Sunday, December 27, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 4

In this fourth segment on my review of David Farland's online workshop, Story Puzzle, I will be analyzing lesson four: Plotting. (Coming into the middle of this series? You can find the first post here.)

As you'll remember from the previous lesson, I am used to plotting and outlining my stories in a certain way. In lesson three (where we discussed conflicts), my first attempt at the assignment was basically a plotting assignment. Essentially, I jumped the gun and used my plot to help identify the conflicts.

So, you can probably guess that the plotting assignment was pretty straight forward. I took my final attempt from the conflicts assignment, and combined it with my initial attempt, and tweaked it just enough to follow the important take-away from the plotting assignment: try/fail cycles.

Let's take a moment to discuss try/fail cycles. As the name implies, these are cycles wherein a character attempts to accomplish a goal and typically fails ... until they succeed. A great analysis of try/fail cycles can be read here on Heidi Tighe's blog. The gist, however, is this: A character has a goal (be it rescuing the princess, escaping prison, fleeing the police, or making breakfast) and, as a means of escalating the dramatic tension over this course of the character's attempts to accomplish said goal, the character must make several attempts to accomplish the goal.

Why is this important? Because if your character succeeds in accomplishing his or her goals on the first attempt each time, your character will be unbelievable and, ultimately, uninteresting. Of course, the number of try/fail cycles a particular goal requires is directly proportional to the importance of said goal. Escaping prison is probably fairly important to a story and would therefore require several try/fail cycles. Eating breakfast ... no doubt not so important and therefore may require one or no try/fail cycles.

In crafting my own try/fail cycles for each of the major conflicts from assignment three, I chose to stick with the "Yes, but.../No, and..." format. This is a great way of escalating the tension for each goal. I won't get too detailed in this post since there are better examples here, here, and here. However, the gist is: Does the character accomplish his goal? Yes, but ... [escalating incident which creates a bigger problem] ... or ... Does the character accomplish his goal? No, and ... [escalating incident which creates a bigger problem]. This continues as necessary until the character ultimately attains his goal or ultimately fails.

Part of the importance of this particular assignment was to ensure the try/fail cycles of each character conflict could be braided together. For my particular piece, this was the greatest struggle for this assignment. I have thirteen characters, each with their own motives, and each with their own conflicts with each other, society, or themselves. Ensuring each of these try/fail cycles and conflicts wove together seamlessly was a bit of a struggle, but, a few weeks later I was able to finish it off.

All in all, this has probably been the best assignment within Dave's Story Puzzle workshop; in my opinion, the most helpful. Again, if you think one of Dave's workshops is good for you (and I think each of you should take one), you can find him here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 3

For those of you following along, I am deep in the process of taking an online workshop with David Farland. This is the third post of a six-post series on my thoughts and struggles as I work my way through Dave's workshop. In case you missed the first two posts, you can find them here and here.

In Part 3 of Dave's workshop, entitled Story Puzzle, we are looking at character conflicts. He discusses the traditional man versus man, man versus self, man versus nature. He also adds a couple of new ones I'd not heard or thought of before: man versus god, and man versus society. The general idea with this particular assignment is to generate conflict for each of the characters we developed in the previous assignment.

I just want to tell you right now ... this was a struggle for me, and I had to complete the assignment twice before I got it right.

You see, I'm used to outlining my stories in a certain way. I utilize a combination of the 7-Point Plot system attributed to Dan Wells (though he'll be the first to tell you he discovered it in the pages of a role playing manual) and The Snowflake Method developed by Randy Ingermanson. With this hybrid method, I typically "pants" my way into character conflicts. Usually I'll have a general idea of where the plot needs to go and discover the conflicts between characters as I develop them in conjunction with the overall plot. (This may be why my conflicts never seem that great.)

With Dave's method, however, he asked us to create all of these conflicts ahead of time. The essential gist of the assignment was to take each character, describe what happens to let the character knows he or she has a problem, and list all the ways he or she attempts to solve that problem (and all the ways the antagonistic force gets in the way) until the problem is either solved or the character fails.

For example: Suppose your character has an exciting relationship with her boyfriend. He takes her to fancy restaurants and they always stay in expensive hotels. Then she discovers he's married. What does she do? She confronts him about his wife. He tells her they are separated. She doesn't believe him and tells him she's leaving him. She doesn't want to be a homewrecker. He kidnaps her and tells her she can't leave. She tries to call for help but he ties her to a chair and tapes her mouth. Et cetera. Et cetera.

The problem I had initially was that I was looking at the minutia of my story. I set out to explain the smallest (but still relevant and important) conflicts within my story instead of focusing on the overarching story-wide conflict for each character.

