Life Lessons From Captain America: The First Avenger

I spent a ridiculous amount of my youth reading comic books. I like to tell myself this was a beneficial use of my time; that I’d spent all those hours reading something instead of just watching television or playing video games. That I’d expanded my vocabulary and my grasp of social issues and how to handle conflict.  That I’d somehow tapped into a deeper cultural and artistic experience.  In fact, M. Night Shyamalan expressed it so poetically in Unbreakable:

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I’ve come to believe that comics are our last link to the ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians drew pictures on walls about battles, and events. Countries all around the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe that comics, just at their core now… have a truth. They are depicting what someone, somewhere felt or experienced.

I’m old enough now to admit the only “truth” in all of this is that I was simply too lazy to read books without pictures, and that because my parents didn’t want me spending all day watching cartoons, I had to get my mindless superhero fix somewhere else if I wasn’t going to be permitted to zone out in front of the tube watching Transformers, G.I. Joe, and He-Man.

Maybe I should have stuck to more serious literature.  Maybe if I’d spent more time reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I’d have matured quicker, and avoided a few of the disastrous decisions of my youth.

But then maybe I wouldn’t be a 42 year old man with a killer set of Wolverine-inspired muttonchops right now…

Which brings me to the point of this article.  Since around the year 2000 (when the first X-Men film was released), we’ve been living in an era that my childhood self would have killed to enjoy; an era packed with an almost constant stream of really well-made comic book films.

Sure, in the 80’s we had a few decent Superman films.  We even had the Burton Batman movies.  But they were nothing like what Hollywood is giving us today.  High-budget, well-written, brilliantly acted tentpoles with realistic CGI rendering what only existed in my imagination as a child before us in glorious high-definition digital cinema.

It’s a golden era, of sorts, and it reminds me constantly of why I really liked comics as a kid.

Because in the comics, the good guys can win.  The little guy finds a way to become mighty, and he remembers the simple humanity he came from, and with that, he stands for the right thing and helps those in need.  Every major popular comic character employs this formula, to one degree or another.  Superman was just an adopted farm boy who’d survived a global holocaust. The Hulk was just a geek who’d had a bad accident.  Iron Man was a narcissistic screw-up that nearly died before he got his act together.

But none of them appealed to me more than Captain America.  The great patriot.  The little guy who got a shot at being a hero, and was so committed to being a do-gooder, he was still mocked for it even after he’d saved the world countless times.  Cap never wavered.  Not in the face of authority or adversity or death itself.  Cap always did the right thing.  I’m not sure if this really helped sales of his comic series; it seemed like they were always trying to write Steve Rogers out of the picture, or mess him up with some accidental narcotic side effect, or something to make the character more edgy, like the Wolverines and Lobos and Cables of the era that were so popular.  But it never worked.  Captain America isn’t an anti-hero.  He’s a hero.  Period.

So I was a little worried when Marvel finally got around to telling his story on the big screen.  Sure, they’d already done really outstanding Iron Man and Thor adaptations; but each of those characters had a major flaw to overcome; an “edge” for today’s cynical audience to relate to.  Tony Stark was a selfish, womanizing, megalomaniac.  Thor was an egotistical jackass.  They had to get out of their own way to become heroes.  Steve Rogers?  His only flaw was that he was too small.  Maybe too modest.  My biggest fear was that they’d try to darken his backstory a bit.

They didn’t, and we got a Captain America that was true to the character.

So, without further ado, I present to you the first in a series of articles in which I examine some of the not-so-hidden meaning placed in today’s comic book movies with an examination of the life lessons you can find in Captain America: The First Avenger.

“I can do this all day.”

There are times in life when you’re going to take a stand for something, and that’s going to result in you getting your ass kicked.  That’s the essence of courage: Fighting for something that is almost certainly going to result in a great degree of pain.  But, as Steve Rogers shows us, the trick is to not back down.  Because in most cases, the adversity won’t kill you. That doesn’t mean you’ll win; Steve didn’t beat the bully in the alley; he had to get bailed out.  In fact, the second time he uttered this line in the movie to the Red Skull, he also had to get bailed out. That doesn’t diminish the value of taking a stand, or the courage it requires.  There was no way he knew Bucky would come along to save him from the bully before he’d been beaten to a pulp, and there was no way he could be sure the Howling Commandos would break into the Red Skull’s lair before he’d been shot.  Sometimes, the willingness to endure the pain and a little faith that it will all work out is enough.

