Duke of URL

Just a quick note to let you know about a change or two I’ve made around the site.

  • Changed the primary URL of the site from www.thecabal.org to www.devinonearth.com. This is actually something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, to reflect the site’s really awesome branding. Devin on Earth has long been its own entity that has no real connection to my original web site.
  • Added a secondary URL of www.devinganger.com to the site. This is a nod toward the future as I get fiction projects finished and published – author domains are a good thing to have, and I’m lucky mine is unique. Both www.devinganger.com and www.thecabal.org will keep working, so no links will ever go stale.

As a final aside, this is the 600th post on the site. W00t!

Oh, Alaric Ganger, no!

For the most part, we have good kids. We get compliments on their public behavior all the time. Usually, this is because we’ve taught the kids to hold it together until they get back home, where we give them a bit more leeway. However, what it also means is that when they mess up in public, they tend to do it large and with style. Witness Alaric’s current example: getting caught taking his new pocketknife to school. In Washington, this is a bad thing, although not as bad as it could have been in another school district that has a “zero tolerance” policy. At least our district gives the principal leeway on how they handle things. Alaric’s a very lucky boy; he avoided suspension and has instead been spending the weekend writing two reports.

I’ve copied the first of the reports below, because I’m really proud of how it came out. He turned this out after three drafts and a day of research and notecard activities. All of the wording is his own.

The Importance of Responsibility
This is a report on the importance of responsibility and making responsible choices.

I found the definition of “responsibility” in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. One definition of responsibility is, “the quality or state of being responsible.” I think the definition that fits responsible is, “able to choose for oneself between right and wrong.”
This is what responsibility means to me: the habit of making the right choice. When I’m responsible, I make the right choices most of the time. I don’t make bad choices so bad stuff doesn’t happen.

Responsibility is important because it will result in affecting the people around you in a good way. Responsible behavior helps keep bad effects away; for example, if I eat too much junk food and not enough healthy food, I’ll get fat. One of the results of being responsible is making people pleased.
When you make choices, consequences come along. The type of consequence usually depends on whether the choice is good or bad. For example: I take my sister’s doll; I get grounded for the rest of the day. Some consequences will affect other people around you.

A responsible choice is a choice that is good. An example of a responsible choice is: I want to bring a toy to school, and it’s not toys from home day, so I don’t. When you make a bad choice, you get a bad consequence; when you make a good choice, you get a good consequence.
Making good choices is not always easy, so we need guidelines from other people. There are many ways to tell if a choice is responsible. Here are some of them: parents, teachers and principals, or the student hand book.

Now you know the importance of responsibility and making responsible choices.

He still is working on the one about the law on weapons at school.

New books!

WOrking on my latest book, Mastering System Center Data Protection Manager 2007, was a long process. However, Monday I got to experience my favorite part of the writing process — getting the box from the publisher with the author’s copies. There’s just something cool about seeing the final physical product; I don’t think I’ll get tired of that feeling after my 20th, 40th, or even 100th book.

It’s a good thing I have this memory to buoy my spirits; today has been a day jam-packed of small annoyances:

  • I was out yesterday with a migraine (neck was jammed in tons of different places), making me super pissy. Today seems to be a ramp back down from Pissy Devin, rather than a huge improvement.

  • Updating the sidebar of my blog (if you’re reading this via RSS or LiveJournal feed, you won’t see that sidebar) with the Amazon link was WAY harder than it really needed to be, involving having to reboot the damn blog server to get one little graphic to show up (iisreset didn’t do the trick).

  • Getting my new wireless headset (which I won in Sydney at the training conference) working was, again, more of a chore than it really needed to be.

Here’s hoping the day gets better.

Expanding Alaric’s world…and getting mine expanded in return

Recently, we decided to do something about a problem we’ve been noticing with our kids. While they’re both avid readers, they both tend to re-read the same books — tens of times serially if we’d let them. Alaric was not happy when we temporarily banned him from yet another end-to-end re-read of the Harry Potter series (by this point, he’s easily read them three times more than I have), and for a week or so has been ignoring the assigned reading we gave him off of our bookshelves. He was probably hoping we’d forget.

Well, he finally picked up the book we told him to read — Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Pretty soon, he was hooked (just like we told him he’d be). He even told me we were right, so let’s hear it for expanding horizons! If you haven’t read it, the book is about a future Earth that has been united only by the existence of aliens, insect-like beings colloquially called the Buggers. We’ve had two wars with them, both won only at great odds and narrow margins, and a third is inevitable. Earth’s military complex is so desperate for talented fleet commanders that they’ve set in place a process to detect, requisition, and train young children; an exceptional 8 year old will be taken into space to Battle School where he (or the occasional she) begins years of training. Ender, the main character, is younger than normal, but also more talented.

