Ethereality News & Weblog

January 6, 2015

2014 summary and 2015 resolutions

Another year flashed by in a blur, like the scenery that streams past the window of a speeding train. No year has ever turned out exactly as I had hoped in any of my resolutions, and 2014 was no exception.

Keeping with my tradition, here’s a look at my resolutions for 2014 and how the year actually turned out, and then I’ll end with 2015’s resolutions.

1) Try to write as much as possible. I’m not going to set goals like “finish a novel this year” anymore, because as long as I’m writing and feeling fulfilled, that’s all that matters. The truth is, most books you see in the bookstore don’t sell and the authors can’t even make a living with their writing and must hold down day jobs. Even if I have books out on the shelves, it really means very little in terms how my life would change (other than getting the stories out there to an audience), so it’s much more important that I continue to write for the love of it, and the rest will come naturally. Ideally, 1,000 words a day would be just perfect, but that’s unlikely, since I tend to write very slow and methodical, editing as I write, instead of typing up a storm while in a rapture of inspiration (though it does happen once a while). So for 2014, my motto is simply, “just write.”

I do think I’ll have a smoother writing experience in 2014 though, due to having worked out a lot of the difficult thematic, plot, and character issues in 2013 for the books I’m working on.

I did a lot of brainstorming for Darkness Falls (tentative title for the reboot of my Enchanted graphic novel series from the 90’s, but now as a series of novels) in 2014, with extensive outlines and notes for the world-building, character arcs, plot structure, factions, themes, etc, and wrote a few exciting scenes to establish the tone of the story. What I have now is far more mature, complex, and exciting than what my younger self came up with, and the new incarnation explores many themes that are close to my heart and relevant to my current development as a person.

I wrote a few scenes in Promise that I’m quite proud of, but I sort of hit a barrier with that book, and I had put it on the shelf while I worked on other books, so I can gain some distance from it and then reassess it later.

I wrote a couple of scenes for Silent Storm, but I’m still a bit unsure about what I really want to emphasize in that story, so I stopped working on it.

I had fun writing a couple of tent-pole scenes in Undead Souls, but I also experienced problems with the book, which was why I changed my focus to Darkness Falls for the rest of the year.

I think the most important achievement I’ve had in 2014 with writing, was finally figuring out how to imbue every single aspect of my storytelling with the essential thematic explorations that give the entire narrative substance and meaning.

In the past, even though I always placed meaningful thematic purpose high on my list of goals as a writer, I wasn’t always successful in how I intertwined all the elements in a story with thematic explorations. There were always some scenes, subplots, or characters that seemed to exist apart from the real focus of the thematic purpose. When I tried to force thematic purpose onto those elements, they start to feel overtly didactic and lose their fun qualities. Being excessively didactic is a tendency I’d like to eradicate in my fiction, even if it is a natural part of my personality (and the reason why my students think I’m a damn good teacher).

What I do now, is structure the conflicts and resolutions to build up the thematic focus at the root level of the plot and the characters arcs, as well as applying the approach I use for character arcs to the main factions in a story, treating the bigger story of each faction as if they are character arcs. I’ll probably write about this in a separate blog post in the future–it’s one of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had as a writer in a while.

Another interesting thing that happened in 2014 was making an effort to meet local writers. I reached out online to local writer’s groups, and one of them, Steve R. Yeager responded to me privately. We have been corresponding ever since, and occasionally meet up in person to talk shop (he introduced me to Scott Richards, another fellow local writer). Although Steve’s writing is very different from mine (he’s a full-on pulp writer who loves that genre, and doesn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about thematic purpose/meaning as I do–it’s all about having fun for him), we still have fruitful discussion about storytelling, writing, publishing, etc. Steve’s the one that recommended John D. MacDonald‘s books to me, and although I’m only one book into MacDonald’s Travis McGee series (The Deep Blue Good-By), I’ve been extremely impressed by MacDonald’s prose and deep insights into human nature, and those qualities elevate his work beyond disposable pulpy entertainment.

Critiquing each other’s work with Steve also shined a spotlight on some of the problems with my own writing, and now that I’m much more aware of them, I can correct them. Giving Steve feedback on his writing also helped clarify what I prefer in my own writing goals, since I can see in his writing the aspects I like and don’t like.

Related to writing, was my quest to find an ideal virtual index card software for outlining. I don’t like the one in Scrivener, and the storyline tool in Writer’s Cafe is a bit clunky. After trying just about all the decent ones, I realized none had all the features I needed, and the missing features make none of them worth investing time and money into.

The features most important to me are:

-Able to customize the GUI’s color (can’t stand bright/white backgrounds).

