Current Works in Progress

Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNo minus 13 (hours)

As of right now I have exactly 13 hours before I am allowed to start hammering out my NaNoWriMo novels. I am nowhere near ready. I have yet to finish my scene list, or most of my characters for that matter. I do, however, have about 6 free hours today in which to sort out those piffling details and get the jet pack (metaphorically) strapped on. I thought I'd take this calm before the storm to fill everyone in on my plans for this November; what software I'll be using, what strategies I'll be employing, what goals I'll be setting, and all that sort of thing.

I have been using, and will continue to use, yWriter for my planning and desktop based writing. I like the way it deals with scenes and chapters. I also like that it's free, and that I already know how to use it. I will not be using Scrivener. It's not that I dislike Scrivener, it's just that I am already familiar with how yWriter works and I'd rather spend time planning my novels (and blogging about it) than learning a new software package.

In addition, I will be using Evernote and Dropbox. Evernote is where I keep bits of ideas that occur to me when I'm not actually writing, and links to resources I might find useful while writing. Dropbox is where I keep my yWriter project file. This means I can access my WIP from either home or work with equal ease. Dropbox rocks my world.

I also just ordered my new toy tool. I should be receiving my brand new, shiny Asus Eee pad (Transformer - TF101) either this evening or sometime tomorrow (tomorrow is more likely, but I remain hopeful for this evening). I am likewise hopeful that I will be able to do the majority of my writing on this bad boy and sync up to the desktop via Dropbox or Evernote. I will resist the siren call of Angry Birds until December, I promise.

So. I will be writing my novels primarily on an android tablet and compiling on a windows desktop using a combination of Evernote, Dropbox, and yWriter. I have a brand new 5kg (11 lbs for you disadvantaged Americans) bag of raw coffee beans ready for roasting. I am good to go.

The observant among you  may have noticed I've been pluralizing the word novel in this blog post. There is a good reason for this. I will be pluralizing my NaNovel this November. Rather than settling for the 50,000 word goal, I've set myself a slightly different goal. It is my intention to complete the first draft of not one, but two novels this November (the second is sequel to the first). I am not setting a specific word count goal, but I wouldn't be surprised if the two novels together clock in at over 200K. My best guess estimate tells me that I need to average about 7,000 - 8,000 words a day to do this, but I already write 3,000-4,000 words a day just with emails, blog posts, Google+ comments, comments on other people's blogs, comments and critiques on deviantArt deviations and so forth. If I forgo the majority of that and concentrate my attention on my novels, I am already halfway there.

So. I will be using my new Eee pad, Dropbox, Evernote, and yWriter to write two novels in 30 days. As if that weren't enough, I will also posting the first of my novels online as I write it. If you want to read along, you will be able to find it at my deviantArt group. You'll have to be a deviantArt member to read it, but membership is free. I may or may not post the last few chapters, though I haven't decided yet. I intend to publish it down the road and I'm leery of giving the ending away.

What about you? What software are you using for NaNo? Where will you do most of your writing? Have you set yourself any additional goals*, or are you happy with 50k? Do you have enough coffee? Yak back in the comments below!

* I have created a circle on Google+ for NaNoVerAchievers (more than 50k or faster than 30 days). If you fit that mould, let me know and I'll add you to the circle.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writer's Unblock

So there I was, more than half way through NaNoPlaMo (National Novel Planning Month - otherwise known as October). I'd gotten my main plot arc figured out, and a couple of characters - including my main character. Then I hit my first wall. It was one doozy of a wall. It almost killed my story.

No matter how I approached the story, I couldn't get a handhold on it. It was like glass; mocking, sarcastic glass. The story that had seemed so promising just yesterday was rapidly drifting away from me, and I wasn't even sure why. I'd spent hours and hours sitting at the keyboard trying to get some supporting characters on paper. They wouldn't come out of their shadows. I fiddled around with some setting concepts, but nothing really felt right. It was all too generic. About the only productive thing I accomplished in two or three days of "planning" were some really impressive trick shots in Peggle Nights. Productive...

Then, in my real life, I had one of those pathetic, deus ex machina, "and then suddenly the problem was solved" plot twists that we writers are supposed to avoid like the plague. The solution to my problem popped fully formed, like a Greek god, right into my head. The characters wouldn't form up because I didn't have anywhere to put them - I needed my setting first. The settings I'd been trying on weren't satisfying to me because I already had a better one in mind. The story was going to take place, was meant to take place, couldn't take place anywhere else but
Aedon (the world in the picture of the map is called "Aedon").

