Writing a novel has been on my list of goals for most of my adult life, yet I’ve never followed through on finishing one. Why not? There is no other goal I’ve pursued so consistently, yet been unable to complete with even moderate success.

My latest attempt stalled out a few months ago, although I continued to kid myself that it was just a temporary delay. After all, I don’t really get writer’s block in the traditional sense. When I decide to sit down and write something, the words come out – sometimes well and sometimes poorly, but they come without much prodding.

I decided it was time to really figure out what the problem is. On the surface, my novel attempts stall out because they just don’t feel right. No matter how much time I spend on developing characters and plotting, something doesn’t work. It’s hard to believe, but I never stepped back far enough to understand why they seem off. I just let them linger unused and untouched until digital atrophy takes over. They became those phantom folders that are always on your hard drive, until they wither away and disappear during a computer upgrade.

This time, I gave some real thought to what isn’t working with what I write. There’s no real trouble with characters or story – at least nothing that some re-writing can’t fix along the way. Conflict is there, character motivations are there. Dialogue has always been relatively easy for me – and, ladies and gentlemen, here we find the core of the problem.

My issue is with bringing a story to life in the setting. The look, the feel, the smells, the textures. I have no handle on any of those, even when I have the image framed perfectly in my mind.

Why is it such a struggle? All of my training and practice in writing was focused on what I wanted to do when I was younger – screenplays, television scripts, even comics. Lots of action, lots of dialogue, a few lines to set the scene – go ahead and leave the detailed look of the people and place up to others. I just never practiced the art of making a scene feel real through words. No doubt my professional life has been similarly crippling, with a daily focus on short, sharp descriptions of all sorts of technical processes and procedures.

This shouldn’t have been a mystery to me for as long as it was. There’s no doubt that this is the same reason blogging about my travel never appealed to me. My descriptions of places I visited consisted of snarky comments, incongruous metaphors and silly one-liners. That was fine, because that’s what I enjoy writing while I’m traveling, but it won’t cut it when it comes to fiction. Exacerbating the problem, I’ve always used the crutch of a first person narrator, which hid (from me) the fact that I wasn’t describing the scene well. If I don’t describe it, I can blame my character for not paying attention to what’s around him.

Identifying the problem is the first step to fixing it. Here’s the plan for the next steps:

  1. Forget about a novel at the moment. It’s on hold. I need to write a few short stories, paying particular attention to setting scenes and describing people, places and things in a compelling and engaging way. Plotting and writing short stories have their own challenges, so they may very well suck all sorts of ass, but it’s a training exercise.
  2. Get away from first person narrators. I may well go back to that if the situation warrants, but it needs to be a conscious decision and not just because it’s easier to write that way.
  3. Study good travel writing. Instructions and writing exercises intended for travel writers should go a long way to helping me on this. While I’m always going to be more of a goofball in tone and story, I need to ground it with ties to the sensations of real life.

Next up: a little session to brainstorm short story ideas, along with some research. I’ll let you know how it goes. Maybe I’ll even post the list of what I come up with!

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You know, I could write a post every day about something weird happening in China, but that’s what Shanghaiist.com is for.

Here’s one that I felt like sharing, though:

From Shanghaiist.com:

Married man sees doctor about stomach pain, discovers he’s a woman.

 

Sooooo… a 44 year old man has stomach pain and blood in his urine. When he goes to the doctor, they tell him he’s on his period. And, by the way, he’s a woman.

Wow. Just wow. This is not a case of having both sex organs. Genetically and physically, he (sorry, I have to keep calling him a he for the sake of clarity of the story)… HE was a woman through and through.

He never realized this? His parents never realized this? His WIFE never realized this? If your husband’s favorite sexual position is “scissoring,” you might want to ask some questions.

“Oh, don’t mind that. You know how some belly buttons are outies and some are innies? Yeah, it’s like that.”

