Further impressions of Iowa

This post could just as well been titled “Oh my heck, Toto, we’re not in Utah anymore.”

What is up with all of the tattoos everywhere? Call me old-fashioned, but unless it’s a part of your cultural heritage (Arab, Indian, Polynesian, etc), I don’t really find it interesting or attractive. It’s like someone vandalized your body.

Utah is pretty insulated in this regard. Sure, you can find people with tattoos, but only if you look for them. Here, every other person has a tattoo somewhere.

Is this part of a wider trend across the United States? If so, is it connected to the crappy economy? People with stability and security in their lives don’t typically get tattoos. Or maybe it’s all of my fellow Millennials who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives and are sort of just drifting.

I’ve probably got readers who are thinking right now: “dude, WTF? You’ve got a character in Sons of the Starfarers who has a full body tattoo, and doesn’t mind showing it off.” To which I would say: 1. it’s temporary (henna), 2. it’s part of her cultural heritage, and 3. it’s fiction.

The other big thing I’ve noticed (which again, is probably just going to show how insular Utah can be) is that no one has any concept of food storage. There’s a store out here called Mills Fleet Farm, which is kind of like a Home Depot swallowed a feed store and ate a Walmart for dessert. Asked three employees for foodsafe five-gallon buckets, and none of them had any idea what I was looking for.

In Utah, you can get foodsafe five-gallon and two-gallon buckets from any grocery store. At Macey’s and Winco, they sell the gamma lids. You can also buy 50 lb bags of oats or wheat, 25 lb bags of beans or rice, and twice a year they have case-lot sales where you can buy canned goods by the case upwards of 50% off. Freeze dried foods and can rotation systems are also a perennial.

Am I the weird one for thinking it’s a good idea to keep 90 days worth of non-perishable food in your pantry? Aside from all the prepper reasons for why that’s a good idea, it’s also a lot cheaper to buy in bulk. And it’s not like people don’t keep gardens around here. Though I do have to admit, there aren’t nearly as many home gardens as Utah.

But the people seem friendly enough, and aside from those two points, this place is actually a lot more culturally similar to Utah than other places in the country where I’ve lived. It’s more conservative than California, more churchgoing than New England, and a hell of a lot more honest than Washington DC. About the only other place I’ve been that comes close is Texas, but Texas is Texas. Nothing else compares.

I could see myself ending up in Texas someday, if I don’t move back to Utah first. Utah isn’t for everyone, but I love it there and wouldn’t mind putting down some permanent roots. California, on the other hand… you couldn’t pay me to live there. Same with Washington DC.

Iowa’s not a bad place, though. Time will tell how it rubs off on me.


Trope Tuesday: The Last DJ

armstrongIn any vast bureaucracy, you’re bound to find obstructive bureaucrats and professional butt-kissers.  But if you look long and hard enough, usually somewhere towards the bottom, you may be lucky enough to find one of the Last DJs.

The Last DJ is a man with integrity, who often puts honor before reason and cannot be bought, no matter how much his superiors try.  Consequently, he usually ends up somewhere at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, no matter how competent he may be.  In extreme cases, he may be reassigned to Antarctica.  Either way, do not expect to see him kicked upstairs–that’s for insufferably incompetent idiots who are promoted to an administrative post so everyone else can get back to the real work.  If anything, expect this guy to get thrown under the bus.

Depending on the story, he may be a brotherly mentor figure for the main character or play some other sort of supporting role.  However, don’t expect him to be much of a plot driver, unless the story is specifically about him.  Because of his refusal to suck up or play office politics, he’s rarely in a position to effect change or become a whistle-blower.

Over time, this character may turn into something of a sour knight, developing a thick skin of crusty cynicism to protect his idealistic heart from all the crap he continually has to put up with.  Like the Obi-wan, if he’s a mentor figure, he will probably die.  If he’s the hero, though, or part of the ragtag bunch of misfits, expect him to be vindicated, possibly in a crowning moment of awesome.  Rarely if ever will this guy be the villain–that’s the obstructive bureaucrat, whom this guy hates.

Lieutenant Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist is a good example of this trope.  He’s a good soldier who was passed up on all the promotions because he refused to go along with the war crimes done against the Ishvalan people.  His sister, who WAS reassigned to Antarctica (though probably by choice), is a whole other story.

Another good example of this trope is Lucius Fox from Batman Begins.  The interesting thing about this one is that he’s a mentor figure who actually survives.  This is probably because the story requires a lot of badassery from the hero, and Lucius is in no position to fill that role, so there’s no threat of him outshining Bruce Wayne.  This is also a good example of the last DJ getting vindicated in the end.

In my own work, the best example I can think of is Tiera from Desert Stars.  She’s fiercely stubborn with an uncompromising sense of honor, which results in her being stripped of her claim of inheritance due to her stepmother Shira’s wiles (although ‘stepmother’ isn’t quite the right word–how do you describe your father’s evil second wife, when he’s still married to your mother?).  I’ve got some interesting plans for a sequel where she’s the main character, but that book is still in the early conceptual stages.

