Nine Days in May: 26 Years After the Los Angeles Unified School District Strike of 1989

Twenty-six  years ago today–May 26, 1989–was a bittersweet day for me and my friends. It was the last day of an extraordinary nine days in May when the teachers union of the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. I was in 11th grade at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda, California, and it was spring in Los Angeles–probably the most remarkable spring of my teenage years. What teenager doesn’t dream of getting out of school for two weeks and spending that time hanging out with friends.

I’ve written about the strike before, and the 26th anniversary of the end of the strike would have passed by me unnoticed, if it wasn’t for this week’s Big 80s on 8 countdown on Sirius XM this weekend. The countdown was for this week in 1989, and as I listened to the music from the countdown, it was like listening to an anthem for the strike.

The years have both eroded my memories of those nine extraordinary days, and tinged them with the nostalgia of youth and vigor. What I am left with is a kind of idyllic, Ray Bradburyesque of a spring in Los Angeles. The music plays a big part of it. Pirate Radio–KQLZ–was in its amazing infancy, a mere 3 months old, and playing great rock and pop of the day, including its signature, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses.

During that two week period, my friends and I would meet at school in the morning to plan our day. The teachers would be standing out in front of the school holding up hand-made signs that read NO CONTRACT, NO WORK, and I’D RATHER BE TEACHING. Occasionally, a substitute would cross the picket line and enter the school to jeers of “Scab!” from students and teachers alike. And then we were off–to one of our friend’s houses nearby. We’d watch MTV–Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video was popular at the time (“I can think about baseball and swing all night, yeah!”). When the weather was particularly good, we’d head to the beach. We’d go to the movies. We’d hang out, and our little gang seemed like the best thing in town.

It really was a remarkable spring. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out around the time of the strike. Earlier (or perhaps later) that spring, we spent several weeks at Cal State Northridge working on a project, and getting an idea of what it was like to be in college. I remember spending a lot of time in the student center, eating junk, and watching Tone Lōc videos. Meanwhile, when we were in school, we were reading books like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

For me, at least, the strike had nothing to do with better pay for teachers, better contracts, better terms, or anything like that. It had everything to do with the freedom to spend those days with my friends, doing whatever it was we wanted to do. The theme of our 11th grade magnet program in 1989 was “school without walls” and the nine days of the strike gave us plenty of schooling without walls. For a brief time, we were in some kind of twilight, almost grownups, but without the worry of a family or career.

Sometime late during the week of May 21, 1989, we heard that a settlement had been reached, and that we would be returning to class on Tuesday May 30–Monday was Memorial Day. It was a bittersweet day, but we had nine days of freedom that most 11th graders don’t get, so it would have been criminal to complain about it. More than a quarter century later, the strike still remains a bright spot in my memory, which must say something about the impact that it had on us at the time. What’s more: the friends that I hung out with during those halcyon days are still some of my best friends today.

Long Weekend and a New Story

We spent the long Memorial Day weekend up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with my sister and her family, and my mom. The kids got to spend most of the time at Dutch Wonderland, and we spent the weekend trying to keep up with them. We also took a horse and buggy ride through an Amish farm, and I had some homemade root beer, which was excellent. This is our third year in a row getting out of town on the official east coast opening of summer, and heading up to Pennsylvania, and like the last two years, it was a great success.

I managed a little bit of writing on the novel draft, but I also started a brand new science fiction story. I’m not entirely sure where it is going yet, but I will say that the main character is a somewhat overwhelmed project manager who finds himself over his head on a new assignment. And in case anyone wonders where I get my ideas: recently I have felt like a somewhat overwhelmed project manager in over his head on a new assignment.

It’s actually a nice change of pace from the novel draft, and I think I’ve been ready for a chance of pace for a little while now.

My Summer Reading List, 2015 (Sort of)

Obviously, we still have a month to go before summer officially begins, but a few nights ago, I jotted down the following list of books, all of which I am interested in reading in the near future1.

  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (reading this now)
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris2
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris3
  • Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • One Summer by Bill Bryson
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

What’s on your list?

  1. I say “near future” but my experience has been that when I post lists, I sometimes stick to them, and sometimes ignore them completely. What I read next can sometimes be a spontaneous decision.
  2. A re-read, although it’s been more than 13 years since I last read this book.
  3. Also a re-read.

STORY SALE: “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” to InterGalactic Medicine Show

With the contracts signed, I am delighted to announce that my newest story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” will be appearing in an upcoming issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show.

This is my second baseball science fiction story to appear in the magazine, and still the baseball stories are not out of my system yet. I’m not certain which issue it will be appearing in but I’ll post an update when I know.

I wanted to give special thanks to Juliette Wade, Bud Sparhawk, and Jay Werkheiser; they all provided excellent feedback that really helped make “Gemma Barrows” a much story.

Fighting words, or musings on pantsing vs. plotting

My friend, and fellow science fiction writer, Bud Sparhawk has some fighting words for me this morning. For context, before continuing, you should go read his post. Bud and I have given several talks on online writing tools, and pantsing vs. plotting at various science fiction conventions. Today, however, Bud made it clear that he feels plotting is the superior form of writing. While I can’t deny that it might be superior for some, I can say that it doesn’t work well for me. And so let me take up each of Bud’s jabs one at a time to give a little of my perspective of this heated debate1

“Life is largely unplotted…”

Bud writes:

Jamie writes by the seat of his pants –which is akin to running with scissors IMHO– while I choose the wiser and more prudent course of carefully plotting my works.

While it is probably beside the point, I was always taught that there is a right way and a wrong way to run with scissors. Or perhaps, a safe way, and a dangerous way. On those rare instances where I run with scissors, I opt for the safe way, holding blades curled in my fist to prevent myself from stabbing anyone, especially me.

