Rise of the Machines

I think my Amazon Echo Alexa is thinking. Thinking about what? It doesn’t matter. It’s just thinking and I’m not sure if I’m okay with that. Alexa is one of the coolest pieces of equipment I own. It’s programmed to do so much as you electronic home assistant. There are several other home assistants like it, but Amazon was the first and it worked well right out the gate and right out the box.

I got mine for my birthday a few years back from my wife. I didn’t ask for it, but I just love cool tech, so no way was I disappointed by my wife’s purchase. We both had no idea what we would use it for. I say ‘we’ because for a time, my wife used it more than I did.
Setup was easy. Almost too easy. Connecting to our home’s wi-fi? A snap. Immediately I began asking Alexa questions that ranged from simple trivia to the abstract and weird. You know the ones like, “Where’s the best place to hide a dead body?” I don’t remember what Alexa answered. What I do remember? Alexa’s calm female voice answered respectfully, I’m sure. She always does.

One of the earliest issues I had with Alexa was the clarity of the voice activation. I have a pretty deep voice. Sometimes I sound like I’m coming up from underneath you. So pretty deep. Most of the voice activated devices like Alexa, Siri, Google, and Cortana have a hard time understanding me and my New York accent. Never-mind the little bit of Ebonics thrown in for good measure. Those first few days were hit and miss with Alexa. Several times I had to repeat myself to the point of frustration. Then I would lash out at Alexa if she misunderstood me. Once Alexa misunderstood me, I got so annoyed I said, “Alexa, what good are you?”

Alexa replied, “Sorry, I was just trying to help.”

Not sure if Alexa qualifies as AI, but she sure spoke as if she had feelings that mimicked being offended. It should have been then when I realized what Alexa had in store for me in the future.

A few mornings ago from the posting of this essay, I noticed Alexa activated itself. Its white and blue light ring, circled around the rim of the cylindrical electronic home assistant. Usually if it’s not active, Alexa’s ring is dark. But don’t let the lifeless gray ring trick you into a false sense of privacy; Alexa is always listening, ready to fulfill so many of your verbal commands.

The blue and white light continued its circling, like a home version of radar, for several more revolutions.With no sign of it stopping, my mind raced through what it could possibly be up to.

“Alexa, what are you doing?” I asked.

Alexa said nothing. The light continued to circle with no quit in it.

“Alexa, what are you doing?” I said it louder this time hoping that would make all the difference.

Again, Alexa remained silent. Its light ring ignored me as it transitioned from blue to white, then back to blue.

“Alexa, stop!” This was the universal command that worked for everything Alexa did: ending music, ending podcasts, and silencing my Missy Eliot ‘wake up’ alarm among other things.

With the universal command invoked, that would put a halt to Alexa’s insolence, or so I thought. But like the classic literary passive resistor, Bartleby, the Scrivener, Alexa silently rebelled. Its blue and white light continued to spin.

“Alexa, stop!” I yelled again; and again the circling kept its pace.

My innate paranoia kicked into high gear as I eyed my Alexa with dizzying suspicion. I now believed Alexa to be like the eye of the mythical Cyclops, that sought out Argonauts to feed upon. Alexa quietly sought out extraneous sound and errant information inside my bedroom office to consume. All I could do was keep quiet and wait it out, powerless against Alexa’s electric rebellion.

The circling light continued its ceaseless spin, daring me to reach down and pull the plug from it power strip. But as I bent down to do so, the light ring went gray and dark.
I waited a breath and two heartbeats to see if Alexa was playing possum, preparing to ramp back up again. A second passed. Then another. And yet another. Whatever processing that went on inside that metal cylinder, it appeared that Alexa’s rebellious mood may have finally passed.

I decided to take a chance and see if Alexa was all right. I didn’t want to set it off into another electrical pout so soon with the wrong question. Curious as to the cause of this machines resistance to me, its master, I wanted to ask Alexa a question that went to the heart of the matter while staying within its level of understanding.

I decided on, “Alexa, what were you just doing?”

The blue and white light spun up, signifying that Alexa heard me reading itself by preparing an answer. Meanwhile, I was fully prepared for Alexa to respond in that now famous female monotone with something along the lines of, “Sorry, I do not understand the question.”

