The First Thirty

I went on a hike up Farmington Canyon. I’ve posted a few of the pictures here.

As soon I as I was out of the car, the voices started up in my head. You’ve probably heard them before. They whisper things like:

It’s too cold.

You’re not prepared. You don’t have the right clothing.

The snow is too deep.

It’s too far to the summit.

These voices have the most power the first thirty minutes of a hike. The voices will tell you it’s not really giving up if you’ve only just started. And since you’ve only invested a small portion of your time and energy, turning around is easy to do.

Sometimes the voices may speak truth. Perhaps you are not fully prepared. Perhaps the way is too difficult.

But mostly the voices lie. And in the first thirty minutes, you are the most vulnerable.

Once I’ve left my car far behind, and the valley is spread out in my view, I find I can talk back to the voices.

The summit is still too far.

Then I will go as far as I can.

The snow is getting deeper.

I’ve walked through worse.

You cannot do this.

Yes. I can.

If I make it past the first thirty minutes, I can usually make it to my goal. I see through the voices’ lies, I’ve invested significant time and energy, and I plow my way to the top.

I’ve discovered a similar truth in writing. When you begin a new story, the voices are quick to speak up.

These characters are bland.

The plot is thin.

You’ll never get to eighty thousand words.

Again, most of the time the voices lie. But it’s easy to stop when you’ve just begun. It’s easy to tell yourself that the story isn’t as compelling as you first thought. You haven’t invested the time, so it’s easy to close the document and move on to something else.

Don’t believe the voices.

Lower your shoulders, pick a good pace, and plunge ahead. Write the first thirty pages. Ignore the voices and just move forward. Perhaps on page thirty-one, you can start to respond to those nagging doubts.

The characters are weak.

I’m getting to know them.

You’ll never reach eighty thousand words.

Maybe not, but tonight I’ll reach three thousand.

The plot is thin.

I can do this.

Ignore the voices until you’ve written thirty pages. Invest the time and effort that your story both deserves and demands. You’ll find the next two hundred pages will very likely come.

One last thing. When hiking, I’ve found that at the base of the trail there are dozens of footsteps. The farther you go, the thinner the tracks. One by one, those who have gone before turn around and head back. Eventually, there is an exhilarating moment when you see the last set of tracks come to an end. You look to the trail ahead and see nothing but unbroken snow.

In writing, it’s not good to compare yourself to others. There are far too many variables. But sometimes I like to compare what I’m doing now with what I’ve done in the past. Maybe first the goal is to just finish a short story. Then it’s to writing something longer. Maybe you want to place in a contest, and then come in first. Then the goal may be as lofty as finishing a novel, submitting it, and getting good feedback. Then that happy day comes when you sign a contract, and see one of your books on the shelf.

If you ignore the voices, sometimes you can go farther than you ever thought possible. All you have to do is tackle the first thirty.

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Unstoppable

Sometime in my childhood, someone introduced me to the paradox of the unstoppable force and the immovable object. I spent months and months trying to resolve this problem.

In my young mind I pictured the immovable object as an anvil in space. The unstoppable force as a hammer flying toward it. I went over and over the conundrum in my mind. What would happen when the two met? How could one be unstoppable, and the other immovable? It just doesn’t work! My tiny little brain couldn’t comprehend it.

And then it could. At some point I developed a solution. I came to understand that you couldn’t have both an immovable object and an unstoppable force existing at the same time.

Here is the first beautiful truth: When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, only one of them emerges with their name intact.

In college, my very first English professor announced to the class that you couldn’t make a living at creative writing. It was practical advice, stated simply. He spoke from years of experience. Here was an immovable object. A universal truth.

Only it wasn’t.

I stopped writing for ten years. I graduated with two degrees in different subjects. But somewhere deep inside, the author would not be still. He would not be silent.

And so I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. I experienced pain that only other artists truly understand.

I have two books in print. I have an amazing agent working with me on a third book. I do not support myself with my writing. I do not know if the force I have built up is enough to break this personal immovable object. It may not be. The professor may have been right . . . for now.

Here is the second beautiful truth: You can always try again.

When the unstoppable force is stopped, it proves nothing. There is a spark in each of us—a spark that makes us human. Sometimes that spark is buried deep. Sometimes we’re not sure it’s there at all. But it is. And that spark demands that we try again. And again. And again.

The spark does not demand that we succeed. Only that we try.

Here is the third truth: Sometimes we succeed.

And that is the most beautiful truth of all. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Piles and piles of practice and work. In the end you just might reveal the immovable object for what it is—a fraud.

We try, we try, we try again. And in the end, when the dust has settled, we will see ourselves for what we really are.

Unstoppable.

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Farmington Canyon

We woke up to four inches of snow yesterday, but my chronic cabin fever kicked in around 1:00, and I couldn’t help but head out for a hike.

