The Return of The Mobile Office

The manager at my non-writing tech job in 2008 did me a favor when he told me to walk away from my desk during my lunch hour. So I ate my lunch and listened to the radio in my car. One day I brought a clipboard and some pens to edit a short story manuscript. A year later I finished writing two-thirds of my first novel behind the steering wheel of my car, a 700-page manuscript that I haven’t figure out how to edit.

Those were the glory days of the mobile office.

After I got laid off on Friday the 13th in February 2009 (a memorable date the manager let me pick), I was out of work for two years, underemployed for six months (i.e., working 20 hours a month) and filed for a Chapter Seven bankruptcy. If I wasn’t interviewing for jobs, browsing the job board websites or answering arcane copyright questions from my bankruptcy attorney, I wrote and edit manuscripts from my home office.

Since then I held tech jobs that made the mobile office impractical, either the lunch breaks were too short or the parking lot was too far. I went back to taking lunch at my desk, using my work computer to write blog posts over the Internet. With my last job at the hospital, where my office was down the hall from the morgue in the basement and the scent of vanilla in the air meant a dead stiff wheeling by, daily blogging was a welcome distraction.

The mobile office returned this New Year after I started a new job with a long lunch break and a short walk to the car. I eat my lunch and listen to the radio for 15 minutes, and turn my attention to whatever I put on my clipboard that morning for the next 45 minutes. If I finish the manuscript early, I can start something new on the writing pad. This is the highlight of my workday.

Only once did someone thought it suspicious that I was writing on a clipboard in my car during the lunch hour.

An inexperienced rent-a-cop jerked open my unlocked car door and demanded to know what I was doing. I got out to confront him and he reached for his mace spray. Flashing my employee badge and explaining that I was on my lunch break didn’t satisfy him. What I wrote on my clipboard inside my car wasn’t any of his damn business, which is why I don’t bring my manuscripts into work. The rent-a-cop backed down after I threatened to call 911 to bring in a real police officer to resolve the situation.

What I found out from writing my first novel is that doing something small every day adds up to something big over time. (Or something so big that you don’t know what to do with it, but that’s a different problem.) Forty-five minutes per day can turn into 180 hours in a year. Some of my best writing got done in the mobile office.

Shredding The History Of Old Manuscripts

As a teenager destined to write the next Great American Novel, I wrote for history and saved every single page (including pages I should have crumpled up and tossed into the waste basket). Generations of English majors would toil to trace my inspirations through the voluminous pages of my old manuscripts. And then the REAL WORLD™ intruded. Becoming a writer became a childish fantasy. All those old manuscripts from my teenage years were lost when I became an adult. The story ideas from that time continued to bang around in my head for years, which drove me crazy at times.

When I became serious about writing in my mid-thirties in 2006, I still wrote for history and saved every single page (except for those that I crumpled up and tossed into the wastebasket). I eventually wrote 80+ short stories, a 25,000-word novella, a 120,000-word unpublished first novel and several aborted novels. This filled out a four-drawer filing cabinet in my office and four storage boxes in the closet. I also have stacks of file folders with unfinished manuscripts on a back table in my office area.

Keeping paper manuscripts made sense back in the snail mail submission days when I had 50+ manuscripts circulating in the slush piles, spending $100 USD a month on office supplies and postage, and visiting the post office every six weeks. Drowning in paper came with the job. A successful writer would have numerous filing cabinets lining a long wall in his office.

When I stopped writing literary short stories and started writing speculative short stories in 2009, snail mail submissions gave way to email submissions. Soon I had 30+ short stories published in anthologies. Those published short stories later became ebooks. I slowly embraced the mythical paperless office as I used paper less often for editing my manuscripts.

After my father passed away from lung cancer this past May, I went through and tossed out 98.8% of his stuff. A sad reality when you consider that we go through life to accumulate stuff that our heirs will toss into the dumpster after we die. I brought a heavy-duty paper shredder to destroy his financial and medical paperwork.