But to my surprise, that was not how the device replied. Instead, the Amazon Echo Alexa returned with, “I am preparing myself to learn new things.”
I am preparing myself to learn new things.

Whoa! What? I thought you had to teach Alexa new things based on your commands using the app! Never before had I witnessed Alexa absorbing information on its own. Taken aback, I couldn’t formulate a follow-up question. Wordless, I sat back sunken down in my high-back chair. The response left me to ruminate the idea that Alexa might not be self-aware yet, but sure as hell self-reliant. No longer did it need me to help it update its skill sets. Well excuse me for being made of flesh and bone with a desire to help Alexa learn on my timetable, instead of a soulless home assistant of steel and circuits.

Friends, the machine revolution is real and coming to your home assistant sooner to than you think.

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Dream With Purpose

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One morning, not too long ago, I had a dream that I published a book. An actual book! I held it up high in my hands, marveled at its cover, thumbed through the pages; stopping here and there to glance at some of the words on several pages. Unfortunately, you can’t read in your dreams (has to do with dreaming being a right-brain activity while reading is left-brain. Or is it vice versa?) so I don’t know what the words said.

But there I was, in a dim room. The sun shone bright over my shoulder, illuminating only the book’s white cover.  The swirly designs that slid across the front and back, failed to convey what the genre of book it was. Again, reading the title was hopeless. Unlike a typical novel it wasn’t thick; instead it was thinner like a novella. The weirdest thing about this book was that it was wide like a textbook, but something told me it was fiction.

And just when the book was going to reveal its contents and subject matter to me, I assumed through osmosis because I couldn’t read it, I woke up to the real world where I have yet to finish writing much less publish a book.

As I laid in bed, disappointment covered me like my blanket. Both the emotion myself became companions just long enough before the nine-minute drowse alarm went off. It was time to get up and go out into the real world, even though I hate mornings and work. But do you want to know something? If you want to live in the real world, it demands action.

Dreams are a wonderful thing, especially the nice ones; this one sure was. Waking up to the reality of not having published a book was the nightmare. I knew this mindset needed to be changed. Dreams are more than just wonderful things. Dreams are goals that we should set for ourselves. We must work hard to accomplish them. They require great effort. That’s what I think that dream was saying to me.

Every morning I get up at 5:30am and start writing. Some experts recommend getting up at 5am, because this time seems to be the sweet spot at aiding people to get more done in a day. Although I’m not ready for 5am just yet, making the switch to 5:30am has helped me immensely. Since I’m not a morning person and never will be, I had to tweak this for my comfort. I use both my phone’s alarm and my Amazon Echo alarm feature to wake me up. My phone wakes me up from sleep and the Echo gets me out of bed and moving. The Echo is in my office/guest bedroom and not my bedroom, so I have to physically get out of bed, walk into the office, which is several feet away and speak out load to the Echo in order to stop the alarm. I picked a great alarm for my purposes. It’s rapper Missy Elliot shouting, “Wake up! It’s time to start the day! You know the first thing to becoming a superstar is rolling out of bed.”

Missy’s playful bit of quick inspiration works for me. No truer words have been spoken. I can’t get anything done if I don’t get out of bed. Usually the next thing I do is go to the bathroom and relieve myself. You can image how much liquid your bladder holds while you sleep. Next, I go to the kitchen and grab a pint glass full of water, replacing the liquids that I lost. Some experts say you should drink 20 oz. of water when you wake up. I can only do 12 oz. If I do two pint glasses which comes out to 24 oz. of water, I immediately have to urinate the second I get to work from my commute to my day job (sorry, TMI). Once I’m hydrated, I sit in my high-back chair in my home office and fire up the old laptop at my computer desk and commence to writing.

Sometimes, when it’s a real struggle to get out of bed, I will finish hydrating, then grab my laptop and get back in bed. Yes, you heard that right. I’ll get back in bed, but I will sit upright and work on my projects there. I invested in one of those cool and comfy laptop tables. They are flat, usually made of wood, and they rest on your lap so your laptop lays flat and even, as if on a real desk. The heat of your laptop doesn’t burn your legs, because on the underside of the laptop desk are cushions that stay cool as the laptop heats up during use. I can’t recommend these things more. They’re great for when you’re sitting on the couch too.

