The Doorway opens wider

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The proof copy of DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME has arrived. I will be reviewing it on the plane and, God willing, we’ll have it in time for the premiere at Dragon Con.

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I almost didn’t get this. By an odd coincidence, I was heading to the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, one of the Dragon Con hotels, right when the proof arrived at the publisher, so they sent it to the hotel, hoping that I could review it over the weekend.

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I got off the red eye, scouted locations for LIQUID FIRE, HEX CODE and another Edgeworld project, then checked in to the hotel. No book. I went to the rehearsal dinner. No book. The next day came and went, a good friend got married, but still, no book.

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Even when I checked out Sunday, still, no book. I and my friends had a great time at the post wedding brunch, visited the Georgia Aquarium, and ate an awesome meal at Legal Seafood, and then started ferrying friends to the airport … then a friend suggested I call the hotel.

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The proof had been accidentally sent to hotel security.

So at the last minute, I swung by, hung out with the concierge until the guard showed up, then showed my ID to security. Moments later, DOORWAYS was in my hands.

Sometimes, it all works out.

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Time to check out the DOORWAYS and make sure they’re safe to open. Wish me luck!

-the Centaur

Wasting an Hour (Not in an Offhand Way)

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One of my favorite songs is Pink Floyd’s Time, which begins with the lyric:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day

You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.

As a youth I felt that keenly, and feared the biting lyric at the end of the second stanza:

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Well, now I know what it’s like to find ten years have got behind you. And I don’t regret the motivating force that that Pink Floyd lyric had in my life … but now I know it’s not all of the story. And so, on purpose, I did something today I haven’t done in a long time: “wasted” an hour … just reading in a park.

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I’d dropped my wife off at the airport, run some errands, gone to the great Bell’s Bookstore in Palo Alto, ran some more errands … but was still an hour early for my dinner reservation at Nola’s. I knew they’d probably seat me early, but it was a spectacular day … so I took the book I’d gotten from Bell’s, sat down on a bench, and read.

I did more than that, of course; I observed the world, watched the passersby, came up with story ideas, took pictures of my environment, watched the cars, called my Mom to see how she’s doing (a day before her birthday, but without mentioning it, so hopefully the flowers I’ve sent her will be even more of a surprise).

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And I reflected on all the sources of false wisdom I’ve heard, or more charitably, advice masquerading as wisdom, useful to certain people at certain times during their development, which may not be as universally wise as it first appears.

I don’t want to find ten years have got behind me without knowing it … but for me, that’s led to years and years of pushing, pushing pushing. Sometimes, it’s good to just stop and smell the magnolias.

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To cultivate slowing down and watching time pass … and all that passes through time around you.

-the Centaur

Moving on and turning back

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Well, DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME is on its way to the printers. Now it’s time for me to move on to new projects, and to turn back to old ones. I’m still planning out a large new unannounced project (some of the information for which you see piled above) but my primary focus is going to be LIQUID FIRE.

The Waiting Game

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Sitting in the Stanford Bookstore Cafe, working on LIQUID FIRE while I wait on the last possible round of edits on DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME before we have to send it to the printer.

-the Centaur

DOORWAYS in Galleys

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DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME is coming down to the wire. My coeditor, the typesetter and I are working weekends, but we’re really close now – still, it looks like it will be coming out the 27th, not the 13th. I’m not sure what this does for our plans to do a premiere at Dragon*Con; we’ll have to see, as it was cutting it fine regardless even with the old date.

Editing an anthology is a LOT more work than I thought it would be, but it’s still very rewarding.

Almost done! Then back to LIQUID FIRE.

-the Centaur

Happy Freedom Day

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Recently, I had a potentially bad interaction with a powerful person. I didn’t lose my head in the encounter, and I didn’t lose my head as the result of the encounter. What’s even better, both of us were in the encounter because we wanted to be: neither of us were trapped by vassalage or nobility. Both of us were free to walk away at any time. So ultimately I did the right thing in that situation, and ultimately they made the right decision required by the situation and we both walked away winners.

That’s the kind of thing that can happen when people are free.

So yesterday, while our cats were hiding under the bed because of the rumblings echoing through the valley, my wife and I paused our preparation of our holiday dinner and went outside to watch the fireworks sparking at the end of the street … beyond the end of the street … and in all directions around us that we could hear or see.

