Flying Ice

Monday this week was a day made for disappointment. It always is, but this week was worse than most. After an ice storm lent me another four-day weekend, it was a real bummer to come back to the office. Nobody was in a great mood, and everybody had a lot of work that needed doing, to get caught up. I put in my nine miserable hours, packed up some extra reading to take home with me, and then called it a day.

The roads were pretty clear by then, except for the steep-walled piles of dirty gray slush spilling onto the sides, but the drive still posed some little risks. I felt my car slip a little turning onto MacArthur, and again as I pushed up the ramp onto the highway. It was nothing dangerous, really — just little reminders that the road wasn’t really dry.

I hardly needed them, though. My windshield was enough evidence of that, with the thin, semi-transparent patina of slush thrown up by the cars ahead of me. That got a lot worse when I got onto the highway, and I was leaning forward, waiting for another pass of my worn out wipers, when the car in front of me threw up more than just slush. A pebble the size of a BB flipped up and smashed against my windshield, inches from my nose.

The sound of it startled me — surprisingly loud crack in the still of my car –and as I flinched back, I wondered if it had chipped the glass.

I first started driving in 1995, and I drove for fourteen years without ever getting a cracked windshield. I’ve certainly taken my share of pebble bombardment, but they make those suckers pretty strong. Still, the thought crossed my mind because, only a week earlier, gravel bouncing out of the back of a dump truck had put a big score in the driver’s side glass right above the dashboard. First time in my life, and here came another pebble one week later.

And then the wipers blurred by, smearing away the muck, and they left behind a single glittering spot, ten inches above the week-old chip. I grunted in frustration, I rolled my eyes, I probably thought something mean about the driver of the dirty white Tercel.

But then a sarcastic smile twisted my lips. I shook my head and chuckled, and said, “I wonder if I constructed that.” See, I believe in something called social constructionism, and one aspect of it is that the things we expect, the things we anticipate, are the things that are likely to show up in our reality. By worrying about my glass getting chipped, had I made it happen? It was a swift-passing thought. I sighed and let it go. Probably just coincidence. It’s a funny old world, after all.

The words were still fresh in my mind, the smile still on my lips, when I heard the distant groan and rip just before a sheet of ice tore free from that same car. I’d seen it happen on my drive in that morning, and even once or twice already on my drive home, but this time it happened right in front of me. A blanket of ice and snow packed two-inches thick suddenly caught the wind, dancing like a kite up into the air for two seconds, three, and slashing back down to earth.

I was too close, though. I got in the way. The largest shard — probably two feet across — came stabbing straight down at me. I braked, I swerved, but there was no time. I caught a dozen pounds of ice dead center on the passenger side of my windshield, at sixty miles per hour. It boomed like an explosion, and the whole windshield shattered — safety-glass holding the fractured bits in place, but ruined.

It was five o’clock on a Monday afternoon, northbound in the left-hand lane of one of the city’s major thoroughfares, so I had sixty-MPH traffic right on my tail. As soon as I knew I was still alive, I put my foot back on the gas. My heart thundered, and I had to fight to catch my breath, but the windshield held. I had a small rectangle, maybe two feet by one, right at eye level on the driver’s side where the glass was whole. It was enough to give me a clear view of the road, as long as I leaned forward. It was enough to get me home, anyway.

So I drove on, terrified every time another piece of ice flipped up into the air and wondering if the shattered windshield might give way yet. Ten miles still to go, and nobody else on the road cared how fragile my situation was. I just focused on breathing, focused on getting home safely.

And while I was at it, I tried my hardest to ignore that chip, right in front of my nose, marring the one bit of good glass left to me.

(I prepared this post according to the assignment description in this week’s Creative Writing exercise over at I’d love any feedback you’ve got to give.)

I Am a Writer

I’ve been a writer all my life. I started inventing worlds and stories when I was in first grade, and I started learning the mechanics of it all even before that, when my granddad taught me touch-typing on a battered old typewriter.