“Is this a test?”

Twice early in the film, Steve Rogers asks this question.  On the surface, it seems a bit obvious to the viewer; of course it’s a test.  But that’s the point: Steve is openly aware of when life is throwing a significant test of his character at him, and he overtly acknowledges this.  The point here isn’t that Captain America is Captain Obvious; the point is that maybe, we, the audience, need to be a little more obvious about it in our own lives.  How often are we presented with tests of character without taking enough time to even recognize them, let alone respond admirably to them?  Perhaps we’d all be better off if we’d stop and ask ourselves this question once in a while.

“A weak man knows the value of strength.”

Doctor Erskine picked Rogers to be his first Super Soldier based on his character, and because, ultimately, he knew Steve would appreciate the value of his gift more than most.  But this isn’t just about weak vs. strong.  The message applies to all walks of life: We appreciate most the blessings that improve our most desperate situation.  The sick man knows the value of health.  The poor man knows the value of wealth.  The ignorant man knows the value of knowledge.

(I can do this all day…)

More to the point: We tend to take what we have in abundance for granted.  That was Erskine’s fear, I think; giving power to someone that was already mighty.  Don’t take your blessings for granted.  Even if you’ve had to work for them.  It’s easy to forget their value.

“Cut off one head, two more take its place.”
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Just as you’ve defeated an enemy, he throws that in your face.  And that’s life, really.  Get used to it.  You overcome one problem, and you’re going to be faced with two more.  Should we despair over this?

“Let’s go find two more!”
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Colonel Phillips gets it.  Don’t wait for the two more – load up and go find them.  They’re out there, and they’re not getting any softer while you stand around.

“Write that down.”
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You’d think Howard Stark would have a pretty keen memory for this sort of thing.  But that’s not what he’s saying here: In this scene, he’s getting a little full of his own brilliance, remarking that the energy source that Cap brought back from the Hydra base has properties that he couldn’t possibly understand.  And then he’s immediately humbled by his own carelessness.  Stark acknowledges this immediately: No, he’s not going to forget that explosion, but he’s not going to take it, or his own understanding, for granted, either.

Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out.  Don’t assume you’ll remember it.  Don’t assume you can’t screw it up, even if you’re really, really good at what you’re doing.  Respect the process. Write it down.

“There are limits to what even you can do.”
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When Captain America assaults the Red Skull’s fortress and is captured, his adversary mocks the arrogance and audacity of his plan.  And that’s what naysayers do; they’ll tell you that you’ve aimed too high, that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.  Because, like the Red Skull, they want you to fail.  Never mind what the Red Skull wants – only you can decide what your limits are.

“What makes you so special?”

Nothing. And this drives the Red Skull nuts.  Surely there must be something special about Captain America, something that gave him an advantage, and made it possible for him to foil his plans all this time.

But there’s really not.  Cap doesn’t have anything the Red Skull doesn’t have.  And the same is true of our heroes, mentors, role models, and especially our rivals.  They don’t have anything special.  In most cases, the only advantage anyone really has over you is the time they’ve spent putting in the work to prepare.

So get out there and get to work.  You’re not special.  Just like Captain America.

Transformation Tuesday

For the record, I think “Transformation Tuesday” is a silly social media fad, and this will be my first, last, and only time embracing it, as I believe personal growth, be it spiritual, physical, or intellectual, is a constant process, not simply a finite project. 

With that said, it has now been exactly one year since I started taking better care of myself following my 40th birthday.  I know, because I took a photograph of my last can of soda on September 9 of 2014:

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This was typical of my diet a year ago.  I’d consume about 6 cans of soda a day, I ate anything and everything, and I didn’t get any exercise. 