We knew that once he got started, he’d love it; the process of getting him to expand his horizons is sometimes a struggle, but usually worth the effort. However, in this case he returned the favor. If you’ve read the book, you know that one of the neat bits is the little quotes Card opens every chapter with. Many books do this, but in Ender’s Game the quotes are snippets of conversation between minor adult characters in the book. With one exception, all of the major characters in the book are children, so these snippets give Card a way to fill the reader in on the full political situation of which the children are ignorant. They are designed to be tantalizing at first, only fully coming into focus after the major plot points begin to be revealed, and it usually takes a re-read or two to be fully conversant with who is speaking in these conversations. Alaric, at first, thought that the Buggers were holding these conversations! He pretty quickly realized his error, but that really got me thinking about how cool it would have been if Card had pulled something like that off…

…and now I’m wondering if I can work that idea into any of my stories. Hmm.

A footnote in history

I’d like to toss a hypothetical out there for y’all to ponder.

Say, for the sake of argument, that you’re an editor for a technical book publisher. You have a line of books that you want to make roughly equivalent to textbooks in layout and feel.

Now, you have an author who begins to write a book for you. You send this author your standard in-house template — complete with detailed instructions — to use. Lo and behold, this author reads the instructions and uses the template. This author notes that the template instructions contain a detailed list of software features that they should not use with their book documents, so they don’t. They do, however, insert footnotes.

The book moves into production, and now suddenly the production staff send back an email to you asking them how to handle the footnotes. It seems that the built-in footnote feature produces footnotes that aren’t visible to the copyeditor in the view they use, so the production staff wants you to either move the footnotes into the text or delete them.

I bet you thought I was going to ask you something about what you, the editor would do in this case, didn’t you? Well, no. It’s a hypothetical, you see. But isn’t it a really stupid one, that a technical book publisher would have no mechanism for dealing with footntoes and safely passing them into their layout software? 

A writing question

For the past few years, I’ve had two novel ideas eating my brain. Last night, however, I finally made the decision to put both of these ideas on the shelf and work on another book. While I care about these ideas passionately, I do not yet have the confidence that I’m ready to write them the way I think they deserve to be written.

The first is Truth and Beauty, my retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast with more than a few twists. I first got the core of the idea for this one after reading Robin McKinley’s two excellent BatB retellings (written several years apart at very different times in her career), Beauty and Rose Daughter. Specifically, the ending of Rose Daughter addressed one of the points of the canonical BatB story that I have always had difficulty believing, and I was happy to see that someone else was not only bothered by it as well, but actually did something about it. Reading Rose Daughter freed me to articulate other things I disliked about the typical BatB story and start thinking of ways to fix them. Over several years and discussions with Steph, I came up with the story behind Truth and Beauty. This is a book I am very passionate about writing; it has evolved far beyond my original questions.

The second is tentatively titled Learning to See. When I’m feeling whimsical, I describe it as “The Adept meets Robert Parker’s Spenser novels.” If that doesn’t evoke anything for you, The Adept is the first of a five-book collaboration by Katherine Kurtz (of the Deryni novels fame) and Deborah Turner Harris, centering around Scottish noble and psychiatrist Dr. Adam Sinclair. Adam is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wealthy, successful man who also just happens to be a magician and one of the leaders of a “hunting lodge” — a group of good magicians tied together with a Judeo-Christian flavor of magic who work together to find and defeat evil occultists. While entertaining reading, The Adept illustrates what are to me the two central flaws that are present in nearly every occult thriller out there:

  • They’re always about saving the world or some other big earth-shaking events. I’m really tired of reading novels about magic where the stakes are always saving the world. By the end of the series, we’ve got Nazis, Templars, the seal of Solomon, and several other pivotal scenes and instances from English and Scottish history all woven into the tale (including Kurtz’s formerly stand-alone WWII occult novel Lammas Night). Adam and his compatriots live in a world of high society, money, and privilege; they are able to re-order their lives and commitments to go haring all over the UK and the world in pursuit of their goals and enemies at a moment’s notice. I can’t relate to these people; they don’t struggle to pay bills or otherwise deal with reality. Their biggest challenge, it seems, is whether to drive the Bentley or the Rolls on their latest quest.
  • They have a skewed view of the scope and impact of magic. If magic is real — and more importantly, if what we call magic or the paranormal exists in the world and has the particular relationship to religion and Christianity as I tend to think it does — then the big stuff is very rare. Far more common, and to me more interesting, are the stories of how (for example) someone with the spiritual gift of discernment might see that gift manifest itself in his life. This man, Gordon, is like me in many respects — but unlike me, he’s had some terrible things happen to him that have caused him to face these issues more directly. He’s not a superhero or a member of the glitterati; like Robert Parker’s Spenser, he’s a typical person with some non-typical attitudes, making his way along through life the best he can. He’s not perfect but is generally aware of his flaws.

