Tell me about the life of a technical writer living in Houston, TX?
When you can find the work, being a technical writer in Houston is fantastic. You have major oil and gas companies here, computer-related companies (HP), and the medical center. Thus, the opportunities to write different kinds of things are omnipresent. Many of these companies are based in places other than North America. As such, Houston has become a major cosmopolitan city. On spring days in the park, you will likely hear at least five languages being spoken.
I work for a small company called Aesbus. It's an out-source firm whose biggest client is HP. I write server documentation. I joke that my job description is this: "I write the books you have to read when the machine doesn't work right." When people find out about my job, they almost always reference the manuals the general public gets when they buy TVs, computers, or electronic devices. The complaint is usually the same: *You* write stuff like this? At which time they proceed to tell me how bad the consumer electronic manuals are written. I tend to agree. I smile and offer to show them one of my server guides. Oddly, they always decline.
I'll admit the only downside to being a technical writer is that it occasionally filters into my writing. I sometimes obsess over where a character is standing in relation to the door or another character. The downside of being a fiction writer for my tech writer self is that my flowery language can sometimes filter into my day job. Clients don't often appreciate how much a downhole oil drill dislikes the men who assemble it and want to do them harm.
How do you balance your day job with family, three blogs, and your own writing?
When you lay it all out like that, I can't help but visualize myself as one of those performers on the Ed Sullivan Show that balances spinning dishes and whatnot on sticks. As adept as the performer is, on one level, he looks ridiculous. Sometimes I feel that way when I look at the time I have available to me and the sheer number of things I want to do.
One thing that has helped the balancing act is becoming more simplified, more minimal in all aspects of my life: family, writing, online computing, reading, eating, and mental health. I have a wife and a son. They take priority. Period. Carving up the rest of my day is where the balancing act comes into play. I'll admit that my fiction writing suffers when other parts of my life (day job, family) takes up more time than is usual. And, honestly, blogging does, too. The irony is that, as of today, I'm known as being a blogger rather than a writer. The one thing about my blogging that helps is that I don't proofread my posts. What you see on any of my blogs is a first-pass, check for spelling errors, and publish effort. I think that's how most folks do it so I'm not alone.
Usually, I like to write at the lunch hour so I can get writing out of the way for the day. Thus, I can give my family my whole attention when I return home. Sometimes, I'll also write at night. In fact, I wrote my first novel almost exclusively at night, from 10pm to midnight. I try to write every day. I don't have a set "way" of writing. I can write anywhere on anything. I carry a pocket Moleskin notebook and constantly make notes on ideas and plot points. I've also created a standing desk so I stand and type and it gives me more energy. I have a MacBook Pro and I take it with me on most workdays. I don't have any fancy and needless special programs to help me write. I use Scrivener to write fiction, MacJournal for the blogs.
Enjoyment is the sole criteria for what I do and how I do it. I enjoy writing, all forms. The blog writing is easy and enjoyable with instant gratification. The fiction writing, as a yet-to-be-published writer is harder since success isn't guaranteed. The one thing that helps me here is my desire for the job of being a full-time, non-technical writer, not the fame. If I could have a career--one that pays the bills and gives me an enjoyable life--without a single mention of my name (i.e., only use pen names), I'd consider myself a lottery winner. It's the life I want; not the fame. The science fiction writer Ted Chiang is the only tech writer I know of that also writes fiction. His track record is extraordinary. He's not prolific but his stories are excellent and usually win awards. If you want a SF story that will stay with you, find his award-winning "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." Better yet, find the audio verison narrated by James Campanella.
"You Don't Get Three Mistakes" has been one of our most popular stories at BEAT to a PULP. Where did that character spring from?
I'm about to give an answer I'd hate reading from another author to whom I posed the same question: I don't know. I can name two things that played a factor. One was my reading of a book my grandfather had, William Colt MacDonald's Mascarada Pass. It's a novel featuring Gregory Quist, a railroad detective. Westerns were my grandfather's favorite genre and I wanted to read one of his books. Liked that book a lot (not so the second one I read). The other thing that comes to mind was a visit to the local Houston gun show. I went for research into modern weapons but became enamored by all the historical guns and paraphernalia. I saw a Texas and Pacific Railroad Special Police badge and, thinking of Quist, bought it. That's probably where the seed of the idea to write a story was born. Another seed was to write a story my grandfather would have liked.
As to the story itself, I've pored over all my files, paper and electronic, and can find no trace of any notes I made prior to the writing of the tale you published. The story was written in one session, pretty much as it was published, with nips and tucks here and there based on Elaine's suggestion. Heck even a writer friend of mine suggested the title. (Original working title: "Job Interview") I have notes written afterwards when I realized how much I liked the story and the chances that I might have a character on which I could hang a few more yarns. Interestingly, his original first name was Caleb and I had no last name. When I came time to submit the story to Beat to a Pulp, I still had no last name. I scanned my writing room, searching for a name. My eyes landed on Max Allen Collins' first Hard Case Crime novel, Two for the Money. But, as you can see from the previous sentence, I didn't want a character with an "s" in his last name. Somewhere, Carter popped into my head. As for the first name, again, no dice. But I have a number of volumes of the collected Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Perhaps it was then that the name "Calvin Carter" wedded themselves together.
I love the old "Wild Wild West" television show and all the gadgets Jim West had at his disposal. I also liked Artemus Gordon's ability to impersonate anyone. I enjoyed the Gregory Quist book and I was reading the first Doc Savage novel. I had just met Charles Ardai at Murder by the Book in Houston and he had given us a preview of Gabriel Hunt. All of that swirled together and out popped Calvin Carter and his first tale. I'm proud of the story and thankful that you and Elaine liked enough to publish it. All the praise I've received in the last year has been gratefully received.