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I can’t tell you my exact weight, because I was pretty ashamed of it.  I didn’t step on a scale until I was about a month into the process, but I figure I was a bit over 300 pounds.  I felt like a lousy role model for my kids, and I had high blood pressure.  I was on the fast track for Type 2 diabetes and an early grave. 

It was about this time I came across an article about Jared Lorenzen in ESPN the Magazine.  The author, Tommy Tomlinson, wrote honestly from the perspective of one fat guy talking to another, and this paragraph in particular hit me right between the eyes:

He has trouble sleeping, and his snoring just about cracks the drywall. Stairs are starting to give him a problem, especially with his leg still healing. We see our futures, and they’re not long ones. I’m 50, and I might feel it more deeply than he does. Nobody who’s 65 looks like we do.

   “Nobody who’s 65 looks like we do.”

I decided I didn’t want to be dead before I got to meet my grandkids. 

The first thing I did was quit the soda.  Cold turkey.  It wasn’t easy.  Mountain Dew was my poison of choice, and that’s 46 grams of sugar per can.  170 calories.  I went from six per day (276g of sugar, 1,020 calories) to none. 

For the record, the World Health Organization recommends a healthy adult keep their daily sugar intake around 25g.  I was consuming ELEVEN TIMES that.

I lost at least 30 pounds in that first month, doing nothing else but quitting soda.  And, as my wife will tell you, I was a miserable bastard coming off that addiction. 

If you glean nothing else from this article, know this:  Soda is poison.  It is terrible for you, and it will kill you.  It was killing me.  I was addicted.  If you have it once a day, you are, too.  Quit. Now.

Once I’d kicked the soda habit, I started counting the other calories.  There was no specific diet plan, although I naturally gravitated toward a low carb/high protein diet, just because protein calories are more useful than carbohydrate calories when it comes to weight loss.  I don’t shun carbs completely, and I don’t really recommend that anyone do so – they’re important, in moderation, for muscle growth and energy.  I dabbled with paleo dieting a bit, and I’ll take whole organic foods when I have the option, but I’m not a fanatic.  GMOs and gluten don’t scare me, and all that really matters is that you not kill yourself with excessive calories and a ton of sugar or even artificial sweeteners. 

Basically, I went from about 5,000-6,000 calories a day of mostly junk to under 2,000 a day of mostly healthy stuff.

And then I started running.

I didn’t want to run.  I had intended to use my elliptical machine after I’d dropped down to 270 pounds.  I dragged it to my home office, where I could work alone on it, and started using it. 

It groaned terribly the first time I stepped on it.

I read the label.

“Maximum weight 250 pounds.”

I was too fat for exercise equipment.  Even after losing 30 pounds.  What a kick in the gut.

I live too far from town to join a gym, but I knew I needed regular cardio work.  So I decided to just run.  I wasn’t successful. Not right away.  I shuffled, down my driveway, for about 30 yards, and then walked.  Then ran some more.  Walked a lot more.  Made it half a mile.  Walked back home. 

After a week or two, I could run the whole half mile to my mailbox.  A few more weeks, I could run a mile.  Then a mile and a half.  Then two.

Then my sister, who had to withdraw from a Thanksgiving Day 5k Turkey Trot due to being very pregnant, offered to give me her spot in the race.  It was late October.  I had a little less than a month to train for a race that would require me to run over 3 miles. 

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I finished in about 43 minutes.  Slow, but not completely awful.  And I had set a personal record to beat, which I discovered is the most important part of fitness: Unless you’re world-class, you’re really not competing with anyone but yourself. 

So I set out to beat myself some more.
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By the time I ran my next 5k in March of 2015 (The GCU Run to Fight Children’s Cancer), I was down to 37 minutes.  Still slow, but faster than before.

The next month, I ran the Redneck Run 5k in 36 minutes. 

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It was around this time that I decided to start lifting weights.

The nice thing about the weight lifting is that I could keep what little equipment I needed in my garage, and work in the evenings, which kept me from expiring in the Arizona summer heat. 

I found a good, simple, straightforward program – Stronglifts 5×5 – and have stuck to it.  It’s basically just five compound exercises done with a barbell: Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Overhead Press, and Barbell Row.  Three days a week, and you’ll build all the muscle you need. 

