Star Wars: Episode 7 Teaser

Since the teaser hit on Friday, I’ve had people (usually very excited) asking me about my reaction to the trailer. Oddly, I’m feeling rather ambivalent.

First, for reference:

The first time I watched it, I actually thought it was another fanfilm trailer mashup. JJ Abrams is delving really hard into the old Ralph McQuarrie concept art for the first trilogy – something the people creating Star Wars media seem to be doing since we saw the Y-wing bombers in the first season of Clone Wars.

Parts of the teaser made me smile and thrilled me a bit – namely, the trio of X-wings skimming the lake (I don’t even mind the new design) and the Millennium Falcon evading TIE Fighters (presumably over the sands of Tatooine). Some of that is probably nostalgia for the golden years of LucasArts gaming: X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs TIE Fighters, X-Wing Alliance, or even Star Wars Galaxies before it shut down.

Much of the rest of the teaser did almost nothing for me. The (presumably) Sith Lord’s lightsaber design didn’t bother me (though it was why I first thought it was a fan trailer, not the real deal), and the new droid looked ridiculous. The rest of it looked pretty much like I expected a Star Wars teaser to look.

Maybe I’m getting cynical. The past fifteen years of Star Wars productions has been very hit-or-miss across the board, from movies to television shows to gaming. For every good production it seems like there’s been two terrible ones. Maybe JJ Abrams is the guy who will turn that around, but I’m reserving judgement until (at minimum) I get to see a full trailer.

And maybe someday, when Shattered Expanse is a multi-billion dollar media enterprise, I’ll be in a position to comment and actually have something to say that people will listen to!

It Always Takes Longer

As anyone who knows me understands, I’m a big fan of doing things myself instead. It’s actually how I got into computers – I couldn’t afford for someone else to repair them for me when something went wrong.

My level of skill in particular areas can be great or little, but I usually try. I’m not much of a mechanic, I’m a decent carpenter, and I can logic my way through electricity and plumbing. I’m not about to give someone a home appendectomy (mine’s already done, so I can’t do it to myself) but I know how to give injections to livestock and slap a bandage on a wound.

But there’s a critical fact that I often fail to account for: major projects always take longer than the time budgeted.

My house expansion (original house: 500 square feet, single-stall garage with rotten roof; new house: 1000 square feet, two-stall tuck-under garage) has been an ongoing project since 2012. In part it’s taken so long because I’ve never really committed fully to it. I had a 60-70 hour per week job; then I was writing novels. Last fall I really threw myself into it and got it 90% done, with the remaining 10% consisting of heat and plumbing (including the new bathroom which never got further than framed and insulated).

I had originally planned on forced-air heat for my expansion, but I hate my old furnace and really didn’t want to replace it. (I need to sell more books.) Also, drilling big enough holes through 6″ concrete walls to bring heat ducting over wasn’t appealing at all. So, my search for alternate ideas eventually landed on a radiant system designed around 1/2″ Pex tubing and aluminum heat spreaders strung through my floor joists.

On paper, it’s actually a really elegant and simple design. The holes I needed to drill through my wall are much smaller, for one. So after drawing up a materials list, I closed my eyes and ordered all the Pex, the pump, and everything else I needed to make it work.

I aimed to actually get the system built over Thanksgiving weekend. While I knew we had plans for Thanksgiving Day proper and the Saturday following, I had nothing on Friday and all of Sunday afternoon. I figured even if I didn’t get the system done (which was likely), I’d have the vast majority of it done and all I’d need is a quick trip to Menards to pick up the last of the fittings I’d need to complete the project.

As I write this on Monday morning, I can say that I’m far less than 50% on the project. Now, some of that had to do with butchering a deer on Friday evening that eliminated a big chunk of my work time, as well as a trip to the church last night to fix the sound system after a disastrous service on Sunday morning. (All audio and visual upgrades should be tested well in advance of a service, regardless of how well past upgrades have gone.) But even with that time back, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I thought I’d be by this time.

As my father wisely pointed out to me last night on the phone, “It always takes longer than you think.”

I guess that means I won’t be getting bored in the evening any time soon.

With the outside temps approaching -20 this morning, though, it would have been nice to have some heat.

A day of Thanksgiving

This post was actually written yesterday. I’m spending the day with family, not sitting in front of a computer.

Thanksgiving isn’t my favorite holiday. (Neither is Christmas, the usual popular choice.) I don’t feel the need to criticize it for historical connotations, as many do every year. But as a Christian, I find it an important holiday – it’s a day to reflect on what blessings I’ve received and how fortunate I am.