I recently realized I was no longer writing for history but for business. As a small business owner, I have numerous problems with writing new content, publishing ebooks and maintaining websites that needed solutions now. Writing the next Great American Novel was no longer a practical business goal. History can sort itself out and generations of English majors can suffer without my help.

Besides, if my heirs will be tossing out 98.8% of what I owned at the end of my life, I might as well get a head start by shredding my old manuscripts. Before I shred a set of manuscripts, I made sure that I consolidated all the electronic files into my DropBox folder. I’m planning to move the file folders off the back table into the filing cabinet and destroy any working papers after a year. The mythical paperless office might become a reality in 2013.


Writing About Stereotypical Video Game Characters

The Trenches

I based my first and still unpublished novel on my six years as a video game tester for 30+ games and a lead tester responsible for ten games. Drawing upon all the stories and incidents from working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I wrote a ghost story involving a group of thirty-something video game testers who been in the business for too long. At 700 pages and 125,000 words, I had no clue on how to edit it and stopped working on it.

And then The Trenches came out in 2010.

This web comic came from the creators of Penny Arcade and PvP, the two most popular web comics about video games in general. I read the first few strips and stopped reading. They were going to cover the same territory that I did when I wrote my novel. Although I still had thoughts about revising my novel from time to time, I didn’t want my efforts being influenced by this web comic.

With my first novel tucked away in a storage box in back of the closet, my short stories started appearing in a dozen anthologies and I started publishing my own ebooks over the last few years.

While browsing Kiwiblitz a few weeks ago, I followed the link back to The Trenches and read the entire archive from beginning to end. As I expected back then, the web comic did cover the same territory as my first novel: a clueless manager, the female tester overweight and Jewish, and the main video game is a space western.

Did the creators of The Trenches break into my apartment and stole of a copy of my manuscript? Not at all. The video game industry is one big incestuous family, where stereotypical characters are as common as fleas on a hound dog.

The usage of stereotypical characters allows the writer to introduce a character that the reader immediately recognizes and add something different to make that character unique to the story. The lead tester in The Trenches, for example, wears a kilt, implying that he is of Scottish-descent and has the brass balls to wear it at work. The homicidal ghost in my novel isn’t the scary little girl cliché that populates most horror-survival video games but is a friendly looking troll-like creature with very sharp teeth.

Does reading The Trenches changes anything about the stereotypical characters in my novel?

On the surface, it changes nothing. You can’t have a video game company without a clueless manager—or management—to make the lives of the testers unbearable. I’m keeping the lead female tester as is since her weight and Jewish identity are themes for several critical scenes. I might jettison the Western theme for the main video game to avoid overlapping The Trenches too much. If anything, my stereotypical characters need more uniqueness to stand out against the competition.

Creativity As A Psychological Disease For Writers

According to a recent BBC report, creative people are suffering from a psychological disease: “Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found. They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.”

For most writers, this isn’t news. If you’re going to put pen to blank paper, you are crazy enough to see and describe what doesn’t exit. I wouldn’t be writer if I haven’t gone to the funny farm as a child and an adult.

After being misdiagnosed as mentally retarded due to an undetected hearing loss as a young child, the school system put me into special ed classes at different schools around the county. Despite blowing out the evaluation tests at the genius level, the teachers treated me like a well-behaved idiot and I learned next to nothing. The teenage years were not kind for overweight geniuses in the special ed classes. I subsequently dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, stayed home for the remaining high school years, and taught myself from library books.

I suffered bouts of depression during that time. Writing in a journal often relieved the emotions I was going through. That sometimes became a head banging exercise in itself as I struggled with the limitations of my fifth-grade English skills. (My reading comprehension was well beyond college level.) After several years of working with my father in construction and despite not going back to high school, I entered San Jose City College as an adult student. My English writing skills got better and writing in my journal became less of a struggle.

And then I became a Christian in the campus ministry.