At this point, my weight sits somewhere between 220-225.  I don’t bother with the scale much.  I don’t track calories as meticulously as I used to, either, because I’m not tempted to overeat.  I workout a lot – 4-6 days per week, and that amount of effort is enough to discourage me from sabotaging it with poor dietary choices. 

I’d like to build more lean muscle mass, but I’m not really trying to lose any more weight, even though the NIH says I’m still fat for my height.  My blood pressure is normal now, and I can run all day if I have to.  I’m still slow.  I still have creaky old knees that make it hard to squat heavy.  But I’ll probably live long enough to see my grandkids now.

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A Little Wisdom From R.A. Salvatore

Franklin Brown and R.A. Salvatore

One of the biggest challenges of writing a novel within an entirely original fantasy world is fleshing out the details and minutiae of the place.  What are the various cultures like? What is their history? What do the landscapes look like? What governments, economies, and social structures are in place around the world?

It can be very easy to get lost in the task of world-building and miss out on the actual storytelling.

I decided to employ a gimmick to prompt myself to work on the details of my fictional realm and flesh out some tertiary characters in it. I started a Dungeons and Dragons campaign set within the world of the novel I’m working on, and I invited my family members to join. This has provided an opportunity to enjoy a weekly night of dinner and gaming, and also forces me to create new material on a regular schedule that fills in a lot of the space around my story. After eight months, the campaign is still going strong and has provided a wealth of fresh ideas to exploit.

When I first came up with the idea, I had thought it to be somewhat original, but also a bit trivial; I had doubts as to whether I’d get anything accomplished with this campaign, or if it would just be a distraction.

It was about that time that I’d started reading the 25th Anniversary collection of “The Legend of Drizzt” by R.A. Salvatore. The first dozen or so books about his famous Drow Elf Ranger have been presented in four substantial volumes, and after plowing through the first, I immediately had to pick up Book II. Its dedication is reprinted from the original publication of “The Crystal Shard in 1988, and contained the following:

“… and to the rest of my AD&D game group, Tom Parker, Daniel Mallard, and Roland Lortie, for their continued inspiration through the development of eccentric characters fit to wear the mantle of a hero in a fantasy novel.”

Evidently my idea was not all that original. Nor was it trivial. To date, R.A. Salvatore has written dozens and dozens of novels, and has sold over 15 million copies. Further, he is not the only successful author to draw inspiration from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for his work. Greenwood, Weis, and Hickman have been enormously prolific employing the same tactic.

Earlier this afternoon, I found out R.A. Salvatore was doing a signing at a campus bookstore at Arizona State University to promote his 27th novel in the Drizzt series, “Rise of the King.” As soon as I finished work, I packed my very-understanding family in the car and made the long drive to Tempe with my only expectation that I would ask him to sign my copy of “The Legend of Drizzt: Book II,” and perhaps convey my appreciation for the affirmation I found in the book’s dedication.

After dinner at The Chuckbox, we walked over to the Sun Devil Marketplace and discovered that Salvatore wasn’t just signing – they had a room set up for him to give a talk and take questions. Signing would happen after the Q&A session.

I wish I’d had the foresight to record the event, so that I could quote him exactly. Instead I’ll have to paraphrase some of the talking points that stuck out the most to me (emphasis on “paraphrase,” my memory is hardly perfect, and I will stand to be corrected if necessary):

