

There are a ton of magazines, online and print. I’ve always been fascinated by magazines: narrow interest, editorial mixed with reporting mixed with photos, regular content updates. Like news reporting (and the main reason to read newspapers, comic strips), magazines have bloomed in online only mode. Finding an outlet for your keyboard frustrations isn’t hard given resources like Duotrope, but you still have to write what the editors want the readers to read. More publications means more background reading and stylistic interpretation. I don’t really want to rewrite my short story about finding small miracles in Lake Placid, NY as a faith-based story, because it’s a hockey story first and foremost. Improving your writing is about finding your voice and then sticking to it, I think.

Deadlines help. I loved writing on deadline for SunWorld Magazine (OMG that was 15 years ago, and yes, I did submit columns via email). If I establish deadlines for the hockey book, it might get done. Having a writing schedule for Professional WordPress was critical to getting it done and avoiding scope creep.

Bottom line – I’ve learned quite a bit, have a much deeper appreciation for writers, editors, and publishers, and will not do the math comparing the hourly return on writing short stories to that of bagging groceries at Shop Rite.

“Don’t Touch My Stuff” FanFic Entry

It’s been exactly a month since I was last employed full-time. One of my goals for the inter-gig session was to spend more time writing, and branching out from snarky blog entries and technical content in particular. I entered two short stories in the ESPN/Stymie Magazine sports fiction contest, and then only two days into free agency I discovered the Wheaton/Scalzi fan fiction contest. I decided I had to enter.

Minor problems include: I’ve never written fan fiction, and haven’t read much of it to get a sense for the range and scope. Aside from my two sports stories, I’ve never written fiction of any sort. It’s the kind of thing that takes years of practice to get character development, voicing, and plot development out of rambling mode and molded into something that others might want to read. Finally, since the two characters involved are one of my favorite sci-fi authors (John Scalzi) and a former sci-fi TV show actor (Wil Wheaton), I felt I had to wade into the sci-fi pool a bit.

On the other hand: The contest will benefit the Lupus Alliance of America, and knowing a few people who battle this chronic illness, if there’s a chance my writing might help then it’s great leverage. I set a simple goal for my time off and intended to meet it. And I figured I could start with “write what you know” and see where it took me.

One old idea about quantum physics expanded into a 500 word outline. One new idea that tied together two of my favorite things in Las Vegas (that write what you know bit) and provided a sensible plot and setting for the story helped. Two good writing sessions, two hours of editing, a bit of effort to refine and fix cross references and it was done. There’s a 2,000 word limit, and I started north of 2,800 before coming in perilously close to the upper bound. Breakfast with equally unemployed buddy Sluggo helped tremendously; I was on the fence about finishing this and after sharing my goal of “writing some more” with him I felt obligated to finish. He’s also a bond trader by profession, and was therefore indirectly responsible for some of this. Thanks, old friend.

Within a minute of hitting “Send”, I got an acknowledgement from Scalzi’s web site that my text was received and ready for entry. That’s significantly better than ESPN did; I have no idea if they got what I sent or even care. The Scalzi-Wheaton fest is also non-exclusive, so with only a mild set of disclaimers, I’m including the entire story here for comments, criticisms and perhaps enough sympathy to warrant someone sending me a box of chocolate chip cookies. Letting others read your writing (especially something that might truly suck) is like hearing your own voice coming out of a 1970s-vintage Radio Shack cassette recorder. You wince, until someone says that you sound like that all of the time and they don’t mind.

Disclaimers: (1) It’s not entirely safe for work. There are four letter words in it, but nothing you haven’t heard me say before and no f-bombs. (2) What’s below is the whole story, but I added links to relevant bits of context for the uninitiated. (3) Reading this you might think I dislike bond traders, banks, or action figures. All untrue. This is a fictional story, not news reporting. (4) If you haven’t clicked on the link above that points to the contest announcement, do so, or none of this makes any sense whatsoever.

Without further ado, here’s Don’t Touch My Stuff.

I am walking overhead. BD4 repeats this at least twice a day. He is a bond trader at our very large bank. Merely casting his throaty screams into code, turning math in money, is all overhead in his moneyed game. BD4 reflects neither his proper monogram nor surname subscript; it’s how I differentiate him from BD1 through BD3, who are better traders and entrusted with even more capital. BD4 is compensating. I may be walking overhead, but they are the Big Douches, one through four in a fortunately very limited series. As long as they don’t touch my stuff, they can name-call all they like, because I get paid mid-six figures to sling code in an office graced with well-placed, highly visible action figures. It’s my only outwardly visible affectation. Very few people know about my wide variety of death and dead body phobias, for example (I’ve never been to a funeral). What matters is that everyone in the office is clear on the basic premise that nobody can touch my shit, or the code will not flow.

