Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blog Comments

Am I the only one who is experiencing the mysterious disappearance of my comments? The last three comments I've made, on three different blogs, have vanished as if I had never made them.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

OMG, It's Been a Whole Freaking Year!!

Those of you who know me know that I tend to be addicted to doing projects. Last February, yes, and entire year ago, I decided to reface my cabinets. I have long despised my not-quite-white-anymore cabinets and after consulting with Mrs. Evan, I decided to reface them. I plugged away slowly but steadily for about three months... doing one cabinet door every now and then as time allowed. And then the project stalled. It's been a LOT of work. Finally, after months of seeing my not-quite-halfway-finished project staring me in the face day in and day out, I have broken out of the rut.

Over the last couple of days, I've gotten back into the swing of things, and I am moving forward again with the cabinet refacing. Here's a shot of the first set of cabinets that I've refaced...

For those of you keeping track, note that these cabinets started out completely white. I punched out the center and installed frosted plexiglass, sanded the paint off of the cabinet doors, and put a wood veneer over the cabinet frames.

I've got to say that I'm VERY pleased with the outcome thus far (bearing in mind that I'm a LONG way from finished... this is only the first cabinet, and I haven't stained them yet.) But at the same time, I had NO IDEA how labor intensive this project would be. If I had it to do all over again, I would have never started this, saved up the money, and started from scratch. It's relatively inexpensive, but the amount of labor I've put in thus far is downright obscene.

By the way, if you're interested in what things looked like before, take a look at the original post I wrote when I started this.

Interviewing a Writer

This is actually the second time I've interviewed Paulius. But since he's managed to write and publish a book, I figured that it was time for another interview. This time it'll be strictly about his book. My questions are in black, and his responses are in blue.

Fill me in on the whole national novel writer's month.
National Novel writing month is exactly what it sounds like. The aim is to write a novel during the month of November. It’s not exactly a competition. There are no judges…it’s purely about word count. Anyone who makes the 50,000 word limit by November 30th ‘wins’. There are no prizes either, except for a few special offers from sponsors. Essentially, it’s just an event to motivate you into writing.

What made you decide to do it?
To see if I could, basically.

My hard drive is littered with short stories and abandoned novels. I have a habit of starting a new story and getting bored of the idea long before the story is finished. I figured that having a set deadline and publicly stating on my blog that I’d entered Nanowrimo would motivate me to actually finish something.

Plus, I figured if my finished story was good enough, I could sell it and raise some money for Child’s Play.

Tell me a bit more about Child’s Play.
Child’s Play is a children’s Charity that was started by Mike Kruhulik and Jerry Holkins from the Penny Arcade webcomic.

The original idea was essentially a used toy drive. Penny Arcade readers would donate their old games and hardware which would then be given to local Hospitals… basically something to make life a little more pleasant for the kids who spend hours and hours per week hooked up to dialysis machines or undergoing chemo. Unfortunately, they were told that the hospitals couldn’t accept used merchandise. Some of these kids are so sick that even the dust from your house can cause them serious problems. So, instead, they set up a few Amazon wish-lists and asked for new, sealed items.

The first year they didn’t know what to expect, so they were using Mike’s house to accept deliveries. UPS turned up with a full truck…then Fedex arrived…then multiple USPS trucks. They had to get a warehouse company to donate some space just to have somewhere to put it all. From there it developed into a full-blown charity that collects literally millions in donations every year for hospitals worldwide.

With the popularity of Penny Arcade, Mike and Jerry found themselves in a position of influence over millions of gamers, and rather than use that influence to make themselves richer, they used it to help people…just because they could. I can’t think of anything more admirable, and that’s why I chose Child’s Play to donate my royalties to.

Also, in a society that views gamers as violent, anti-social deviants, I really appreciate the opportunity to show that the gamer community is made up of good people. We raised over 2.2 million dollars last year, and have surpassed the previous year’s total every year Child’s Play has been running.

Now that you’ve finished and published a novel, is there any motivation to go back to these abandoned pieces and see if you can polish or rework them to a usable point?
It’s highly doubtful. Firstly, a lot of them are from my teens before I had any formal training and they’re just plain awful. The ones that aren’t terrible are experiments that just didn’t go anywhere.

At best, I could just take a concept I’d abandoned and start over from scratch…but as I mentioned earlier, the reason I abandoned most of these ideas is because I got bored of them. I really need the excitement of a new idea to start me writing.

