It’s Father’s Day, and my book Unexpected Rain got included in a promotion this weekend (see the bottom of this post). It got me thinking: while I won’t deny that it’s a great gift for any sci-fi loving fathers out there, if the main characters of the story were to experience Father’s Day, it may not go so well.

Unexpected RainStanford Runstom is an officer in Modern Policing and Peacekeeping – ModPol for short. The interstellar organization provides the few colonies outside of Earth’s solar system with justice and defense services. Runstom’s mother served ModPol as well, as an undercover agent. She infiltrated the criminal outfit known as Space Waste and eventually had to go into a witness protection program. Throughout Runstom’s childhood, he and his mother lived on the move, spending most of that first decade in a spaceship. Because his mother was always on the move and afraid to make permanent connections, he’s never known his father. Once Runstom dared wonder if she’d met the man before she went into wit-pro, but his mother shot it down sharply.

Jack “Jax” Jackson is the dome life-support operator who finds himself accused of mass murder when an entire block is asphyxiated because of codes run from his console. Jax lost his mother a few years back to a terraforming accident. He and his father handled the loss poorly, turning against each other and growing distant. Jax’s father is an engineer and always held hopes that Jax would follow in his footsteps, but depression, apathy, and occasional transgressive behavior held Jax back (thus the lowly operator job). Eventually his father moved to another domed planet and remarried, and the chasm between them grew wider. When Jax is arrested, he can’t bring himself to even call his father, opting instead to send him a short message via his lawyer.

Dava is a cold-blooded Space Waste assassin. She loved her parents both very much, and when she was young, the family was packed into one of the shuttles from Earth to the colonies; a “doomed to domed” mission. When she had arrived, she came out of her sleep tube to find that her parents had been jettisoned because of the Earth-born sicknesses they carried. Dava was left to live in foster care until one fateful day in her late teenage years when she met Moses Down, head boss of Space Waste. Moses “liberated” the outcast Dava from a life of mediocrity by making her into a criminal and a killer. In many ways, he has become a father-figure to her, though she resists such a notion, unconsciously afraid of becoming too close to people she might have taken away like her birth family.

I don’t point all this out to be a downer, I just got the urge to share. Some of these character details come out in the text of the first book, some of them come out later in the trilogy, and some may never come out. But they are there in the layers. My hope is that although this trilogy is of the thrilling noir space opera variety, you’ll find these characters to be complex and deep. At least a little!

Oh, and if you do have a father that isn’t unknown, estranged, or space debris, wish them a Happy Father’s Day and buy them a book! The best fathers love a good book!

Five years ago I wrote a blog post on my birthday called “Today I am 36“. It’s funny to look back on and think about my state of mind at the time. Writing was still what I considered a “hobby”, but it was a hobby I was coming to understand that I could not live without.

Now, five years later, I have two books published, and a third scheduled for the end of the year. Writing is not a job that can pay the bills – not even remotely – but it’s definitely no longer a hobby. It’s an unstoppable drive that I must fulfill with every chance I get.

I still pine for free time. Even more so now than I did back then. I used to have a job I was comfortable putting 40 hours a week into and no more. The pay wasn’t something I could complain about, but it wasn’t stellar, and there were other aspects about it that wore me down. In order for me to be happy in that job, I had to make sure I wasn’t putting in extra unpaid hours. For the past four years, I’ve had a different job. An incredible job. I’m immensely proud of the products I’ve helped develop and the leadership I’ve shown. It’s awesome. But 40 hours a week? Hah. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. No. How many hours a week do I work now?


Author with birthday wine and balloon.
Author with birthday wine and balloon.

Ahem. But I still make time for writing. I still make time for spending with my wife. It’s stupid hard to make that time. I mean, come on … “make time”? What does that even mean? Shit if I know. Somehow I do it. Somehow I work my ass off and still manage to write books. And write blog posts, and work around the house, and take trips out of town with my love, and go for a beer with a friend, and sometimes just sit and read. I’m just done complaining about lack of free time. There is no free time. There’s just time.

So now I’m 41. What’s the next five years going to look like? I’m not really sure. I’m working on the third book of The Dome Trilogy. I have another book that I had to set aside so that I could do the trilogy, and that crazy thing is patiently waiting for me to come back to it. It’s very done, but I need to go through the process of finding an agent and all that jazz. And I have a couple of other books in me that keep pushing their way to the surface. I will write those. And work will continue to get more and more intense, because that’s what it is. I love my job and I love to lead, and so it means I’m going to continue to put in the extra effort for it. But I’m never going to let it keep me from writing.

As I said before, in the preface to his collection of essays, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says:

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic.

I just wanted to repeat that.

Oh, did I mention the second book in my trilogy came out a couple of weeks ago? Well it did,  on February 25th. So go read it, goddamnit: Unclear Skies, book 2 of The Dome Trilogy. That’s my birthday wish!

Welcome to my Free Words series, where I talk about tips and techniques for writing first drafts. These will appeal to any NaNoWriMo participants out there, but really they go for any first draft. Hopefully, these posts will help you become a word factory, rolling out sentences like a machine!

