Goal Setting

My work presented a speaker today to offer inspiration as we head into the new tax season, and he made some excellent points about how to set goals, breaking them down.

One idea John Guydon offered was to think about what you want, what’s your “some day” goal. People say they want to do X some day, and that defeats them because that some day seems so far in the future that they can never get there. Rather than falling into that trap where your goal keeps getting pushed out in the distant future, you sneak up on the some day goal by figuring out what your goal is for a year from now and how to achieve it, and sneak up on that one year goal by figuring our your goal for six months from now and how to achieve it, and sneak up on that by figuring out a one month goal and how to achieve that, and get to that by setting a one week goal and how to achieve it, and a today goal and how to achieve it.

Goal setting isn’t just setting just that distant some day goal. It’s setting the waypoints you need to hit to get to that. When actor Matt Smith interviewed with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show about his stint as Doctor Who, he noted how the Doctor could go from A to Zed without all the letters in between, while his role as Prince Phillip on The Crown had him portraying a character who could only go through the entire alphabet. We can’t all move through life like the Doctor. That’s all right, though, because if you know you started out at A and you’re presently at L, you’re nearly halfway to reaching Z.

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The Return of the King

I finished reading Dune this afternoon, even working my way through the appendices and afterword, and this time through I’ve found I’m reminded of how Frank Herbert’s original trilogy introduced me to science fiction. It also encouraged my desire to read and write genre fiction as much as my garage sale finds of the early Stephen King paperbacks of Carrie and Salem’s Lot.

Credit is due to my cousin, Kathy Blackham. If I recall correctly, she gifted me the book club editions of the original trilogy for Christmas. I’m fairly certain she’s the person who gifted me a boxed set of the first three books in James Clavell’s Asian saga — King Rat, Tai-Pan and Shogun. While the last three are more historical fiction, there is a fantastical element in them, as they introduce a stranger to strange lands as much as Herbert introduces readers to the desert planet, Arrakis.

Dune is … spectacular. Much better than the David Lynch film, though it’s hard to shake images from that production. I still think of Dune whenever I see Kyle MacLachlan on screen; he is always Paul Atreides for me rather the the FBI agent from Twin Peaks or the alien posing as FBI agent from The Hidden. Probably because what Lynch got right burned its way into my subconscious at the same time what he got wrong repelled. There are other notables in that glorious disaster of a film, some that I remember while some surprise me as I look back at the cast on IMDB and Wikipedia. It’s difficult to forget Sting as Feyd-Rautha, prancing during his duel with Paul at the climax.┬áDean Stockwell chews scenery in his few scenes as Dr. Yueh. Patrick Stewart emotes with a gravity worthy of William Shatner as Gurney Halleck. But I can’t believe that Sean Young didn’t make more of an impression as Chani, and when I see Everett McGill, who is recognizable as Stilgar, I think instead of Silver Bullet, License to Kill, and The People Under The Stairs.

Each chapter opens with excerpts primarily pulled from books written about the protagonist, Paul, known for most of the novel by his Fremen name, Muad’Dib. And I’ve got to admit this left such a mark on my early writer’s brain that my own first novel, written about twenty years later, follows the same pattern for its chapters. I’ve seen the same mechanism used by David Gerrold in his War Against the Chtorr series, where many of the book chapters start with quotes from Solomon Short.

What I learned about world-building starts with Herbert. He is the once and future king who sets the bar for what I would like to achieve as a science fiction writer, and what any writer would want. Besides reading all of the original trilogy — Dune Messiah and Children of Dune — as well as the three books that Herbert wrote that followed — God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse: Dune — my deep dive into quality environmental fantasy and science fiction this year will include Nora Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which is certainly as important as Herbert’s work, and Stephen R. Donald’s Thomas Covenant books. Because if you can’t build a believable and real world, readers can’t live and breathe in that space with your characters.

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TBR

The first book I finished in 2020 was a pulp reprint that I first read back in 2013 as part of the effort by Sanctum Books to revive classics from the first half of the last century. Citadel of Hell was half of a double-volume, pairing it with a later title, The Spider and the Sons of Satan.

Pulp reprints will make up a good part of my TBR pile this year as I’ve resolved to finish things that I’ve started this year, and I want to read 52 books this year. It’s going to be a big challenge, as I’m also determined to read some door stopper books this year, which will include Frank Herbert’s original Dune novels, the Wheel of Time, the Dark Tower, Gene Wolfe’s original Book of the New Sun, and a good number of Jonathan Kellerman’s book, catching up with the latter mysteries in the same way I did with Michael Connelly’s novels last year.