In my own life, I’ve actually fulfilled this trope.  I don’t care to discuss the details of it publicly, but back when I was interning in Washington DC, I had a very negative experience that this trope describes perfectly.  It’s one of the reasons I hate Washington so much, and decided to become a global nomad who makes a difference on the ground, rather than pushing papers in someone else’s petty empire of personal influence.  It’s also one of the reasons why I started the Star Wanderers series–because I wanted to tell a story about people on the space-bound frontier, as far away from the galactic empire as possible.

I may not write many stories about vast bureaucracies or other hierarchical organizations, just because that doesn’t interest me, but whenever I do, you’ll probably see this guy pop up.  As someone who’s been there, I have a lot of sympathy for this character.  You’ll probably see him (or her) pop up in my work from time to time.

What I’ve been up to recently

I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick post explaining what I’ve been up to the past month or so, since a lot of things have changed and I’m sure they will be changing a lot more in the future.  So, here’s what’s up:

As you may or may not know, I decided about four or five months ago to leave the USA to teach English abroad.  For the past few little while, I’ve been applying for a program to teach English to elementary school kids in Georgia.  I had the interview over Skype just yesterday, and I think it went pretty well!  I should hear back in the next couple of days, so fingers crossed on that.

If they decide to hire me, I’ll leave in three weeks and stay until at least mid-June.  At that point, I’ll either sign up for another semester or go somewhere else, either the Middle East or Eastern Europe. The pay isn’t great, but it seems like a good cultural experience, and I’m a lot more interested in the Caucasus than I am in East Asia (no offense to Asians).

Ever since I graduated in 2010, I’ve been looking for a fulfilling career that I can balance with my writing aspirations.  I learned pretty quick that that simply doesn’t exist in Washington DC; either you sacrifice everything for your career, including your family, or you end up trapped in an office pushing papers all day.  In Utah, I bounced around a lot of temporary jobs while struggling to make ends meet, but I never found anything more permanent that seemed to strike a balance.

I hope that teaching English will help me to find that balance, and from what I’ve heard from some of my former expat friends, I’m optimistic that it will.  Perhaps more importantly, it will probably enrich my writing by exposing me to new peoples and cultures.  Desert Stars was certainly enriched by the time I spent in Jordan; without having lived in that culture, I don’t think I would have been able to write it.  Besides, English is something I’m good at, and so is teaching–so why not capitalize on the skills I already have?  It certainly sounds better than wasting my 20s in a warehouse.

So that’s the plan: launch a TEFL career and spend at least the next three to five years abroad.  At least.  I might not get married until my 30s–or who knows, I might find someone out there and go native–but this is something I want to do as a career, not just as temporary filler before I figure out what I want to do with my life.  I’m through with filler.  Whether it takes one year or ten for my writing career to take off, I’m going to get out and do something useful and worthwhile.

That’s the plan, anyway.  And of course, I’ll always keep writing.

Right now, I’m finishing up Stars of Blood and Glory; I’m on chapter 15, with only three more and an epilogue after that, so I should finish that well before I leave.  After that, the next big project is Star Wanderers, which is already about halfway finished.  I’ll probably take some time off and work on polishing part II, then release parts I and II sometime in the spring–unless by some weird fluke it wins Writers of the Future.  I’ll know in February.

And after that?  Well, I’m thinking it’s almost time to pick up Edenfall again, but I can’t say for sure. Probably, though–I definitely want to finish that one before the end of the year, and preferably get it published.  After Stars of Blood and Glory, I’ll probably take a break from the McCoy continuity in the Gaia Nova universe, though I may pick up something from Jeremiah’s timeline in Star Wanderers.  I really want to do a parallel novel from Noemi’s point of view–maybe that’s the one I’ll do in seven days, just to hit that resolution.  Everything has to be ready fist, though, and right now it isn’t.

So much is changing–I have no idea where I’ll be in the next six months, creatively or physically. But right now, I’m just enjoying a relaxing time with my parents and getting ready for the next big transition.  Life is good.

Story Notebook #5 (part 2)

For those of you who don’t know (or can’t remember, since it’s been so long), I’ve been doing this ongoing thing where I go through my old story notebooks.  Last time, we covered my last semester of classes at BYU; this time, we’ll cover my time in Washington DC, when I was trapped in an internship from hell.

Now, you may be wondering: “why is this guy just giving away his ideas for free?” Well, last week at dinner group, the conversation turned to story ideas, so I pulled out my current story notebook and started going down the list.  This quickly turned into a game of “name that tune,” where we managed to show that EVERY SINGLE IDEA had already been done. 

And you know what?  That’s perfectly okay!  There are no original ideas anymore, just new ways of executing them, and maybe a handful of combinations that haven’t yet been tried.  The purpose of keeping a story notebook with you at all times isn’t to come up with something new, it’s to keep track of the stuff that really turns you on.

Enough with that.  On to the notebook.

In a spacefaring culture, the custom will be for the males to leave the station and depart in search of a wife at another port, either to capture or win over in some way.  The women will tend more to running off with the travelers.  This preserves genetic diversity.