I’ve got to wonder if this is some screwed up China male child thing, where the parents were SO desperate to have a boy that they convinced him (and maybe even themselves) that he WAS a boy.

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Thames Town-006

Saturday was the first weekend in a month without a forecast for rain. Hallelujah, I could finally get some use out of my bike!

I’ve been slowly building up to riding a century this year – imperial century, not metric. Even though I hadn’t ridden in a month and it was going to be about 95 degrees (35 C), I decided that this needed to be the day. Who knows when I’ll get another weekend day when I’m not traveling and there isn’t any rain?

Rather than just a basic route, though, I wanted to actually see something new this time. Shanghai doesn’t have any mountains, but what does it have? Lots of imitations of other things. That’s right, in China, knock-offs aren’t just for the electronics market or t-shirt vendors. They knock off entire villages.

Case in point – Thames Town. A faux-English village located about 30 miles away from the city center near Songjiang. While I could easily debate the classification of “English,” it is mildly European-looking. A lot of it is more like something you’d find in the Alps, but I guess they’re considered English because the streets are called “Victoria Street” and “High Street.” The little red phone booth helps a bit, although I was dying to see a blue police box. That would have been brilliant.

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Oh, and the buildings have those particularly English chimneys on them. As an aside, whenever I see that style of chimney, it calls to mind “Every Sperm Is Sacred,” the Monty Python dance sequence from Meaning of Life. End digression.

My arrival was a bit too early for any real activity in the town, but evidently, later in the day it bustles with bustles as one of Shanghai’s favorite wedding photo spots. I don’t know, I kind of think it would be more fun to take wedding photos at the Great Wall or Forbidden City – but those are in Beijing, so I guess this is the fallback.

Sadly, none of the customer-friendly village is on the actual river, so the Thames moniker is a bit of a cheat. There is definitely a river, but the only people who really get to see it are the ones who buy property (of course) on the waterfront in gated communities around the water.

My apologies for pretty crap pictures. I arrived before the sun came out and had a long ride ahead of me, so I didn’t wait around long enough to get decent lighting.

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Madison in Chinese!

Five weeks from today, I’ll be hopping a plane back to the U.S. for a two week visit. Since I left in 2010, I’ve spent a total of 44 days in my home country – and I haven’t been back at all in nearly 3 years.

This trip is just a pleasure visit. I’ll share more about my plans as the dates approach, but in general, I’ll be hitting up four destinations while I’m there.

  1. Los Angeles: catching up with old friends, former co-workers and clearing out some of the crap that I’ve had taking up space in the homes of friends who I’ve abused for far too long.
  2. Central Wisconsin: visiting the family for a long Labor Day weekend and catching up with any high school friends who may be around for the holiday.
  3. Madison, Wisconsin: a couple days visiting the old college haunts, catching up with some college pals and maybe visiting a few other friends living there.
  4. Chicago: I tacked on an extra day to spend in Chicago to play tourist. If I’m going to travel halfway across the world, it only seems right that I should see something NEW. With all the time I spent in the Midwest growing up, my only time seeing any sights there was a visit to the Sears Tower with my grandmother when I was about 10 years old.

Because I am who I am, I’ve got about 20 pages of more detailed plans already put together. Look forward to that excitement another time, but for now… ladies and gentlemen, may I present Mr. L.L. Cool J.!

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Uni Studio Tour

I have to say that I’m very disappointed that the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Studios Tour came and went with nary a whisper from Universal. The launch date of an entirely new business that now has worldwide reach and has entertained hundreds of millions of people should have been commemorated in some official way. Unfortunately, many people don’t remember the company actually started long before they opened a park in Orlando 26 years later.

Universal Studios Hollywood was my home for 18 years – most of my adult life. They’ve been extremely successful over the past 5 decades and probably moreso in the last 5 than at any time before that. It’s sad that all that push forward sometimes comes at the expense of looking back once in a while.