I’m thankful I’ve walked this Earth for thirty years (next week, that is; close enough). The Lord has given me an appointed time, and I don’t know what it is. I’ve wasted so much of it on things that didn’t and don’t matter, but every year I’m given is a blessing.

I’m thankful for my wife of five years. She has blessed me in ways I never anticipated, calls me out when I need to be taken down a notch, and builds me up when I’m low. She’s my first reader, my editor, and one of the few people that can tell me what she really thinks of an idea. She’s encouraged me on my many endeavors, and without her I couldn’t do what I do.

I’m thankful for my son. As I write this, he brings a smile to my face as he’s sitting in his high chair chomping on his favorite food: an apple. He drives me nuts sometimes, but he’s brought joy and laughter to our home that I didn’t know was missing. And he’s so stinkin’ cute it’s ridiculous.

I’m thankful for my family. Though we sometimes fight, we disagree, we argue, I also know that I can call at any time from anywhere and have all the help I could ever need. My father in particular has made many things in my life possible – advice and willing hands whenever I need to fix a car or swing a hammer or drive a screw.

I’m grateful for the ability to provide for my family. I have a sound mind and body, and I’m able to hunt to put venison on the table or spend days cutting up and processing beef. I’m able to work to provide money or repair our home or do any of a hundred things to ensure my wife and son are warm, sheltered, and fed.

I’m thankful for independent publishing. New technology like print-on-demand, Kindle, and Nook allow me to put books out even if I can’t find a regular publisher – and make more money off them than I would under a standard contract.

I’m thankful for a church that is closer than many families.  They, too, will come at a moment’s notice and provide an ear when I need to talk. Though there are only a handful of people in the church close to my age, they are valuable friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.

Finally, I’m thankful for Jesus Christ. His Word provides hope and guidance and sustains me spiritually. The words I have are insufficient to describe the importance of his grace, and how that affects me each and every day, consciously and unconsciously.

So today, I’m thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

The importance of narratives

Among the last things I read last night before going to bed were several news feeds coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. Namely, reports that shots had been fired and a nice GIF of President Obama calling for calm split-screen with an image of a burning car. (Insert your own jokes about metaphors for Obama’s presidency here.)

This morning, I read celebratory threads on a lefty site about how the lack of deaths and full-scale race riots meant the minority community had proved that right-wingers are a bunch of evil racists who should never have doubted the calm and collected response.

The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Sarah Hoyt opines occasionally about the importance of storytellers, and by that perspective gave me a view on this I would have otherwise lacked.

In our society, we have more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before. We are not shackled by what the three or four biggest media outlets choose to cover and how they choose to cover it. Alternative viewpoints are easier to find than ever.

And in spite of all that, narrative is more important than truth.

Look at the facts of the situation. 18-year-old Michael Brown stood 6’4″ and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Just prior to the altercation that ended his life, he stole cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up a store clerk who tried to stop him from leaving. Minutes later he encountered Darren Wilson (who was in his police cruiser). There was an apparent fight over his gun and the firearm discharged inside the officer’s vehicle. Brown immediately fled then, by eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence, had turned around and tried to rush the officer again. He was then fatally shot.

But narrative drove the aftermath. By the narrative Brown was a “gentle giant” and a “child”. The cops were, necessarily, racists who used disproportionate force in the shooting.

And now, after last night, certain people are out suggesting that the average American is racist as well for suggesting that rioting was going to happen last night.

I’ll be the first to admit I was fairly certain there’d be a body count this morning.

On the other hand, this was hardly a peaceful protest, either. A dozen businesses burned or destroyed, looting, and assaults on uniformed police officers. And this peaceful protest narrative also leaves out the presence of National Guard, FBI, and hundreds of additional police in an attempt to contain the violence before it broke out.

Ferguson’s hardly a shining star in civility.

But the narrative will go on. And that’s why it’s important to have writers, reporters, and authors of varying political and social views – to ensure inconvenient facts don’t get swept under the rug because they conflict with the narrative.

A Golden Age of Information

It’s been a busy week here.

Aside from slow progress on writing projects, I’ve had a stack of side work and house improvement projects to work on. I’ve repaired a half dozen computers this week (the last one is on my bench right now); my wife’s car is currently sitting torn-down in my father’s shop out on the farm; our backup car is now, fittingly, back up and running; and I have the rest of the gear coming to finish my heating project for the house expansion. Also on the to-do list is shoot a deer this weekend (closing weekend for deer season, so I’m getting short on time), and maybe get some plumbing and wiring done.