I’m in this job because I’m really good at math but pretty much suck at accepted physics. Dabbling in string theory was fun during my brief period as a physics major, because it relied on the mathematical power that comes from being able to describe the obvious and invisible parts of the universe with a pencil. I did, however, learn some politics in the physics mix. You don’t challenge local convention; you don’t question the Albert’s intentions; you don’t use the word “entanglement” in a situation without double entendres. Fail any of these implicit intelligence tests and you’re beaten back into the math building by the higher-order nerd phyla.

So here I am with the guys with the nice hair and nicer clothes and nary a femtosecond of appreciation for science fiction, online comics, or the feng shui of properly selected and placed geek accoutrements. It’s a job. In the words of a much-revered engineer, I only work to pay for my hobbies, and this weekend, that hobby entails a comic and sci-fi convention road trip to Vegas. If there’s a ticket to be purchased, or a line in which to stand, I will be there.

Thursday evening’s itinerary: bolt out of the office, subway to train to Newark airport. Once through security I drop myself next to the gate to catch up on today’s web comics, having been denied the guilty pleasure by BD4’s early morning insistence on a code change. Knowing that Wil Wheaton is speaking at this con, I dig through the Diesel Sweeties blog archives to find the pixelated image of Wheaton wearing his bête noir clown sweater. Stitches stretched to the point of visual pain are captured perfectly by cartoonist Richard Stevens. Re-reading the backstory on Wil’s blog takes the edge off of the pre-travel cattle herding with a few laughs. It’s visual schadenfreude – Wil looks miserable and that picture has been disseminated so broadly on the internet that it’s effectively indestructible. It will, in fact, survive a nuclear attack. I know I’ll be punished for even mere bad thoughts about someone who has become one of my favorite blogger-authors. But it doesn’t stop me.

My flight is called. I clam the laptop and slip it into my backpack only to recoil in horror at seeing That Thing in my bag. I know I had not double- and triple-checked my packing with enough thoroughness. The karmic payback will begin very shortly, I fear, because I’m upsetting the quantum balance of our known universe in a Very Bad Way. That Thing isn’t the spawn of one of the Fantastic Four, nor a not safe for work toy that one of the BDs slipped into my office. That Thing is why I’m a financial engineer and not a physicist.

Einstein never liked the idea of quantum entanglement. He called it “spooky action at a distance” and was mildly freaked out that particles in one part of our visible world could affect the states of others, possibly far away, instantaneously. It’s tantamount to faster than light travel. It’s the fictional stuff of hard science fiction. Hard core quantum physics experimentalists have been trying to entangle photons in their “don’t cross the streams” uber-cautious and utterly precise manners. They were less than impressed when I saw the whole thing as a huge stack of probability functions that could be manipulated using much more mundane devices. Any physical event that bumps into these quantum probability functions serves as a starting point, like writing and rewriting the same sector on a USB memory stick to force a quantum tunneling effect in the semiconductor substrate.

My physics potential was shunted to ground when I suggested a bit too publicly that FTL information conveyance could be stimulated through an act as regular and simple as repeatedly copying a porn collection to removable media. Physicists have such shitty senses of humor when kicked in their quantum mechanical nads.

Here’s the rub: I found a way entangle USB memory sticks if you blast the bits through them with the precision of a nanometer scale gem cutter. That’s the genesis of That Thing, which seemed like a good idea to reduce latency on the trading operation, giving our guys a few milliseconds of lead time over the rival banks. It was a thoroughly good idea, but screwing with quantum mechanics has messy side effects. Instantaneous communication between floor and exchange was great until I root-cause diagnosed the side effects of forcing probability waves to be somewhat less random. Remember that day when the market crashed in about twelve seconds, and then mysteriously recovered?

This shit works provided you tolerate its random behavioral and environmental artifacts. Then again, I’ve never separated the Thing pairs more than a few miles, and I’m not really sure what happens at distances quantified in measurable fractions of a light second. The side effects never bother me, because they are no worse than the real-world crap I get from real-world co-workers. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in the real world, not in the trading floor world, and not in the quantum world. Einstein wasn’t completely wrong. You get action at a distance from the entangled pairs, but it comes at the cost of injecting more randomness into the local region on the other end. Heisenberg also plays here: forcing quantum states on one end means you get whopping weirdness waves on the other. And of course it’s highly observer dependent. You need a pretty graphic imagination to even attempt to make sense of what might – and does — happen.