My “summer” job as a tour guide was the start of my entire career and, quite literally, I would be a very different person had I not gotten that job. Fresh off the turnip truck from Wisconsin, it’s where I laid down roots in California that lasted almost 2 decades. A list of my closest friends would show that probably 80% of them worked at Universal at one time or another. Many are still there.

The Tour began in July 1964, a year before I was born, and it was the start of not only Universal Studios theme parks, but kicked off the entire genre of “Studio theme parks.”

So, even though this wonderful milestone isn’t being officially recognized, I wanted to share a video put together by Tony Figueroa. This is a 5 minute version, but he has a longer version available you can find on YouTube. At 50 minutes, that one may be longer than most of you will sit and watch, but it’s worth your time if you’re interested in how one of the world’s most successful theme parks got its start. Tony did an amazing job putting it together and it pulled out a lot of memories.

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lostinspace

In another post, I mentioned that Star Wars was my first real exposure to Sci Fi, but after giving it some thought, that’s not really true. My memory of my pre-teen years is failing pretty spectacularly, so I really had to twist my brain to figure out what I watched before age 11. Surely there was some other sci fi in there? I’m not going to count Saturday morning cartoons or fantasy shows – no ElectraWoman, no Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, no Dr. Shinker. I’m talking about movies or shows intended primarily for an adult audience. The Disney films of the 70s like “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” don’t count either. I didn’t watch Star Trek, either during its original run (when I was 3 years old) or any of the syndicated repeats in the early 70s.

But I did have some earlier exposure to science fiction, some of which may be new to you if you’re under the age of 40.

Godzilla and the other “science gone amuck” monsters:

As far as science fiction films go, I really can’t come up with much that I watched before I saw Star Wars. I was a big fan of the monster movie genre at the time, so I guess Godzilla qualifies as sci-fi more than the rest. It featured a lot of scientists, anyway, usually pointing and running. I’m lumping the other 1950s “irradiated creatures attack!” into the same batch, whether it’s Gamera or The Amazing Colossal Man.

The TV show memories are much more interesting (and delightfully quirky):

Six Million Dollar Man:

How could I forget this one? It was my favorite and the most popular of the bunch. Lee Majors and his bionic arm, legs and eye were a weekly staple in our house growing up. I even had the action figure, which included a tiny little telescope if you looked into the back of his skull and out his glass eye socket. But the best part of the show was the slow motion jump (filmed backwards) and that signature sound, made even more spectacular by leisure suits.

These others haven’t aged well at all, but were great when you only had 3 channels to choose from. The first two have since had film remakes, but ignore those and the originals can provide some very dated, but wacky, fun:

Lost in Space:

Growing up on this show was fantastic. It was, hands down, my favorite “adult” television show during my pre-school years. The robot, Dr. Smith, the awful alien costumes, the Jupiter 2 spaceship, the silver outfits the family wore, and *sigh* Penny. Angela Cartwright was probably my first TV crush before I even knew what a crush was. As a 6 year old, I already realized this show was awful, but it was just so damned fun.

The Wild Wild West:

Half western and half-sci-fi/horror/whatever. Featuring Artemus Gordon with his ridiculous disguises and anachronistic gadgets and Jim West (aka the original Captain Tightpants), the show was fun and filled with action, which certainly inspired later shows like MacGyver, Firefly and Brisco County, Jr.

Land of the Giants:

I honestly barely remember this one. I watched it a few times when I was very young and I remember enjoying it, but I think it was on a bit too late for me to see on a regular basis. A group of astronauts land on a world identical to Earth except that everything is 12 times the size, so our heroes are tiny and constantly on the run. Between this, Lost in Space and Planet of the Apes, those audiences in the late 1960s really had a pessimistic attitude about navigating in space.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea:

Like Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, this was a production from Irwin Allen, who went on to motion picture success producing some of the biggest disaster films of the 1970s – The Towering Inferno and the Poseidon Adventure. In some ways, this show was a precursor to Star Trek, but unlike the fantastic nature of Lost in Space or Land of the Giants, Voyage started off with a “near-future” realism. The Seaview, an ultra-advanced submarine was dedicated to undersea exploration, but regularly got caught up in tales of espionage, foreign intrigue and battling extraterrestrial threats. It had a definite nuclear age vibe, keeping you guessing if the threat was going to be from an undersea creature, a foreign country or an alien world.