Why a zombie story?
I chose a Zombie story because I wanted something with a relatively simple plot that I knew I’d be able to finish in time. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had a pretty cool opportunity.

It struck me that if a Romero-style zombie apocalypse started tomorrow, 99% of the stuff you see in movies would result in an early, painful death. Given that Zombies are only dangerous in large numbers and, even then, only if they have you surrounded or cornered… why would you even consider barricading and trapping yourself anywhere. You can escape at a fast walk!

So I wanted to write something different…a more ‘realistic’ zombie story that points out the sheer ridiculousness of the usual zombie tropes and avoids all the usual clichés. No mall siege, no chainsaws, etc, etc. I’m not saying I did anything spectacular or groundbreaking, the book is basically the novel version of a popcorn movie, but it’s different from the usual stuff.

I can also not express the sheer amount of rage I felt when ‘The Walking Dead’ premiered just as I was finishing the first draft. Walking Dead is an awesome show that matched my overall ‘realism’ concept exactly…which just proves that AMC are a bunch of time travelling plagiarists.

Why a single plot line as opposed to dual plots?
I think a lot of the book’s ‘atmosphere’ comes from Jake and Helena’s isolation and lack of knowledge. They never have any idea of what they’re about to walk into and I wanted the reader to share that sense of tension and uncertainty with them. The basic idea was that if Jake and Helena weren’t aware of something, then the reader shouldn’t be either. Having a side plot from a different point of view would have given the reader more information than the protagonists and compromised that sense of vulnerability.

What was the basis for your main characters?
I wanted them to be perfectly ordinary people. Jake is the guy you know from the office and Helena is the pretty girl next door.

This is going to sound weird, but my characters tend to write themselves. All I do is come up with their basic concept, then throw them in a situation and watch how they react. After a while, their personalities come out and you get to know them just like you’d get to know a real person.

The real magic of writing is when your characters start to argue with you, or refuse to do what you tell them. That’s when you know they’ve taken on a life of their own.

Fill me in on the Fake marines (The “m” is lower case intentionally, because they aren’t real)
The problem with writing a Zombie story is that if you’re trying to avoid the clichés (such as the evil, shadowy corporation behind the outbreak), you’re left without an interesting intelligent antagonist. The Zombies themselves aren’t really characters, they’re more like a force of nature.

So I knew I wanted some human bad guys… but the idea of plain vanilla raiders just seemed boring (and overdone in every post apocalyptic story ever)so I came up with the idea of a group of murderous conmen… but I also needed a plausible way for Jake to see through their act. I already knew that Jake’s father was a Marine…so the rest wrote itself.

Creed was an absolute joy to write. He was just so despicably and unapologetically evil.

Did you know the whole plot up front, or did it unfold during the writing process?
I think over planning and sticking to a rigidly detailed plot is a mistake. It leaves no room for the happy accidents and discoveries that make a good story great. So, before I start writing, I just set up my main plot points and start with only a very rough idea of how I’m going to get from point to point. For example, I know my characters are going to start at A and end up and B, but not how they’re going to get there.

Also, when you start writing, you only ever have a vague sense of who your characters are. For example, I originally intended for Helena to just be a classic damsel in distress, but discovered as I was writing that she was far stronger than that…so she started taking a far more active role and that changed the overall shape of the story and opened up options I hadn’t considered when I started writing.

What part of the process surprised you most?
Writing Josh. In the original draft, we never actually met him, he was only ever referred to. The more I thought about Jake’s back story, the more Josh kept popping into my head and demanding ‘screen time’. Like Creed, he was insanely fun to write.

What part of the process was your favorite?
As always, being surprised by my characters. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the real magic of writing is when your characters develop personalities of their own and do things you never expected…like arguing with you over what you’re trying to get them to do.

I know the idea of arguing with and being surprised by my own fictional characters makes me sound like a mental patient…but apparently JK Rowling called a family member in floods of tears when Sirius in the Harry Potter series died because she wasn’t expecting it and it caught her off guard… so at least I’m in good company.

What part sucked most?
Everything after the second draft.

I think it was Stephen King who said that if you’re not totally sick of your story by the time it’s released, you didn’t work on it hard enough.

The first draft is a lot of fun. The second draft is still fun, but it’s starting to feel like work. By the third draft it is work…and by your fifth pass you’re ready to stab your eyes out with a screwdriver.

It doesn’t matter how good your story is, by the time it’s finished you’d rather do anything than read it again. Imagine grabbing a book off your shelf and reading it cover to cover for ten hours a day for two weeks straight. That’s essentially what I did.