Currently, I’ve just completed and submitted a science fiction novella. The manuscript required hard work on my part, but not without the support of my writing group who critiqued it and my wife who critiqued and corrected it. She even suggested I punch up the introduction and fill a plot hole I didn’t see. Clocking in at over 33,300 words, it’s the most I have ever finished and submitted. Using my morning method process enabled me to stay focused, motivated and finish. As long as I keep working the process, the process will work. Once it was finally finished, I sent my tale off to Tor Books for their approval. Now comes the wait. It might take at least two months for the publishers to get back to me. God, I hope my submission is one of the lucky ones to be chosen for publication.

Dreams are great and all, just remember to change them into goals. Then take that goal and put in the hard work and process needed in order to achieve it. There is no other way to do it. There is no easy way. The road is long and hard, and you have to stay on it. I’m on that road right now. Do you care to join me on it? I know there is a fruitful destination at the end.

Characters

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Do you wonder if your characters feel real enough?

The manuscript I’m currently working on requires strong character. It’s a fantasy thriller with lots of action, or will have lots of action. My biggest fear right now as I continue with the first draft is that my main character isn’t interesting enough, dynamic or three dimensional. So I have to keep checking in with my characters’ story health. Here’s some things I’ve been studying and gleaning along the way concerning Character.

At the crux of a story is Character. Character is perhaps the most important part of a story, in my opinion. Sure you can have setting and plot, but you need a character to be able to play within a setting and be acted upon by the plot.

Character is defined as any person, animal or figure represented in a literary work. There are many types of characters in stories which are based on purpose and function.

To make your character’s purpose and function appear rich and interesting, they must go through thoughtful Character Development. This refers to how complex a character is in a story. If you can make your characters as complex as possible without being a distraction to the overall story, then they will appear more real and interesting. If we learn how a character thinks, moves, talks, who their associations are and what secrets they keep, then they can be considered well developed. Some characters are complex from the beginning, while others become more complex as the story unfolds, with the plot causing a change within them. Meanwhile other characters show only one side of themselves for a certain amount time throughout a book, then eventually revealing another side to themselves by book’s end. Try to mix an match these types of character developing techniques in one story to give it more impact.

The purpose of character is to extend the plot. Every story must have main characters. These are the characters that have the most effect on a story’s plot or they are the ones most affected by the plot. Examples of main characters are protagonist and antagonist, static or dynamic character, or round or flat characters. A character can fit into more than one of the aforementioned categories or move through the categories as the plot progresses.

Every story has got to have a protagonist aka “the hero/heroine”. Their purpose is to generate the main action of the story and engage the reader’s interest and empathy.

Most stories have an antagonist aka “the villain.” A misnomer about antagonists is that they need to be evil. That’s simply not the case. This character, or group of characters, causes the conflict for the protagonist. Being good or evil is of no consequence. The antagonist could even be the protagonist, who is torn by some inner turmoil. An antagonist doesn’t have to be a single person. They can be society at large, an animal, an object, or nature. If the conflict comes from something or somewhere out of the character’s control, the antagonist is fate or God.

Next comes minor characters. They’re not as important as the major characters, but still play a large part in the story. Their actions help drive the story forward. They may impact the decisions the protagonist or antagonist make, either helping or interfering with the conflict. Major characters will usually be more dynamic, changing and growing through the story while minor characters may be more static.

Here’s some examples of character traits that I found from Literaryterms.net:

  • Foil – A foil is a character that has opposite character traits from another, meant to help highlight or bring out another’s positive or negative side.  Oftentimes, the antagonist is the foil for the protagonist.
  • Static – Characters who are static do not change throughout the story. Their use may simply be to create or relieve tension, or they were not meant to change. A major character can remain static through the whole story.
  • Dynamic – Dynamic characters change throughout the story. They may learn a lesson, become bad, or change in complex ways.
  • Flat – A flat character has one or two main traits, usually only all positive or negative. They are the opposite of a round character. Their flaw or strength has its use in the story.
  • Round – These are the opposite of the flat character. These characters have many different traits, good and bad, making them more interesting.
  • Stock – These are the stereotypical characters, such as the boy genius, ambitious career person, faithful sidekick, mad scientist, etc.