-Able to customize the cards’ size, font size, background fill color, font color, etc, so I can color-code for the different characters or scene types.

-Able to do simple swapping action if I drag a card on top of another, instead of merely inserting a card before or after another card.

-Able to customize layout so I can have columns or rows, each dedicated to a separate subplot.

-A split view mode or expanded view so I can put more than just the title and a short description into the card, such as adding more details if needed.

I spent a lot of time testing Text Block Writer (very primitive), Super Notecard (pretty good), and Writer’s Blocks (advanced but ridiculously expensive), and although Writer’s Blocks came very close, it was missing a couple of key features that I couldn’t live without. I had long and interesting discussions with the developer of the software though, and he pointed me to one of the most interesting articles I’ve read a in while, on the subject of psychology behind software pricing (which is a lot more complex than just the basic “perception of value based on how expensive something is.”

Anyway, I still haven’t found the ideal virtual index cards software yet, and if any of you have suggestions, please let me know.

2) Keep healthy. I’m already doing very well in terms of a healthy diet, and am currently within the range of a healthy weight for my height (5’9, 168 lbs.). Now I just need to be more consistent in my exercising. Ideally, I’d like to do one hour of exercise everyday (elliptical machine or ping pong, but knowing myself, it’d be an accomplishment just to achieve every other day, and I’d be fine with that too.

I’m hoping I won’t have more than a couple of minor gallstone attacks in 2014, and my shoulder stays in good shape, while my ferritin level drops down to normal after a successful phlebotomy (if Red Cross fails to get enough blood out of me, I’d have to try something else), and my chronic foot problem will be successfully diagnosed and treated.

I’ve lost a little more weight since then, and am at roughly 164 lbs. I seem to be holding in the 164~168 range, as long as I don’t get crazy with junk food or eating late at night.

I didn’t get a regular exercise routine started in 2014, but I did get a much more important habit started and maintained throughout the year, which is fighting the detrimental effects of sitting uninterrupted. Mind you, this is not the same thing as the current trend of using standing desks or desk treadmills. That trend is actually a misunderstanding of why sitting uninterrupted kills us prematurely. If you read the article I linked above (interview with Dr. Joan Vernikos, who was hired by NASA specifically to study this subject), you’ll understand why it’s not the actual sitting that kills us.

My method (adapted from that article), is to have an interval alarm go off on my smartphone every twenty minutes, and I’ll get up and do five core-strengthening squats, side stretches, side twists, touch my toes, stretch my neck and shoulders, while resting my eyes. Doing this is far more important than any exercise I could possibly do, since no amount of exercising can reverse the deadly effects of uninterrupted sitting. Of course, adding regular exercise on top of that habit will make me even healthier, but at least I’m making progress, and hopefully 2015 is the year I finally build up enough of a habit for regular exercise.

Another thing I added to my routine was to do rebounding everyday (we bought a bellicon rebounder). I do four to five short sessions a day–once when I wake up, before each meal, in the middle of the afternoon, and before taking a shower at night.

My gallstone attacks added up to fifteen in 2014, and that’s a lot more than I wanted to deal with. They were fairly minor ones, and there weren’t always clear catalysts, since on days when I didn’t eat anything that would exacerbate it, I had an attack anyway, and on days when I had more fatty or sweet foods than I should, nothing happened. Sometimes the two do correlate, but not always, and that’s a little frustrating. My doctor said sometimes it’s simply that a stone has moved to the opening and blocked it, and not because I ate anything I shouldn’t, and that jumping around might dislodge it (to be fair, he did say that jokingly). When I do get attacks, juicing beets, apples, lemon, and with some apple cider vinegar usually takes care of the problem quickly (the doctor said it’s probably because they help relax the gallbladder).

My ferritin level did drop to almost normal in 2014, without having to do a phlebotomy, so *whew* on that. Now I just have to have it checked every six months or so to make sure it’s not going back up again.

Other than all that, it’s just the typical aches and pains of getting older and dealing with accumulated old injuries acting up. Nothing I can do about that–joints wear down, bones get brittle–just a fact of life.

3) Cut down on stress. I need to take it easy, or else I’ll go through life constantly feeling like I’m running out of time and falling behind in my goals. I’ve been feeling this way ever since puberty, and it’s the curse of being a workaholic and perfectionist. I have to try to take life as is and enjoy myself no matter what is happening, even when things aren’t going my way. Life is full of unexpected detours and distractions, and if I get stressed out every time something keeps me from my goals, it would be no surprise if one day the stress kills me. Everything that happens in life can be a lesson and becomes part of the life experience, so I need to embrace it all instead of only the things I care about the most, while treating everything else as annoying distractions.