DuneArt

Citadel of Hell gave me a change of pace after reading the first half of Dune (and in the hopes of getting forty-two books read last year). Herbert’s opening novel is deep, with lots of big ideas. I certainly won’t be able to power through all six one after the other. Which also means I’m going to need to vary these kind of books with healthy pulp doses and forays into some Clive Cussler, Brad Taylor, Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger books, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, and Steve Berry adventures.

And if I’m really ambitious (as if tackling the entire Wheel of Time isn’t enough to fill anyone’s plate), I’m probably going to include F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack books as well. Though I will need to pick up The Last Christmas (out just this last year) and keep an eye out for Signalz (which is tentatively schedule for publication in May) if I want to read most of Secret History of the World.

If I have learned anything from reading pulps, specifically Walter Gibson’s The Shadow, it’s to set ambitious goals. Right now, I’m working on the last half of Dune, and I’ll either follow that with Vince Flynn’s Separation of Powers (one of my Christmas gifts) or a couple pulp reprints like an early Sanctum edition of the Avenger or the Spider. And I’m specifying the Sanctum Spider’s here because while I’ve been reading the Altus Press/Steeger Books reprints in order from the beginning, some of those early novels were paired with later stories by Will Murray and Anthony Tollin in their brief run, and the essays included in those editions are part of the reason Sanctum’s books were superior and worth every penny.

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Resolutions

I’m going to paraphrase the current First Lady here, not to mock her slogan but to emphasize its true sentiment, and state that my resolution for 2020 is to “be the best.”

First up, getting my weight under control, even adding some exercise into the mix. I weighed myself this morning, and I’m easily 100 pounds heavier than when I was last in some sort of “fit” shape. This was back when I first lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was studying Tae Kwon Do. This was back in the early 1990s. I stuck with learning that martial art for three years, made it as far as earning a red-black belt, but then I contracted pneumonia and after that bronchitis, and my health and fitness has followed a downward spiral since. If I want to take back control of my life and stick around for a while to see my kids blossom in their adulthood, enjoy my grandson’s life by being the best nagypapa possible, I’ve got to set some goals.

Today’s weight: 311.7 pounds.

I’ve a year to lose enough weight that I’m able to keep up with my grandson and look decent at my oldest daughter’s wedding in May. This will be their church wedding, with a reception as well, so distant family can celebrate with her, my son-in-law, and grandson. It’s a little more than a third of the year away — 129 days — but if I follow some portion control during meals, drink more water, and exercise, I shouldn’t embarrass her or myself when I walk her down the aisle.

Beyond getting into shape for daughter, grandson (and by extension, other daughter and spouse), I would like to participate in another 5k before the year is out and hopefully drop at least 75 of those 100 pounds before New Year’s Day rolls around again.

Second, I need to get back into a regular writing routine. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, first getting the need when I was probably 12 or 13. My best friend in the neighborhood where I lived in Elyria had moved away, and we lived where there weren’t kids my age. I found solace in books — H.G. Wells, an adaptation of the Arabian Nights tales, the adventures of the Hardy Boys, the Three Investigators, Rick Brandt and Biff Brewster, and finally the Bantam reprints of Doc Savage. The escape offered in those pages comforted the lonely boy that I was at the time, and I had an imagination vivid enough to believe I could tell stories that entertained others as much.

I didn’t get serious about writing until about 1996. I had just read Desperation and The Regulators by Stephen King. He was an early influence, as Salem’s Lot was one of the first books for adults that I read. I certainly made more of an impression on me than Carrie; I picked up both in one of my mom’s summer garage sales, and they captured my virgin writer’s mind enough that I can confidently say that The Shining was the first brand-new paperback I ever purchased (with my mom’s money, of course, picked up at a local K-Mart). I don’t believe my mother would have let me get the hardcover, pictured on the left, as it would have cost quite a bit more, and the cover doesn’t look like a book she’d let an impressionable son read. And I was impressionable. Who wouldn’t be entering their teens. The mass market, pictured on the right, was innocuous and consequently probably considered safe.

