January, 2014

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Dealing with ‘Creatives’, Part II

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

If you don’t remember part one of this, follow this link. Having been fired by my cover designer after only one cover, I was forced to hunt down a fresh one at elance.com. And after receiving fifteen proposals in less than a day, I was actually pretty encouraged. Sure, I wasted a month with the first artist, but at least there were more out there to choose from.

A bunch were easily eliminated (too expensive, irrelevant portfolio, etc.) My initial contact was a new artist in New York City, working to expand her portfolio. At first she seemed like a good match, but after some discussion she withdrew from the project, saying it was too complex for her to deliver at a reasonable price. That was pretty much the complaint of my first artist – not exactly an encouraging trend.

So I moved onto the next one, located in (of all places) Columbo, Sri Lanka. Former home of Arthur C. Clarke. An omen?

Well, maybe. I spent a bunch of time Skyping and swapping emails with someone who used just the nickname ‘Black’, describing in great detail exactly what I wanted. I also provided a good amount of information on the story and the characters.

Black took about a week to get back to me. And when he finally did, he came back with something that eventually evolved into this:


Which was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful piece of cover art that really captured the key elements of my story. Far more eye appeal than the first one. Utterly different from what I’d asked for. And almost certainly easier to execute, from a graphic arts perspective, than my original request.

Back in my real life as an engineering consultant, very often I joke about giving clients what they need, in contrast to what they ask for. And here I was, having that exact thing done to me!

What’s ironic about it is that if either of the first two artists had made that leap, I’d be working with them instead of reaching halfway around the world (10.5 time zones) to get an e-book cover made. Now, in both cases, I began my interaction with “…I’m new at this, so I need you to educate me on what’s reasonable to ask for and what’s not.” But neither of them took the initiative to do exactly that.

So it would seem my disdainful attitude about learning how to ‘deal with Creatives’ needs a reassessment. The solution was actually for me to be educated by a Creative.

So pass the humble pie. And, given the end result, actually I don’t mind the taste at all.

What, Again?

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

It looks like this is getting to be a habit. For the second time in as many months, the crew of a jetliner has managed to land at the wrong airport. And this time, to make it more interesting, it was a jetliner full of passengers. On January 12, Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago Midway airport to Branson (MO) airport (BBG), managed to instead land at Clark Downtown (PLK).

Fortunately, no one was hurt, despite the runway at Clark being about half as long as the one in Branson. And the airmanship involved in getting a 737-700 into 3700 feet is quite laudable. Less so the pilot’s navigation acumen.

So, as this is starting to become a regular feature here, let’s take a look at the two airports, as they might be seen from an approaching airplane on a particular heading:





I’ve tweaked the relative altitude of the photos to make the airports look roughly the same size, but I left the runway heading the same on both images. The runway headings  at Branson and Clarke are different by twenty degrees.

If anything, the area around Clark looks more ‘built up’, which might mislead a pilot unfamiliar with the area. In fact the pilot involved, despite having flown for 12,000 hours, had never flown into Branson before.

But this is why we have GPS, and other navigation aids.

Rather than speculate on what went wrong, I’m going to instead take this opportunity to wax a bit philosophical on the whole thing.

I fly little airplanes, and if you survive doing that for a while, you gain a healthy respect for the limitations of your airplane, as well as your own personal limitations. When you’re a complete newbie, you tend to view anyone around you with a pilot’s license as superhuman. And you tend to deify your flight instructor, as well. Which sort of makes sense – after all, you are trusting him with your life.

But somewhere along the line you start viewing other plots, and even instructors, as your peers. At present, I’ve been flying for about 1500 hours, so if I go up with an instructor, it’s entirely possibly I’ll have twice as many hours as (s)he does. Which is fine, if (s)he’s experienced enough to be an instructor, I can almost certainly learn something.

But I still tend to view the commercial pilots, with their 100-ton, 600 mph airplanes and thousands of hours of experience, as… well, if not gods, certainly closer to divinity than I am.

But after a few mistaken airports, and crashes on beautiful clear days, I’m starting to wonder. Perhaps they’re only human after all. And maybe I’m kind of silly for ever believing otherwise. But the whole thing is like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. An epiphany. But a melancholy one.

This is going to be good

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

If you know me (and hopefully more of you will moving forward), you know that one of the recurring themes in both the fiction I read and the fiction I write is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So how could I not take note of Laura Dekker’s odyssey.

In case you don’t remember, Dekker was the 16-year-old Dutch girl who sailed solo around the world in 2012, setting a new record. Here in the United States, we pretty much only got the news about this when she successfully completed the trip. But apparently the events leading up to her trip were nearly as challenging, with Dutch authorities attempting to seize custody of her from her father (her parents are divorced) when he publicly announced that he supported her plan to make the journey. She was 14 at the time.