There’s actually a common theme running through all my projects (aside from deer hunting – that’s an outlier): the information age.

“Erm, Neumiller? You’re talking about mechanics and home improvement. That’s not exactly information age stuff.”

Surprisingly enough, it is.

Not many people I know offline would think of me as a real hands-on type guy. I grew up on a ranch, so hard work and working with my hands aren’t earth-shattering prospects for me, but I’m no one’s first choice when it comes to carpentry, or plumbing, or wiring, or working on a car. I’m pretty sharp at computers, but they’re a different breed than the basic hands-on skills that build and maintain our modern world.

With that said, the Information Age has made these fields far more accessible.

Looking at my various projects, in order: the wife’s car currently has the head stripped off (we thought a blown head gasket, but it was a burned valve and we still don’t know where the coolant’s going) due to plenty of informational videos about the 2.2 engine that’s shared between plenty of vehicles (Sunfire, Cavalier, S-10 pickup). The backup car was a pretty easy job that didn’t require extraneous information (a battery change along with the ends on both leads). The new heating system was designed by reading extensively online on the radiant floor heating I wanted to put in, including both drawbacks and strengths. Electrical and plumbing are both fairly straightforward projects, but there’s plenty of information for consulting (which I need to do on occasion) when I’m not sure about best practices.

That is the world we live in – a world where we can find all the information we need to do so many projects with our own two hands.

Never in the history of the human race has so much information been so readily available at our fingertips.

And we use it to 1.) look at pictures of funny cats or 2.) look at porn.

Kind of a sad commentary on the human condition, isn’t it?

The knowledge is only as useful as our willingness to put it to work. All those Youtube videos of practical skills and projects (which I’ve been consulting heavily for automotive work; between the cracked head on the Jeep and the work I’ve done on the Sunfire, I’ve probably watched four to five hours of instructional videos along this year) are useless if we don’t do it ourselves.

It must be four years ago already when I had a conversation with an overseas friend. He was caught in the same trap many people my age put themselves in: overspent, in debt, and stuck where he was because he couldn’t afford to do anything else.

We spoke at length about the way we had chosen to structure our lives: we purchased used vehicles, not new; we didn’t spring for the latest and greatest electronics; we regularly were paying down our student debt; we forewent eating out regularly and cooked meals at home; we purchased an old house in tough shape and put in hours to fix it up ourselves. And so forth – we didn’t have the fanciest toys, nor the biggest house, nor the newest phones – but we were working to make our lives better.

At the time, I didn’t think it had made a difference – my experience was that most people didn’t want to hear phrases like “Do it yourself instead of hiring it” and “Sacrifice now to make things better later”.

A year back, the same friend reached out to me and thanked me for the advice I’d given. He told me it was some of the best advice he’d ever gotten, and after following it he found options opening up for him that he’d never had available before.

I’ve gotten a bit far afield from where I started, but remember this, if nothing else: You have access to more knowledge than any generation before you. Use it, and you can make your life better.

Why I Don’t NaNo

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo.

For those of you now scratching your heads, NaNoWriMo (hereafter referred to as “NaNo”) is the not-very-abbreviated abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month. Taking place in November of every year, it’s a challenge to participants to write a novel in thirty days – in this case, a “novel” meaning “fifty thousand words”.

I tried the challenge in college, but I had to come to a personal conclusion: it’s a bad time of year to do it.

For me, personally, almost any other month would be better (save December, due to Christmas travels). The word count required (less than two thousand per day) isn’t hard to hit.

But November is deer season.

In North Dakota, opening day of deer season is virtually a state holiday. Schools usually schedule to take the day off. (This year was an exception due to Veterans’ Day.) Most businesses run at part-staff. On Sunday, churches are usually female-dominated because the men are out in the field. (Deer-hunting widow is a common term used around here.)

My last job was working for a major company’s IT department. Now, IT isn’t usually considered the home of traditionally masculine pursuits, but here in ND large portions of the staff took off with rifles in hand to chase whitetails and mulies across the snow.

And deer season is two weeks long.

I was one of the lucky few to draw a buck tag this year. (Numbers are down state-wide, and I only had a single preference point.) Large portions of my spare time have been spent outside looking for The Big One. It’s definitely hard on the time necessary to hit my daily word counts for NaNo.

I’ll be danged if I’m going to be tied to a keyboard when I can be outside with a rifle, binoculars, and a deer tag.

Filing off the serial numbers

Let’s start this with a statement: the title of this post in no way references firearms. ATF, FBI, etc – you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. I know none of you wanted to visit North Dakota.