I’ve been pretty good at keeping stress level low. There are things that happened in 2014 that would have caused my past-self a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights, but now, I try to keep it all under control and take the time to relax and enjoy life instead of dwelling on things I can’t control, or shouldn’t allow to affect me so much.

Every once a while I do get stressed out by my teaching, such as when I get the rare belligerent students who are being very difficult, or times when I can’t help certain students as much as I wish I could (such as those suffering from clinical depression or other mental/personality disorders that require medical professional’s help).

With the problem students, I try my best to give them multiple chances and it takes a lot for me to finally draw the line and give up on a person (someone who obviously isn’t willing to cooperate or change or make an effort), so I always end up putting up with the bad students far more than I should. Any other teacher would simply kick the student out of the workshop and that would be it. As for the ones who are suffering, I try to help them in any way I can, such as talking to them, listen to their problems, helping them regain objectivity, giving them support, suggesting actions they can take such as contacting mental health professionals, or sharing helpful articles or videos about latest advances in treating depression and other mental/personality disorders. Ultimately, they have to help themselves because I can’t force them to take action, and that’s what I focus on–to get them to help themselves.

Sometimes I have sleepless nights when I’m in the middle of trying to figure out the solution to problems in the novels I’m writing. I often end up taking down lots of notes in the middle of the night on my Galaxy Note 3, so I don’t forget ideas next morning.

Every once a while, another source keeps me up at night, such as when I get fully immersed in a subject I am researching (I call it “falling down a rabbit hole”). For example, when I was researching what small-form-factor camera to get to complement my Canon 5D Mark III (which is too heavy and bulky as a walk-around casual camera), or this current mechanical keyboard rabbit hole–they’re the kind of things that occupy my mind during sleep hours and I end up waking up in the middle of the night in bed, doing more research in the dark on my Galaxy Note 3. I don’t mind that kind of preoccupation since it’s actually kind of pleasant, instead of being in a state of agitation. I do need to keep these episodes of falling down rabbit holes to a minimum though, since they do take up a lot of time and energy while keeping me away from my writing and other creative passions.

4) Keep being the best teacher I can be and continue to mentor my students, helping them become the artists they aspire to be.

I have kept my promise to all my alumni students and continue to help them in the private alumni lounge. It is a wonderful place where the students can continue to learn and grow with my mentoring, while not have to deal with the negative aspects of public forum, where they might be ignored or treated harshly by belligerent jerks. I’m proud of the fact that it remains an amazing place that’s full of encouragement, mutual support, passionate and hard-working artists, and intelligent discussions. This type of private, small community is extremely rare nowadays, and all the students who participate in it recognize how special it is and are very appreciative of it.

The last workshop I taught in 2014 was quite grueling, due to one particular problem student who was a nightmare to deal with. I was really worn out by the end of that workshop, and as the result, have decided to take a break from teaching. I’ve been teaching nonstop since 2010, running the workshops pretty much back-to-back with very few exceptions, so it’s about time I got some well-deserved rest. I know I shouldn’t let one bad student sour the experience of teaching for me, but that’s just how things go sometimes–one specific catalyst that isn’t even close to being a majority influence, can have a profound effect on the whole experience.

So that was how I fared in 2014 in the context of the new year’s resolution I made at the end of 2013.

Now I’ll summarize the other stuff in 2014 but not directly related to the resolutions.

Moving to Android from iOS – I’ve always been a pro-technology person, because I think in general, the human race benefited far more from technology than being harmed by it. So it’s no surprise that I’m one of those people whose smartphone never leaves his side, because I use it in every facet of my life–from my writing, time management, task lists, appointments, GPS, keeping visual records, ebooks, podcasts, videos, the web–the list goes on. I was doing all that on an iPhone for a couple of years, and moving all of that to Android was a huge change that was a lot more difficult than I had predicted. I wrote a very comprehensive blog post about the experience of transitioning from iOS to Android (including lots of tips and app recommendations), so read it if you are interested in that topic. I also wrote equally in-depth blog posts about how to get the most out of the Galaxy Note 3’s camera, as well as artistic and technical tips for taking better photos (a sort of Photography 101 crash course).

E-M1 – I needed a light-weight and small-sized camera to be used as a walk-around casual shooter, because my Canon 5D Mark III is just too bulky and heavy for that purpose. After doing much research and testing, I ended up with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 (with the M. Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and 45mm f/1.8). It’s my first Micro Four Thirds system, and I’m really enjoying shooting with it. I might write a review of it at some point, but for now, there’s the short version I wrote on amazon (I also wrote reviews for two other cameras I was also considering–the Sony RX100  III, and the Canon G1X Mark II).