This was a world I'd created for my attempted NaNovel last year. (It's a good thing I took these pictures of it, actually, because when we moved this past February I forgot to take it down from the wall in the old apartment. It might well still sit there, confusing the lovely Chinese couple who probably live there now.) Last year's story was a very different animal from this year's papery beast, of course, but they both fit perfectly in the same world. Perfectly.

Last year's novel was set in Ergess. Nominally a constitutional monarchy, Ergess is actually ruled by a very politically active, polytheistic "state religion". A very expansionist state religion. This is in stark contrast to Olam.
Olam is ruled by a council of merchant princes. The political intrigue, byplay, infighting and actual details of their various power bases are incomprehensible to outsiders. Luckily for us, they are also more or less irrelevant to outsiders (and us). My story does not deal with them.

My story does deal with an always feared and generally shunned religious order of assassins (they do thievery, spying and a number of other nasty things as well, but they are really famous for the assassinating). What better place to plop down their main temple than a city-state where the only truly important questions are "How much?" and "When can you deliver?" It is a perfect fit.

I am going to have to change Olam from a large country to a smaller (and more easily defended) city-state. I am also going to have to move it from where it is now, staring across the river at the Viking Krallish capital to the tip of that northern horn. I was going to have to make those changes anyway, mind you, I just hadn't realized it until I actually went to use the place. It's still perfect.

Now that I think about it, though, I may want to make some cultural adjustments to the vikings Krallish and the Native Americans Horse Lords Furlanese as well. They are both just a wee bit... over done. This year's story will also have to take place at least a hundred years before the events of last year's story. Last year's story involves some major plot events that change the entire world in fundamental and irrevocable ways, so there can't really be any overlap. Aside from that, the world is totally perfect for this story.

What actually does make this world perfect for my story is that it is a world that I've already built. The heavy lifting is already done. Realizing this gave me some very useful insight into myself as a writer. In particular, I learned two things:
  1. I am the kind of writer that needs to have a whole world built before he can get to know his characters or flesh out a plot.
  2. I am lazy.
I am too lazy to go around building a whole world for every story I feel like writing, anyway. It took me weeks of late nights and early mornings to plan Aedon last year. It was the thought of doing that again this year that was pushing me into the arms of Bjorn the Unicorn. Now that I know where the action is going to go down, now that I have the context for my story, the glass doesn't look so smooth any more. I can see handholds all over the place, in fact, and I can't wait to get my hands dirty. Is it November 1st yet? Rawr, and so forth!

(If you don't know what NaNoWriMo is, go to and find out)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NaNoWriMo: A November to Remember

Judging by the weather (and also the calendar) November is just around the corner. That means it’s almost time for… NaNoWriMo!

Just in case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month”. They can be found at, and November is the time when NanoWriMo’ers gather together online and attempt to do the improbable – write 50,000+ words of a novel in 30 days (that's 1667 words a day). Last year I participated and failed, but this year I intend to win! To help both myself and anyone else who is thinking about taking part, I have compiled a list of dos and don’ts. It’s mostly don’ts – having failed I have more experience on that side of things.

1) Write every day
2) Plan your novel ahead of time

1) Give up
2) Get too far behind
3) Edit as you go
4) Care if what you write is crap (you can fix it later)
5) Have a baby in November

Not to point fingers, but it was entirely my infant son’s fault that I didn’t finish last year. I was on pace the first 5 days of November, and then my wife went into labor. Tyler was born on the 7th, and I got hardly any writing at all done after that. I’ve double checked with my wife, and she assures me that there is virtually no chance of another baby this November, so I should be all set to win. Winning, by the way, simply means successfully writing more than 50,000 words in the time frame – you compete only with yourself.

I’m The Allergen at so go ahead and add me as a writing buddy. You are going to take part, aren't you?

I'll continue to blog about various things throughout November, but there will likely be a noticeable NaNoWriMo bias to my blog posts. I consider this a good thing.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reclassifying the Past: From Fiction to Non

The past is a story we tell ourselves to account for the present.1 That story, however, is in the process of moving from the 800s to the 920s; that is, from fiction to non-fiction, from literature to biography. (see here for more details) Today’s children will have such well documented lives that there won’t be room for the sort of creative filling-in of the blanks that has formed so many of my childhood memories. There won’t be any blanks to fill in.