In today’s post, I’m going to talk about using description to power your writing.

How can description become an engine?

My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word factory from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain
My favorite NaNoWriMo logo: the word machine from 2009 when I wrote the first draft of Unexpected Rain

Most people will tell you plot is the engine of a story. Likewise, action and dialogue are what we think of when we want the story to move. Intuitively, description is the opposite of that. But I’m not talking about powering the finished product: I’m talking about powering the writer in their quest to drive through that first draft.

Some of the inspiration for this post comes from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, particularly her chapter entitled “Scratching”. To paraphrase won’t do it justice, but in essence, scratching is what Tharp calls any kind of activity that a creative person does to dig through sources of inspiration, to explore the corners of their mind, to scratch out all the possible ideas. She relates a story from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where author Robert Pirsig describes working with a student having trouble getting started on an essay. Her scope was so broad, she didn’t know where to begin. He narrowed her down to a single town first, then to a street, then to a building, and finally to a single brick in a building. She took his advice and found that by starting with the smallest details (what Tharp calls a “microcell of an idea”), she was able to get a spark and before she knew it, the student had written five thousand words in a sitting.

Tharp talks about scratching mainly as a concept that kicks off the creative process, but it’s also useful when the process has stalled part-way through. When I read the story of the brick, I realized there have been times that I have taken a similar approach with my writing, but I hadn’t put together the power of using this tool intentionally. Now when I’m stuck, like when I just can’t get a scene started, I remember the microcells. I start seeing the scene through the eyes of the point-of-view character and I look for details, even the smallest of details.

Maps and Sketches

Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)
Map of Research Station Vulca (from upcoming book, Unclear Skies)

But sometimes I can’t even see the details, because I can’t get close. I can’t see the room, the street, the spaceport, whatever the locale is. That’s when I take a cue from Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent book on writing, Wonderbook, and I draw a map. Even if the scene takes place entirely in a single room, you can still draw a map: you can place furniture, doorways, windows, sources of light, and even the characters themselves. It won’t take you more than five minutes to sketch something, and the best part is that there’s no pressure because you’re not writing words yet. You’re making a throwaway sketch!

Be as messy as you want - no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)
Be as messy as you want – no one will see these sketches! (unless you write a blog post and use them as examples)

Sketching is really another form of scratching: it helps you explore without pressure, and gives you a chance to discover things that you wouldn’t if you were starting at a blinking cursor in your word processor. So sketch anything you need in order to get a scene fleshed out: a character, some furniture, a street, a conversation, anything.

All the Senses

Visuals are the most natural thing for many writers to describe when laying out a scene. In fact, if you’re drawing maps and sketches, you’re thinking visually. This is a good thing: you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. However, vision is just one of the five senses that words are capable of describing. So as you’re looking over that scene in your mind, close your eyes and listen. What’s the background noise, the soundscape? Is it mechanical? Natural? If there’s not any background noise, the eerie silence is probably worth describing.

So: first visuals, then audio. Congratulations, you’re creating the word form of what we see and hear on TV and in film. Now it’s time to do better with the other more intimate senses.

Feel the temperature, the ground beneath your feet, the air as it moves across your skin – or lack thereof. And then smell, and if possible taste. This is really where you get into scene immersion. If your reader can feel and smell the environment, then they’re using their whole brain. And you the writer are as well! This is how you get into the zone, how words come spilling out of the keyboard like water from a faucet.

Too many words?!

We all know the dangers of too much exposition and too much description in writing. I say, in the first draft put it all in. You can always cut things down later – and probably will!

I think you should have three key goals for getting through your first draft:

  • Write words every day. You gotta be a word machine!
  • Immerse yourself in the story. If you’re not immersed in the characters and the world of the story, your readers won’t be.
  • Maintain momentum. The only way to get through an entire novel is to never stop until it’s done. Momentum is the product of getting words on the page and staying immersed in your world.

Zooming into the microcells helps you do all of these things. If you get your head in the details, you get your head in the story!

On Top of Dubai

I’ve played video games my whole life. I mean, I literally played that home version of Pong when I was three years old. Somewhere along the lines, classic arcade games moved over for all kinds of interesting strategy and first-person shooter games, until we were hit with such a deluge of copycat games, it became hard to tell one from another, save the occasional brilliant twist in game mechanics.

On even rarer occasion, a storyline would blow me away. In the last several years, this is happening more and more often. I partly attribute this to the accessibility of game-making tools and the influx of indie developers. But I think there is more to it than that: as video games become more prolific, more mainstream, there arises a challenge to make them unique. To bring them to the level of books and film – to make them art.

Some games are obvious art. Dear Esther comes to mind as one that challenges the notion of even being a game. There are many others that push that same boundary, but I recently discovered one that I had not expected. Not even close.

I’m writing this now somewhat behind the times. Spec Ops: The Line was released in 2012, three years ago. So why should I bother reviewing it now? Well, I guess because I just discovered it, I feel compelled to spread the word in what little way I can. Maybe you’ve already played it. If that’s the case, I hope you’re reading this and want to talk more about it. Because I’m fucking obsessed with it right now.