 

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If you were to call me a geek, I’d be hard-pressed to debate the label. I’ve filled a lot of life with superheroes and Star Trek.

That said, I’ve never been a “hard” sci fi guy. I’d have to say that Star Wars was my first science fiction, and I was fortunate that I got to experience it at the perfect age to catapult me into more. I moved from Archie and Richie Rich to The Flash, Justice League, Iron Man, Green Lantern, The Avengers and Fantastic Four. In my heyday, I bought damned near every superhero on the market, but those were my favorites.

Why did I enjoy them? To me, they were the ones that were the most fun. Superman was too dull, Batman too dark, Hulk too repetitive, Captain America too preachy, Thor too … Middle Englishy?

I’ve tried to get into harder sci fi over the years: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke. To this day, I still pick one of them up every so often to see if it pulls me in now that I’m “older and wiser.”

Nah. They still seem dull to me. I like my science fiction with a wink and a side of goofy. Avengers didn’t work as the third biggest film of all time because it had action, it worked because it was fun.

Which is why the month of August has me excited:

Guardians of the Galaxy: every trailer just makes this movie look better and better. And by that, I mean, entertaining. I am one of the rare few who read the original Guardians of the Galaxy in the early 1980s (as I mentioned I bought all of them), but I was absolutely baffled that they chose these guys for a movie. A fucking talking raccoon? Seriously?

But from the first teaser trailer, I was hooked. The random offbeat 70s sound track, set into some fantastic action and a bit of comedy. It’s a little bit Firefly, a little bit Dirty Dozen and a little bit Howard the Duck. Hmm, forget I mentioned that last part. Let’s replace that part with Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan and go with that, okay?

You’ve probably seen the 400 different ads on TV, with its release coming August 1st. As an aside, I HATE the practice of micro-marketing with a different movie trailer for every market segment. But check out the May trailer here:

Speaking of Karen Gillan, the show that launched her career is up next. Coming on August 23 is the season premiere of Doctor Who. I never watched the show when I was a kid – it was way beyond my geek level. But since its return in 2005, I’ve been hooked. I think the new Who showed up at just the right time. It was the tail end of an era in which every leading man had to be a gritty anti-hero, but here was a relatively straight forward good guy, with a streak of goofy. Battling a trash can with a plunger on its head. This newest incarnation features an all-new lead and is rumored to be darker than the past couple of seasons. That doesn’t worry me too much, though. A darker doctor is still a damned sight brighter than most of what’s on TV and Peter Capaldi is a brilliant actor.

Finally, I’m excited about John Scalzi’s latest novel, Lock In. While Scalzi isn’t exactly a household name, I’ve devoured his novels in the past year since being introduced to the Hugo Award winning Redshirts. Like the Doctor, Lock In appears to be a bit darker than Scalzi’s past work, but Scalzi is another one who never fails to amuse even when he’s going dark.

He wrote Old Man’s War, which I had no interest in reading. War novels and old people. No, thank you. But after reading so many positive reviews, I picked it up and loved it. It was filled with brisk action and humorous dialogue throughout – right up my alley. So, his latest is on my “read the day it’s released” list. For those who are keeping track, that’s August 26.

I’m not planning on taking over for Den of Geek any time soon, but wanted to share a few of the things on my entertainment horizon.