The whole thing also precipitated a very polarizing public debate at the time. There were those, including the authorities, who called her plan ‘delusional’. And there were others who thought fulfilling her dream was feasible, worthwhile, and worth the non-trivial risk.

Not being a sailor (or at least not willing to sail anything much bigger than a Hobie-cat), I’m not sure I’m in a position to have a strong opinion on whether her plans were reasonable. Certainly they were unusual. But Ms. Dekker was born at sea, and spent the first five years of her life on a boat. Various articles suggest that she felt more at home at sea than on terra firma.

Perhaps the question to ask is what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old. Well, 250 years ago they were raising families. Today, many of them can’t seem to focus long enough to get through a semester of junior high school. On the other hand, there are 14-year olds today working toward scholarships, and I’m sure that the class of 1764 had some losers in it as well. So what’s reasonable to expect from a 14-year-old? Well, perhaps that depends upon the 14-year old. And as far as the Danish equivalent of Child Protective Services is concerned, if the kid’s not being beaten or starved, I’d say how she’s being parented is none of your d*mn business. All things considered, I’d rather live in a world where an occasional young life is lost than one in which the dreams of amazing young people like Laura Dekker are systematically crushed.

But what did I mean by ‘This is going to be good’? Well, one part of the story I wasn’t aware of was that journalist Jillian Schlesinger shadowed Dekker from port to port during the course of her journey, and has created a documentary telling her tale. The work is titled Maidentrip, and the trailer can be viewed below.

No indication as to when the full film will be available; Amazon doesn’t have it,  but it can currently be saved on Netflix. It might be a good idea to do that now, to avoid the rush.


By Rote

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

There’s a book called The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber, that talks about the dilemma small businessmen run into when trying to grow their business. The book runs 268 pages, so it may be a bit challenging to summarize it in a paragraph, but I’ll have a go at it anyway.

People who start a business generally do so because they love creating something that they think others will want. This applies to any business, but as the author talks about a baker, I’ll use that example here. So the baker opens her new bakery, everyone loves her pies, and she’s happier than a pig in you-know-what. And she’s making money. Long lines wrap around her bakery every morning, and Life is Good. So she decides she’ll open a second bakery on the other side of town. Pretty soon she’s spending her time running back and forth between the two places, quality of her product is suffering because she can’t supervise both operations, bills aren’t getting paid because she has no time for it, the board of health is sending threatening letters, and her best baker just quit because the place is so chaotic. She’s working sixteen hours a day, but seems to be slipping further behind each week. That’s the point at which she hires Mr. Gerber to help her out of the mess she created.

There, I just saved you reading the first few chapters. And now I’ll save you reading the rest of the book.

Mr. Gerber’s solution to the ‘Baker’s Dilemma’ is process. Put in place a documented process for everything involved with running the bakery, from how to purchase the flour to how to measure the ingredients, to how to arrange the currency in the register to how to which edge of the cake boxes to fold first. With all this in place, the bakery can run with any staff that can be trained to follow the process, and the proprietress will no longer have to always be present.

In the audio book version, the proprietress experiences an epiphany, when she realized she can now grow her business indefinitely and be freed from the mundane parts of the operation so she can focus on finding new recipes and so forth.

Or at least Mr. Gerber meant it to sound like an epiphany. To me, it sounded more like a psychotic episode, as she chants “… a process for this, and a process for this, and a process for this…”

You see, I’m not a big fan of process. I think it stifles creativity and doesn’t deal well with exceptions. From my perspective, process is great if you’re manufacturing nuts and bolts, or opening a McDonalds. But it’s useless if you’re a sculptor or an artist. My real-life profession, engineering, falls somewhere in the middle.

So I never had much use for Gerber.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about how to get the germ of a story into a form that worthy of publication. It’s tough to get traction, especially in the beginning. Whether you call it lack of motivation, writer’s block, or something else, it’s still tough.

Recently, I learned something from someone in my writer’s group who I’ll call Sue (because that’s her name), about a way to get some traction. She provided me with a three-page questionnaire to be filled in for each major character. The questions range from simple ones like the character’s name and age, through more complicated ones like ‘What sexual experience most haunts your character?’, or ‘If you met your character in a bar, what would he/she think of you?’.

Filling it in can be pretty challenging, but once it’s complete I have a pretty good idea of the character I’m dealing with. And if I do it with two or three more characters, how they would interact becomes pretty obvious. Once there, the first draft almost starts writing itself.

But it’s still only a draft. So off it goes to my writer’s group, for commentary, critique and refinement. And after that, to an online writer’s group that I recently joined, for more of the same. At that point, it’s been seen by somewhere between ten and twenty sets of eyes, and while it may not be as good as it can get, it’s almost certainly as good as I can get it. So off to the copy editor, a final local edit, and it’s ready.

(pause, step back, and catch my breath)

You know, this is starting to look an awful lot like a process. Interesting. I never thought process was even remotely useful for creative activities.

Perhaps I owe Mr. Gerber an apology.