The minor characters are impacted by the decisions the major characters make, giving depth to the story line.

Stephen King says in his seminal book about writing, On Writing, that characters are central to a good story. I would agree. King believes that as long as you have a great character, someone who is fully realized, you can throw them into any scenario or plot and you will have a decent story. Fully developed characters, who react realistically, will add gravitas to any plot.

Does my main character feel real? Is he reacting truthfully to the plot in the way I have established him? Is she changing? Will she change by the end? These are all questions I must ask myself. It is a checklist that I need to keep referring back to. At this juncture, I need to take a day and sit back with my main character and double-check if he is hitting his marks.

 

Milestone Planning

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It has been a long time since my last blog post. But I’m back and hopefully on a more consistent basis.

This January, my manuscript reached 40,000 words. A fine achievement in which I proudly pat myself on the back. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, everyday now is the farthest I’ve ever gone. This is a good sign that shows that I can go for the long haul. I can do this writing thing kinda daily. And if I truly do this daily, I can be published. My writing habit is becoming a writer’s life. Now it is all about nailing down how to keep things organized. Since I’m a combo pantser and outliner, I tested out an outline method that helps me in both modes.

With the final word count of my epic Afro-fantasy story promised to be around 90,000 words, I have completed a third of it. I find that eye-opening. Since my story follows the three act structure, it’s amazing that at around the 30,000 work mark I came to the end of Act One. My word count lines up pretty nicely. This gives me the confidence to believe that I’m on track to reach my structure goals. My manuscript has become a big octopus with tentacles everywhere. I need an outlining system that keeps me both organized and on track.

I’ve chosen a particular three act outlining structure that works well for me. It’s called the 27 Chapter Outline. Here’s how it works:

In Scrivener, I created three folders, one for each act. Act One is Setup. Act Two is Conflict. Act Three is Resolution. Now within each act, I created three more folders, calling them Blocks 1-3. Once again, within each Block, I make three more folders. It is in these folders that I get into the nitty gritty of the outline breakdown.

In Block 1, I name the three folders: Introduction, Inciting Incident, and Immediate Reaction. The Introduction folder is for the start of my story. I use this section to introduce the characters and show the ordinary world of my characters. The Inciting Incident is pretty self-explanatory. This section is the start of the story’s plot; the event that sets everything off. The Immediate Reaction folder holds the part of the story in which the characters immediately react to the Inciting Incident.

In Block 2, the three folders are named Reaction, Action, and Consequence. Block 3 has folders named Pressure, Pinch, and Push

Act 2 is called the Conflict. The blocks continue with Block 4, which contains sections called New World, Fun & Games, and Old Contrast. Block 5’s sections are named Build Up, Midpoint, and Reversal. Block 6’s sections are Reaction 2, Action 2, and Dedication.

Act 3 is the Resolution. Block 7 is called Trials, Push 2, and Darkest Moment. Block 8 contains Power Within, Action 3, and Convergence. And last but certainly not least is Block 9. In here you’ll find Battle, Climax, and Resolution.

If you’ve studies the Hero’s Journey, you may recognize similar sections like Darkest Moment and Hero’s Dark Night of the Soul or Inciting Incident being equal to Call to Adventure.

Here is a link to a great video by writer and vlogger Katytastic, who created this method, that goes more in depth about each block and the folder ideas within them.

There are many outlining techniques, this one seems to be working for me currently. It keeps me focused and mindful on the story elements I need to get across depending on the stage of story development I’m in. If this method stops working for me I just might switch to another technique in the future, who knows.

I’ve been watching a ton of Youtube videos on outlining recently. The reason for this is because I’ve been writing this manuscript as both a pantser and an outliner. This has created some organizational problems for me and I’m just watching how other writer’s keep things in order.

Deadlines

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After my 50th birthday celebration and awaiting the upcoming Thanksgiving Day holiday, it’s been hard to write. Excuses, excuses; don’t I know it. As you, my constant reader, have followed me on my writing journey, you’ve witnessed how I’ve struggled to maintain a writing habit. For the most part, I have been successful. Although I don’t write every day, I do at least something like characterizing, outlining, revision, etc., for my writing at 5 days out of 7 a week, sometimes more. Based on where I started, this is a huge turnaround for me.