Mechanical Keyboards – This is the rabbit hole I fell into recently, during my quest to find a better typing experience while writing my novels. It all started because of two catalysts: 1) Sometimes at the end of a busy day with lots of typing, my hands would feel weak and unresponsive, with lots of typos. I wanted to find a solution to that problem. 2) I needed a good keyboard that could be used with my Galaxy Note 3 while in bed, so when I want to do some in-bed writing before we turn out the lights (as I often do), I don’t have to suffer the indignation of typing with my thumbs on a touchscreen (which is something I’ve only grudgingly accepted due to lack of better alternatives).

My search for bed-time typing keyboard first led me to the usual suspects of bluetooth keyboards, and after trying a bunch of them at Fry’s, none felt as good as any cheap full-sized keyboards (The bluetooth ones were pretty much all “chiclet” styled keys, which isn’t particularly satisfying to type on). But I was willing to compromise since it’s still far better than typing with thumbs on a touchscreen. And then I walked over to the gaming keyboards section just for the hell of it and laid on my hands on a mechanical keyboard (with blue Cherry MX switches). Instantly, it was all over for me.

The feel of typing on a mechanical keyboard far surpassed any typing experience I’ve ever had in my life prior to that moment (including typewriters). The tactile sensation, the rhythmic clicking aural feedback, and the feeling that you’re typing on a finely tuned instrument meant to be used by a serious typist–it’s akin to what musicians feel when they pick up that amazing instrument and start playing it for the first time, or a painter picking up that perfectly crafted brush loaded with the most luxurious paint and stroking onto the canvas. Right then and there, I lost my footing and fell straight down the rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards.

From there, the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper. There’s a whole community of keyboard enthusiasts who are tech-savvy and build their own customized keyboards from scratch, design their own layouts, machine their own parts, build and program their own electronics, make their own keycaps, and so on.

Anyway, I’m going to cut it short here, since it’s a topic that requires its own blog post–one that I’ll surely write in the future. Before I move on though, I just want to share a few photos of gorgeous customized mechanical keyboards from the various mechanical keyboard communities, for those of you who have never seen one before:

Yeah, I know. Right? If you have even just a little bit of geek in you, you’re probably breathing pretty heavily right now.

Okay, moving on.

Gaming – I barely played any games in 2014 due to being so busy with everything else (and also because The Last of Us kind of ruined video games for me for a long time, since every game compared to TLOU seemed meaningless and juvenile, or crude and boring). I did play one game though, and it’s a game I supported on Kickstarter, which is the highly anticipated continuation of The Longest Journey saga, now known to us as Dreamfall: Chapters. I’m a huge fan of the series and I had high expectations for this game, but it ended up being somewhat of a disappointment. It’s not a bad game–it’s simply not very exciting, lacking compelling pacing. But it’s only the first episode, and was meant to establish the premise for the really exciting stuff that’s to come later (or so we’re told). I really wanted to play Divinity: Origin Sin and Dragon Age: Inquisition, but just didn’t have the time.

Movies/Television –  There really weren’t any movies I watched in 2014 that really blew me away, but in television, I was totally engrossed by Boardwalk Empire (finished the series). It’s one of the best TV series I’ve watched to date, up there with shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. True Detective was another series that I really liked (amazing acting from McConaughey and Harrelson). I also really enjoyed the first two episodes of the first season of Black Mirror (brilliant storytelling and biting social commentary/satire), but the rest wasn’t as good. It seems television has eclipsed movies as the better storytelling medium nowadays, due to the freedom and room the writers have in developing characters and building more complex and satisfying storylines.

Music – There were some very nice new additions to my music collection in 2014, such as the retro 80’s J-Pop/jazz fusion blend of Hitomitoi (and similar musical acts like Ryusenki  and their contemporaries like Paris Match, Kenmochi Hidefumi); South Korean indie bands and artists like CaskerKim Puer; highly anticipated first album, Loopified, from jazz fusion/pop group, Dirty Loops; the awesome reunion and new album, Hotel Valentine, from Cibo Matto; a handful of nice songs from the discography of Birthday Massacre; NIN‘s Hesitation Marks; Zircon‘s Augent and Identity Sequence; Daft Punk‘s Random Access Memory; some nice film scores like Henry Jackman‘s score for Captain American: The Winter Soldier and Kick-Ass 2, and Carter Burwell‘s score for The Fifth Estate; and a string of guilty pleasure K-Pop hits such as the new album from my K-Pop favorite, IU, and releases from Kara, AOA, Crayon Pop, Rainbow Blaxx, Sistar, SNSD, BESTie, Lovelyz, f(x), etc.