Me as a toddler
My son as a toddler (last week)

My son, by the time he turns 1 year old next month, will appear in several thousand photographs and many hours of video footage. These photographs and video are digital, and much of it is online.  It is therefore easily searchable and viewable from just about anywhere at just about any time. This is unlikely to change. Years from now, if he wants to know what kind of clothes he was wearing, or what he looked like, or who he was playing with, he will likely be able to find out as quickly and easily as he could find out the scores from last weekend’s jet-pack quidditch game.

My Underpants Cowboy™ phase

The number of photographs of me that exist from my first year of life probably number in the neighborhood of a hundred, and that is only because my father has been an avid amateur photographer for most of his adult life. I would suspect that the average number for people my age is closer to twenty than a hundred. When I was a child photographs were much more a “special occasion” thing. Oh, and most of those hundred or so photos of me are on slides in boxes in my parents’ basement. Looking at them would currently involve about 35 hours of air travel followed by a day or two of sifting through boxes, setting up the (hopefully still working) projector, and clicking through pictures one by one. Enough time to play numerous games of jet-pack quidditch. Alas, there is no video of my early days – no one in my family owned a video camera.

My Sexy Underpants Cowboy™ phase

My recollections of my childhood are the product of a whole host of disparate elements: actual remembrances of an event here and there, remembrances of photos that I have seen, but not for a long time, stories that my parents have told me over the years about “that time you…”, stories I’ve told to other people about “that time I…”, and crap that I just made up at some point, and then eventually forgot that it never really happened , at least, not the way I remember it.

My first fish
The benefits of teamwork

The interesting thing for me is that all of it, every aspect of my picture of my past, is open to interpretation. It lacks the cut and dried factuality of the video and photographic evidence my son will possess.  Likewise, because it is open to interpretation it is also open to re-interpretation. The older I get, the more chances I have for revision, and the better my childhood looks to me in hindsight. The rosy glow of time (in cooperation with my inner storyteller) heals all blemishes and adds a healthy dollop of happy with a side order of excitement (that probably wasn’t much present at the time). I’ve forgotten most of the fights and arguments and heartbreaks I’ve had over the years. My son won’t be able to forget his because they’ll be chronicled in his twitter history and his facebook feed (or whatever service takes over once they pull a “MySpace” and die).

The girl next door.
My first wheels

And that’s the final nail in the coffin of the fictionalized (and idealized) past; social networking. If it were just the pictures and the videos, well, those can be ignored. It still would require an act of will to make that connection between that evidence of the past and the curiosity of the present. The nature of the social network, however, is to drag the past along and make it very much present in the present.


When I first joined facebook (well behind the trend, I have to admit) I did what most people do – I tracked down everyone I’d ever known who was also on facebook. I searched for all the names I could remember of people I’d gone to kindergarten with. I dug through their friends lists, looking for all the people I hadn’t remembered. I caught up on all the gossip of people I hadn’t thought about in twenty or thirty years, who were living in places I hadn’t seen in almost as long.

...and now

And then, eventually, I deleted them. I deleted most of them, anyway. I had to redo what time and nature had already done, and what I had unwittingly undone. My friends list had filled up with a bunch of people that didn’t matter to me. All those people I’d forgotten, I’d forgotten for a reason. They were no longer part of my life, and had probably never been a particularly important part of my life to begin with2. For today’s children it will be exactly the opposite.

In the days before salmonella

I have to make an effort to remember the past, and naturally forget the things that cease being important because remembering them takes too much effort. My children will have instant access to a blow by blow account of most of the events in their lives, and will have to make an effort to “forget”. If they decide that some tidbit of information is no longer important, they will have to make a conscious decision to remove it from their “memory”. They probably won’t, though.

Remember when you could take a picture like this and not go to jail?

Just as it is more trouble than it would be worth for me to try and accurately remember all the details of my past, so it will be more trouble than it’s worth to sift through all the minutiae of daily life and remove the unimportant bits. So my children will be left with their stark, photographically preserved factual pasts. This worries me a little bit. It doesn’t worry me for any of the reasons that most older people are bothered by the lifestyle changes of “the kids today”. It worries me because I suspect that it is our tendency to idealize and creatively re-imagine the past that allows us to do the same with the future and that, to me, is the source of hope.

1I’m fairly certain this is a (mis)quotation of something somebody famous once said but I can’t, for the life of me, remember who it was or find it online. If you know, please fill me in.