For example: in my story, my main character (for now let's call her Nadia) is sent to prison for murder. She committed the crime, but it was self defense. However, she was set up to have to defend herself. Instead of focusing on discovering the treachery that sent her to prison, I looked at each of the minor events that put her there: the jealous colleague who discovered her affair, the jealous wife who had access to the tools necessary to put her in that position, the corrupt judge who was morally obligated to protect his sister (the jealous wife), and so on, ad nauseum.

It took me days to get this far in the process, and when I finally sent my work to Dave I felt I needed a break.

It was a good thing I took one, too, because he returned my work with a much needed reprimand. "Your down in the weeds on this one." He saw my focus on the minutia immediately and sent it back to me with instructions to look at the 1000-mile view of the story.

Another of hours later I resubmitted an updated assignment. This second time around was much easier. Perhaps because I already had all the little details in place, all I had to do was zoom out a bit to see the overall story as a whole.

Needless to say, Dave's response to my revised attempt was positive an I'm now off to start the fourth part of his Story Puzzle workshop: Plotting.

For anyone interested in honing their craft to its best potential, I highly recommend one of Dave's workshops. You can find access to them here, or by clicking the banner link at the top of this post. Stay tuned for the next post in this series on plotting. I'm sure it will be as much fun as conflicts were.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Djibouti

Djibouti Djibouti by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had never before read Elmore Leonard, but I'd heard good things, so I thought I'd give him a try. I chose Djibouti at random. It was interesting. Fiction with modern non-fiction tied in among the background. I was a little disappointed in the treatment of the story. There may be spoilers here, but: The story revolves around a woman who is a documentary filmmaker analyzing Somali pirates. It begins in a somewhat gripping yet nonchalant way with the woman showing up in Djbouti and meeting people associated with pirating around the horn of Africa. You get the sense that these are somewhat dangerous people, but that this woman ... the documentary filmmaker ... doesn't feel as if she's in danger at all.

She and her cameraman/grip/gaffer are set to go out on a boat to film these pirates doing their thing and getting their side of the story. Why are they being pirates? It's an interesting question, and one that is vaguely answered. The book shows them going out to sea, and then cuts to a single paragraph that says ... they were out to see for almost a month ... and then cuts to them back in her hotel room analyzing the footage they shot and discussing it. I felt it was a little weak, almost like watching a story unfold through flashbacks.

The rest of the tale doesn't follow this same pattern, however, as they soon realize there is more at play than just Somali pirates. There are some rather eccentric characters in the tale ... some who might be too much of a caricature to be real, but they are fun characters nonetheless. The billionaire sailor and his runway model girlfriend. The Al Qaeda members ... who might be gay, which seems incongruous with everything we know about Al Qaeda (though, perhaps not at all unlikely), the highly resourceful young man who seems to have unlimited funds, out to get our protagonists.

It was a super fast read, and was enjoyable for all the slightly unbelievable characters. I'll likely read another Elmore Leonard book again.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 29, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 2

The image above is the header image accompanying David Farland's #WritingTips I receive weekly via email. Dave has some great advice about the process of writing and the business of writing and I love receiving these tips from him each week. If you're interested in learning more from Dave, check out his blog and subscribe to receive free weekly emails as well.

With that out of the way, let me get on to this post about my experience with Story Puzzle Part 2: Characters.

As you'll remember, Story Puzzle Part 1 was all about the setting of the story. Where is it taking place. The world the characters will occupy. Story Puzzle Part 2 is all about the characters (or so I thought).

As Dave will say, "Characters grow from their setting," and that makes a kind of sense. You don't really what kind of people are going to populate your story until you know where they come from. How can my protagonist be a mild-mannered computer geek if my setting is a secondary world that looks more like a prehistoric Amazon rain forest? I suppose it could happen, but there would need to be something in the setting to explain the hows and whys of the matter.

For this lesson's assignment we were asked to do three things. Create a page of physical description for the protagonist, down to the minutia of things like the shape of their ears, the freckle on their pelvis, and the color of their toe fungus; State what the character thinks about when he or she is alone (and presumably bored) -- basically, where do the character's thoughts go when there's nothing else driving them; Write an autobiography from the character's point-of-view.

This was not as difficult as I thought it would be. However, since I was starting from scratch and only had a wisp of an idea (and no real notion of any of my characters, or my setting) I had no idea where to start. So, I did what I've heard a lot of writers talk about ... I interviewed my characters. I acted as if I was a journalist for some magazine wanting the "full scoop" on the character's entire life and asked questions. Then I acted as the character herself and answered those questions as thoroughly and honestly as I could (as that character).

Never before had I experienced what other authors talk about when they mention their characters coming to life. This woman, my main character, was as real to me by the end of this interview as anyone I had ever met (even though I know she's completely fictional). 12,000 words later, I knew enough about my character to complete the assignment.