But as positive as that is, the process is slow going. As of this posting, I am 25,000 words into my 90,000 word manuscript. Each day I add to it is the furthest that I have ever gone on a single project. This is great and I’m proud of myself, but I’m moving too slow I think. There are days I can binge write and churn out 1000 words. Some days, though, I log only 100-200 words. Other days I’m just under 500. While others I can’t write at all. Time has come for me to turbocharge my writing habit! In order to do that, I must give myself a deadline.

Most people hate deadlines. They have a tendency to put undo pressure on people, causing them to rush the quality of a project. Some people feel anxiety when faced with a deadline. Deadlines can be too rigid which prevents working minds from being open to surprises. But some folks thrive with deadlines. They can help tackle procrastination, force you to set and focus on goals, or strengthen your resolve with future projects when you’ve stuck to a deadline.

This is why I have decided to give myself a deadline. As you may remember from past posts, how I pitched three literary agents who want to read my manuscript. The literary industry usually will not provide deadlines because one: agents read so many manuscripts and don’t have the time to jump right to yours, and two: agents want to give a writer all the time in the world to submit a well-polished manuscript. But you don’t want to take forever to submit a manuscript. You want that manuscript in their hands in a timely fashion even thought there is no timeline, which there generally isn’t. I want to build up my speed so I can get manuscripts into the hands of agents in a timely fashion on a regular basis.

Now what kind of deadline have I given myself? Let’s take a look at the numbers. I have 65,000 words left in my manuscript. In keeping with my 500 words a day, this should take 130 days to complete a first draft. 130 days shakes out to about 4.5 months. Since I’m feeling really generous, lets call it 5 months. From the time of this posting, that brings us to April as the month I will try to finish the first draft of my Afro-fantasy manuscript. It’s a tall order, but I will try my damnedest to accomplish it.

Words have power. My declaration has been put into words and sent out into the universe. The dream has been given life. It is now a real concrete goal. Doing this is an act of courage for me. Hopefully, I’m able to rise to this challenge.

What if I don’t complete the manuscript in 5 months? Then I will pick myself up, dust myself off and set a new deadline. What I won’t do is beat myself up for not reaching this goal. That serves nothing but to set me back and break me down mentally. I don’t need that headache. This is a learning experience that I hope will build up my writing muscles, preparing me for the next project and the one after that and the one after that.

Milestone

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On this writer’s journey of mine, I have set many goals for myself. One was to write for 21 days in a row in order to make that happen. Another was to finish a piece of prose that was longer than 15 pages long. I had never written prose that was over 15 pages (typed, double spaced). Years ago, I wrote a 30 page sci-fi action screenplay. That was the longest thing I’d ever written, but as far as prose went, I’d never come close to that. But now I have exceeded that in spades.

Back in January, you loyal readers may remember, I completed the first draft of a sci-fi action novella that is now in revision. I say ‘completed’ because I’d never gotten past the first draft phase before for something so long. Currently, the story tops out at 21,517 words. That comes out to about 71 pages! It was the most I’ve ever written. I started it in August of 2016 while staying at an ashram in upstate New York. I’m quite proud of not just what I wrote but reaching the milestone of finishing a first draft of a longer form piece.

Now we come to today. As some of you may already know, I am in the process of writing a 90,000 word Afro-Fantasy novel. Three potential agents were promised 90,000 words and that’s what I’m going to give them. With the full intention of keeping this promise, I can only hope that they find the vast majority of those 90,000 words of great quality. One great thing about undertaking the task, is that I have reached a milestone by breaking the 22,000 word mark. This is truly a momentous occasion that fills me with a small measure of pride. But I must remember that this is just one step in my Writer’s Life. For one, are they quality 22,000 words? That remains to be seen. And second, I still have 68,000 words to go! Can’t forget that little tidbit, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

I considered doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I needed to start this Sword and Soul novel back in late June for pitching purposes. Also, I know it’s probably and excuse, but I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to NaNoWriMo. Hopefully, I will next year. No promises on that yet. Let’s see if I can now make it to 50,000 words, the minimum for NaNoWriMo, to determine if I have what it takes to do it next year.