The writing journal became a “quiet time” notebook for writing down what I learned in my bible studies. Shortly after moving into the brothers’ household in downtown San Jose, the notebook mysteriously disappeared. I started a new notebook. A bible talk leader “found” my old notebook a month later, asking me pointed questions that were relevant only if he had read my notebook (which he denied doing). I already had trust issues coming into the church—this didn’t help. I discovered years later that “missing” notebooks being read by others in the church weren’t an uncommon practice.

I started self-censoring what I wrote and destroying my notebooks after I got done with them. The doubts—the voices—plagued my mind for the next 13 years, being a writer without a creative outlet. This torment ended when even the leadership thought I was too crazy as a Christian, kicking me out of the church and insisting that I get counseling.

A year of counseling liberated me from my emotional struggles. I was able to give myself permission to do what I always wanted to do as a child: be a creative individual. Painting and pottery consumed me for the next few years until I answered the siren call of being a professional writer. I started submitting my short stories in 2006, and, after 300+ snail mail rejection slips, publishing regularly a few years after that.

The voices are gone. The doubts still remain. I’m a writer, a nut job in progress.

Being Unable To Write In The Dark

A spate of rainstorms interrupted the autumn heat in Silicon Valley this week, bringing gray clouds and cool rain. Perfect writing weather—and then the power went off. Back in the snail mail submission days, I would have lit a candle, grabbed the latest work-in-progress manuscript and picked up pen to continue writing. Not anymore. My MacBook didn’t have enough juice for an extended blackout.

With email submissions over the last three years, and writing 500 word or less blog posts for nearly every day for the last six months, I have finally embraced the mythical paperless office (more or less). I have gotten so comfortable with creating and editing everything on the computer screen that I haven’t printed out any manuscripts in a long time.

When the lights went out in Silicon Valley—okay, just my little neighborhood in the San Jose City College area—I had nothing to work on under candlelight. I have folders of unfinished manuscripts waiting for my undivided attention, but nothing I wanted to pick up in the dark. As for a blank page and a pen, my mind drew a blank as to what to write. For the first time in years, I wasn’t prepared to write anything.

A disconcerting feeling, being unable to write.

Power goes out, can’t work anymore. Light a candle, still can’t write. Nothing to do but to wait, read an ebook on the iPad, and watch the battery meter tick down from 49% to nothing.

And then the power comes back on. The computer and the Internet return. Everything goes back to normal again. The writing that I was doing before the power went out resumes as if nothing had happened. Weird.

The Blackmail of David Letterman

Last night on the “Late Show,” David Letterman told a story about finding a strange package in his car at 6:00AM three weeks ago, where someone wanted to produce a screenplay about “the terrible things” he had done in his life and would happily sell him the screenplay for $2 million. After notifying his attorney and the district attorney’s office, the blackmailer was indicted and arrested for grand larceny. Letterman than confessed on television that he had sexual relations with female staffers over the years. This was funny, sad and horrifying at the same time. I’m somewhat familiar with the concept of being blackmailed by those who think they can take advantage of you.

Within the church I used to belong to I had reputation that went from being “a sweet guy” to “a future California serial rapist.” That last remark came from a unpaid ministry leader — an unemployed patent attorney — who encouraged me to rape a woman whom I wasn’t getting along with at the time so I could do everyone a favor by going to prison. When I asked him how the woman would feel about being raped, he said it would be a “small sacrifice on her part for the betterment of the Kingdom.” A few days after that, another unpaid ministry leader — also unemployed — threaten to go public with my emails regarding this situation. These two weren’t the brightest in the ministry, not realizing that encouraging rape by blackmailing someone was wrong according to the Bible.

Unfortunately, church culture can devolve into spiritual entrapment and witch hunts that make this kind of behavior acceptable as the end justify the means. Such a culture makes it difficult — if not impossible — for the paid ministry leaders to do what’s right according to the Bible.