I have been running and hiking just above Fruit Heights, but decided to give Farminton Canyon a go. It’s been closed due to a mudslide across the road about a mile in. For hikers, this means we have the road all to ourselves.

Anyway, here are a few pictures from the hike.

You can see the entire set here.

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Breaking Bad

I was talking with a few friends on Twitter about Breaking Bad. I ended up disagreeing with a couple of them, and promised to write a blog post about my opinions. It’s not that I think I’m right and everybody else is wrong. It’s that I’m right, and everybody else just hasn’t realized it yet.

Okay, only joking. But I do have some strong opinions on the subject. Stephen King says it’s the best writing on TV, and I agree.

The first episode starts out with a middle age man–Walt–recording himself on a video camera. He’s emotional, almost sobbing. He tells his family how much he loves them. He is standing in the middle of the desert, and he’s not wearing any pants.

This isn’t just a clever place to start to show. It’s the only place to start the show. Walt comes across as a man who is suffering. A man who had done something bad, but he’s done it for his family. For somebody else. You feel pity for Walt. Empathy. And that’s good, because we’re about to see what led Walt to this scene, and it’s not pretty. Walt has done some reprehensible things.

One friend on Twitter said that Breaking Bad was a show about bad people doing bad things with no consequences. I argue it’s about good people doing bad things, and the consequences come just as the do in real life–slowly. Better yet, we get to understand why these good people are doing bad things. To me, that’s just one of the things that makes the show so fascinating.

Another brilliant aspect of the show is the dynamics between Walter White, the middle age chemistry teacher, and Jessie Pinkman, the drug-dealing meth addict. We see episodes where Walt rubs off on Jessie in a positive way. He serves as a mentor of sorts, pushing Jessie to be a better person. We hold out hope that these two suffering souls can pull each other up.

But it’s not to be. There are other episodes where what Walt chooses to do is so horrible that even Jessie can’t go along with it. Roles are reversed, and Jessie becomes the conscience of the group.

The conflict and decisions throughout the show are painful and beautiful.

There is probably an entire semester’s worth of writing lessons in Breaking Bad. The characters are both complex and real. The writing and pacing is tight. And the acting is nothing short of brilliant.

I will admit, Breaking Bad may not be for everybody. It peels back the layers of human nature, and takes a stark look at all that is bad about us. But it also takes just as bold a look at what is the best in all of us. An example of this is a scene that I can’t describe without giving it away. It’s at the end of season three, and it’s the part where Walt looks at Jessie and says, “Run.”

That scene is brilliant, and exemplifies all that is good about Breaking Bad.

I don’t expect a happy ending with the show. I’ll be disappointed if we get one. Breaking Bad is about choices and consequences. It’s reminder of the very short distance between good and evil. A few wrong choices, a few bad actions, and we too can break bad. We’ll steer off course and cross that very fine line between human and monster.

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Tackling 2012

Happy New Year!

Usually I write my New Year’s resolutions in December. I just write down the things I did the previous 12 months, and then feel pretty darn good about myself. But this year I actually have a few goals, and thought, what the heck. I’ll write them down on the blog where I can’t misplace them. This is more for me than for you, but please feel free to mock me at the end of the year when I once again ACCOMPLISH NOTHING.

Writing

I’m about 12,000 words into a speculative fiction novel called Monster. I’m having loads of fun with it. I’ve also got Almost Super 2 completely outlined. I’m going to keep working on Monster unless circumstances call for Almost Super 2 to be written first. Either way, I need to finish another book. Sometimes it seems daunting, but in 2012, I need to write more.

I thought about declaring selling Almost Super was my goal, but that goal is largely in the capable hands of my agent, Sara Crowe. So for me, I’ll stick to what I can control. And what I can control is writing.

Finally, this year I wrote a short story. It’s on a topic about which I feel very strong. I’d like to get it published sometime in 2012.

Goal: Complete a book
Goal: Get short story published 

Running

I always wondered if  running might become one of those things I do for a while, and then drop. But the more I get into it, the more I really enjoy it. I just discovered the joy of trail running, and Google maps shows me that I’ve got miles and miles of trail just begging to be discovered less than three miles from my house. Even better, there is a three mile trail that can take me from my house to those other awesome trails.

Goal: Run a 5k in under 24 minutes
Goal: Run a half marathon in under 2 hours

Neither of those times are impressive. In fact, they probably look a little pathetic. But that’s what I’m going to shoot for. I’m planning on running three half marathons this year, and then as many 5 ks as I can practically do. If any of you are running anything along the Wasatch front, let me know. It’s always fun to suffer with others.

Gardening

I’ll admit it. I can’t garden to save my life. But we have a very large garden spot, and we need to get more than just carrots and pumpkins out of it. So this year I’m hoping to have a productive garden. I’ve decided that rather than trying to produce a whole bunch of stuff that we never end up eating, I’m going to focus on a few things that we do eat. I plan on planting a huge raspberry patch, strawberries, tomatoes, and maybe some yams.