Tell us about your involvement with NEEDLE?
Steve Weddle asked if I'd mind doing a little editing on the side. In my critique group in Houston, I enjoy reading other writers' stories and offering my take on the tale's strengths and weaknesses. I had a similar partnership with a fellow writer back in 2005-06 when we were both writing our first novels. Needless to say, when Steve asked, I jumped at the chance. To be honest, I've had an idea of working in a magazine/publication for a long time. The Needle opportunity came at the right time. I'm looking forward to more good stories and to see how far this ink-on-paper magazine will go. I've already ordered my copy (at Lulu.com) and eagerly await its arrival.
Recently, in your 10 Most Influential Books, The Bible headed the list. How important is faith and The Good Book in your daily life?
Faith is fundamental to who I am. Growing up an only child, I got to see my parents and four grandparents have their own distinct relationship with God. For some, it was personal, like Jesus was sitting in the chair in the room. Others, it was more abstract. All, however, had an unswerving faith. It infused me at an early age, something I'm only coming to realize in these last ten years.
I'll admit that I veered from church but never from my faith and belief in Jesus and God. My mother worked in the church and my dad always helped out. Thus, from an early age, the curtain was unfurled and I got to see the mechanics of church, the politics, the non-magical part. Kind of skewed my outlook to where I became unmoored for a few years. After a personal epiphany where Jesus literally came rushing back into my life, the importance of faith in my life *as an adult* was made abundantly clear. I started reading the Bible and other Christian writers like C. S. Lewis. In addition, I volunteered to go on a mission trip to Guatemala with my parents' newer church. One of the team members was my future wife. Now, twelve years later, we are married and have a son.
Reading the Bible allows me to understand many aspects of human nature. Whenever my son frustrates me, I think back to the Old Testament and how the Israelites constantly kept running afoul of God's law. And, yet, He still loved them. My job as a dad is to keep in mind that, no matter the frustrations, love is still the core value. Of all the books in the Bible, I re-read the Psalms (for nice, short poetry written by humans who were experiencing incredible joys and heartbreaks; they help to keep things in perspective) and the epistles (for when I want to really ponder the sacrifice Jesus made). The history part of me enjoys Acts and the later books of the Old Testament.
Faith has made me optimistic. I'm joyful, often ecstatic about life. The best part about the day, for me, is waking up, especially since I had no guarantee the previous night that I would wake up. My writing talent is a blessing from God. He gave it to me and I'm thankful to be able to shine a little of God's gift through my writing.
Your love of history shines through on your blogs. Would you ever consider writing non-fiction?
In a word: absolutely. And, in truth, I already do. All my blogs--especially my reviews and, increasingly, my Do Some Damage posts--are non-fiction.
When in graduate school, I was aiming to become a history professor. Didn't pan out that way. What never left me, however, was my passion for history. What bugs me the most about our modern public schools is how many (notice I did not say "all") of the history teachers are coaches (not dogging coaches here, either) or some other teacher for whom history is not a first love. What results is a dry rundown of names and dates without any context. It's no wonder modern students don't have a love or, at least, appreciation of history. History is the story of living people faced with choices and having to live with the result of those choices. Folks who don't think history is exciting should just watch "Saving Private Ryan," "Amadeus," and even movies like "To Kill a Mockingbird" which give a clear-eyed glimpse into the past. On the book side, historians (notice I didn't use the word "popular") like David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, and Joseph Ellis write true accounts of events that are as gripping as fiction. Heck, I'd say more so than fiction because of the stakes.
In order to earn my MA, I had to write a thesis. I wrote about the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War. I had to incorporate statistical research in addition to the day-to-day retelling of the 14th's story. Needless to say, I enjoyed the narrative part of the thesis much better than the statistical part. But I learned *how* to research history and what is involved in crafting a piece of historical analysis. I never tired of learning new things about the 14th and pondering how different pieces of information applied or didn't apply to that regiment. I bring that type of ability to my blog reviews. I knew that, had I become a professor, I would have enjoyed both required aspects of the job--publishing and teaching--equally.
The sheer joy in analyzing a problem, doing research, and writing down the results while adding my personal analysis of a subject appeals to me quite a bit. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy reading a multitude of polical columnists like David Brooks and E. J. Dionne. They ask a question, do research, and write their conclusions. I also enjoy longer, creative non-fiction pieces like the Mark Bowden feature on General David Petraeus in Vanity Fair. One of my dream jobs--aside from being an author of fiction--is to work for a publication where I could do investigative research. Recently, my Do Some Damage columns have become focused on ebooks and the future of reading.
I won't say non-fiction is easier to write than fiction. But I will say that I love writing non-fiction and, if I could have a career doing only non-fiction, I'd jump at it in a heartbeat.
Tell me a Scott Parker pet peeve and why.
As I mentioned in the non-fiction answer, non-history lovers teaching history in schools is a big peeve of mine. But I don't lose sleep over it.
I am an optimist. Life is so, so precious. It's something to be cherished every single day. The worst day of your life is still better than the alternative. The little stuff is really just that: little. For example, I live in Houston. There is traffic. Period. I see people every day getting irritated about traffic. Hey. That's Houston. Suck it up or move. What's the point about getting mad about something you cannot control.
My wife thinks I'm too carefree. To some extent, I have a right to be. I have a wonderfully blessed life. I just don't let stuff I can't control bother me. What's the point? It can only get in the way from what truly matters.