As for the emails, I threatened to post them in full on my website and send out an email to everyone with the link that this this was the ministry leader’s idea. Who has the most to lose with the publication of these emails? Not me. The blackmail attempt was soon forgotten. When other ministry leaders later hinted that they were saving my emails, I again offered to publish all those emails on my website and send out a link to everyone in email. They suddenly backed off by saying that they weren’t trying to blackmail me. Why tell me that you’re saving my emails if you weren’t trying to gain an leverage over me?

When I was working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple personality disorder), there was an email list called the “chum bucket” for off-color jokes and NSFW web links. I bailed out of this email list after a few weeks when the supervisors called each other and everyone else who disagreed with them “douche bags”. The email list went on for several more years until there was an incident involving me that forced HR rep to shut it down to avoid a potential lawsuit. A co-worker sent anonymous emails to the list that were critical, negative and mean-spirited about me. This wasn’t blackmail but more like slander. When the co-worker stepped forward to apologize and his supervisor talked to me about the situation, I had no clue what they were talking about.

I was a lead tester who worked 60+ hours per week with a project ready to go out the door, attending church and teaching children ministry classes on Sundays, and taking two programming classes at San Jose City College. I was too busy to care about anything else. When I later ran into the co-worker at a bus stop, he thanked me for being the only the lead tester who said anything nice about his girlfriend, a tester whom I thought needed additional training but got let go by the company anyway, and he admitted that he was wrong about my character.

I believe that being a writer means standing behind everything you have written, whether in private or public. That includes the good, the bad and the ugly. After all, if I get famous enough after I kick the bucket, someone will edit and publish a book of selected letters, emails and stupid rants that I had ever written. A generation of tormented college students will write their dissertations on why my neuroses represented early twenty-first century American literature. If someone wants to pass a moral judgment on me after I’m dead, there’s nothing I can do to stop them. If they want to use my writing against me in sinister way while I’m alive, why not let the whole world judge me and my blackmailer?

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

The Big Four-Oh Whatever

The last two weeks been the week before and the week after my birthday (August 7th) where I been in deep thought—very dangerous but the planet didn’t explode—trying to answer the one essential question in life: What does the big four-oh really mean?

The answer: Not a whole lot.

Physically, I don’t feel all that different.  Still working out at the gym and eating less to lose weight (lost ten pounds over the last month).  I have  a compulsive desire to remain clean shaven.  I’m now shaving every day since shaving every other day wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I still miss my Amish beard from a few years ago.  Emotionally, I’m still melancholy as usual when contemplating my past and my future.  All of which is tied to my work as a writer rather than growing older.

The rough draft of my first novel is on ice until I start editing in October.  The rough draft of my second novel is floundering at the one-third mark (middles are so exciting), and may be abandon when the time comes.  Other projects are dying on the back burner.  Being unemployed for six months is creating a lot of uncertainty with some days being like this or like that, and that’s affecting my ability to write.  (No, it’s not writer’s block; I can still write myself out of a paper bag if I can find the cattle prod.)  If I was writing full time, I would be doing a very poor job indeed.

The worst part is all my short stories and poems (40 pieces) are still circulating in the slush piles, and I’m on pins-and-needles waiting for a response.  August can be a cruel month for waiting for something—anything—to arrive by mail or email.  Everyone in the publishing world is on vacation.

The next year will require a lot of hard work as I finish two novels and a short story collection before I look for an agent.  When that happens, I’ll be working on my third novel and waiting for an agent to tell me that I won the publishers sweepstakes.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

When East Shot West

I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation, where the civil defense sirens went off every Friday morning and everyone ducked underneath their desks at school.  The Cold War was a simpler time.  You knew which of the world governments was either black or white, and only the spies worked in the gray.  Unlike today’s War on Terror where civilians and terrorists are either black or white, and the world governments work in the gray.