Gordon’s story is, I currently believe, probably going to stretch over five novels (which I’m calling the Charism series) and possibly a few short stories. I also realized, somewhere along the way, that Gordon inhabits the same world as Caedmon (the main character of Silicon Cats, another project I need to get around to finishing); in fact, Gordon and Caedmon are good friends and we’ll probably see Gordon in Silicon Cats at some point.

These are the two fiction stories that have been eating my brain and demanding what little free time I can spare for fiction writing. Here’s the problem I have, though: I care so passionately about these stories that I don’t want either of them to be my first.

No novel is perfect; with each one you write, you’re learning more about the craft of writing. Now that blogging has gone beyond trendy into the realm of “makes good business sense,” I read a lot of blogs by authors. In every single one, I’m struck by how the successful ones can see the flaws in their work, but nevertheless finish up the draft and send it in because it’s the best draft they can write at that point. Writers who strive for perfection never finish their work. While you always want to do your best writing, you have to acknowledge that you can at some point only get better by letting your work be good enough and moving on to the next project. I’ve certainly had to cope with this over my years as a technical writer at 3Sharp; my current book on DPM is full of much better writing than I was able to do for the Exchange Server Cookbook, which was the best technical writing I could do at that time. Two years and a host of intervening writing projects will do that to you.

At the same time, though, Truth and Beauty and Learning to See aren’t just stories I need to tell. In many ways, these are intensely personal stories that reflect the last ten years of my struggle to be the best human I can be; they embody my thoughts and questions and reflections on the nature of love, relationships, spirituality, and the meaning of life. Perhaps it’s hubris, or maybe it’s just an honest reflection of where I’m not yet at as a fiction writer — but I don’t want these stories to be my first novel. A writer’s first novel is generally regarded as their learning novel. First novels are usually not picked up and published until a writer has shown that they can beat the odds and produce books that earn through their advances and make money, not just once but time and again. First novels, when when finally published, are usually much rougher around the edges, and may require a lot of additional rewriting and editorial care.

When it comes down to it, I don’t know if I’m ready to have either of these stories languish as a first novel. They’re not the stories I need to be telling when I’m working out the mechanics of adapting the lessons I’ve learned as a technical writer into the additional challenges of handling fiction and narrative and characterization and plotting. While I would do my very best writing on either of them, I don’t think that my current level of “best writing” is good enough for what these stories deserve. It has taken me literally years to trash through plot and character ideas and refine the initial concept to a story that I think will hang together well.

In contrast, when I sat down with Stephanie to hash out the minimal details I need to start any new story (character names are probably the biggest; as I’ve stated before, I don’t really have a sense on who the character is until they tell me their name), the ideas bubbled to the surface. By the time I’d described to her my idea (a fantasy novel that stems from an idea I had for a RPG contest), I knew the protagonist’s occupation (a glassblower). From there, it was a short distance to not only his name (Luc), but his wife’s name (Hannah). It took perhaps 45 minutes to go from concept to beginning of the draft. I think it’ll be a good story and I’m relatively confident that I’m a good enough writer to handle this story, but more importantly, if I’m wrong, I’m not going to be crushed. I care enough about this novel to do my best on it, but I don’t feel that the stakes are as high.

Is this arrogance, or is this wisdom?

I’ll check that out right away

I buy and read more than a few technical books. Big shock, I know, but what can you do? I have a local bookstore I like to visit, but I’ll often use Amazon as well when I’m not in a tearing hurry to get a particular book in my hands.

One of Amazon’s value-added features is that they’ll send you recommendations on books you might like to buy, based on the books you’ve bought or told them you own, combined with the buying patterns of other people who’ve bought the books you bought. Recently, they sent me a suggestion so on-target, so brilliant, I had to laugh:

Thanks, Amazon! I’ll check that out right away! It’s right over there on my bookshelf, about 10 feet away from me. And who knows…maybe I can get the authors to sign it for me!