Here's the thing, though. I may have been able to complete the character assignment with this single interview, but I also learned so much more about my setting while interviewing this woman. She elaborated for me how her government works, the monetary system, the way the apprentice system works in her country. All manner of things I would never have thought to ask about ... all because it was important to her daily life.

I don't know if I'll ever use the description part of the assignment. Yes, it is what she looks like, and I suppose if I have multiple POV characters in the book it might come in handy, but I often feel that my protagonist should be drawn a little blank (in terms of physical description), primarily so the reader can insert his or her own imagery into that role.

The "What does she think about alone?" portion of the assignment was quite useful. It helped get into the emotional mindset of the character--to know how she feels about herself and the world in which she lives.

Finally, the autobiographical portion of the assignment is basically a shortened version of the interview I conducted to get the information I needed for this assignment. It was by far the most helpful, not only in understanding who this character is, but also in understanding the world in which she lives.

I've gone back through and completed a similar interview for the other major characters in this story (ten in total) if for no other purpose than to better understand their world and who they are as people.

If I haven't mentioned it already, I highly recommend Dave's workshops to anyone serious about perfecting their craft. Find out more at David Farland: Story Doctor

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Million Dollar Outlines

Million Dollar Outlines Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holy crap! My brain is overflowing with knowledge. David Farland's Million Dollar Outline has more information in it than I can possibly consume in a single reading. I've made bookmarks and highlighted passages which require a second pass, just to absorb the total wealth of knowledge and information provided.

This is a great book, and one I recommend to anyone serious about improving his or her craft. Normally I wouldn't have picked up this book. It's cover looks a little cheesy, the "Million Dollar" part speaks of something too-good-to-be-true, and (honestly) I'm at the end of my rope with how-to manuals for writers. I've read so many, with so many fantastic (yet surprisingly different) takes on writing, I don't want to read another for a very long time (and now that I'm done with Dave's book, I think I'll stick to that promise).

The reason I did read it was that it was provided as part of the course material for one of Dave's online workshops "Story Puzzle" (you can find out more information at The workshop is great and has forced me to look at my story in a new light. The book, however, goes hand-in-hand with the workshop and offers so many tools to help improve the overall scope of telling a good story (we're not talking about the mechanics of sentence structure and subject-verb agreement here).

There is so much great (useful, important, inspiring) information in this one volume, I don't even know where to begin with a review. Perhaps I will sum up the biggest take away for me at this moment. Toward the end of the book, Dave discusses a writing conference between George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Larry Kasdan as they discuss the story which will become Raiders of the Lost Ark. According to Dave, these three men spent 9 hours a day, over 5 days, discussing everything that could possibly happen in the story. They had so much information, they actually had enough for two films.

One point Dave makes is that many new authors start with too few ideas, and the result is a weak story. His advice: brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. Create so many ideas to choose from, and then start culling. This will help you make a rich and fascinating story--and give yourself the time to do it. This has been my problem by far. I don't allow myself the time to properly brainstorm, create characters, plot, settings, arcs. Let alone simple scenes. I fear that if I'm not writing prolifically--I try to write a novel a year, and several short stories besides--I'm not being productive. But I never take the time to do these things. Maybe that's important.

This is a great read with so much information I recommend taking it in chunks and really allowing yourself to absorb every word.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a slow reader. Maybe you couldn't tell that by my list of books read this year. I'm on track to read 30 books this year, and that's a lot for me. After reading so much dense material on the how-tos of writing, I felt I needed something light and fun, so I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the other day, and within five hours (spanning four days) I finished the book. I was amazed.

Now, it could be that with all the additional reading I've been doing lately, my reading skills have increased and my words per minute are beefing up. I do, however, tend to read everything out loud still (part of a habit I have for reviewing my own writing), and this type of reading tends to be slower than silent reading.

That being said, I don't even feel like I read a book. I feel like I watched a movie made from words. This first book is 83,000 words long, but it felt like no more than 20,000. I couldn't find a single extraneous word. Every single scene did double and triple duty, building or developing character, advancing the plot, adding humor, hinting at theme.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, I suggest reading and analyzing this first book to discover exactly how it is done. There's no wonder Rowling hit it big with this series. It's amazing.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 15, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 1

In the first lesson of David Farland's Story Puzzle (an online workshop I am taking with him -- I discuss it here), we discuss the importance of Setting in your story.

Dave has an different point of view when it comes to approaching story than any I've seen before. Since you can find this information practically anywhere online, I don't feel I am spoiling anything for Dave and his workshop by revealing that he suggests you start building your story with the setting.

Where does the story take place? What is the overall setting? Where are the smaller settings? If the story takes place on someone's farm property, will we see the hay loft as a setting, the kitchen, a horse stall? Things like this.