Fourth of July is an American celebration, and yes, technically it’s a celebration of our independence from England, but the idea behind the celebration is far more important than that history. We’re celebrating freedom: the right for each individual to do what they want with their lives as long as they’re not directly harming anyone else.

And that’s an idea which belongs to everyone in the world.

It may be a long time before freedom is implemented for everyone in practice, equitably, with sensitivity to each culture’s unique sensibilities. It’s tricky, because many people in this world think that they have the right to control others, or think that they’re being actually harmed when someone else’s choices simply make them feel uncomfortable. We have a lot of work to do.

But we knew all that. The Fourth isn’t a time to mourn for victories not yet achieved; it’s a time to celebrate, and cherish, the victories we have in hand. So hugged, and smiled, and watched the fireworks, and then went inside and called our neighbors to make sure they’d left their garage door open on purpose (they had; they were also watching the fireworks, just up the street). Then we had tabbouleh and vegan crab cakes and watched a Doctor Who story about haunted houses, time travel and love.

It was a good day to be free.

-the Centaur

Talent, Incompetence and Other Excuses

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The company I work at is a pretty great place, and it’s attracted some pretty great people – so if your name isn’t yet on the list of “the Greats” it can sometimes be a little intimidating. There’s a running joke that half the people at the firm have Impostor Syndrome, a pernicious condition in which people become convinced they are frauds, despite objective evidence of their competence.

I definitely get that from time to time – not just at the Search Engine That Starts with a G, but previously in my career. In fact, just about as far back as people have been paying me money to do what I do, I’ve had a tape loop of negative thoughts running through my head, saying, “incompetent … you’re incompetent” over and over again.

Until today, as I was walking down the hall, when I thought of Impostor Syndrome, when I thought of what my many very smart friends would say if I said that, when I thought of the response that they would immediately give: not “you’re wrong,” which they of course might say, but instead “well, what do you think you need to do to do a good job?”

Then, in a brain flash, I realized incompetence is just another excuse people use to justify their own inaction.

Now, I admit there are differences in competence in individuals: some people are better at doing things than others, either because of experience, aptitude, or innate talent (more on that bugbear later). But unless the job is actually overwhelming – unless simply performing the task at all taxes normal human competence, and only the best of the best can succeed – being “incompetent” is simply an excuse not to examine the job, to identify the things that need doing, and to make a plan to do them.

Most people, in my experience, just want to do the things that they want to do – and they want to do their jobs the way they want to do them. If your job is well tuned towards your aptitudes, this is great: you can design a nice, comfortable life.

But often the job you want to do requires more of you than doing things the way you want to do them. I’m a night owl, I enjoy working late, and I often tool in just before my first midmorning meeting – but tomorrow, for a launch review of a product, I’ll be showing up at work a couple hours early to make sure that everything is working before the meeting begins. No late night coffee for you.

Doing what’s necessary to show up early seems trivial, and obvious, to most people who aren’t night owls, but it isn’t trivial, or obvious, to most people that they don’t do what’s necessary in many other areas of their life. The true successes I know, in contrast, do whatever it takes: switching careers, changing their dress, learning new skills – even picking out the right shirts, if they have to meet with people, or spending hours shaving thirty seconds off their compile times, if they have to code software.

Forget individual differences. If you think you’re “incompetent” at something, ask yourself: what would a “competent” person do? What does it really take to do that job? If it involves a mental or physical skill you don’t have, like rapid mental arithmetic or a ninety-eight mile-per-hour fastball, then cut yourself some slack; but otherwise, figure out what would lead to success in the job, and make sure you do that.

You don’t have to do those things, of course: you don’t have to put on a business suit and do presentations. But that doesn’t mean you’re incompetent at giving presentations: it means you weren’t willing to go to a business wear store to find the right suit or dress, and it means you weren’t willing to go to Toastmasters until you learned to crack your fear of public speaking. With enough effort, you can do those things – if you want to. There’s no shame in not wanting to. Just be honest about why.

That goes back to that other bugbear, talent.

When people find out I’m a writer, they often say “oh, it must take so much talent to do that.” When I protest that it’s really a learned skill, they usually say something a little more honest, “no, no, you’re wrong: I don’t have the talent to do that.” What they really mean, though they may not know it, is that they don’t want to put in the ten thousand hours worth of practice to become an expert.