I remember you mentioning how much the editing sucked (either on your blog or in one of our email conversations). Are you going to have someone else edit your work next time?
It would be a very difficult decision. Editing is extremely difficult for the original author because you never know when to stop. You’re just never 100% happy. There’s always something you think you could punch-up or make better. The problem is that when you do change something, you’ll probably change it again on your next pass…and the next, and the next… so you start spinning your wheels. I can definitely see the attraction and reasons for handing your work over to an editor.

The hard part is finding someone you trust enough to do it.

When you’re writing a book, it becomes your whole life. It’s all you think about and you spend so long working on it that you even start to dream about it. The final draft represents hundreds and hundreds of hours of your blood, sweat and tears. Handing it over to an editor means entrusting another person with something you’ve poured your heart and soul into.

As it stands, Restless Dead is ‘all me’. I did everything from writing the story, to the layout, fonts and I even designed and produced the cover…so if someone reads it and doesn’t like it, I can live with that. Any mistakes are mine. If I handed over my final draft to an editor, I’m giving that responsibility to someone else.

Long story short, if I was going through a traditional publisher and had access to a professional, proven editor, I’d definitely consider it. As an independent author, I’ll do it myself…however unpleasant it is.

What's your next story going to be and when can we expect it?
My next project is going to be a lot more ambitious. It’s a sci-fi story and it’ll probably be out late 2013 – early 2014.

Maybe you could write a short story first… sort of a corollary to your last book… the same story from the Zombie’s view. It would definitely be a shorter story. “Brraaaaiiiinnnnnnnsssss”
I know that was a joke, but I actually considered writing another Restless Dead book. One idea was a prequel written from the point of view of the military and the CDC covering the events leading up to the initial destruction of Oakvale. The second was a true sequel set a year or so later. I may still write it, but my current idea is one that I’ve been wanting to write for a few years. It was too long and too complex for Nanowrimo…but writing The Restless Dead managed to shake out the last of the ‘Brain Crack’ that was keeping me from writing it.

What question did I forget to ask? And what’s the answer?
The only question I can think of is ‘Where can I buy it?’ You can get it direct from the publisher, or you can purchase it through Amazon.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of Cutting the Cord

As part of my grand experiment, I needed to acquire a few new items. I needed to upgrade rebuild my computer, so that it was robust enough to output streaming media at 1080p to my TV, I needed a new wireless mouse and keyboard, which was capable of working from over 20 feet away from my computer, and I needed a new video card.

For those of you who are considering cutting the cord, one thing you should understand is that you don't necessarily need to spend thousands of dollars to make this happen. Here's essentially what you need.

-You need a decent TV that's capable of VGA, DVI or HDMI input.

-If you choose HDMI (which is what I chose), then you need a video card capable of HDMI output. Take some time and do your research. Some HDMI cards have the audio aspect build in to the card itself. Other cards require spdif. If your HDMI card requires spdif, then you need either a sound card or a motherboard that will output the spdif signal to the video card's input. (SPDIF stands for Sony/Philips Digital Interface. It's geek speak that you don't need to worry about much, but you should be aware of it.)

-If you choose DVI or VGA, then you will need a sound card that is capable of outputting audio to either your TV or to your Home Theater system. This is not a tall order, considering that most Intel motherboards manufactured over the last couple of years includes an optical audio output, and most home theater systems now include an optical audio input. If you choose to go the old school route, and use analog soundcard outputs to analog TV audio inputs, this too is simple. Your friendly Radio Shack guy can help you there.

You will need a decent video card, regardless. I chose n ASUS EAH5550, with 1 GB of Video RAM. Most of my research said that 512 MB of Video RAM was sufficient. I primarily chose this card because it had an on-board fan (as opposed to passive cooling), and because it has HDMI out.

As for the motherboard and processor, I am running an Intel Quad Core CPU, and the DG33TL media series motherboard, with 4 Gig of RAM and Windows 7 Pro. I chose ALL of these items because they were cost effective in my specific situation. To put this in perspective, I spent around $600 on the entire computer... not high end by any stretch of the imagination.

Stay tuned for continued updates on the grand experiment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Grand Experiment

You may remember a post from last month where I said that I was ready to get rid of cable TV. During the last month, I have built a computer that meets my needs, and two days ago, I disconnected my cable, hooked up the PC, and got a subscription to Hulu Plus. (We already have a Netflix subscription.)