  • Salvatore is clearly still geeked to be writing Drizzt novels, even after all these years. He has no intention of stopping, killing off the character, or anything like that.
  • The idea for the character, as he tells it, sounds like he essentially pulled the concept out of thin air while on a phone call that demanded he come up with a sidekick for Wulfgar, who was originally supposed to be the central figure of the first novel. What seemed a zany idea at the time turned into the hero that has now carried over two dozen books.
  • Salvatore also plugged his new DemonWars: Reformation role-playing game, and shared a little history on its origins and the nature of the Kickstarter effort that made it happen. He loves the concept of crowdfunding, and compared it to his favorite sport (baseball) saying that it gives you no place to hide – it’s just you and the ball, and you’re responsible for all aspects of the project. Signed copies of the first edition are still available at a really reasonable price on his website.
  • When asked about writer’s block, he said very bluntly “It doesn’t exist.” Writer’s block is just lack of self-confidence. Sit down and start typing. Even if it’s garbage you throw out later, just get to work. Tape your mortgage statement to the side of your monitor if you need motivation.
  • When I told him about how I decided to use a D&D campaign to help with world-building on my own work, he said gaming is great to draw inspiration from, and cited examples where events in-game had provided the seeds of ideas used in his novels, but insisted that attempting to transcribe a gaming session and make a novel from that would be a bad idea.  Character and plot development in your fiction needs to be more deliberate, and not left to chance rolls of the dice or the whims of whoever you’re gaming with. Very few actual characters from his game sessions have made it into his work.
  • Escapism in fantasy is fine, but he says the world we’re trying to escape today isn’t the problem. The world today is a better place than it was 30 years ago, and fewer people every year die to violence and disease. The problem is we’ve been screwed up in the head by a rabid media that makes an awful lot of money sowing strife, conflict, fear, and worry.
  • Along those lines, his novels do not have real-world parallels, even though they often speak to issues and challenges that we have all the time in the real world. His objective is not to give you answers – it’s to help you ask questions so you can find your own answers.  Ultimately, he has, and always intends to make sure his stories have a hopeful message.
  • On how he choreographs such good fight scenes: “I played hockey.” Salvatore is deliberate in the tone, pacing, and intensity of his fight scenes. The mechanics are derived partly from personal experience in athletics such as boxing, and from his time working as a bouncer in college. Most of it is based on simple observation of fights, fencing, and other athletic events ranging from gymnastics to figure skating.

My overall impression is that Salvatore wasn’t sugar-coating anything with regards to his writing process or how he’s found success. There’s no easy button, silver bullet, or magic beans when it comes to punching out a good story and finding a publisher for it. Hard work, tenacity, dependability, and improvisation are his allies. You need to love what you do, and you need to be willing to sweat for it.

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Microsoft Word 2013 – Everything You Need

Time for a short update on tools.

A writer can get lost in the myriad of word processing technology available today. While you really ought to be able to get by with a 99₵ spiral notebook and a ball-point pen, there’s no debate over the value of being able to write and revise electronically. We can romanticize leather-bound journals and old typewriters all we want – at the end of the day, we’re trying to punch out readable prose in an efficient manner, and word processing is the way to go.

There are countless solutions available. You can use whatever text editor comes free with your computer, and probably achieve 75% of the value you’d get from nearly any commercial alternative. The trick is to decide what you need, and how much you’re willing to spend.

I took a long, hard look at Scrivener. At about $40 for the Windows version (which they generously allow you to use on pretty much as many computers as you own) it’s packed with features that cater to novelists. You can organize your book, your scenes, your character sheets, your timelines, everything, all from within one easy-to-navigate project file. It’s a fantastic product.

But there’s no mobile version (yet). And when there is, it’ll probably be iOS first – and my phone/tablet are Androids. This was probably the biggest drawback for me. While most of my writing will be done at either my desktop or laptop (and I can keep my files synched with Dropbox on ANY device), I have invested in a very nice Bluetooth keyboard/case solution for my Nook tablet, and I’d like to at least have the option to write on it. Scrivener’s proprietary file format makes this almost impossible.

I also considered using Evernote. It’s free, it has built-in cloud synchronization, and it runs on anything. But I wasn’t convinced that the word processing itself was robust enough to tackle a full-length novel, and from what I’ve read about digital publishing, formatting is kind of a big deal – I wanted a solution that could throw around the weight of a book without breaking a sweat.

Ultimately, I decided to see if MS Word could get the job done. Now, I should be honest – Word 2013 will cost you about 80 bucks. It doesn’t cost me anything, due to the nature of my day job. This isn’t going to be true for everyone, and $80 is nothing to sneeze at. After all, I was too cheap to use Scrivener beyond the free trial.

