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September, 2012:

Odd Lots

The Memoirs Mindhack.

I have to take a break for a day or two. My subconscious is telling me it’s tired, in the usual way: It pouts and refuses to produce. Fatigue can cause similar symptoms, which is why I go to bed so early that my friends laugh at me. But I’ve been quite well-rested in the last week or ten days, and yet getting started has sometimes been a struggle.

Writer’s block is serious business. So I decided to hack myself.

Half of the struggle against writer’s block is just getting yourself to write something. What you’re writing is less important than engaging the gears and backing off on the clutch. This is not news to me or anyone; I heard it from Ted Sturgeon himself, at the Clarion workshop in 1973. His suggestion went so far as to suggest typing a story out of the newspaper, just to be typing something. I’ve tried this a time or two, and it’s not especially effective. (I’ve sometimes wondered if what Ted Sturgeon called “writer’s block” was actually clinical depression.) During my recent months with Ten Gentle Opportunities, I’ve tried another mindhack against writer’s block, with terrific success: Work on your memoirs.

Most people don’t understand what this means. A lot of badly written books about annoying people (culminating in that consummate literary fraud, A Million Little Pieces) have turned the public off entirely to the idea of memoirs. Make no mistake: Memoirs don’t have to be published to be useful. They don’t even have to be finished. (I suspect my own may never be.) I’m writing my memoirs as an exercise in remembering, to get the facts and impressions about my life down in written form before the memories decay, as memories clearly do. I don’t expect to publish them, though I may allow friends to read them. In a sense, I’m backing myself up to disk.

What I’ve discovered, almost by accident, is this: After typing a few hundred words of my own story, my subconscious wakes up and stops pouting. I then open Ten Gentle Opportunities and I’m off at a trot. It works almost every time. It works better than absolutely everything else I’ve ever tried, and having been writing for almost fifty years, I’ve tried a lot.


I have some theories:

  • We all like talking about ourselves. The material is always interesting and thus the writing is a lot more fun. If there’s no one around to annoy, there’s no harm in it.
  • There’s less work involved. We already know the story and don’t have to make up a plot. The universe is familiar, and to a great extent documented online. I was able to find a certain Chicago-area manhole cover on Google Street View after thinking I may have imagined it. (Don’t ask.)
  • Our life story is, after all, a story. Things happen. Characters suffer, learn, and grow. Funny situations rise above the disorder. Remarkable people bump into us, and we’re never the same. (“Hi. I’m Grace Hopper. Have a nanosecond.”) Change happens, and change is a helluva teacher. Telling our own story engages the same gears as telling stories we make up. And the challenge, after all, may be no more than getting into first gear.

Someone in my inner circle asked me if the writing had been painful. That’s a hard question. Writing can be painful, and some kinds of writing must be painful, if the idea is to allow a reader to empathize with someone’s pain. Writing about being dumped by three girlfriends (maybe four, depending on how you define “girlfriend”) was in fact surprisingly healing. I thought about the events from their perspectives, and in one case realized that a girl had taught me something crucial that I refused to face for almost 45 years. Wherever she is (and she may not even be alive) I leaned back in my chair, told her she was forgiven, and wished her nothing but the best.

On the other hand, I have not yet begun telling the story of my father’s hideous illness and death. Once I head into that, all bets are off.

So if you’re a writer and you get stuck, take a walk around the block. In this business, the blood’s gotta pump. If when you get back you still can’t get the engine to turn over on that YA paranormal sparkly robots vs. zombies epic, open a new document, pick a scene in your own plot, and tell the story.

Zoom! Off you go.

Just don’t forget to click back to the robots.