There’s a dirty little secret about fiction writing: what’s released to the world, what’s in your hands, sometimes isn’t what was written.

Fiction often starts out as something else. The most famous example I can think of, off the top of my head, is Fifty Shades of Grey. (No, I haven’t read it. No, I don’t intend to read it. No, there are no copies of it in my house.) Fifty Shades actually started out as fanfiction of the Twilight series. (Another set of books that have no home in my abode.) It wasn’t until the serial numbers were filed off that it was published as a perfectly legal, very lucrative book.

Dead Man’s Fugue and the upcoming sequel, Contract Hunt, both have some heavy filing marks. Characters in particular were derived from a variety of sources. (People whose characters are “re-imagined” pretty much all know about it.) And you know what? It works!

Fanfiction isn’t a bad way to start in this business – just make sure you’ve got a good file, or at least some heavy-duty sandpaper, so you can turn it into something salable.

And thus ends my random thought on writing after a very unproductive day.

I serve a Risen Savior

Typically, I don’t write about matters of faith or politics on this site. It’s not my strength, and there are a number of authors who share my beliefs in part or whole who write much more coherently on the subject than I can. Also, given my youth in both age and experience, I’d often be lecturing people that I could do better to listen to and learn from.

On certain occasions, I disregard that rule of thumb. Easter is one of those times. I believe the message of Jesus Christ is far too important, too big for me to say nothing.

But He answered and said to them, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”

Several millennia ago, eleven men huddled behind locked doors, hiding from the local authorities.

They had followed a man into Jerusalem the week before, in preparation for the Passover. That man, they believed, was the prophesied Messiah, the son of God! The Christ rode into Jerusalem on a colt and was greeted with praises and cheers.

A week later, their Messiah was dead – crucified at the hands of the Roman authorities at the insistence of the Sanhedrin. One of their own had betrayed him, and the other eleven had been too frightened to stand up for their leader. Only Peter had dared strike at the enemy, and mere hours later he had cowered away from claiming the Rabbi as his teacher.

These eleven survivors had thought they were going to change the world.

The day before the Passover, their dreams were crushed.

And now they hid from the prying eyes of those who had killed the Messiah, striving only to preserve their own lives.

Perhaps chief among them was Peter. He had been the loudmouth, bragging about how he would never fall away from the Christ. Yet he had denied the Master thrice and slunk away in shame.

Andrew, Peter’s brother, lived in his shadow, and now hid in it. He had left John the Baptist to follow the Christ, but perhaps in those dark hours he regretted his decision.

James and John, the Sons of Thunder, were silent in the aftermath of the crucifixion.

Philip was an early follower the Master, and recruited Bartholomew to join as well. Now they, too, felt the heavy guilt of abandoning him in the Garden.

Matthew had been a tax collector, as corrupt as the others of his profession. He had given up wealth and power to follow the Son, but now his sacrifice seemed in vain. He had traded the world for Heavenly concerns, but now had neither – only his own life, which was precariously in the balance with the Master’s enemies surely looking to eliminate the heretics.

Thomas had risked his life to follow the Master; his faith had been bold, and now his doubt was a dark reflection. Had he badly misstepped when he chose to follow the Christ? He had been so certain, and now all was lost.

James was perhaps the quietest of the group, observing rather than speaking, thinking rather than proclaiming. His silence now was in mourning as he wondered how he had been so wrong.

Simon had been called the Zealot for good reason, but now was only zealous in fear for his life.

Jude had always been humble, but it had never know the extreme he felt now. The Master had been taken from them, and there was nothing more he could do.

And the Twelfth among them, Judas Iscariot, had betrayed the Master – had betrayed them all! Unlike the others, he did not hide away in fear or shame; he instead hung himself, unable to live with himself after delivering the Messiah into the hands of those who destroyed them.

Eleven broken men. Confused, lost, mourning, regretful, ashamed.

And the Messiah arose.

And eleven men changed the world.

Eleven broken men crisscrossed the world they knew. Eleven broken men taught the gospel of Christ. Eleven broken men followed their order: to preach to everyone. Upon the truth of the Messiah, they built a church: not a building of stone or wood, not a chapel or humble country building, but a body of believers.

Upon simple truths: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Love your neighbor as thyself.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

Eleven broken men were defeated with the death of their Messiah.

And when He rose, when he shattered the bonds of death, he brought victory where only defeat had been.

Eleven broken men changed the world, with only the faith and power of a living Messiah: Jesus, the Son of God.

Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

The quick and dirty guide to writing a novel in 30 days

I had been asked to teach a class of high school students for a day, to go over my advice to them on completing a novel in 30 days. They’re starting the project today, and due to unforeseen circumstances – a cracked head on my Jeep – I never got the chance to talk to them about it. Still, I had spent some time preparing and it’d be a shame for the information I’d compiled to go to waste.

Note that this isn’t a guide to write the Great American Novel in 30 days – this is merely a “spew 30,000 words in 30 days”, and hopefully have it make some degree of sense when it’s done.

The project is for a creative writing class, and was inspired by “NaNoWriMo” – National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November. While I’ve never completed NaNoWriMo, I have written a couple of novels in a very short period of time.

There’s an old cliche attributed to Ben Franklin: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I hated it in college, where I heard it often from teachers who didn’t care for my planning methods and thought I should be doing exactly what they told me to do. (I may or may not have a slight problem with authority.)

There are two basic tricks you’ll need to get the project done: outlining and committed writing time.

When I was in high school and later college, I had teachers who stressed the necessity of outlines. Outlines, I was told repeatedly, were a skeleton to help me organize my papers; the actual writing would flesh it out around the structure I’d built. Personally, writing three to ten page papers, I never found the need. I instinctively knew how to organize a paper, so the outline didn’t do much for me.

That changed when I started novel writing.

Sarah Hoyt wrote on the subject of “pantsing” vs “plotting” some time back. With all due respect to a veteran author who’s been at it way longer than I have, if you’re writing your first novel on a tight deadline of thirty days, you can’t afford to be a pantser. You need to plot.

Even among those of us who plot, the level of detail that goes into outlining a novel differs wildly. Some authors write fifty page outlines of a three hundred page novel. Some have character sheets/notes/files for every character in a novel, including detailed backgrounds, motivations, and physical descriptions.

When I first started out writing novels, I did a scene-by-scene outline. It wasn’t as complicated as it sounds – most of the scene descriptions were a single sentence, or even a phrase. It was a good way of organizing my plans for a story without losing track of story threads (which makes editing far more arduous). A number of authors I’ve talked to, including my mentor, use this technique for plotting their novels.

I’m actually a bit looser than that now. Destiny’s Heir and Dead Man’s Fugue were both written with a chapter-by-chapter outline. Basically, each was plotted to be a twenty-chapter novel, with a brief one to two sentence description of the major story changes/developments for that chapter.

Any way about it, that outline will give you the structure you need to start writing, which leads into the second part: committed writing time.

You must commit time to write. Just like a basketball player spends regular time shooting hoops, and runners usually have a time of day they always run, an author must have a regular writing time. With a project like this on a tight deadline, anything less will be a failure.

Writing fiction takes a particular frame of mind. Some authors have a very easy time slipping into it. Louis L’Amour, the famed North Dakota author, could sit down and write anytime he found a few free minutes, and he wrote prodigiously. Jack London wrote 1500 words a day; Stephen King just 2000.

However, it’s easier to write if an author-to-be commits certain time to it. It’s the same reason children are raised with routines – it gives structure to life, and makes day-to-day events easier. A five-year-old girl with a strict bedtime routine will quickly fall asleep at the end of her regular path because her mind is trained to do it. Setting aside a certain time of day each day helps the brain switch into writing mode, with less work and stress, leading to a more productive writing session.

(Stephen King works on novels in the morning, and consider afternoons “for naps and letters”, with evenings for “reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.”)

And here’s where the two combine – plotting (outlining) and committed writing time.

Every writer eventually encounters “writer’s block”, which is a phrase without a real useful definition. The blocks happen for a variety of reasons – pantsers may not know what should happen next in the novel; an author may know what comes next, but doesn’t know how to write it; or even simple desire to not write the next scene, because it’s necessary but “dull” or just doesn’t speak to the author.

And there’s the beauty of an outline: you don’t have to write the story from beginning to end.

Don’t want to write the next scene in your novel? Don’t! Skip forward and work on a scene that you’re ready to write! You’re on a deadline – you can’t afford not to write, just because you’re feeling ambivalent about a scene in your novel. Come back to it when you’re ready, and work on something further down the road.

If you stop writing, you’ll never finish in time.

Dead Man’s Fugue was outlined but written pretty much beginning to end. Destiny’s Heir, on the other hand, had chapters written in a very wild order that didn’t make much sense, but the outline pulled it all back together.

So, to recap: use an outline, write every day (at the same time if at all possible), and write what you want to write.

If you follow those basic rules, you can finish the project in time – and you may surprise yourself with what you’ve written.