Talent does affect performance. And from a very early age, I had a talent with words: I was reading soon after I started to walk. But, I assure you, if you read the stuff I wrote at an early age, you’d think I didn’t have the talent to be a writer. What I did have was a desire to write, which translated into a heck of a lot of practice, which developed, slowly and painfully, into skill.

Talent does affect performance. Those of us who work at something for decades are always envious of those people who seem to take to something in a flash. I’ve seen it happen in writing, in computer programming, and in music: an experienced toiler is passed by a newbie with a shitload of talent. But even the talented can’t go straight from raw talent to expert performance: it still takes hundreds or thousands of hours of practice to turn that talent into a marketable skill.

When people say they don’t have talent, they really mean they don’t have the desire to do the work. And that’s OK. When people say they aren’t competent to do a job, they really mean they don’t want to think through what it takes to get the job done, or having done so, don’t want to do those things. And that’s OK too.

Not everyone has to sit in a coffeehouse for thousands of hours working on stories only to find that their best doesn’t yet cut it. Not everyone needs to strum on that guitar for thousands of hours working on riffs only to find that their performance falls flat on the stage. Not everyone needs to put on that suit and polish that smile for thousands of hours working on sales only to find that they’ve lost yet another contract. No-one is making you do those things if you don’t want to.

But if you are willing to put those hours in, you have a shot at the best selling story, the tight performance, the killer sale.

And a shot at it is all you get.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Lenora, my cat, in front of a stack of writing notebooks and writing materials, and a model of the Excelsior that I painted by hand. It’s actually a pretty shitty paint job. Not because I don’t have talent – but because I didn’t want to put hundreds of hours in learning how to paint straight lines on a model. I had writing to do.

I can’t afford to be embarrassed

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I’m a published urban fantasy author with two novels on the shelves, one of which, FROST MOON, won an award. I have two more novels in the can and I’ve just finished coediting an anthology with twenty stories based on an idea I proposed. I’ve read extensively on writing theory and even have written a few articles on the subject.

So what am I doing with a copy of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES?

Doing whatever I can to get better at what I do, that’s what.

Once a friend saw the huge stack of theory-of-fiction books in my Library, one of which is “Novel Writing for Complete Morons” or some title a lot like that, and he remarked “wow, it’s probably been a long time since you had to look at that one.” Well, that happened to be true, but not because I read the book, then wrote some novels, and then grew beyond it.

The truth is, I’d already written one novel – and chunks of six or seven others – when I got “Novel Writing for Complete Morons.” Heck, I may have already written FROST MOON at that point. But I’m a book hound, and I look at everything. I came across the book, probably at a bargain bin. And I saw a chapter I can use. So I bought it.

I actually love reading overviews. I can dive deep into a technical book, but sometimes it’s only stepping back and summarizing the text – either by reading a summary, or writing one yourself – that enables you to hang the details upon a coherent whole. Even when the overview isn’t interesting, sometimes the book itself has details you simply can’t find elsewhere.

In the case of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, I saw it in a bargain bin, flipped through it – and found a section in a chapter on editing scenes, a task I’d just been struggling with on my third Dakota Frost novel, LIQUID FIRE. So I bought it, and tonight read a few chunks, some of which are good for structuring scenes, others of which were helpful in overall novel structure.

Some of that information is review; other parts are completely new. It doesn’t matter. It helped me move forward.

Creative expression is driven by ego, but it’s stifled by snobbery. Don’t get embarrassed by what you need to do to improve. If you were trying to climb out of a pit, would you hold your hand back from a rung that was candy colored and clearly intended for children? No. As long as the rung is solid, you grab it and pull yourself up.

Anything else is just hurting yourself in an effort to look good.

-the Centaur

Pictured: WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, atop THE POETICS OF THE MIND’S EYE by Christopher Collins, a study of visual imagination in literature and cognitive science. See how hard it is to be honest with yourself and do what needs doing? Here I had to bring along a technical book I’m reading and use it to prop up the For Dummies book in an absurd attempt at credentialing.

No, I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen: I may have happened to have picked up THE POETICS OF THE MIND’S EYE at about the same time as WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, and I may have had it in my reading pile because I was evaluating whether to recommend it to a friend who works in the field of visual imagination, but the one has little to do with the other.

I, a published author, picked up WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, and it had useful information for a problem I was trying to solve. Don’t be embarrassed about things like that: do whatever you have to to help yourself get better. End of list.