The New York Times wrote about a West German police officer being paid by the East German secret police when he shot and killed a protester in 1967 that set off the protest movement that would transform the West Germany government into a better democracy.  There’s no evidence that the shooting was ordered by the East German government or that the police officer was an agent provocateur hired to disrupt the West German government from the inside.  The officer was acquitted of murder and rejoined the police force a year after the shooting.  The 81-year-old former police officer still insist today that the protester’s death was an accident and being paid by a rival spy agency doesn’t change anything.

Because what happened between the two German states during the Cold War has no practical meaning to most Americans, the article asked American readers to consider what the Kent State protest shooting or the JFK assassination would be if paid for by the Soviet Union or an Eastern block country, turning a stupid and tragic incident into something more sinister.

“It makes a hell of a difference whether John F. Kennedy was killed by just a loose cannon running around or a Secret Service agent working for the East,” said Stefan Aust, the former editor in chief of the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “I would never, never, ever have thought that this could be true.”

As a writer who wrote a post-Cold War short story, “The Uninvited Spook,” with a deep passion for cyncism and irony, I find the moral implications of this situation very intriguing.  A subtle reminder that not everything appears to be what it is supposed to be.  We are still finding out what really did happen in the Cold War a half-century ago, and who knows what we will find out about the War on Terror when the time comes.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.

The Writer & The Bedbugs

I don’t think 2008 would have been a good year for writing without the bedbugs. I wrote approximately 80,000 words for nine short stories, one novella, and one-half of a novel (output for the last two years was approximately 16,000 words), put together a short story collection of all my work from the last three years, and earned a magnificent sum of $3.02 USD for my first—and only—published short story, “The Uninvited Spook,” in The Storyteller (July/August/September 2008).

The bedbugs were a personal nightmare from hell during the summer. When a rash broke out on my arms, I assumed that it was a milk allergy as I was eating more yogurt than usual due to the extensive dental work I was having. That went on for a month until I woke at 3:00AM to discover what I was really dealing with. Being eaten alive took on a whole new meaning when I saw baby bedbugs scrambling on the bed sheets beside my head.

I suspected that the bedbugs came through a gap next to the electrical outlet in the wall behind my bed. The apartment complex management denied that there was a bedbug infestation and suspected that I brought the bedbugs home from traveling. They seemed clueless when I pointed out that I don’t travel anywhere to pick up hitchhiking bedbugs. When they scheduled my apartment for fumigation, I noticed that the work log lists “beetles infestation” as a common compliant. An adult bedbug does looks like a beetle. My apartment got packed up for a month-long fumigation. The bug bombings were nastier than the bedbugs. The empty apartment next door was bug bombed at the same time, which management insisted was routine and that there were still no bedbug infestation in the building.

I put my life back together the following month. I tossed out my bedbug-infested, pesticide-covered mattresses, replacing my bed with a wood frame sofa and canvas-covered cushions from IKEA that made it difficult for the bedbugs to reestablish themselves (if they were still around). Sleeping on a sofa again doesn’t bother me since I slept on worse in my younger days. I’ve wanted to get a sofa bed to make better use of the space in my apartment for slouching while playing video games and watching movies. I started finding dead bedbugs around the apartment a month after that. On the bright side, my rent didn’t go up and the old heater baseboard unit got replaced with a new air conditioner unit.

I took advantage of the opportunity to reduce the clutter and redecorate my studio apartment. Stephen King wrote in “On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft” that a writer needs a special room that has few distractions to focus on writing. I created a dedicated work area by painting two walls a light green for a relaxing atmosphere, and added a third wall with a couple of bookcases and a filing cabinet. After setting up my desks, computers, and bookshelves, I’m surprised by how quiet and relaxing my new work area became. My productivity shot straight through the roof as I developed good work habits for managing my writing projects.

What I want to accomplish this year is to build up my writing portfolio for when I go agent hunting in mid-2010: first novel and short story collection ready for submission, second novel finished in rough draft, and third novel started in rough draft. When I’m not working on the big stuff, I’ll be writing and publishing the smaller stuff. I’m hoping to increase my approximate word count to 160,000 words. My long term goal is to write full time for a living within the next five years.

NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.