Odd Lots

  • I’ve installed Lazarus 1.0 without mayhem, and have created a few simple programs with it. So far, no glitches. My recommendation is still cautious. Nonetheless, I’d be interested in hearing other people’s experiences with the new release.
  • Carmine Gallo wonders why more people aren’t doing image-rich PowerPoint presentations. Um…it’s because drawing pictures is way hard compared to writing text. Why is there no mention of this either in the article or in the comments?
  • Here’s a great timesaver: Instead of making political posts on Facebook, point to this. Done! Effortless! (Link courtesy S. Hudson Blount.)
  • And if that doesn’t work for you, this may. (Link courtesy Jim Mischel.)
  • I guess the evidence is piling up: It’s time to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and ask yourself: Does this political opinion make my head look small?
  • I’m glad that somebody else besides me noticed that The Atlantic came back from the dead mostly by publishing articles calculated to raise people’s blood pressure. I was a very satisfied subscriber back in the 90s and early oughts, but I suspect now that I never will be again.
  • Don’t believe what the MSM says about volcanoes. Or about DNA. Or maybe anything else.
  • Maybe we can give them (the MSM) something for Christmas this year. And then tell them to put a sock in it.
  • The article I mentioned in my September 8, 2012 Odd Lots about transistor radio manufacturers tacking unused transistors onto their circuit boards to up the transistor count was in fact “The Transistor Radio Scandal” by H. M. Gregory, in Electronics Illustrated for July, 1967; p. 56. Some manufacturers used transistors for diodes, which was maybe half a notch better. The article includes some mighty weird schematics, too. Worth digging for, if you have piles of old mags somewhere.
  • If our understanding of solar physics is accurate, sunspots might become impossible (at least for awhile) by 2015 or 2020. (Full paper here.) The magnetic fields that create sunspots have been getting weaker by about 50 gauss per year for some time. Field strength is now at about 2000; once that value hits 1500 gauss, some research suggests that sunspots may not form at all. This is not new news, but it’s interesting in that it’s a bit of poorly understood science that most of us will live to see confirmed or falsified. At any rate, I’m guessing we will not be working Madagascar on half a watt into a bent paperclip again for awhile, as the late George Ewing WA8WTE used to say.
  • I’ve identified a new trigger for Creeping Dread: Hearing the fans incrementally rev up on what was assumed to be an idle computer.

My Hair Is ( Finally) On Fire

I’m certainly behind schedule. I’m modestly over (word) budget. I’m still wracked by doubts as to whether the whole loony concept makes sense. But today I experienced a breakthrough, and finally, as Jim Strickland so wonderfully puts it, began writing like “your hair is on fire.” My final, trademark Jeff Duntemann mayhem-filled action climax is well underway. I hope to finish it (and thus the book) in less than a week. To do that, my hair will have to be on fire and remain on fire for a little while longer.

I’ve done this before. I’ve actually done it a lot, which may, at least in part, explain my hairline. In my system of measurement, one “Writing Like Your Hair Is On Fire” unit is equal to 2,000 words captured in one 24-hour period. In my history as a fiction writer, I’ve achieved as many as 2.7 WLYHIOFs. In nonfiction I’ve managed 4.5–and that was back when my hair was vanishing at 40% the speed of light. No wonder.

Ten Gentle Opportunities has been an excruciating project for a number of reasons. It’s humor, and humor is hard. More than that, it’s a love story. It’s actually either two or two and a half love stories, depending on which Love Story standard unit you use. I’ve never written a love story. Now I’m writing two and a half of them, all at once. For the love stories to make sense, I also have to include an AI sex scene. It’s actually an AI menage a trois…but before anybody gets bent out of shape, I need to add that the AIs remain fully clothed throughout (Simple Simon is incapable of removing his clothes) and no naughty bits are mentioned whatsoever. Among humans, sex (as my mother so often insisted) may well be chemistry. Among the AIs of the Tooniverse, it’s undocumented kernel call 105.

For the past ten days I’ve been gnawing on the love story problem, writing a few hundred words, then yanking them out and writing another (different) few hundred words when the first batch didn’t look right. Humorous or not, I’m trying very hard to create characters with some depth to them, which means that character and relationship arcs are important. In this kind of writing, you can’t just reach for the starships anytime you get bored with the people. (I’m famous for that.) I have a plan, and I’m stickin’ to it. If it means blowing my self-imposed deadline, so be it.

As for the hair, hey: There is life after hair. I’m living proof.