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On Friday, I visited the local theme park here in Shanghai. Happy Valley is the largest theme park chain in China, with several around the country, although the one here is the largest. And, by largest, I mean it’s massive – you will walk for hours and see virtually no one in many areas of the park (unless you go during a national holiday). It covers an area that’s nearly 3 times the size of Disneyland in Anaheim, with a number of guests about 80% below Disneyland.

 

This place terrifies me. I could write an entire post on any of the rides we went on:

  • The 4D dark ride with one out of 6 3-D screens operating properly.
  • The water park that didn’t bother with anti-slip flooring so they have a pathway of mats through the entire park. I guess people walking on the rest of the concrete are responsible if they fall.

  • The water coaster that had one half closed because some padding had come loose the day before and no one bothered to fix it, plus the run-out for the raft was evidently too short because an employee had to catch the guests when they came down, then pull the raft to the side so they didn’t run into the wall.

Oh, and the fact that the maintenance staff had a couple of beers waiting for them when took a break from painting the dock…

 

I’d list more, but at least 50% of the attractions were closed at any given time, even though this is the peak summer season. One of Happy Valley’s more baffling operational decisions is that rides only run for a brief portion of the day. This means that the rides that DO run have wait times of 90 minutes or more, because customer choices are severely limited at any time. The park’s water chute ride (floating boat with a splash down) was only open from 1pm – 5pm on a day that topped 90°.

 

The two parts that fascinated me most were a complete contrast in theme park operations safety.

On the one side, there was an archery range. Not some arcade style archery range. Real bows and arrows, with attendants selling 10 arrows for about $3. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s like having a shooting range with live ammo in the middle of a theme park.

On the complete flip side was the other of Happy Valley’s baffling practices. Rather than implement safety procedures and ensure all the right positions are staffed, they appear to run at bare minimum levels to minimize their potential for issues. Basically, instead of safely using your car to drive to work, you just use it to back up and down your driveway a few times a day so you don’t risk getting into any accidents. It might work, but you’re kind of missing the point.

A brief explanation:

Roller coasters are amongst the more complicated attractions to operate – a high capacity roller coaster typically has many sensors and redundant safety systems built into it, so you can have multiple trains on the track at once – usually at least 3. One loading guests in, one unloading guests and one running on the track at any given time. Some very high capacity roller coasters have trains leaving every 30 seconds.

With two of Happy Valley’s larger coasters out of commission, there were only a couple left in operation – including a large wooden coaster. It looks like it was built in the 1940s, but the park has only been there since 2009. They were only running one train on the track. Not one loading and one on the track, but a single train. It finished a loop, pulled in, unloaded, then loaded, then pulled out for another loop.

In a situation with a limited number of roller coaster cars, it’s a priority to make sure it loads and unloads quickly to be ready for the next run. The goal is to safely ensure that as many people get to enjoy the ride as possible. In Happy Valley, however, the train spent 2 minutes 20 seconds on the ride itself and then 4 minutes to unload and load its next 24 guests. Without a doubt, it was one of the worst operating practices I’ve seen in a theme park. At most, 220 people an hour could get on this ride, which had a 2 hour wait posted all day long. As a point of reference, well-run theme parks have roller coasters that regularly achieve hourly capacity above 1200 per hour and some get up to 2000.

Why only one train? Is the coaster not programmed to handle more than one car? Doubtful for a coaster that’s no more than 5 years old, but possible, I suppose. Did the other trains have maintenance issues and they didn’t want to spend the money to refurbish them?

Or did they just not spend enough for staff to operate the ride properly? That point is true, in any case, because with only one train operating, adding a few more staff people to assist guests should have had that train out of the loading area in less than 90 seconds, not 4 minutes.

I’d love to say that maybe they were just erring on the side of safety by eliminating the possibility of a collision by physically removing the potential, rather than operating well. But any pretense of a safe operation disappeared when I saw their employee crossing the track in front of the train, blowing right past one of the cardinal rules of safe roller coaster operation.

