Thursday, March 29, 2007

Writin' and stuff

As many people know I'm a frustrated writer. Like many people who actually make their living writing I'm also an avaricious reader. Some of my favorite days are the ones spent sitting on a couch at Barnes and Noble reading and people watching. I have an unfortunate habit of spending too much money there, but there are probably worse places to blow a paycheck.

There isn't much of a selection at the PX here, and I can only get so much stuff from, so I end up reading alot of 'crappy science fiction' which is about the only thing they stock at the PX that I can really stand. I've discovered that alot of people getting paid to write aren't really very good. That's the bottom line.

So I thought I'd blog a little bit about what I understand to be the necessities of a good novel in any genre.

Number one is characterization. Now I've seen several people saying characters should be sympathetic to the audience. They should be flawed in some way so that readers can identify with them. One of my favorite authors Robert Heinlein didn't write flawed characters. He wrote about good, strong, capable people in adverse and unusual circumstances. I'm just trying to slog my way through a rather terrible book right now and the writer has just ham handed his way through some of his major characters. People who are supposed to be very successful in their career fields, so they must obviously be capable in some way or another, and yet they have these glaring character or personality flaws. Rampant dislike/distrust of authority, an almost aspberger's like inability to appreciate the social dynamic surrounding them, or just blatantly self-serving and dishonest. I think it was Anne Frank who said that despite alot of evidence to the contrary she still believed people were generally good at heart.

I look around at the people I know, family, friends, and comrades and I honestly believe this to be true. Oh some may have poor impulse control, they may take some odd joy in being manipulative, or have an inability to empathize, but generally they're good people. I firmly believe that every person I know has it in them to be a hero and not the goat. I think the vain, self-serving coward is probably much more rare than the person who's going to do the ring thing under adversity.

Dialogue. Many a newby writer's weakest point. I mean look at 'Star Wars', one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy movies of all time. The dialogue is terrible. It was so bad that the actors still make fun of it to this day. Lucas researched characterization to a tee. He studied the fundamentals of mythological storytelling and captured these to create a character set in which everyone found someone to love and hate. But he never figured out how to make them speak. He was only saved by setting his universe 'A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away'.

I'm not very good at dialogue either, so I take notes. When I'm around the guys talking, and I hear something good I write it down, or try to remember it. I try to notice how people from different cultures speak, and carry themselves. I've got a ways to go, but I think just observing reality is going to help me there.

Another key is plot. Storyline. Arc. Or 'where the heck is he going with this thing, and why doesn't he hurry up and get there'? This is harder to do, and I think you actually need a story written up, and then be willing to have it savaged by your first readers in order to clean it up and move the plot along. A story doesn't need the entire Napoleonic wars as its backdrop like the Sharpe novels, Horatio Hornblower, or War and Peace. Michael Sharra wrote a great book whose title I can't currently remember, but it was made into a Kevin Costner movie called 'For the Love of the Game'. The entire story was a fading pitcher's very last game. A few flashbacks to what led him there to reveal more of his character, but mostly it followed this guy struggling to leave a mark in his chosen career in what he knew to be it's twilight. Amazing stuff!

Well, there's a few paragraphs about what I think about when I think about writing. A few of my favorite writers, John Scalzi and Stephen Pressfield both have books about writing, and their bottom line advice is to pick a story and start writing. The details will take care of themselves.

It's kinda hard to focus on writing right now in these circumstances, but maybe I too should just pick a story and start writing. Well, we'll have to see.

"A long time from now, in a galaxy that would look pretty familiar to most people holding this book in their hands there was this guy, and he had a problem..."


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Where's my brain going?

I'm no genius, but generally I'm as bright or brighter than the average cat, but lately I just don't seem to have it as 'all-together' as I used to.

Truly nothing I do around here requires a great deal of mental agility. The Army drops the required intellect to perform most tasks to the lowest common denominator and that denominator is pretty low. Maybe it's just lack of utilization that makes me feel like I'm in some kind of mental fog. Or maybe it's the fact that I'm constantly having to take nyquil or benadryl in order to be able to sleep during the day.

I read another friends blog a couple days ago and he was lamenting that his writing skills seem to have fallen off, and that got me to thinking the same thing. So, I could just be experiencing hypochondria.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Vegas baby, and other thoughts

On 'Entourage' whenever the guys need to take a break to perform a mental/emotional reset they always pack up and go to Vegas. This is probably why I've chosen to take a trip there myself. It's 1000 miles by motorcycle (no, I'm not going to get myself killed) through some beautiful country with an adult Disneyland as the payoff.