2If I haven't laid eyes on you in more than 10 years, and you are still on my facebook friends list, you can take it as an indication that I consider you to be an interesting person, and that I continue to be interested in your life and thoughts.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On the Importance of Creating

I had a conversation, a while back, with an old friend of mine. This friend was in the throes of the sort of existential angst that is so familiar to my generation. The kind where you ask yourself questions like, “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?”, “What do I want to do with my life?”, and “What the fuck is the point?” I offered what support I could, gave what advice seemed appropriate, and life went on. The whole thing stuck with me, however, in the back of my mind.

While reading the blog post of another friend ( dealing with the role of our generation in bridging the technological gap between the old guard and the new one, it occurred to me that this particular brand of depression seems almost entirely constrained to people my own age and younger. The image of my father, head in hands, wondering what to do with his life just doesn’t compute. That’s not to say that my parents have never felt a bit lost, or depressed about the turns their lives have taken but, and correct me if I’m wrong Mom and Dad, they’ve always had a pretty good idea about where they were going with their lives and why. I can’t always say the same about myself, or most of my friends.

Some days later I was watching the first installment of the wonderful series “Fry’s Planet Word” (viewable here to those in the UK. If you aren’t in the UK just... find other means.) and was struck by the distinction drawn between language use in chimps who can be taught sign language, and humans. The chimps, it turns out, don’t initiate conversation and don’t use language with each other. They are not linguistic creators. Humans are.

That’s when it occurred to me. The biggest difference between my parents’ generation and my own is how we spend free time.  My parents’ generation is much, much more likely to spend their free time in creative, productive pursuits than my own. They build things, make things, cook things, and grow things. We watch TV, play video games, and socially network about the things we watch and play. They impose their will on their environment (not to be melodramatic) while we do not. They create while we sit passively back and consume.

I worked, for a period of about 4 years, in a call center. That job almost killed me. I would walk in at the beginning of my shift and log into my phone, and that was the last act of volition I would perform for the next eight hours. We didn’t even answer the phone manually. You would hear a beep in your headset, and you’d be talking to someone. The complete and utter lack of self-determined action drove me into a depression so deep that I bear the scars to this day. For a period of two or three years after I was fired from that job I couldn’t bring myself to answer the phone. I got call display so I could phone people back, instead. I still suffer anxiety when forced to answer a phone, and am prone to not answer unless I absolutely have to.
These days my free time is spent in much more creative pursuits. I cook (as opposed to heating up food). I play music. I write speculative fiction. I also passively watch TV and play video games, of course, but in a much healthier proportion than I used to.

This is why creative, constructive activities are so important. They allow us to impose our wills on our environment. They allow us to express ourselves and, in doing so, force us to decide who our selves are.

What about you? What hobbies do you have that allow you to express yourself? What creative pursuits fill your time? How do you stay sane? Weigh-in in the comments below.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Roasting Coffee

In Canada, where no coffee has ever been grown, I can buy 1kg of coffee for between $10 and $15. In China, which grows coffee in two different regions, that same kilo of brown gold will cost me between $30 and $40. This amuses me in a bitter, “it figures” sort of way. 

Now, to be sure, the $30 coffee is of a much higher quality than the $10 daily-use coffee you buy in the supermarket. If you can even find non-instant coffee in China (and outside of the three or four biggest cities that is going to depend on the presence of a Starbucks) it is almost certainly a single-origin, Arabica bean (meaning high-quality and expensive). Coffee in China is still pretty much only for us foreigners or for pretentious rich people who want to exude the air of a sophisticated world traveller, but no matter who it’s for, $30 a kilo is still entirely too much to pay for coffee. 

Now, I have to admit that since coming to China I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob. When living in Canada I was always more of a quantity over quality guy. I’d even drink the swill at Tim Horton’s. I don’t think I could drink it any more. Now that I roast my own coffee, I’ve been spoiled.

Here’s the thing: I drink a lot of coffee. I go through about a kilogram of beans a week. At $30-$40 per kilo that adds up pretty fast. In addition to the sheer cost, there is also the hassle of having to go and buy the stuff. When I lived in Hangzhou (a mid-sized city of about 10 million people) I could buy coffee in a few places, but most of them involved 2-3 hours of round trip driving through some of the nastiest traffic in the world.
Then my friend Sean turned me on to an elegant solution. “Why not,” he said, “buy a huge @$$-load of raw beans, and we can roast them ourselves?” To this day I have no idea where he got the idea, but it was a fantastic one. Green (unroasted) coffee beans will keep almost forever in a cool, dry (airtight container) place, and by roasting yourself you can always be drinking the freshest coffee possible. 