Still, with MS Word, I was able to copy and paste the character sheets I had already made in Scrivener into a single document, and using the Styles and Table of Contents wizard, was able to organize them in a manner that makes them easy to sort, read, and navigate. I can write chapters in the same manner (or in separate documents), and sort and merge them as needed into the final novel. And I’ll be able to apply the correct formatting to the entire document all at once when I’m ready to publish.

Word is already installed on all of my PC’s, and there are Android apps that let me read and edit Word documents from those devices. I store all of my novel files on one Dropbox folder, and I have the whole project in my pocket wherever I go.

As an added bonus, I can also use Word to write blog posts – like this one – with the available blogging snap-ins the software comes with. Again, there are free alternatives to this. Microsoft Live Writer does the same thing at no cost.

The Writer’s Best Marketing Tool Is…

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I had planned to post a long and informative article here telling you about all the great resources I’ve discovered around the business of digital publishing over the last week.

I was going to share excerpts from articles by and about Hugh Howey – the Duke of Digital Publishing who has broken all the rules of publishing, re-written them, and still finds time to share all his trade secrets with the rest of us.

I intended to direct you to Russell Blake, a man I like to think of as the Dos Equis Guy of Authors, and another genuinely good fellow who shares what he knows with the writing community – he started an epic thread on the very useful KBoards.com Writer’s Café forum, and then summarized his lesson plan on his blog here.

I was going to mention the very good books I read by David Gaughran, which ought to be considered required reading for anyone attempting to enter the business; or the most outstanding 2,000 to 10,000, by Rachel Aaron, a criminally inexpensive tome that you should buy if you ever intend to write anything at all.

Instead of giving you all these glorious details, I’m going to leave you with this brief summary (which gives you all the bread crumbs you need to follow to do your own research), and present the single most important piece of advice I’ve learned from all of it:

The writer’s best marketing tool is more content.

I’m already at a disadvantage – I don’t even have ONE novel written, but once I do, I can’t just sit around waiting for my sales figures to update on Amazon or spend all my time trying to sell that one book. 

Because if I sell the one book, and it’s any good, readers will want another one.  And if I have another one to give them, they’ll probably buy that one, too.  And the next.  And so on. 

So I’m going to short-change you a bit on this blog post, and spend a little more time on the novel.  Because that’s hopefully what you’d rather read anyway.

The Journey Begins – In Earnest

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Writing for publication has always been a beauty contest.  Whether you aspire to be a newspaper columnist or magazine features author, you’re going to have to submit your work to editors and publishers who will ultimately decide if your work is good enough.  You can spend weeks researching and writing the most fantastic article on endangered salamanders or weekend travel destinations in Yuma, Arizona, and have to suffer rejection at the hands of the industry’s gatekeepers when it’s all said and done.  Your hard work never sees the light of day, and, worse, you never see a dime for your effort.

I know, because I’ve done it, and been rejected over the stupidest of reasons.  Years ago, I had pursued a reasonably successful second career as a journalist.  I had regular columns in two local papers, and routinely produced features for local and national magazines.  The pay was modest, but I wasn’t in it for the money – I enjoyed writing, and took no small amount of pride from seeing my name in print.  But I also struggled with the rejections that I had no control over; especially the ones that had nothing to do with the quality of my work. 

In 1998, I had written a feature for a local industrialist who had the contract for a very large, very expensive, and very visible public construction project.  It was a fascinating, insightful, and informative piece on a powerful and influential personality that few people even knew about.  And it never got printed, because the subject would not consent to be photographed by the magazine’s photographer, and the magazine refused to print anything without their own stylistic illustrations attached to it. 

I could have sold an abbreviated version of the piece to a local paper or tried to find another interested magazine, but it was a timely article that was rapidly creeping towards its expiration date.  It was never published.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence.  I knew it, and I accepted it as part of the job. 

But I was not ready to accept it as a novelist.  Because I knew that writing a novel required substantially more work, and had a substantially smaller chance of ever getting published.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I knew the math.  My odds were small, and I wasn’t going to commit the time, even for something I loved, only to deal with the high likelihood of repeated rejection and lack of publication. 