Two days in to our 30-day experiment, I am going to declare a qualified success. The kids are adapting well to the idea of doing without cable TV, though they have grumbled once or twice that an episode of a show hasn't been available. In all honesty though, I fully expected this to happen. They ARE, however, doing a grand job of adjusting to the idea of searching through Hulu for their entertainment, as opposed to channel surfing.

There is one hiccup that I didn't expect... I've seen a couple of bandwidth issues while watching Hulu. The picture freezes for a few moments, the show rebuffers, and things continue. After using Netflix for over a year, I didn't expect the buffering issues quite to the extent we're experiencing. It's not horrible, but after years of watching cable TV and DVDs, ANY disruption to the streaming is quite disruptive.

With these issues aside though, I think things will work.

Friday, February 4, 2011

My Stupid Dog

As a follow-up to my earlier post, I thought you might like to know that my dog is home, minus part of her tail. The best way to describe her new tail in words is to say that it's about the length of a Pointer's tail, or maybe a Doberman. It's probably easier to SHOW you the difference.

Here's a picture of her when she had a nice, healthy tail.

Here's a shot after the vet removed what she had mangled during the last week or two.

My Poor Sick Puppy

Okay, she's not a puppy... she's almost ten years old. But she's still sick.

She's been chewing on her tail today. Over the past week and a half, I watched the tip of her tail go from slightly bald, to slightly inflamed, to the point where the vet is amputating a little over half of it. I think that she started chewing on it because of nerves, and I tried to prevent her from chewing... I wrapped her tail in gauze and sprayed that bitter stuff that prevents chewing, I put that dorky cone around her head... but I guess it was too little, too late. So, she's losing about half of her tail today. As long as it truly fixes the problem, I guess it's no big deal.

I've already begun, and plan to continue, behavioral modification... exercise and stuff like that. Wish us luck.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Are We Hypocrites?

This may be a slightly disjointed ramble, but I want to talk about the American position on the recent unrest in Egypt.

Our relationship with Egypt, as with many other countries, isn't a simple one. For right or wrong, America supports Israel, a country that's largely hated by its neighbors. Egypt is pretty much the only country in the Arab (Muslim) world that has achieved a long-lasting peace with Israel. Egypt has pretty much toed the American line in diplomatic issues as it relates to Arab countries. At the same time though, Egypt is not a democratic society.

Life would be easy if we could simply say that Egypt is an ally or an enemy, but life rarely works out that way. I think the best way to say it is that we're allies because it's mutually convenient.

With that said though, I believe that there's a fatal flaw in our thinking. We preach democracy to the world, but we only tend to support democracy when it's a carbon copy of our system. We get downright pissed when democratic societies don't walk in lock-step with our beliefs. A great example of this is how we bashed on France when they didn't patently buy in to, and support, our invasion of Iraq.

Instead, like many individuals, our country tends to form alliances based on conveniences. This means that we form alliances with nations who support us on given issues, despite their radically differing opinions on the issue of personal liberty. In my opinion, this is a major shortcoming of America's foreign policy.

At the end of the day, we need to determine our primary goal. Do we want to support democracy, regardless of how the voice of a country's people may differ with ours? Or do we push our own self interests, regardless of another nation's principles regarding individual liberty?

Taking a simplistic view, I believe that we should push democracy. America was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of (individual) happiness. The idea of individual autonomy is what makes America great. The downside of this, of course, is that reasonable people disagree with what constitutes personal freedom.

It is perfectly reasonable, for example, that a given Arab country would want a democracy based on Islamic law. Such laws could oppress the rights of women, Christians, and so forth, but if the people of that country genuinely want such a system of government, and that country's constitution was genuinely the will of the people, we, as a country that values the will of the people, should support this system of government.

It is also reasonable that the people of a given country value the collective over the individual... that the desire of a single person is subservient to the will of a village or country as a whole. Again, if that is the will of the people in that country, then we, as a country that values "we the people," should support these differing ideas.

The problem is that we seem to think that personal liberty is inviolable. The reality is, that liberty can take many forms. An individual can choose to think of themselves first, or they can decide to put the needs of others first. Failure to realize these fundamental differences is where we fail as a country in our ideal of democracy. People can, and do, put the needs of the collective before the desires of the individual. People can, and do, place spirituality above secular desires.

If we are going to preach democracy, we need to be prepared for the possibility that a given nation's idea of democracy, due to cultural differences, may not walk hand-in-hand with our own brand of freedom.