Odd Lots

  • My old friend and fellow early GTer Rod Smith has posted a great many excellent pictures he took at Chicon 7, including a book signing that I attended.
  • My mother’s cat Fuzzbucket died yesterday, at 16 years and change. He outlived my poor mother by twelve years, and while skittish as a kitten eventually warmed to me. I’ve never had a cat (for obvious reasons, of which I have four right now) but of all the cats I’ve never had, Fuzzbucket was my favorite. He kept his own LiveJournal page, and the final entry brought a tear to my eye.
  • For those who couldn’t attend Chicon and were cut off from viewing the Hugo Awards by an idiotic copyright protection bot, you’ve got another chance: The award ceremony will be re-streamed tomorrow night, September 9, at 7 PM central time.
  • This morning’s Gazette had an ad for hearing aids, which bragged of their product having 16 million transistors. This is easier than it used to be, since all those transistors are in one container. Now, does anybody remember the days when ads bragged of radios containing six transistors?
  • And while we grayhairs and nohairs are recalling transistor counts in the high single digits, does anybody remember the early Sixties scandal (reported in Popular Electronics, I think) in which Japanese manufacturers would solder additional transistors into simple superhet boards and short the leads together, just so they could advertise the box as a “ten-transistor” radio?
  • Nice piece from Ars Technica on the deep history of the spaceplane.
  • Bill Cherepy sent a link to a marvelous steampunk tennis ball launcher, used for getting pull-strings for antennas (and as often as not, the antennas themselves) into high or otherwise inaccessible places. Gadgets like this (albeit not in steampunk dress) have been around for a long time, and I posted a link to this one (courtesy Jim Strickland) back in March.
  • Also from Bill (and several others in the past few days) comes word of a promising if slightly Quixotic attempt to preserve orphaned SF and fantasy. Here’s the main site. At least they’re offering money to authors and estates; most other preservation efforts (of pulp mags and old vinyl, particularly) are pirate projects most visible on Usenet.
  • That said, there are projects that limit themselves to out-of-copyright pulps, like this one. One problem, of course, is knowing when a pulp (or anything else from the 1923-1963 era) is out of copyright. Copyright ambiguity only hurts the idea of copyright. We need to codify copyright and require registration, at least for printed works. I’m not as concerned about copyright’s time period, as long as the owners of a copyright are known. As I’ve said here before, I’m apprehensive about competing with hundreds of thousands of now-orphaned books and stories.
  • I don’t eat much sugar anymore, but egad, there are now candy-corn flavored Oreos.

Worldcon Wrapup

2001lostsciencecover.jpgIt was a relief to step off the plane in Colorado Springs and grab a chestful of thin, dry air. I’ve lived in dry climates since early 1987, and I’ve lost my taste for late-summer Chicago mugginess. The toughest part of Chicon 7, which concluded on Monday, was going back and forth across the Chicago River between the Hyatt and the Sheraton and wondering if I were walking above the river or wading through it. The con went very well, considering my aversion to crowds. I got to see a lot of people I don’t see very much, granted that I missed a few. I heard some readings and workshopped a couple of stories with my friends from the 2011 Taos Toolbox workshop. And the Hugos, which I haven’t seen in person since (I think) 1986. John Scalzi was easily the best Hugos toastmaster I’ve seen since I began attending worldcons in 1974. He was funny, he was terse, he was great at improv, and he held the awards for the winners as they spoke their thank-yous into the mic. (There was nowhere else to put them.) He’s losing his hair and doesn’t shave his head–he certainly gets private points from me for that.

I was not aware of it at the time, obviously, but a misguided attempt at automated copyright protection killed the stream that Chicon was sending out to people who couldn’t be at the con. This was idiotic on so many levels–the video clips being “protected” had been given to the con by the studios specifically to be shown at the awards–and reminds us that robots should not be enforcers. Never.

The very idea of copyright, on which artists in many areas depend, is being weakened in the public mind by crap like this. If something eventually kills copyright, it won’t be the pirates.

I had a marvelous interview with the fiction editor at a major press, at which he agreed to read the manuscript for Ten Gentle Opportunities. Better than that, he took notes on my experience and my background (I brought both The Cunning Blood and one of my computer books) and suggested that what he might like even more from me than a humorous fantasy mashup was a good ripping hard SF action adventure.

I wondered for a moment: Gosh, could I do that? (Only a moment. A short moment. Ok, no moment at all.) I had intended to pursue my first Drumlins novel The Everything Machine after TGO was on its way. Now, I’m not so sure. The Molten Flesh is less far along, but it may get promoted to the top of the queue. We’ll see.