Podcasts – I listened to every single episode of Writing Excuses and loved every minute of it. Really informative and educational at the same time, and probably the best podcast for writers right now. I remain a faithful listener of Stuff You Should Know, and for wacky irreverent fun, The Comedy Button. My friend Jason Sereno turned me onto Lexicon Valley (along with a few other podcasts) and I’ve been enjoying it very much.

2014’s summer was another very fruitful one for the Kitty Cat Diary, especially that I was testing a few cameras and putting the E-M1 through its paces. Unfortunately, due to being extremely busy, I just didn’t have the time to process most of the photos I took, and I’ve now got over a year and half’s worth of photos I need to process (backed up all the way to summer of 2013). I promised myself I’ll not allow the backlog to stretch to two full years, so I better get a bunch of them done in 2015.

That was my 2014 more or less. Now it’s time for 2015’s resolutions.

In 2015, I’m continuing the previous quest to keep my life simpler and focus on fewer things so I can get more done. At this point in my life, I think I’m pretty much set in my ways and have a comfortable routine going, and I like how my life is now more than I ever did in the past. I just turned forty-two, and although I still feel that pressure to accomplish life’s goals (damn mid-life crisis), I’m trying to just enjoy myself more instead of feeling like a man on a mission who can’t afford to fail.

Writing – I know that statistically, the chances of anyone making a living as a novelist is very slim, and it’s really not healthy to obsess about it. I’ll just continue to write at a pace that is enjoyable to me, and whatever happens will just be a natural extension of my love for storytelling. I don’t ever want to turn into one of those writers who talks about nothing but word-count, how to writer more books more quickly, and just generally sound like some factory manager than a writer who’s doing it for the love of storytelling.

With the new revelations I had about how to handle thematic explorations, I think 2015 is going to be a very good year, where I overcome the problems I faced with Promise and Undead Souls. I really enjoyed the world-building I did for Darkness Falls in 2014, and I feel a bit torn about whether to focus on finishing the novels I’ve been writing, or set them aside and just keep working on Darkness Falls. I doubt I’ll figure out what to do with Silent Storm anytime soon–I probably should have more discussions with fellow writers to figure out what the problem is with that story before I do anything more with it.

So in short, just keep writing and enjoy the process, instead of obsessing over anything not directly related to storytelling.

Teaching – I’m taking a break for a bit in 2015, but I’ll continue to mentor my alumni students. I’m not sure when I’ll teach the next workshop, but I need to rest and give myself more time to write. Although my teaching doesn’t take up nearly as much time as a day-job, it can still be quite disruptive to my writing.

There are a few students who are going through a hard time in their artistic development, and I hope I can guide them well in 2015 so they can level up and overcome the obstacles that’s keeping them from moving forward as artists.

Health – I’ve been at healthy weight for over a year, and I’ve been very vigilant about breaking up my days with 20-minute intervals and getting up to move around, as well as rebounding everyday. I don’t eat nearly as much crap as I used to, and I don’t smoke, drink (including coffee), or have other habits negative to my health. The only thing I can now add is regular cardio exercise and weight training. I’d like to get into a routine with those in 2015, but I’ve failed so many times in the past with regular exercise that I wonder if it’s even possible. I’m just much more comfortable taxing my brain than my body–I guess it’s a personality thing. The problem is always that I feel like I already don’t have enough time in a day to get things done, but the general wisdom is if you don’t make time to exercise you’ll shorten your lifespan, and that means you are going to lose years of your life–years that could be spent on getting things done. So I guess “too busy” just isn’t enough of a good excuse.

I’m going to be more careful about exacerbating my gallstone attacks in 2015. Although sometimes it’s just beyond my control (didn’t eat anything that would trigger an attack), I think at least half of the attacks had something to do with what I ate. The frustrating thing is that there’s no real logic behind it most of the time, since the same food with the same quantity, at the same time of the day, may or may not trigger an attack. No matter what, I want to keep my gallbladder for as long as possible, so any efforts I can make to keep the attacks away will be important.

Kitty Cat Diary – Although I do it for fun, I still feel bad when I have a pile of backlogged photos I haven’t processed and posted to the Kitty Cat Diary (more than anything, it’s the feeling that it’s been a tradition for me since 2001, and I shouldn’t neglect it). I’ll try to get caught up as much as possible in 2015, but I can’t make it a priority since it’s not supposed to be that important–especially when I have my writing to keep my busy.

I think that’s a good list of resolutions for 2015. Keeping it simple is the way forward.

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