The thing about pre-roasted coffee is that it takes a few weeks to a few months to hit the shelves of your local supermarket or cafĂ©. Coffee starts to lose its flavor mere days after roasting. You, my friend, have been drinking stale, flavourless coffee. I started roasting my own coffee as a way to save money, but ended up with the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I don’t think I could ever go back. I currently buy 5kg bags of raw Yunnan beans from a wholesaler in Guangzhou for about $7 per kilo, and roast twice a week.
If you google “home roasting” or “how to roast coffee” you’ll be inundated with instructions and advice (much of it conflicting) on the proper methods for roasting and preparing a “good” cup of coffee. At its most basic, all you really need for roasting is a frying pan, heat, and coffee beans. A cooling pan is a nice idea too, to avoid over roasting, but that’s all you need. That’s all I use:

Many home roasters use hot-air corn poppers to roast their coffee. Others buy specialty coffee roasters online. I can’t speak to either of these methods, not having tried them, but from what I’ve read they work well. I like the physical involvement (and the cheap, not-having-to-buy-a-bunch-of-equipment-yness) of pan roasting, although I don’t recommend doing it later in the day. There is quite a bit of caffeine released in the smoke, and you can’t help but breathe it in. I spent one or two sleepless nights before I figured out not to roast before bed.

If you are going to try your hand at this, here are a few tips that might help:
  • Make sure your pan is clean and dry before putting the beans in. I let it heat up until any moisture from washing it is gone, then pour in the beans.
  • Don’t stop stirring
  • Pull the beans out when they are a bit lighter than you want them to be. They will continue to cook and darken after you remove the heat
  • Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation (outdoors would be best, if possible)
  • Whatever you use for stirring will likely be ruined for anything else.
  • Don’t stop stirring
  • Don't roast coffee right before bed
  • Don't stop stirring
There are two things affected by the darkness of your roast: flavour, and caffeine content. The roasting process removes some of the caffeine from the beans, so a darker roast will have less caffeine than a lighter roast. In terms of flavour, some beans (such as the Yunnan beans I buy) are too bitter for anything but a dark roast, while others like a nice Blue Mountain have a full, pleasant flavor with a much lighter roast. The general advice is that the lighter the roast the more you taste the bean, and the darker the roast the more you taste the roast. Feel free to experiment with different beans and different roasts, you'll be hard pressed to roast an undrinkable batch and experimenting is fun.

Now go and turn this...

Into this

Friday, September 23, 2011

Introductions Are In Order

It's odd, isn't it?

This is the my first post on my shiny, new blog, I have no readers at the time of this writing, and yet still I feel the need to introduce myself. The process is further complicated by the fact that I really don't have any clear idea to whom I am making the introduction. I have some ideas about the purpose and direction of my little corner of the internet, but nothing firm, and certainly nothing set in stone. So, I really have no idea who you are, future reader.

As you might have seen in the brief bio I've included in my profile information, I have numerous hobbies, and have had several very different career paths over the years. As often as possible, the two areas overlap. I've been teaching English in mainland China since 2004, I've appeared in several Chinese television shows (some of which even aired), my wife and I ran our own (delivery-only) bakery/restaurant for a year and change, and we have just recently opened our own English training school. I expect I'll be using this blog to write about some of those experiences from time to time.

In addition to starting the new school, I am also trying my hand at becoming a professional writer of fiction. I'm elbows deep in the creation of one novel and a collection of short stories at the moment, and hope to self-publish both of them as e-books before the end of the year. I will likely be using this blog (and as many other channels as I can find) as a promotional tool for my writing, and as a way of (hopefully) building a fan base. I would love nothing more than to be able to make a living by writing novels.

Finally, I will be using this space to talk about some of my hobbies, and some of the things I've learned to do in order to make life in China livable. In the past seven years I've had to learn how to make a lot of things from scratch, simply because they aren't available here (or are very hard to come by). I'll likely be sharing some of that know-how for those who are interested.

I've titled this blog My Lived-in Life, because that is what I strive to have, and what I plan to share with you - a life that, like the old family homestead, has been thoroughly lived-in.