I took Dave's advice when I signed up for the workshop and began Story Puzzle with a fresh story -- something I had never worked before.

The approach of beginning with a setting for a story is foreign to me. I almost always begin with a character or some "wow" idea I can't shake from my brain. However, I think it's important to try new things, to break out of the box and attempt to find alternative ways to approach the same problem, so I'm glad for the challenge.

Without giving too much away, I have started with a Macro Setting (the overall world of my story) as a country called the Krása Confederacy, in which the country's capital, the city-state known also as Krása, is home to the corporatocracy government.

Like I said, this is a strange way for me to build a story. I have created all manner of micro-settings: a prison mining camp, for example, which hosts several settings itself (the prison cell in which the main character is interred, the warden's office, the bargeman's shack, the barge itself, the graveyard in the foothills above the mine, etc.). I don't honestly know if I'll use all of these micro settings, but they were fun to create.

By the end of this first lesson, I didn't feel I had a very strong grasp of the world I had created, or of the story that would come out of it. However, since Dave has written dozens of best-selling books, and helped other big name authors jump start their careers, I'm satisfied with with the knowledge he knows what he's doing, and I can trust his instincts and follow his lead for this story and this workshop.

I'll keep you posted as I follow through with the rest of the workshop over the next several weeks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting book. I read it based on recommendations from the Writing Excuses podcast. What I like about it, as the podcasters have said, it is (currently) timeless. It may have been written during the 70s, but it could have been written yesterday. The book doesn't date itself. What I also found to be interesting about it was the commentary it makes on humanity as a whole. Spoilers: we've found an alien civilization which has the potential of ... essentially ... destroying us if it is allowed to grow the way we, ourselves, have allowed ourselves to grow. Therefore, we must subjugate them or destroy them. The only other comment I have is how many adverbs stuck out at me. It could be a fad right now that writing shouldn't have adverbs, but this book seemed to use one in every sentence ... every paragraph at least.

Anyway, descent book. It ended a bit anticlimactically for me, but I still enjoyed it. It was great to read about all the different sciencey bits (that's a technical term, by the way).

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 1, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor

Based on the recommendations of Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells from Writing Excuses, I decided to take an online workshop with science fiction and fantasy great, David Farland. He runs several online and live workshops through his website at MyStoryDoctor .

As a newbie, Dave recommended I begin with his beginner level course "Story Puzzle."
The course is amazing. There are a dozen or so videos for each section of the course in which Dave discusses theory and story structure. He then assigns you homework. You complete the homework, email it directly to him, and he will critique and return your homework with notes. This is hands on stuff here.

Additionally, Dave hosts a conference call twice a week for students to log in and ask questions directly to Dave. He answers as many as he can within the hour time slot. Most of the questions, from the calls I have been on, are more related to the business of writing and very little personal assignment questions are asked. It's a great supplement to the course work.

Over the next several weeks, I will be following along with his workshop and developing a story from scratch. With each lesson, I will post my thoughts and some of the work I have completed during the lesson. I'll try to not give away too much of Dave's teaching style of the assignments he offers, as I think, if you're truly interested in learning from him, you should sign up for one of his workshops yourself. They are totally worth it.

So, stay tuned for more information about my time in this workshop. It should be fun.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's a great classic, but oh my God is it long. Definitely not a modern story, and that's okay, but be prepared for it when you get into it.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 26, 2015

PRLAAC 10th Anniversary Event

I was invited, as part of the Jackpine Writers Bloc, to read a short work of fiction at the Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council 10th Anniversary Event today. What a great time. The photo above is my friend Jerry Mevissen (introducing the Jackpine Writers Bloc to the assembled audience) and fellow Jackpine Writer, Marlys Guimaraes preparing for their portion of the evening.

There were dancers from the local dance academy, opera singers and singers from the local community theater, artists, a bluegrass band. It was a fun night and I'm glad to have been there.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review: The Final Empire

The Final Empire The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'll keep the three star review. This book was above average. I tried to read it once, years before, and made it about half-way through before putting it down. At the time I felt that nothing was happening. I could classify the book as one long training montage. By the end, however, I can honestly say I was not expecting everything that happened to happen. There were moments toward the end where I felt a little cheated, but overall the ending was satisfactory. That's the most we should ever ask. I'm not sure I'll get to the second book in the series right away, but I am intrigued to discover how the loose ends from this book will be tied together in future novels. Overall, good read. I'd recommend it.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Misanthropy of a Customer Service Representative

I've had quite a few conversations with people of late that each seem to revolve around discovering one's personality type. "Who are you?" type questions with categorical answers falling along the Myers-Briggs spectrum. Are you introverted or extroverted? It's interesting to listen to people talk about themselves, categorize themselves, in certain ways as if the words they use help them understand who they are.