All that being said … I didn’t get serious about finishing a story I was writing until I picked up the Stephen King pairing of Desperation and The Regulators and realized I had toyed with a similar idea to the one presented in Desperation for a few years. I had a similar experience a few years before while reading Dean Koontz’s Midnight. If I had ideas similar to those published authors, the only thing stopping me was myself and my lack of determination. And since then I’ve been lucky enough to finish two novels (unpublished), and a handful of published and unpublished short stories. Since my stroke back in 2014, I’ve struggled to find a groove, but using that as an excuse stops now.

I’ve worked on a couple story ideas this last year since moving down to Alabama, and another goal is to write those. One’s a short story, one’s a book, and both are good enough to spawn follow-ups. I’m not going to throw things out here on this blog without backing them up. That isn’t fair to anyone who reads these posts, and it isn’t fair to my loved ones or myself. I can’t afford deluding anyone; I can only lead by example. I’m already on the right track, submitting one of my finished novels to Bloodshot Books before 2019 ended.

In addition to the above weigh-in, which I’ve recorded in a calendar entry on my laptop so it’s “written in stone” by the actual effort of creating said calendar, I’m also going to state that I am going to start and finish a short story so I can submit it to Fantasy and Science Fiction by month’s end.

Above on the left is the cover to the January-February issue of the magazine, which is currently edited by Charlie Finlay, one of the many writers/editors I’ve been fortunate enough to meet since I sat down and got serious about writing back in the late 1990s. I met Charlie through the Online Writing Workshop started by Ellen Key Harris-Braun, along with lots of other great people. OWW gave me a writing family, and I count every one of them as my true friends. Though we mostly socialize through the internet, they’re all people who you pick up with in person as if you had last seen them the day before, and like the best families their belief sustains you.

I want to make them, along with my immediate family, proud of me in 2020.

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2019 Books Read

It’s unlikely that I’ll finish another book before 2019 winds to a close. I’ve got another Spider pulp reprint underway in the hopes of finishing another book. It’s a book I read before — Citadel of Hell — but with about 160 pages left to read and a full day of work ahead on New Year’s Eve I’m fairly certain I won’t finish before the ball drops at midnight.

This year was a good one, with a mixture of pulp reprints and a good number of Michael Connelly mysteries filling out the list as I read most of his Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer novels catching up with the latest releases. The year started with another reading of the fourth Harry Potter novel, as well as return visits to end-of-the-world stories by Robert R. McCammon and Stephen King — Swan Song and The Stand.

Ideally, I’d like to read the Dark Tower series again in 2020, as well as the Wheel of Time, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and the Expanse. Best-case scenario, I’ll have an even better year in 2020, and catch up on my Jonathan Kellerman mysteries like I did with Connelly. In addition to the Spider, I’m also reading Dune by Frank Herbert. If I’d completed that before 2019 turned to 2020, it would rate as my favorite book of the year. Since it’s going to be the heavyweight next year, the best books on my list from 2019 that I would recommend are Blood Standard by Laird Barron, and The Reversal and The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

01 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
02 – The Sealed Box by Walter B. Gibson
03 – Racket Town by Walter B. Gibson
04 – Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon
05 – The Late Show by Michael Connelly
06 – Echo Park by Michael Connelly
07 – The Overlook by Michael Connelly
08 – The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
09 – The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
10 – The Spider Strikes by R.T.M. Scott
11 – Earthcore by Scott Sigler
12 – Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly
13 – The Wheel of Death by R.T.M. Scott
14 – The Reversal by Michael Connelly
15 – The Spider: The Doom Legion by Will Murray
16 – The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
17 – Wings of the Black Death by Norvell W. Page
18 – NOS4A by Joe Hill
19 – The Fantastic Island by W. Ryerson Johnson and Lester Dent
20 – Danger Lies East by Lester Dent
21 – The Outsider by Stephen King
22 – The Drop by Michael Connelly
23 – The Black, Black Witch by Lester Dent
24 – Hell Below by Lester Dent
25 – The Shape of Terror by Lester Dent
26 – The Black Box by Michael Connelly
27 – The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly
28 – The Burning Room by Michael Connelly
29 – The Crossing by Michael Connelly
30 – The Red Skull by Lester Dent
31 – The Awful Egg by Lester Dent
32 – The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
33 – Two Kinds Or Truth by Michael Connelly
34 – The Stand by Stephen King
35 – The Third Option by Vince Flynn
36 – City of Flaming Shadows by Novel W. Page
37 – Blood Standard by Laird Barron
38 – Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
39 – The Dead Who Talked by Laurence Donovan
40 – The Red Hatchets by Laurence Donovan
41 – Empire of Doom by Norvell W. Page

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The Witcher

There’s a literary principle known as in media res. The idea being that a narrative opens in the middle of the plot, allowing a writer to create action and hook a reader. Back story and the comprehensive description and explanation of the background or idea/theme is filled in later through flashback. This dates back as far as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the former starting at the end of the decade-long Trojan War, the latter with Odysseus captive on Calypso’s island and most of his journey home completed.