I did spend a fair bit of time with my sister and her girls down in the dealers room. (She and Bill publish and sell filk CDs as Dodeka Records.) As usual, I did a little shopping, emphasis on little. (We didn’t drive, so whatever I bought had to be packed home on what I call a “sewer-pipe jet.”) But I found something wonderful, as Dave Bowman notably said in 2010.

Across the aisle from Dodeka Records was Apogee Prime, a publisher specializing in aerospace books in several categories. They had a new book that, at 12″ X 14.5″, was mighty big for my creaky old suitcase, but I bought it anyway: 2001: The Lost Science. What we’ve got here are original photos, sketches, and literal blueprints of the technologies presented by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much of the material was thought to be lost, and when the sequel 2010 was filmed in the early 1980s, a lot of it had to be re-created from scratch, often by having artists watch the original movie fifty times with sketchpads in their laps.

The book draws on the personal collection of Frederick I. Ordway III, who is a real rocket scientist and former colleague of Werner Von Braun, and worked on the Explorer 1 project. Kubrick hired Ordway to help him predict, as reasonably and realistically as possible, what space science would be like in the year 2001. This book is a good overview of his predictions, at least those that made it into the 1968 film. Satellites, space stations, nuclear propulsion systems–these were the aches that a certain class of nerdy 16-year-olds were feeling in 1968. For a good many reasons, only some of which I’ve discussed here, 2001 has long been and will likely remain my favorite film of all time. I remember those aches, and wear them proudly, as they are the aches of boys who dare to dream.

This is a coffee table book, but one that you may actually read cover-to-cover. (I’m not quite done but will be soon. There have been times when I’ve had to take a deep breath and set it down.) Softcover. $49. Very highly recommended.

Peace Through Superior Flier-Power

Julie At Chicon-350 wide.jpgWorldcon, Day 3. I spent a goodly chunk of today helping Gretchen and Bill at their tables down in the dealer room. Part of this involved distracting Julie (my younger niece, age 4) who was bored and making Gretchen a little nuts. Her sister Katie is old enough to go to the kid programming room by herself; Julie still needs an adult escort, and will accept no substitutes for Mommy. Mommy, alas, had a table to run.

We did our best. I showed Julie how to make a paper airplane from a sheet of green construction paper and two paperclips that had been hanging out in the bottom of my briefcase. We got us a decent airplane together, and I tried hard to persuade her that aviation is more finesse than brute strength. She had a tendency to want to wind up and throw the plane with all her might; after a few demos she seemed to pick up on the fact that a little thrust in a straight line will work better than a roundhouse discus hurl. The plane flew, Julie was delighted, and Mommy got some much-needed peace.

All in the greater cause of growing up. My older cousin Diane taught me to make paper airplanes as well as other things, like pumping a swing. I was older than four, too. My catalog of Uncle Jeff Tricks is both deep and broad, but most require a little more physical maturity than either Katie or Julie have just yet.

I did notice with considerable pleasure that Katie was building things out of mainstream Lego (not MegaBlox) in the kid programming room. There is a Lego hoard in a corner of my workshop, awaiting the proper time. That time is coming soon.

Again, much of a good con is conversation, and I had quite a bit of that. I even spoke briefly with Harry Turtledove at his signing for Every Inch a King. I stood in awe of Steve Jackson’s creation called “Steampunk Chaos,” which is a sort of huge Rube Goldberg marble-track thingamajigger with a steampunk flavor that Steve has been assembling now for several years. He evidently builds a core machine and then invites bystanders to dig into his boxes full of loose parts and extend it. Most of the extenders were young teen boys, and by all accounts they were having a marvelous time. I took photos but none really captures the geeky bronze (painted) awesomeness of it all.

The crowds at Worldcon this year seem a little thin, both to me and to others that I spoke to this afternoon. Rumor has it that the organizer of DragonCon explicitly pledged to drive the SF Worldcon into the sea by siphoning off younger congoers, and he may well be succeeding. The response, of course, would be to hold Worldcon a little earlier, prompting at least some people to attend Worldcon first and exhaust their resources before DragonCon. That may or may not work, but the graying of Worldcon was painfully obvious, and it would be well worth a try.

More visiting tomorrow, maybe a little more shopping, and a long-awaited chance to pitch Ten Gentle Opportunities to a major publisher. Stay tuned.