For anyone who cares, I'm INTP on the Myers-Briggs chart (that Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving).

During one of these more recent conversations, a woman asked if I was introverted. "I must be because you don't really have any friends. Right?"

This is true. I have one friend. The rest of the people I know are either family or acquaintances. A friend, to me, is someone with whom I can confide my deepest darkest secrets and still not be judged...not be seen as some kind of monster. (You know the secrets I'm talking about. We all have them. Those skeletons that whisper the stories of the hit and run you were involved in, the abortion you had, your secret addiction to cocaine. Those secrets that are best kept by a party of one.)

I didn't really know how to answer this woman. She is right. I am an introvert...though I wonder if I would have been if I hadn't lived a life in customer service. For close to twenty-five years I've worked in customer service, retail, or hospitality in one form or another. I have been at the beck and call of random strangers for more than half my life, and while I have learned quite a lot about human nature, there is one thing above all others that I take away as a lesson about myself:

I hate people.

This is how I answered that woman's questions. "So...are you an introvert?" "No. I'm a misanthrope."

For those of you who are new to the term, a misanthrope (one who subscribes to the views of misanthropy) has a general hatred, disgust, or disdain for the human species or human nature.

The woman stared at me for a moment as if I had just vomited feces and tap-danced a jig around the waste. It was a concept she couldn't wrap her mind around. How could anyone not like the human race...especially a human?

Well, my friend, I'm here to tell you there are a lot of ways. Look at the news today and tell me you think the human species is a-okay. Many of us beat, mutilate, and murder each other for pleasure. We force others into indentured servitude and slavery for profit and power (and if you think these things aren't happening in today's world...think again). We rape, we steal, we care only about wealth. On a grand scale, the human species do more horrible things to each other than any other species on the planet. Mice might cannibalize one another for food, but not for pleasure. Squirrels may rape each other as part of their mating ritual (that's a little sad), but not to prove dominance and power over someone else.

Yet, all of these are very "high concept" reasons to hate the human species. Most of us don't have first-hand experience with any of this (though, I can tell you...I do). It isn't any of these high concept reasons that makes me look at the species to which I belong and feel like I want to crawl into a hole and bury myself under a rock.

On the's all the time working in customer service that makes me hate the human species.

I want you to engage your imagination for a moment. Imagine you work at the mall. Let's say you work at the Orange Julius. It's a kiosk in the middle of the mall. You arrive for your shift in the morning. Most of the stores are still closed, the gates are down, but some lights are one and you can see one or two employees prepping their stores for the day. Your friend Susan, who works across the hall at The Gap, folds sweaters that have been cast aside by someone because they were either too large or too small. Rather than refold the sweaters correctly, the customer simply dropped the fabric into a pile on the table and left it for someone else to take care of. On the other side of the hallway, the cranky lady who works at Ann Taylor Loft is running a bissell over the carpet, sucking up popcorn kernels. You have cup rings and smoothie film to wipe up off the counter.

You see a handful of old ladies with blue hair and orthodics waddle their way down the halls, walking fast, but not as fast as they talk. You're careful to leave most of the lights off inside your kiosk. It makes cleaning up after the closing shift a little more difficult, but it also reduces the likelihood that some random shmoe will think you've opened early and try to order a smoothie before you've even had a chance to count your cash drawer, or turn on the machines.

Most days keeping the lights off works, but not today. Today, somewhere around a quarter to ten, a school bus off-loads an battalion of children who race, screaming, into the mall. Inwardly you groan. The last you need is a handful of screaming junior-high kids...they're always loud, they always want the most elaborate drinks, and they always want them NOW! Forget parental supervision. The school chaperons are glad enough to get them off the bus and out of their hair.

Instead of scowling, however (you don't want to be like the woman at Ann Taylor), you force a smile across your face and think, It's close enough to ten anyway. When you see ten of the kids racing for your kiosk, you slide your drawer into the cash register, straighten your hat, and flip on your lights. Boy, golly, do those kids have a lot of energy. And it's not just them, either. There must be something in the air, in the water, somewhere. You spend the next eight hours of your shift struggling to keep up with the customers.

There are so many you can barely keep up with the I'll haves and the Why don't you give mes. Never once do you hear May I, or Please. There are a couple random Thank yous, but they are few and far between. At noon your bladder gives you a little nudge as if it's trying to tell you something, but then the lunch rush pushes through and it isn't until sometime after two o'clock that you even remember you have a bladder.

When you're colleague doesn't arrive to relieve you at four, you start to worry, but there's not much time to dwell on what is and what isn't. Your stomach rumbles and you snag what food you can from your own little kiosk before diving right back into the dinner rush. By six-thirty you realize you're probably going to have to close as well. Whatever, it wasn't like you had plans to do anything, anyway.