I finished watching the first season of The Witcher on Netflix this morning. The series is based on collections of stories and a series of novels and games, and this recent adaptation takes the idea to the next level as we’re introduced to the eponymous witcher, Geralt of Rivia as he battles a spidery swamp creature, as well as several characters in the kingdom of Cintra as it falls to a rival and the heir-apparent princess, Cirilla, flees for her life after being tasked by her grandmother to find Geralt. You don’t get a chance to breath and find your footing as you’re hammered with people, concepts, and events that are both familiar and unfamiliar. We’ve all read this type of fantasy before, and each writer or filmmaker has the task of entertaining with something we know by presenting some new twist. Which is where in media res propels you through the story and allows a good storyteller to “fill in the blanks” afterward. How well they do both, juggling plot and world building, determines their success.

Where Netflix’s The Witcher differs is how it weaves its main storylines together. Early on you learn that each character exists in a different timeline. Geralt’s story inhabits the past, providing the backstory (along with the story that follows another character, the mage, Yennefer) that does most of the world building. Cirilla/Ciri lives in the present, on the run from the enemy soldiers, letting us see how life on the Continent has gone horribly wrong. This makes season as the episodes take inspiration from the short stories, lending themselves to an episodic display.

It’s a nice contrast, because the two play off against each other; you see the aftermath for good and ill of Geralt and Yennefer’s actions in Ciri’s story. At the same time, you understand that they’re doing the best they can with the destinies they’re provided. While they’re masters of their choices, they’re also more tool than craftsman. What wins? Nature or nurture? What is the lesser evil?

I finished the short eight-episode season, and realized that while the story used the aforementioned in media res the story told here could be considered more a prologue. This is in pricipio — we are in the beginning of a much larger story that can’t be bound by eight hours. The war from the first episode is left unwon, if you’re a supporter of Cintra rather than its enemy, Nilfgaard, as we come back to that invasion and battle in the seventh and eighth episode. The love story between Geralt and Yennefer smolders, left on the verge of dying after their last encounter. Ciri is coming into her own power, but the nature of it and how it factors into the larger story is left mostly unexplored. We’re left needing more, and until the second season drops you can either tackle the source material by Andrzej Sapkoski or rewatch the show to see how all the different pieces fit together nicely into a cohesive and satisfying whole.

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Holiday … Chains and Changes

We just finished watching FX’s version of A Christmas Carol, the holiday tale penned by Charles Dickens back in 1843, and I’ve got to say it was one of my favorite versions. Dark, brutal with its honesty, it presents a slightly different take that tackles the question as to whether someone can truly redeem their past bad deeds.

I’ll rate it a tie with the musical version from 1970 that starred Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, and Kenneth More. I’ve loved this for its irreverence; it’s impossible not to you enjoy a song like “Thank You Very Much” — which shows up a couple times, but most notably when Tom Jenkins dances on Scrooge’s coffin, expressing joy at the miser’s death — because that brightness counters the actual darkness surrounding the damage Scrooge left in his wake throughout his life.

A Christmas Carol always touched my heart because I like the idea of redemption. Being able to ask forgiveness for your sins and perform contrition is decidedly Catholic, so my early indoctrination at St. Vincent de Paul runs deep. However, the FX take and Guy Pearce’s performance offers a fresh perspective with its idea that forgiveness — and by extension, redemption — is the end and shouldn’t even be the goal. You can’t say you’re sorry, and expect someone to give you a pass if you’re sincerely aware that you did something wrong. You will always wear the chain forged in life and “no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

Contrast this viewing with the book I’m currently re-reading, which is Frank Herbert’s Dune. I received a book club edition of the original trilogy for Christmas many years back. And while you wouldn’t think a book about a desert planet pairs well with a wintry holiday, its idea that societal norms need to change when they don’t benefit everyone dovetails with the view that mankind is our business.

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