I land in Vegas and make it to the MGM Mirage hotel. Actual time, jet lag, excitement about three days of nerd festivities and abject horror at the little friend I’ve accidentally brought along conspire to make me pass out immediately after checking into my room. I’m anticipating tomorrow in every possible way. Perhaps more than I’d bargained for.

John Scalzi hosts the first session Friday morning and it’s a pitch-perfect way to start. I love Scalzi; he’s decanting old people into new bodies and laughing at politics and social situations all at once. I keep a copy of his Judge Sn Goes Golfing in my office, mostly to make the BDs think I know something about life on the links. This thought is foremost in my mind as terror rears its quantum entangled skull only moments after I sit down.

Scalzi takes the stage as an orc, looking as though he just stepped off a Hollywood back lot.

One of the BDs has obviously touched my shit; I’m guessing he moved the limited edition battle orc (custom green skin, done by my friend at the comic shop in Midtown) on top of the Scalzi novella. The randomness has been injected via the New York lunch break side of That Thing’s peer.

Scalzi has some kind of creepy green makeup on his skin, and very high quality rubberized mask that blends with the skin tones perfectly. He looks like the love child of Sue Sylvester and a badly rendered Shrek with armor. The visual is so lifelike, so real, so horribly frightening that I do what any properly trained engineer would: find a unicorn chaser in a new browser tab.

Wireless connectivity in the Mirage hotel isn’t great to begin with, especially in the revamped “Event Center” that used to be home to Siegfried and Roy and their fluffy tiger friends. I’m hoping that I can purge the persistent image from my retinas before Scalzi brings local comedian Mac King to the stage for whatever comes next. Mac King is yet another of my heroes; he lambasts the established entertainment circuit and yet pays pretty serious magic homage to old S&R. In his regular daytime gig, King trades places with a stuffed tiger flying over the audience in a box. That funny combination of artistic allusions goes horribly wrong expanding into a set of probability wave functions when King uses the same mechanic to summon Wil Wheaton onto stage.

The next tenth of a second goes something like this:

A flash thunderstorm rumbles over the Strip as the fake volcano in front of the Mirage erupts. The front of house is hit by lightning, making the volcano interesting for the first time this decade.

My MacBook sucks enough packets out of the ether to load a Boing Boing unicorn chaser story, painting over the Evil Clown Sweater image last seen as I left the East Coast. Shit shit shit bad bad bad.

A peripheral flash of light tickles my eyes; a few photons confirm a disturbance of the quantum balance in the local region.

Wheaton roars, somewhat literally, out of Mac King’s cardboard box suspended over the stage. He’s wearing the clown sweater, riding a large cat with a unicorn’s horn (uh oh) that’s attempting to fly with wings that look like they were grafted (badly) from a model shop Pegasus and OMG THAT GEL HAIRED SON A BITCH TOUCHED PEGASUS I’M GOING TO CRUSH HIS THUMBS WITH MY THOR HAMMER.

My saving grace, if there can be one at this point, is that I wasn’t skimming the archives of alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die as this scenario unfolded. I can explain some things, but not the repercussions from that one. I am not a dick, even though I work with some.

There are more camera flashes at this very moment than I can believe; some are people trying to capture the absurdity of the moment and the rest are more classically trained attendees trying to illuminate the guy wires and effects props they’re certain are responsible for this reality-bending visual.

This huge influx of photons helps nullify the effect of entangled bits wreaking havoc. Local region stability improves when there’s a puff of smoke and Wheaton walks across the stage to Scalzi, who is removing his rubber orc head and putting his glasses back on so the two of them don’t trade weapons blows by accident. I wish that I had hallucinated the whole thing, but there’s photographic proof. Images devoid of JPEG artifacts and Photoshop defects surface and are circulated wildly after the session.

Along with a few hundred other people, I dutifully walk the perimeter the casino floor to get in line for a Wheaton signing, hoping that I’ve exhausted the randomness stored in my little quantum stowaway. I want to enjoy a randomness-free fifteen seconds of fame encounter that were a primary reason for making this trip.

When I finally get to the table, he fixes the best Evil Wil Wheaton stare at me, and says plain as day “There’s a dead body by the monorail tracks.”

Balance is restored and I still like him.