So, over the years, I kept journals, wrote small blurbs, came up with character ideas, world ideas, themes, and plot twists (my actual notes are pictured at the top of this entry), and figured I’d wait.  I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for.  Maybe until I was struck with inspiration, or motivation, or early retirement, and had a ton of time on my hands. 

I’m done waiting.

I haven’t retired from my day job.  I haven’t been given any supernatural inspiration.  I haven’t read any self-help books that suddenly kicked me into gear.  I have made a discovery.

Digital publishing has killed the beauty pageant.

Authors are making good money writing novels exclusively for electronic distribution.  They write their own books, hire their own editors and cover designers for a reasonable rate, and then sell them online direct to the public via numerous popular outlets. 

This doesn’t mean you can build an audience writing garbage.  You still have to produce a good novel.  But it’s up to your readers to embrace or reject it – not an agent or publisher. 

I’ve spent most of my spare time over the last week reading two (digital) books on the subject and reading numerous articles, blog posts, and forum threads on what I believe is the most significant paradigm shift in publishing since the invention of the printing press. 

I don’t think this is an exaggeration – for the first time in history, an author can publish full-length books to an audience of millions without having to genuflect before the altar of a major publishing house.  You don’t need to own the press, or invest in ink and paper, or have a global distribution network.  You just need a computer and an Internet connection.  And a decent book. 

I’m going to walk through the process.  Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll share the resources I’ve found and track the progress I’ve made here on this blog.  And if I pull it off, you’ll have no excuse not to try for yourself, because if I can get it done, anyone can.

Windows 8: Why You Should Upgrade Now, And How You Can Live With It

By now, the much-maligned Metro UI in Windows 8 has many people convinced the upgrade is just not worth the hassle, especially for an OS that appears to do nothing but make life more difficult for anyone not using a touch-based device. 

The problem is, the UI is the first thing everyone sees, and it deters most from ever looking under the hood.  And that’s about to be a very expensive mistake. 

I last posted about the upcoming pricing changes pending from Microsoft, and this should stir a little urgency amongst those still resisting the update.  Now I’d like to also share a few less-heralded, but still significant, features that make Windows 8 a worthwhile investment, as well as a work-around I like to use to live without the Metro UI that you probably don’t want to deal with.

  1. It’s faster.  Microsoft has spent a lot of time streamlining the OS in order to reduce its footprint on handheld devices.  The benefit for desktop users is that boot times are substantially faster, and the amount of processor time and memory occupied by Windows is lower.  Your Windows 7 PC will boot and run faster with Windows 8.
  2. Built-in Anti-Virus and Anti-Malware.  I have long abandoned third party anti-virus solutions, preferring the free (and less resource intense) Microsoft Security Essentials on my Win7 machines.  Now that feature is built-in to Windows 8, in the form of Windows Defender.  Out of the box, your machine has automatically updating protection, and you don’t need to spend a nickel on a third-party solution (or download a “free” solution that will nag you to “go pro” all the time).
  3. Unobtrusive updates.  Your machine patches itself once a month, and gives you a discreet warning when it’s due for a reboot. 
  4. Improved Task Manager.  I could probably write an entire article on this.  Suffice it to say, it presents a lot more detail on process utilization, and even gives you options to tweak or disable “high impact” background processes that may be affecting your performance.  It’s very simple to disable those annoying startup daemons that eat memory for no good reason other than to make sure your iTunes is up-to-date. 
  5. You get to run Metro apps.  I know.  You probably don’t want to.  But it’d be nice to have the option, wouldn’t it?  Windows 8 isn’t going away, nor is Microsoft’s app store. 
  6. Synchronization across multiple devices.  Built-in SkyDrive support and the ability to synch files and settings over multiple Win8 computers, tablets, and phones is something Microsoft has wisely copied (and even improved) from what Apple users have enjoyed for a few years now. 

As for Metro – believe me, I get it.  It’s certainly possible to get used to it on a desktop computer, but I personally never enjoyed the full-screen apps and not having a Start button and menu to drive from.  I like having multiple Windows open, and I like seeing them all lined up on my task bar.