Susan stopped by your kiosk during her lunch break. You don't get one of work alone, and there's nobody to cover for you until your relief arrives (if they arrive). As much as you like Susan, all you want to do is roll your eyes as you listen to her ramble on about how angry she is with her boyfriend for not consulting her first before he decided to go out tonight. How he should have taken her with him.

After you clean up your kiosk and make your way through the rear exit of the mall, you run have to listen to the other mall employees complaining about this or that. It's too hot. It's too cold. This store ran out of that sale item. This woman doesn't like the way that woman looked at her.

You're exhausted and all you want is some peace and quiet where you don't have to listen to another human voice...but you can't have that. You have to go home to your family and listen to their problems and their issues. The television will probably be blasting in the living room. Everyone will probably want to tell you about their day, or ask your advice or opinion on this or that.

All you want is to be left alone.

Now, wallow in that feeling for a moment. Your feet are tired. Your ears are ringing. You've just spent twelve hours putting all of your own needs aside to offer someone else--a random stranger--the opportunity to be served by a pleasant and helpful person. Sure, you faked most of it, but that's your job. Forget about eating. Forget about going to the bathroom. You know your job is to make these people feel welcome. To smile at them and get them their orders as quickly as possible. They are the one's who are always right because they are the ones who are paying you to serve them.

You feel beaten down. Asleep on your feet. Broken. You feel like a non-person, like some faceless entity--a robot--The Orange Julius guy (or gal). They don't know your name. They probably couldn't pick you out of a lineup. They got what they wanted from you, they used you, then they went on their merry way. You are nothing to them. Nobody. If you weren't there, some other nameless, faceless entity would have taken your place and they would have their demands met anyway.

Repeat that experience. Repeat it every day. Five or six days a week. Ever week. Repeat it for thirteen hundred weeks. One thousand three hundred. That's almost eight thousand days. Pick up straw wrappers after the people who couldn't seem to see the trash receptacle staring them in the face six inches away. Do it five times a day for eight thousand days. Would you wonder how it was, after forty thousand attempts, nobody seems to be able to find that trash can? Mop the floor after some kid whose parents let him carry his own cup, even though he was too small to hold it. Do that twice a week for twenty-five years. After over two-thousand mops jobs, would you want to be around those kids?

Spend sixty-five-thousand hours serving, catering, flattering, smiling to the people who demand a thing because they have money to spend and stomachs to fill. Sixty-five-thousand hours listening to Give me, and I'll take. Sixty-five-thousand hours being packs and droves of greedy, self-important, and self-centered human beings, of watching the worst come out in those human beings: the tantrums over an out-of-stock product, the self-important beliefs that their order is more important than your need to relieve your bladder, the dickering over product prices as if you have any control over how much a large Julius costs or as if they really can't afford a dollar forty five.

Do that, and then tell me you want to spend any time with the human race.

After twenty-five years of faking my smile, of telling people what they want to hear or risk losing my job, of holding my bladder and listening to my stomach rumble, all for the sake of driving the human race's desires for consumerism, all I want to do is find a dark room somewhere, line the walls with acoustic foam, and sit in the silence and the darkness and never see another soul again.

That might seem extreme, and I want to make something perfectly clear. I like a person. There are persons I could tolerate for long periods of time. One on one connections made with a single individual...a friend. But people, as a whole, are terrible. I have to be introverted, not because I only have the one friend, but because I spend so much of my life forcing myself to be extroverted for work that I don't really care to associate with other people.

I've had my fill of people by the day's end (usually before the day has actually started, in most cases).

So, my misanthropy really has less to do with those high concept ideas (though they are there, don't misunderstand me...if I didn't have the smaller reason, the larger reasons are still valid); no, my misanthropy deals specifically with the fact that, for twenty-five years I have been nothing but an indentured servant to a sea of random strangers demanding something from me at every turn.

Is it any wonder that the moment I find myself in front of another human being I begin to wonder what it is they want from me? It's all I've ever known.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Tale of Egocentrism

adjective: egocentric; adjective: ego-centric

thinking only of oneself, without regard for the feelings or desires of others; self-centered.

Seems self-explanatory. "Thinking only of oneself." We all know people who do this. Hell, each of us probably have moments of egocentrism on a daily basis. It's a human condition. As earthly land-mammals go, humans are probably one of the most selfish.

However, just this week I was involved with a situation that allowed me to experience one of the greatest moments of egocentrism I've ever had the pleasure to witness. **Disclaimer: I have changed the names of people, places, and events to protect my own ass.

I work for a particular business. Let's call it a theme park. At this theme park, we have employees. However, our employees are on contract rather than on payroll. Recently one of our contract employees, we'll call her Rebecca, was having difficulty committing to her contract. She was often showing up late, or not at all, and when approached she told us she had a different full-time position that was interfering with her hours at the theme park.