I've tentatively selected New York, New York as my hotel/casino of choice. They have an Irish pub, Coyote Ugly, and some of the most interesting scenery, it's right in the middle of the strip and I can get there off the interstate pretty easily. Now I'm just waiting around to find out when I can make my reservations, and see what kind of deal I can get (I'm splurging but I'm not going to toss money aside needlessly).

I'm still not adjusting well to the new sleep schedule. Some days I'll get like 3 hours, others I'll take NyQuil or something and crash out for like 14 hours between shifts. It's frustrating. Right now it's about 11:30. I have to go to work in like two and a half hours, I've gotten about four hours of sleep for the day and I'm not the least bit sleepy. I guess eventually I'll adapt...probably 3 or more months from now when we get relieved and I have to shift back to working days to pack everything up and get out of here.

Nights can still be kind of cold. Well, they seem cold when you're out in it with no heat or anything for eight hours. It's probably around 50 or so. Nothing that some long underwear and moving around a lot doesn't cure. If last year is any indicator then I imagine in another couple months I'll look back on 50 degree weather quite fondly.

Nothing noteworthy has happened on duty the last few days. Not much off duty either, really. As soon as I'm done typing this I'm gonna hop in the shower, and come back and do some room cleaning. I might as well get some advantage to this sleeplessness, right?

Hope everyone's well. We're still hanging in here, we'd be counting down days if we knew what day to count to. Oh well, by the time it gets hot we'll know we're close to coming home.


Friday, March 16, 2007


Instead of another boring old 'NSTR' (see previous blog entry) I'll delve into some minutiae.

Most days since we started working the entry control point are downright dull, and the last couple have certainly been no exception. But there are always some odd little details here or there that if I remember to sit down and blog right away are certainly more interesting than reading 'not much going on around here'.

The rainy season in Iraq is....well, it seems pretty fluid. I had thought it was over. I thought wrong.

My platoon and I got off duty at about 10:30 this morning and as soon as I had dumped my gear in my 'can' (slang for the little metal buildings we live in) I walked over to grab my laundry.

Last night's shift had been pretty cold, in fact due to my failure to dress for the occasion it was sort of miserable. But, this morning warmed up nicely, and the sun was shining bright with only a few clouds in the sky as I departed our 'pod' (the collection of cans where everyone in my unit lives). I even grabbed my sunglasses as I headed out the door.

It's less than a five minute walk to the KBR laundry building (a bunch of nice Filipina ladies sort through the chaos and mess of our laundry) and as I walked back I decided I also needed to hop by the PX for some sundries. The PX is another five minute walk in the other direction from the pod. At this point the sun is still shining brightly and still only a few clouds in the sky. The sky was lieing to me, baiting me in.

I was in the PX for less than 10 minutes (picked up the new Cycle World and a John Ringo book but I'm saving them to read on duty tonight) and on my way out I stopped by Green Beans which is a sort of low end Starbucks extent on alot of the bases over here. As I'm waiting for my triple latte' I notice everyone outside is starting to move a bit quicker, then I notice it seems to be raining a bit. Oh well, I'm not sweet and I won't melt. Out the door I go, and on the five minute walk back to the pod. I had failed to consider the Iraqi version of mud. Everything here is pretty much coated with a fine layer of dust, and when it rains that dust quickly congeals into foul mud that sticks to everything, and makes your shoes weigh three times their original. I had also failed to notice that it wasn't just rain but hail. So I was muddy and half beaten to death by the time I finished my five minute walk back to the pod. You just can't run with a triple latte' in one hand and a PX bag in the other.

We also got new beds yesterday. There was nothing wrong with my old bed, but I got a new one anyway. Actually I got two.

If you look on my friends list there you'll see 'Mathew'. He's the one right next to two other Matts. He was instrumental in helping me get the new bunkbed setup constructed in my room. More than instrumental actually, he did all the heavy work while I just kept saying 'thanks' over and over again. He's a hell raiser, but also a hell of a good guy. And I still need to fix his computer for him.

So there's a couple things more significant than 'NSTR'. I know they're not terribly exciting, but I'm sure everyone would rather know that my biggest struggles are with sudden rainstorms and awkward furniture rather than IEDs and angry insurgents.

Hope all is well back home. I'll be back as soon as I can.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Well, that was less than fun

We got blown up a couple weeks ago. I told the guys in my crew I wouldn't write about it until they'd had a chance to talk to their families, and let them know they were OK.

It was my last patrol, and a brand new truck. The double whammy. We were the third truck in line, and somehow still managed to roll over a crappy little anti-tank mine. It was a pretty weak little IED. Kinda messed up the truck, and rung our bells for a couple minutes, but other than that no big deal.