The Prologue

I first started thinking of myself as a writer in a sixth-grade English class, when I was supposed to write a one-page story incorporating a least half of our vocabulary words, and I wrote eight pages and used them all. I made that the first in a series of absurd detective stories that I developed over the course of the year. When I was twelve my family moved to the big city, and I dealt with the frightening upheaval in my life by writing my first novel. I wrote my classmates into the story to make friends.

When I was in high school I spent an afternoon patiently explaining to my dad that I didn’t need to go to college. My only goal in life was to be a writer, and I already knew how to write. I was well into my second novel by then, and I was marking up my Creative Writing teacher’s noir mystery in my free time. My dad’s wisdom prevailed, though, and when I got to college, I discovered not only the limits of my understanding but also the real value of others’ ideas. I chose Oklahoma Christian University for its creative writing program, and took a writing class every semester for four years.

In the process I learned the rules of the craft, I learned to develop my narrative voice, and I learned how powerful a diversity of styles can be. I’ve since had the opportunity to coach my dad in creative writing, and I was able to teach him using some of the same methods I learned in that college program I’d once assured him I would never need.

The Process

Those methods have become more and more important in my life. They include everything from the intensive character development and plot architecture that I’ve used to build my Ghost Targets series, to the minute attention to mechanics and detail that makes me such a good Technical Writer (and pays for my two houses).

When I first started in the industry, I hated that I was selling out and getting a day job, and I spent a lot of energy separating technical writing from creative writing in my head. All I got out of that was a lot of heartache, and a couple novels that languished as unfinished drafts for years. I’ve recently come to appreciate the similarities in the two disciplines, and learned how to play to my strengths in both fields. As a result, I’ve got pretty much the same writing process for both.

I start with as much prewriting as I can reasonably do, whether that’s real-world research or rough scene lists, but I always limit the amount of time I dedicate to that. When I’ve got enough material to put together a draft, I stop researching and start writing. I do a first draft start to finish, with as little editing as possible. When I’m done, I take a quick pass through the document to smooth some of the roughest edges, then hand it off to one or two test readers to get feedback.

From there, I go through multiple stages of dedicated revisions. I’ve talked about that elsewhere, but it’s critical to the process. It also usually takes two to three times as long as the prewriting and writing stages combined, so I’ve got to dedicate time and energy to the review process from the very first, or I’ll find myself in a real bind when deadlines start looming.

The Products

Honestly, I end up applying that process in nearly every type of writing I do. That includes my journal entries here, emails to my friends and coworkers, and my articles on Unstressed Syllables. I’ve used some of my training to create some extremely effective tutorials, and to prepare business letters and queries for all my many projects. I end up doing a lot of editing work for friends and family, too. All of it is good practice, and all of it depends on my continued dedication to quality writing.

It’s rewarding, too. Just last week I was skimming through an old draft of an unfinished novel, looking for an illustration for my blog, and I accidentally got caught up in the narrative. Half an hour and two chapters later, I remembered what I was supposed to be doing, but I came away from that with a determination to get that novel cleaned up and in the hands of some readers. That’s an incredible experience, stumbling across some long-forgotten scene and rediscovering the magic and creativity that helped make it happen in the first place.

Currently, that’s where most of my energy is focused: getting all my old, unfinished projects up to code, and getting them in the hands of readers. That has me working simultaneously on a utopian near-future sci-fi and a dystopian near-future sci-fi,on a dry political think-piece masquerading as traditional fantasy and on a juvenile emo romance masquerading as traditional fantasy. And, of course, through it all I’m constantly creating new stories. I have a fourth Ghost Targets in the works, and half a dozen story ideas spawned from dreams or debates. I have a handful of non-fiction works germinating, and a rather significant investment in Oh yeah, and then there’s the full-time job. No question about it, I am a writer.

(I prepared this post according to the assignment description in this week’s Technical Writing exercise over at I also posted a link in the discussion board there, so you can feel free to leave comments here or there, depending what you want to discuss. I’d love any feedback you’ve got to give, though.)