Theme parks in China have very strict mechanical inspection processes. A lot of the attraction closures noted above are for weekly and monthly inspections, which are done in the middle of the operating day with assigned government officials. Unfortunately, there’s not quite the diligence for ensuring the operation is inspected the same way.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve regularly visited Twitter, but with my interest in Facebook nearing its end, it’s not a bad place to go for interesting tidbits.

For example, this is fantastic. It’s just what I needed to spark my writing into a higher gear. Writing advice from “The Worst Muse.”

Do Not Take Writing Advice from the Worst Muse. From io9.com

 

My favorite is:

I need to get back on Twitter just to follow the few comedic Twitter accounts I enjoyed. Some of my favorites:

@pourmecoffee – for offbeat humor that feels like a combination of topical satire and a 140 character Far Side comic.
@drunkhulk – makes more sense than anything you’d see on Fox News.
@Jesus_M_Christ – what God’s son is really like, a wanna-be playa.

That’s all I’ve got right now. Some of the humorous Twitter accounts I used to follow seem to have given up in the last year or so. I need some new ones, so share if you have any suggestions!

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Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson popularized the concept of a “bucket list” in a movie about 8 years ago. Even before that term was coined, however, there were always lists of “100 places to visit before you die” or “50 things to do in your lifetime.”

I’ve never been able to buy into the idea of a bucket list. It’s always seemed like an exercise in self-delusion, because most of the things on the list aren’t ever completed. The whole concept of a “before you die” list is like a license to let you procrastinate doing things until “someday when a doctor tells me I have a year to live.”

I prefer following a principle called “lack of impulse control.” When I think of something I’d like to do, I do it. Festivals, celebrations, destinations, activities. Everything from La Tomatina to Songkran to Carnavale started as a simple “I’d like to do that” and then I just did it. Skydiving was never on any list. I never even wanted to try it, until one day I was in New Zealand and decided that I DID want to try it. It didn’t become a checkbox of “someday,” I booked it and did it. Sometimes the mood strikes, I do it and there’s never a chance for something to make it onto a list.

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Sure, over the years, the big things had to wait until I had time or money, but I make the PLAN. I figure out how, I figure out when. When I think of something it goes on the list until I try it, then it comes off – or it becomes something I keep doing.

When I finished my one year break, I decided I wanted to work short term jobs in various countries around the world. Now I’ve done that. In the future, I’m eager to do it again when I see an opportunity for a job that’s interesting or exciting. Before that, however, I have a list of “Do-Its” that are already part of my planning.

What are the big things on the list at the moment?

  1. Cycle across the U.S. from Oregon to Massachusetts. Currently I’m planning to do that in summer 2015 or summer 2016. The exact starting date is up in the air, but it’ll happen right after my time in China comes to an end. I know the starting point, the finishing point and I’ll be making up the rest of the route along the way. I’ve been cycling longer and longer distances in Shanghai, but I’ll need a few weeks of training on hills and mountains when I get to the U.S.
  2. Finish a novel. Lots of starts and attempts at this over the past couple of years, but I’m progressing. Far too slowly, but I’m progressing. I have an end date to finish it, after which I’ll self-publish, probably just an e-book and probably given away. Depending on how the experience goes and how it turns out, I hope to write more. Part of the plan is writing this blog, getting myself into a habit of daily writing (which is still inconsistent at the moment, but getting better).
  3. Travel plans. There are still a lot of destinations in my mind. Nothing like “see every country ending in the letter ‘y’” or any other random goal. I have specific places I still want to visit because I find them interesting: Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Greece, Venice, Ireland, Scotland. Another cycling tour through France – this time, the Loire Valley. Those are the places on my travel list at the moment and they’ll be following immediately after my U.S. trip.

How many more “do it” things will I want to try in the future? Who knows? Are there other places I’d like to see? Sure, but until I get through my current goals, all I’d be doing is padding out a list.

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