In a move I assumed was mutually beneficial, the theme park decided to not renew Rebecca's contract for the following contract season. Rebecca seemed relieved, being able to focus on her other full-time position, and my employer (call him Todd) seemed relieved to "go a different direction."

This week Todd approached me with some sad news. He had seen Rebecca at Fareway. As it turns out, Rebecca has been diagnosed with cancer: pancreatic and colon. I had just enough time to say, "Oh, man. That's too bad. Has she started chemo yet," when Todd puffed out a huge sigh and said, "It's probably a good thing we didn't renew her contract."

I was shocked. Not that someone would think such a thing. I'm sure, given time, I would have realized the good fortune in not having to struggle to find a last-minute replacement for Rebecca if she decided she couldn't do her job or, heaven forbid, she died. This kind of thought process runs through each of our brains at one point or another as we live through the process of someone we know fighting for their life. Thoughts like, "I'm glad it isn't me," are completely normal and very human.

No. What shocked me was the fact Todd made this statement out loud. Not just to me, but to other employees who had joined the conversation.

What could I do? I am, after all, only a cynical and sarcastic creature. I'm not elevated enough to understand other, more tactful ways of approaching such a horrendous statement. With as much sarcasm as I could manage I said, "Well, way to go us! We saved ourselves from the burden of employing someone with cancer. Yipee."

Todd stared at me then, his mouth agape, and said, "Do you need a couple of extra days off this week?"

This wasn't a threat. There was no undertone suggesting that I be punished for seeing differently than him by losing my hours. No. Todd believed my sarcasm was rooted in my being overworked and over stressed. He couldn't even connect the dots that he had essentially patted himself on the back for Rebecca getting cancer and my reaction.

Completely oblivious.

Think about this the next time you open your mouth to make a statement. It isn't that I don't want you to speak your mind. I just want you to be aware of how you are going to be perceived if you speak exactly everything you feel.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: Redshirts

Redshirts Redshirts by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It isn't often I find a book that grabs me and won't let go. Redshirts certainly did just that. I understood the premise. I had an inkling of what was going to happen, and even thought I groaned when I realized what I thought was going to happen was actually what was happening, Scalzi's narrative was written in such a way that I couldn't help but continue reading. I was a little leery when the crew of the Intrepid started talking about space travel, and even more concerned when the narrative pulled me out of the world of the Universal Union and took me back to 2012. Scalzi was still capable of pulling of a decent ending despite seemingly resorting to the same methods of storytelling he seemed to be mocking. Overall, I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tales from the North Woods: Bitch Slapped by an Eagle

There's something about getting up early and peddling through the hills of the Shingobee forest, watching the sun rise over the tree tops, and listening to the birds wake and the squirrels and chipmunks scavenge for food, that brings a certain peace - a certain zen.

I love the section of the Paul Bunyan trail that connects to the Heartland trail and runs all the way down to Brainerd. I love it because it's hilly. The hills offer a strenuous workout, but they also offer a solitude not found on the Heartland trail.

Most people don't want to work that hard, so the Heartland trail, which is fairly flat, always seems crowded and packed with people. While the Paul Bunyan trail (specifically the portion running through the Shingobee forest) always seems deserted.

Last week I had an encounter with a porcupine on the Paul Bunyan trail. This week I met a young skunk on the trail who seemed content enough to threaten me as I passed, but that was all.

However, the most amazing part of the ride didn't take place on the Paul Bunyan trail. I was actually on the Shingobee Connection, a short stretch of trail that leads from the Paul Bunyan, through Walker, and back to a different section of the Heartland trail.

The Shingobee connection weaves in and out of forest, it crosses driveways, and actually becomes part of the road for a while. There's one section of the trail that creates a horseshoe or U-shape. The trail spits you out of the forest, you cut a diagonal across someone's gravel driveway, and then you enter a bit of woods again as you start back on the trail. Those woods disappear after about five feet and the trail curves and opens up to look out over the first expanse of Leech Lake you see on the trail.

It's a blind curve. You keep to the right to make sure you aren't going to run into anyone else. A sudden bike accident isn't a fun thing.

This morning, as I curve around the bend and the first blue sparkles of Leech Lake make me glad I'm wearing sunglasses, a giant shape lunges from my left. I feel a breeze graze up my cheek moving air in the wrong direction, up instead of across.

I do what any normal person would do. I leaned away from the shape and turned my head to see what I was going to need to defend myself against.

I came face-to-face with the taloned claw of a mature bald eagle.

It was curled, and the eagle was flying away from me. Most likely I scared him as much as he scared me.

The branch the eagle had been sitting on bounced, and I saw how close we had actually come. That breeze I felt against my face was the rush of air pushing around the eagle's wings as he took off across the lake.