There used to be a registry hack to restore the Start button in early release candidates of Win8, but Microsoft explicitly disabled it by the time the release candidate came out.  It didn’t take long for a number of add-ons to emerge to fill the demand for a Windows 8 Start menu, but many of them were either buggy or cost money. 

I found one that I’ve been using for months, didn’t cost me a nickel, is highly customizable (more so than Windows 7 itself was), and has worked without fail since I first installed it.  Classic Shell gives you your Start Menu, along with a Classic Explorer to bring your Windows Explorer back to the way you like it.  It’s free, regularly updated, easy to install and configure, and doesn’t introduce any noticeable overhead in system performance (on my machine, it’s using 1.1MB of RAM right now).

Don’t delay.  It gets a lot more expensive February 1. 

You can view more details of Microsoft’s current offer here.

Now is the Time to Upgrade to Windows 8

If you don’t mind spending an extra $160, by all means, wait until February 1.

Currently, you can purchase a Windows 8 Pro digital upgrade for just $39.99.  But when January is over, the price skyrockets to $199.99.

The Windows 8 Media Center Pack will also cost you $9.99 on February 1 – you can get it free right now here.

Windows 8 is not an essential upgrade from Windows 7, but it is a good one, and its worth getting cheap while you still can.

The new Metro interface has been much maligned, but I’ll be writing a future post on how you can get your familiar Windows 7 interface back with minimal effort, and still enjoy all the benefits of Windows 8.

Get the full details on Windows 8 pricing at the Windows Blog here.

Did Your Windows 8 RC Expire Yesterday?

I’ve been running the Windows 8 Release Candidate for about six months now. I’m sure Microsoft probably mentioned at some point during the installation that it would expire on January 15, 2013, but that information had been long forgotten, and, to my disappointment, the operating system that I’ve been using on my primary personal computer did NOT warn me prior to yesterday.

So, imagine my dismay when I got home from work last night and discovered that my PC was a rebooting time-bomb, crashing and re-starting itself in protest every two hours as I was running a now-unlicensed version of Windows.

“No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just pull up my MSDN subscription, grab a valid key, and keep on working, right?”

Wrong.

First, you cannot simply license the Release Candidate. You MUST install one of the retail versions, either via download or conventional media. This was a bit of a problem, as I didn’t have the media, and because I’m on a slower Internet connection at home, I could not download the media in under 2 hours.

Furthermore, Microsoft does not want you to do in-place upgrades from the RC – you can migrate your data with a retail install, but your settings and applications are effectively lost in the process, requiring the usual re-install and re-configuration. While I know the value of clean installs, and understand Microsoft’s motivation, from a supportability standpoint, for requiring this, I found this requirement exceptionally inconvenient, especially having no time to prepare for a lengthy re-configuration of my personal computer in the middle of a busy week.

To solve the 2-hour reboot problem, I was able to simply set my clock back a week on the computer, making sure to disable the Internet time updates (note – if you reboot your machine, your BIOS may “fix” this for you, so you may have changes settings there as well). This gave the machine time to complete the download of the .iso file for the install.

Additionally, some research online determined that I could “fool” the new install into accepting my RC as a valid update client by extracting the .iso to a folder on the hard drive, and editing the /sources/cversion.ini file to look like the following:

[HostBuild]
MinClient=7100.0
MinServer=7100.0

This will essentially allow you to update even the earliest developer release of Win8 to the full consumer retail versions, keeping all of your apps and settings intact.

Of course, this work around is completely unsupported by Microsoft, technically, so, don’t expect much help from them if there’s an issue. Doing a clean install is always an option of last resort. As always, be sure to have a backup of your critical files before making any substantial changes like this to your operating system.

Comics

I’ve read comic books since I was old enough to read.  The tales of super heroes have always fascinated and enthralled me.  It is a pleasure I am glad to share with my son.

But today, my daughter wanted a graphic novel.  And I was struck by how much the comic book industry has failed little girls.  There were two options with female heroines: a Cat woman novel in which she fights thugs in her lingerie on the opening page, and a thirty dollar Wonder Woman hardback filled with more bloodshed than a Frank Miller novel.

In short, there was nothing appropriate for a seven year old girl, and that disappoints me greatly.

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