Everyone in the crew was fine, and we were all back on duty the next day. Of course we had to go to the hospital for screening when we got in from that mission. It was really kinda funny. By the time we got into the clinic to get evaluated it was after 10pm, and we'd been on the go since 4am so we were all pretty much exhausted. Part of the evaluation are these tests to determine possible brain injury. Memory tests and that kind of thing. We didn't do so well on those just because we were so exhausted, so we had to go back and take them again the next day. We did fine, no worries. I was kinda sore and had kinda black eyes the next day also.

Now I'm back on duty at the gate. The night shift. I'm having a little bit of trouble adjusting to the new sleep schedule, but I'm sure that'll work itself out in another week or so. Nothing like caffeinne and sugar to keep me going until then.

Still no word on when we'll be done here. Lots of rumors that we'll be relieved by this unit or that one, we'll get home this date or another one, but nothing official. Just like getting extended I'll bet our families will know before we do.

I'm enclosing a picture of my truck right after the blast. They even managed to get it all fixed up again, and it's back on the road with someone else now.

The truck commander (me) sits in the passenger's side front seat, so that sucker went off right under my feet. It honestly wasn't as dramatic as the picture makes it look though.

Hope everyone's doing well back home. Spring is in the air, and it's starting to warm up pretty fast, hope the same is true back there. I'll try bein' more careful and I'll see everyone when I get home.


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Random Stuff

This whole Walter Reed 'scandal' is sure taking the focus away from Anna Nicole. I just wish it wasn't giving the army such a (well deserved) black eye. It's heartening to see the SECDEF handling it so well. Ya' gotta like how he didn't take any bullshit from the 'establishment'. Go Mr. Gates! Now that we've fixed some blame and fired some people let's fix the problem. In the end that's what really matters.

So I've been around on the web looking for motorcycle gear. I found plenty of great sites reviewing various motorcycles, but not much information covering the quality of protective gear. I'm thinking of staring a website devoted to this after I get home. Start off with reviews of the gear myself and my friends use, and see where I can go from there.

Another thing I found while out surfing around for potential purchases is the 'ultimate online wish-list'. Our family has gotten alot of mileage out of the wish lists in the past, and you can find ALMOST everything at amazon if you look hard enough. But sometimes other websites have better details or prices on an item. Well with MetaWishList you can tag stuff from anywhere you like. For example here's mine. Just another handy tool to keep track of future purchases, or keep folks apprised of stuff you'd find useful at christmas or birthdays.

I'm all done patrolling. Back to the nice, quiet, but dull ECP. I'm doing some training for the next few days, so I'll be on a regular day work type schedule, then I'll start overnights. Still no word on exactly when we'll be outta here. I don't imagine we'll be home for independence day, but I wouldn't think we'll still be here by the end of that month either.

Hope everyone back home is doing well. Looks like the snow's melting off, and a Nebraska spring is right around the corner (the groundhog either saw or didn't see his shadow...whichever one means an early spring, I forget). We'll see ya'll this summer!


Sunday, March 4, 2007


One of the best things about the military is the sense of community. Especially in this kind of environment. Everyone here is experiencing some (no matter how minute) element of danger, everyone is working together (not without a few problems here and there of course) toward a common goal, and most everyone wears the same clothes to 'the office' every day.

Yesterday I went over to the PX because I was feeling like I needed a new movie, and a case of soda. I know the chow hall has free sodas there, but the PX has good old shipped in from America stuff, whereas the stuff at the chow hall is local stuff that's brought up from Kuwait and Dubai. We call it 'hajji soda' and it just doesn't taste right.

While wandering up the DVD aisle I bumped into a tall, young, black soldier. We both right away piped up "Hey, sorry man." Which was immediately followed by "No problem." And we smiled at eachother. Outside the Army this guy and I probably have nothing in common. I'm sure if he looked on my iPod he'd not find much he liked to listen to, my books and movies would probably seem weird. But we're both Soldiers and that cements a pretty deep bond.

Back home if someone bumped into me in the DVD aisle they'd probably walk away without saying a thing, or breaking their conversation on their cell phone. And I'd probably get pissed off about it.

Readjusting to life back home whenever we're done here should be interesting.

I'm back on the ECP now, been working there for about four days. It's dull, but the days kind of start to flow together, and time's going by pretty quickly. Still no word on when we might be home, but I mailed the Ducati dealership and asked them to have the bike ready for me by July 1st. Just in case we're back a bit early.

Hope everyone's doing well. Sounds like Nebraska got alot of snow dumped on them in the last few days. The high today is 72 degrees and sunny. Tomorrow it's supposed to get up into the 80's. Pretty soon the base pool will open up, and I may even find time to get over there this season.

Keep in touch, and we'll be home as soon as we can.