The entire episode took all of two seconds, but still I stopped and watched the eagle cross to better hunting grounds on the far shore. It was an experience both amazing and terrifying.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Tales from the North Woods: Porcupine L. Jackson

Tales from the North Woods:

I was riding my bike down the Heartland Trail this morning. This is not a rare occurrence. I try to ride at least three times a week if I can fit it into my schedule. Most days I ride the 10 miles to Walker and back, or the 7 miles to Nevis and back, and I always stop at the Cenex on my way home to drink a cup of coffee with Emily​.

This morning, however, I decided I needed ramp up my workout and attempt to plow through the hills on the Paul Bunyan Trail that connects with the Heartland Trail and leads all the way to Brainerd (and perhaps beyond).

What I like about this stretch of the Paul Bunyan Trail is that it's quiet. I have never seen another cyclist on this trail. In part that's due to my early ride time (I like to leave the house around 5:30 in the morning), but this is also due to the strenuous work it takes to navigate the hills. Seriously, there are signs posted all along the trail warning people away from the steep hills.

Because it lacks for population so early in the morning I have the pleasure of seeing a vast array of wildlife: mostly deer, ravens, and other birds, but today I met something different on the trail.

I have come to call him Porcupine L. Jackson, because he's one bad mother-fucker.

I spotted PLJ about two hundred yards off, trotting down the center of the bike trail. At that distance, I thought he was a racoon, but he was walking funny for a racoon ... almost strutting.

As I approached, and recognized the creature essentially blocking my way, I laughed. I've never seen a porcupine up close and personal. As is my nature, I like to make noises at the animals as I approach. I don't like the idea of scaring a deer into a panicked leap and having him choose the wrong direction and plow into me. On most flat stretches I'm cruising at 18 miles per hour, and having the full weight of a creature like that drive into you at those speeds ... it wouldn't be pretty.

So, I start calling to Porcupine L. Jackson. "Hey, Porcupine! I'm coming your way. Look out!"

PLJ doesn't even pause. He continues his strut down the center of the trail, owning it, like he was a finalist on America's Next Top Model.

I'm thinking, "Maybe PLJ is deaf. Maybe he can't hear me shouting at him." So, I slow the bike down. I drop to 15, 10, 5, 2.5 miles per hour. I might as well be walking. I'm still shouting, "Hey, Porcupine! I'm passing on your left!"

Maybe he hears me. Maybe he just senses there's something behind him. I'm about fifteen feet behind him when he stops and turns. Not his whole body, just this head. Like he's looking over his shoulder at me. I say, "I'm going to pass you. Do you want to move?" PLJ gives me this look, and I feel like Brett being asked to say "what?" again, and I can almost hear PLJ rehearsing the lines of Ezekiel 25:17, "The path of the righteous man," and all that.

But PLJ just turns back and continues his strut down the center of the bike trail. I'm going slow, but I'm also going to pass. You know, I've got that human sense of entitlement. I'm not going to let some animal the size of a basketball cow me.

So, I'm rolling up on PLJ, and I'm getting close. He's still strutting his stuff. I'm still talking to him, trying to let him know I'm getting closer, hoping he'll take the hint and cruise off into the woods.

He doesn't.

When I'm about two feet from him, PLJ stops. He doesn't turn to face me. He just stops. So I stop. I don't want him sprinting out under my bike. Not that I think I'd squish him, or anything, but I don't want to fall, and I don't want my bike tires damaged. PLJ hunches down and fans out his quills. Makes himself almost twice as large as he was.

Despite my better knowledge, images of spike flying through the air at my legs run through my brain. Some instinctual part of my body knows I've got to get out of there before shit gets real. I say, "I'm just going to pass you."

PLJ turns his head for the first time since puffing himself up. He doesn't say a word ... because, you know, animals don't talk ... but I can still hear what he's trying to tell me.

"Get that mother-fucking bike off my mother-fucking trail."

So I do. I pedal as fast and as hard as I can for about thirty seconds. Put a good 50 yards between us. When I look in my rear view mirror, PLJ is still strutting down the center of the trail, not a care in the world, and I'm certain he was muttering to himself, "That's right, bitch. Keep pedaling. This is my trail."

So I do. I pedal as fast and as hard as I can for about thirty seconds. Put a good 50 yards between us. When I look in my rear view mirror, PLJ is still strutting down the center of the trail, not a care in the world, and I'm certain he was muttering to himself, "That's right, bitch. Keep pedaling. This is my trail."

I finished my ride without incident. 30 miles this morning, ending with the usual cup of coffee at Cenex. It was nice to see a critter I don't usually see, but I'm glad I din't suffer any damage so far out int eh middle of nowhere.