This is actually something I want to talk about in a longer post.  The problem of inbreeding in a space-based society is something that many science fiction authors have wrestled with, from Robert Heinlein to C. J. Cherryh.  Their solutions are quite inventive, but while I was in Washington DC working on To Search the Starry Sea (my escapist retreat from a hellish internship), I managed to come up with a few of my own, and used them in Star Wanderers.  More on that later.

What if one of the founders was a time traveler, sent on a mission to ensure that the US constitution made it through?

Hehe…in other words: James Madison, Time Traveler.  It has a certain ring to it, no?

The human mind is like a congress–so many people at extreme odds, arguing constantly but holding together somehow.

Oh boy.  If that were true, the US congress today would be like a paranoid schizophrenic.

A subway haunted by patrons from the past–maybe you will become one when it goes back in time.

Who hasn’t been creeped out by the subway at some point or another?  Except the New York subway system is way creepier than the Washington DC Metro–I swear, some of those rats are man-killers.

A magic system where the cost is your unborn children.  If you don’t have children within a certain period of time, you die.

Sounds like some of the Arab short stories I’ve read.  Families and children are much more important to them than to us in the West.

When the Developed World develops instantaneous transportation devices, it will essentially merge into one super country, while the developing world will be left out.  The only sense of distance will be in the developing world, and terrorism will be an issue.

Kind of like Larry Niven meets dependency theory.

A government where the Supreme Court is a super-intelligent robot.

Hopefully this would rid the country of activist judges…or would it??

A character who believes, at his core, that there is no such thing as a genuine surprise, simply a lack of information–and that if we had perfect information, there would be no surprises.

Sounds a lot like the platonic 19th century ideal of a scientist.  What with quantum physics and such, there aren’t a whole lot of those left.

There are two kinds of shame: shame from loss of honor, and shame from not following the herd.  Don’t mistake the one for the other.

This one isn’t so much a story idea as an observation.  I learned a lot in my hellish Washington DC internship, most of which had very little to do with my area of study and everything to do with the less-than-honorable ways in which the world works.  And on that note:

____ always felt that the world around him was somehow less than real; an illusion.  While staring out the window of the train, he wondered if the window wasn’t just a video screen, like the car windows of old movies–or when looking out at the view of the mountains beyond his house, with the picturesque clouds and too-blue sky, if it wasn’t just an elaborate painting on a wall at the end of the world.  In moments like these, ____ longed to peel back the video screens–to break down the pretty painted wall at the end of the world–and see what lay on the other side of reality.

If my hellish internship on K street taught me anything, it taught me that I would rather be a writer than have all the connections or political influence in the world.  I got out of Washington DC as fast as I could, and haven’t looked back since.

Story Notebook #5 (part 1)

Alright, time to revisit my old story notebooks and run through some of the ideas there.  This one starts in fall of 2009, my last semester at BYU,  and ends shortly after my hasty exodus from a miserable internship in Washington DC.

And now, without further ado, here goes:

A super-celibate society that holds that sex is evil and reproduces entirely by artificial insemination.

In other words, what if the Shakers had had our modern reproductive technology?  Weird, but not beyond the realm of plausibility.

I suppose that in such a society, the nuclear family would not exist, and children would instead be raised by the community as a whole–kind of like Plato’s Republic.  Question is, would this be a happy utopia, or a miserable dystopia?  I know how I’d write it…

Shattered glass sparkling in the roadside desert

Okay, that’s less of an idea and more of an experiment with prose.  I suppose I saw broken glass on some dusty asphalt and wanted to capture it with words.

The next passage is from an assignment for the wilderness writing class at BYU.  We went camping in Moab and hiked up to Delicate Arch, perhaps the most iconic natural landform in all of Utah.  Shortly after taking this picture, here is more or less what I wrote:

They say that the arches in this national park are formed by wind erosion.  The funny thing is, so is the slickrock.  The same wind that carved the gravity defying structure of the arches also wore the rock all around them almost perfectly smooth, so smooth that you feel as if you’re about to slip and fall even as you sit on the edge of a relatively flat ledge.

It makes you wonder: what was here before the wind blew it away?  What did the land look like before the wind took out the loose material, leaving behind only the strongest, most resilient bedrock?  How many other arches lie underneath our feet, waiting only for time and the wind to unearth the landscape that hides them?

Awesome class; if you ever get a chance, take it.  Professor Bennion is great.

A boy born without a name.

Not sure where that came from, but it kind of makes me think of this girl in an abusive household, who grew up to age 14 before learning how to speak.  It seriously crippled her intellectual development, so much that she never became fully independent.

Think about it: how would not having a name stunt a person’s growth?

Below them lay the alluvial plains–miles of silt and dirt vomited from the mountains over the passing of countless centuries.

I think I intended this to be a line in the first chapter of Worlds Away from Home…and unless I’m mistaken, something very similar to this passage made it into the book.

The detritus of life from which we extract the fossil record of our memories

Another passage meant to evoke something in the reader.  I think I wrote it when I was cleaning out my apartment shortly before leaving for DC.  It certainly makes me think of a dirty, junk-filled room.

And that’s enough for now.  This basically takes us up to January 2010, when I left for the BYU Washington Seminar program.  All the other ideas in this notebook have a decidedly civic/political bent to them, so stay tuned!