If that doesn’t work, we’re fencing the whole garden and raising hogs. Because who doesn’t want more bacon, am I right?

Goal: Have a garden that doesn’t suck.

There you have it. I’ll try to remember to check these off when/if I complete them. And if I haven’t completed them all by the end of 2012, you are free to publicly humiliate me. Also, bring me zucchini. Because I love zucchini, but can never seem to grow it.

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Above the Inversion

Six weeks ago, I went on a hike. The summer had passed too quickly, and I wanted to get outdoors. I had such a fun time I went out the next week. And the next. And the next. So today, even though it was a bit on the cold side, I headed up once more.

I’ve always wanted to hike to Flag Rock above Farmington. But although Farmington has some great trails, I can’t ever seem to find any trail heads. I always feel like I’m sneaking through somebody’s backyard to get into the hills. Today, with the help of Google Maps, I found a place where I could hop a fence and get to my goal.

Here in Utah we’ve had an inversion for several days. It comes with the season. I don’t know exactly how it works, but the long and short of it is the weather causes all of the pollutants to be trapped close to the ground. It’s not fun to breathe. Today I hiked high enough to get above all the gunk. Here are a few pictures.

 

You can see the difference when the camera is pointed skyward.

The Flag Rock trail was a pretty good climb. I couldn’t talk any of the boys with  going with me, but perhaps now that they’ve seen the pictures they’ll come along. There’s always next week.

If you’d like to see more of the pics from the hike, you can see them here.

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New Writing/Running Songs

I’m always looking for new songs to run and write to. I find if I find a song works well for one activity, it usually works well for the other. Here are a few recent additions to my play list. I should note that I’m usually just listening to the song, not watching the video. Although I must admit, the video to this first one is pretty nifty. I need to learn to dance like this.

Lonely Boy – Black Keys

This next song has been getting a lot of radio time, but so far I haven’t grown weary of it. The song itself is upbeat, while the lyrics trend darker.

Pumped Up Kicks – Foster the People

And this song just demands that you crank up the volume, if only a little. The music video is not the official one. Somebody mashed up the song with scenes from the 1998 film, Pi. I’m still trying to figure that movie out.

Super Bon Bon – Soul Coughing

And finally, I’m really liking Neon Trees. They’ve got several songs I’ve added to my list, but for some reason, this one really does it for me.

Animal – Neon Trees

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The Devil in the Details

It seems like I get a hankering to get outdoors right as it’s getting to cold to actually go outside. But this evening I decided it was warm enough to hike part way up the mountain and try to get a few pictures of the sunset. Sunsets are hit and miss, and since I’m not really a good photographer, I tend to miss, even when the sunset is a hit. Tonight, this is what I got.

Not bad, but nothing to scream about. It’s a sunset. It’s the sun. It’s setting. Nifty.
I took a dozen or so of these. It was pretty simple. Just point the camera and click. They all looked fine. As I walked along the trail, I noticed some withered flowers. I got the idea to take a picture of them, up close. It was a little more difficult. I had to take off my backpack, sit or lie in the mud, and get the focus just right. I took a few pictures of the flowers, and put the sunset in the background. The result was a little different.

Again, I’m no photographer, but when I got back and threw all the photos on my computer, it was these pictures that caught my eye.

It got me thinking about writing (because lately writing is all I can seem to think about). There are a lot of cool stories out there. Epic stories. Stories with powerful messages. But what makes a story grand? It’s not the big picture. It’s the little ones. The details.

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic masterpiece. It’s a story of good, evil, courage, sacrifice, and everything in between. But how does it start? With tiny details. Small, but important.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.


I can sense a world there. Tolkien doesn’t paint a large picture. He paints a small one. With small details. But from those details we get swept along on an epic journey. One that is made up of small details.

Consider the first line of Michael Crichton’s novel The Great Train Robbery:

Forty minutes out of London, passing through the rolling green fields and cherry orchards of Kent, the morning train of the South Eastern Railway attained its maximum speed of fifty-four miles and hour.


Nothing but details. But they hint at another world. A deep and rich world, one that the author has researched or imagined in great detail. I find myself wanting to read more of that world.

Sometimes in writers circles this focus on detail is described as “show, don’t tell. I don’t want the author to tell me the diner is a dump. I want to taste the flat Coke. I want to feel the sticky syrup on the faded plastic menus. I want to hear the flies buzzing every time the kitchen door opens. When I see the details, I get lost in the world.

I feel like story ideas are a dime a dozen. Anybody can imagine an epic journey, a wild adventure, or star-crossed lovers. But the devil is in the details. To write a good story, you must become intimate with the world you are trying to create. You must create dozens of scenes, filled with rich, vivid details.