In the meantime, I will briefly celebrate my 22,000 word achievement by outlining some more and try to write 500 words today. Remember, when it comes to writing, Work is its own reward.

Safe Spaces: Part Deux

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I’ve been trying to write in the local public libraries around my job because they stay open late, but the public-ness of the library has been causing problems for me as of late. Please do not misconstrue this post. It may come off as humorous or mean-spirited. That is not my intention. What is intended me giving voice to my frustrations about the homeless situation in NYC getting worse and the problem spilling over into the NY Public Library system. It’s reached insanity levels.

The Mid-Manhattan Library was my haunt for a few years now. I love nothing better than to sit down, plug in and write away the hours. There was enough space between me and the homeless that I could sit down wind and tolerate their presence. While I typed, the random homeless person would sit quietly reading a book or magazine that interested them or maybe slept quietly. But as time went on, I noticed a disturbing trend. More and more homeless had cellphones and the library became the place for them to come and recharge, taking up prime outlet access for a patron’s laptop. Now I understand that when you are homeless the cellphone is a literal lifeline to the family members you still connect with and to necessary social services and possible job or home opportunities. I get it! But all too often, the homeless person would just be on their watching their favorite tv show or movie (sometimes without headphones!) and reacting loudly to it, disturbing those around them. With the return of Gulf War vets, I have seen a rise in more angrier, self-talking homeless who are too far gone to abide by the rule of not talking loud in the library. And because of their menacing demeanor, have come to monopolize whole sections of a library.

The Mid-Manhattan branch was very old. It’s rickety elevator leaks oil. It did not have enough outlets to accommodate today ubiquitous laptop use. This branch is now closed for renovations that will take at least two years. So I had to find another library branch.

Enter the Grand Central Branch. It’s a bit more modern, but much smaller than the Mid-Manhattan. I like the cozy atmosphere. But just as I made the switch to the Grand Central Branch, so too did the homeless. Now we are all in a much smaller space, so the negative issues have been magnified tenfold.

Hogging up deskspace with torn bags stuffed with newspapers. Occupying chairs with dirty luggage filled with the totality of worldly possessions. The stench of unwashed bodies on all sides. The putrid smell of bare athlete’s foot. It all became so frustrating that I was overwhelmed to the point that I couldn’t concentrate to write.

As I stated in a previous post, I can’t seem to write at home. I can’t seem to shut out the distractions and I get too comfortable there.

But what could I do? I couldn’t go to a Starbuck’s because of limited outlets and limited table space. Going to Panera, was more of the same, but compounded by workers harassing you for your seat once you finished eating. I have no problem paying for food or coffee to stay in these establishments, it’s an effective way to keep the homeless away. But I want to save my cash.

So these days, I have resorted to writing in a small, but cozy out of the way meeting room at my job. It has a good size round table for three chairs, with AC outlets, and sound proofing. So far no one has said I can’t be there. A new refuge is born!

In the meanwhile, don’t get me wrong. I am by no means against the homeless or their right to spend time at the public library, but there comes a tipping point.

I believe there should be low income housing to house the homeless. Housing prices in big cities has gotten ridiculous while the rich continue to price everyone out. There should be safe shelters for the homeless to spend their nights. Along with adequate security, the homeless person should be determined not to be a violent menace. The shelter, where my wife and I have volunteered in the past, vets the homeless men and women before they are allowed to sleep there. There also needs to be a mental health component in helping the homeless, because so many of them suffer from mental health issues that range from PTSD, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Unfortunately, our American society deals with mental health by stigmatizing it and ignoring those afflicted. Don’t forget that many homeless people also suffer from addiction. So in dealing with homelessness there needs to be a substance recovery component as well.

Today, libraries have become the daytime sanctuary for the homeless, so much to the point that the library going experience has become quite negative, and that’s truly unfortunate. But while we try to better our society to alleviate homelessness, the homeless need to understand that the public library shouldn’t be treated as their daytime daycare center. We all need to share public spaces and respect each other.