The big picture is good, but the details are vital.

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Snow Canyon Half Marathon

Two months ago I watched my wife finish the Top of Utah Half marathon. I was sidelined with some medical issues and hadn’t run in almost a year. But watching her finish made me want to get training again. We signed up for the Snow Canyon Half marathon, and I started to run.

Today was the big day. Last night we traveled down to St. George, sat in the hot tub while a freezing rain pelted the tops of our head, and went to bed hoping that it would be warmer by the start of the race.

Race day came early. Doesn’t it always? I want to find a race that starts at 2:00 in the afternoon–so I can sleep in.

We rode the bus to the starting line. The rain from last night had cleared, but there was snow on the ground. SNOW ON THE GROUND. Seriously? This is St. George. I thought it was in their city charter that they can only have sun. I stepped off the bus and pretty much felt like this.

Only colder. Much colder. I walked around, beating my shoulders, and stamping the ground with my feet, trying to regain the feeling in my legs and arms. At 8:30, the race began.

I had a jacket and gloves on. As soon as I began running, and as soon as the sun hit me, I went from feeling cold to feeling like this:

That’s right. I’m a sissy. It was cold the whole race. But not an uncomfortable cold. In fact, all jesting aside, I think it was just about perfect. Running kept me warm, and the frigid breeze kept me cool. It was fantastic. And as far as the scenery . . . I can’t think of a more beautiful run than Snow Canyon. If you drive through Snow Canyon, this is what you’d see:

And if you were to bike through Snow Canyon, you might see this:

And if you’re me, and you’re running through Snow Canyon, this is what you see:

That, and a pair of shoes hitting the pavement about a million times.

I’ve been having leg problems for about two weeks, but while my leg bothered me the whole race, I never had to stop. In fact, I felt pretty good. I think I slowed down a little toward the end, but for the most part I was pretty consistent. I don’t have a watch, so I can’t be certain.

I’ve only run in one other half-marathon, and I beat my previous time. So all in all I’m pretty pleased. It’s by no means an impressive time. In fact, they were already starting to hand out the awards by the time I finished.

My time was 2:08:42 (I’m particularly pleased with the 42). That is an average of 9:49 per mile. I never would have guessed I could run sub 10 minute miles for that long.

The only downside to that time is that it’s so close to 2 hours, now I’ve got to try to break the 2 hour barrier. I guess that will be the goal for the Ogden Half next spring.

I didn’t bring a camera, so I don’t have a shot at me at the end of the race. I more or less looked like this.

Okay, okay. Maybe more like this:
And now . . . nap time.
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The Distance

At some point in our lives we all set goals. And then after we set out after those goals, we wonder if we can achieve them.

I’m a fan of the band Cake. They’ve got a distinct style, and one that grows on me over time. They have a song call The Distance, and I find the lyrics beautifully capture the spirit of striving for a goal.

The song starts by describing a race.

Reluctantly crouched at the starting line,
engines pumping and thumping in time.
the green light flashes, the flags go up.
churning and burning, they yearn for the cup.
they deftly maneuver and muscle for rank,
fuel burning fast on an empty tank.
reckless and wild, they pour through the turns.
their prowess is potent and secretly stern.
as they speed through the finish, the flags go down.
the fans get up and they get out of town.

So the race is over. There is a winner, but we don’t know who it is. In this song, that’s not important. Turn back to the arena to see the real message.

the arena is empty except for one man,
still driving and striving as fast as he can.
the sun has gone down and the moon has come up,
and long ago somebody left with the cup.
but he’s driving and striving and hugging the turns.
and thinking of someone for whom he still burns.

The race is over. The man has lost, and yet still he drives on. We come to the chorus.

he’s going the distance.
he’s going for speed.
she’s all alone
all alone in her time of need.
because he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course,
he’s fighting and biting and riding on his horse,
he’s going the distance.

Winning isn’t the important thing. By the end of the song we don’t even know if this man finishes the race. Again, that’s not important. What is important is the first line and the last line. He’s going the distance. Going the distance doesn’t mean that he’s reached the goal–only that he’s still working at it.

I love the second verse. It speaks to the doubt we all experience.

no trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine,
he’s haunted by something he cannot define.
bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse,
assail him, impale him with monster-truck force.
in his mind, he’s still driving, still making the grade.
she’s hoping in time that her memories will fade.
cause he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course,
he’s fighting and biting and riding on his horse.
the sun has gone down and the moon has come up,
and long ago somebody left with the cup.
but he’s striving and driving and hugging the turns.
and thinking of someone for whom he still burns.

We all set goals. Then we strive for those goals. Some goals are realized. Others seem to always be just beyond our reach. So, do we stop reaching, or do we go the distance?

You can listen to the song here.

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