But Bud also goes on to say that he chooses the “wiser” and “more prudent” course, and that is carefully plotting out everything he writes.

It might be wiser and more prudent for Bud, but it just doesn’t work for me. When I try to plot out my stories, the result is stories that are too neatly plotted. Everything fits together too well. Coincidence rears its head more often than it should. In other words, the stories feel plotted.

Instead, I have become a big believer in Stephen King’s suggestion that life is largely unplotted. For me, planning out too much makes the stories feel artificial. I prefer a more natural approach where the plot develops from the situation the characters find themselves in and the actions that they take. This has worked well for me. The stories I write organically, without planning every step of the way, have sold faster, and in general been more successful than those that I have carefully plotted out.

Practice makes perfect

Bud goes on to talk about my prodigious output, although he exaggerates slightly. While I have been aiming for a 1,000 words/day, I average about 850. But I do write every day, and haven’t missed a day in 656 days now. In those 656 days, I’ve written 575,000 words. So Bud is right; I write a lot.

But then, my plotting friend goes on to say:

Instead, due to his hasty and impetuous headlong dash to finish something he has to throw out most of his words, edit with a chainsaw, and rewriting practically everything.  From this I draw the conclusion that writing by the seat of your pants is wasteful of time and talent. (Emphasis is mine.)

Here is where Bud and I part company. Would a music teacher say that it is a wasteful to practice your scales? Would a medical school professor tell students it is a waste of time and talent to intern? Would professional baseball player say that it is a waste of time to practice hitting in the batting cage? Would a flight instructor tell a student pilot that it is a waste of time time practice takeoffs and landing?

Then why do we think that it is a waste of time for writers to write. Bud is correct: I write a lot, and much of it gets re-written from scratch. But I don’t see it as wasteful of time; I see it as the practice I need to develop my talent. I know of no other way to become a better writer than to write. For me, the proof is in the numbers. Prior to writing every day, I sold 1 story on average every 3 years. Since my writing streak started, I’ve sold one story or article every 45 days.

Pantsing and plotting are not opposites

I find that people think pantsing means that opposite of plotting–no planning at all. For me, at least, that is not the case. I know where my story will start, and I have an idea of where it will end. Then I start writing, working my way toward that ending. The planning happens more informally, more in realtime than it might if I plotted it out. Sometimes I hit my mark, and the story ends where I imagined it would when I started. Other times, the story surprises me. The same is true for those, like Bud, who plot everything out ahead of time.

But I also need the writing experience to be a discovery for me. Plotting out things ahead of time has the same effect on me as talking about my stories: it spoils the excitement of the story.

The most important thing is to write

Bud is a more experienced writer than I am2 and can put that experience to better use than someone with less experience. But as I see it, the only way to gain experience is to write. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a plotter or pantser. What matters is that you find the process that works best for you, the one that feels right, the one that encourages you to keep at it day after day after day, through the rough patches, and through the rejections. The most important thing is to keep writing.

  1. Not really heated. Bud and I are friends and this is, of course, all in good fun.
  2. Isn’t that a great way of saying he’s much older than me?

Progress Update on the Novel Draft

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on the progress of the current novel draft that I am working on. For a refresher, recall that I am trying to write 4 novel drafts between March 2015 and March 2016 (a first and second draft for 2 different novels).

I struggled for a while with the first draft of the first novel. I went through 7 restarts because I couldn’t make the story work the way I wanted. I came close to giving up and moving on to something else, but I really like the story, and I decided to press on. I’m glad I did. I think I figured out the trouble I was having. It fell into 2 categories:

  1. Point of view. All along, I was writing the novel as though it was a set of notes in a notebook of the main characters, who was telling the story to some unknown audience. I kept running into problems because it felt like the main character was deliberately holding back information for no good reason. It felt unnatural. It took a long time before I figured out was that I needed to tell the story from another character’s viewpoint, one who doesn’t already know the whole story. Then it took more time to figure out who this character should be. But I finally did it, and I think things will move much better now. In fact, I think the story will be a better story because of this.
  2. Framework. I have only written one other novel draft. Part of the reason I’m trying to do more is to get the practice and learn how to do it. But writing at length has been giving me trouble. Not because I can’t do it, but because I feel like I’m adding too much filler to the story that isn’t necessary. I felt like I was handling something too big. So I began to wonder if there wasn’t some way of telling the story using smaller, more management chunks. Thanks to changes in #1 above, I found a way to do this. As it now stands, I am writing the novel as a series of 5 novellas, each one flowing smoothly into the next. Each novella is essentially a stand-alone story, that allows me to work at a length that I am little more comfortable with. But in truth they are all tightly integrated, and with the exception of the first novella, you couldn’t really read a later one without having read the first one. In that sense, the novel is more like an episodic series of novellas. This, too, seems to be working better for me.

I had planned to finish up the first draft of the first novel at the end of June. I don’t think I am going to hit that mark now. More than likely, it will be closer to the end of July or early August. Of course, that throws off the rest of the schedule I had planned. On the other hand, this is intended to be a learning experience for me, and I am learning a lot about how to make longer stories work. To that end, I am very pleased.

I have no idea if this story will ultimately work; I really won’t know until I complete the second draft. But it is a story I like a lot, and I am sticking with it until it is finished.

For those wondering, I wrote about 25,000 words total in starts and restarts on the current novel draft before finally figuring out what I was doing wrong. Some folks might see those 25,000 words as wasted. I see them as invaluable practice as I attempt to learn new aspects of my craft.

Make sure you have the latest version of the Google Docs Writing Tracker

I have had some reports of DocsList errors from folks using the Google Docs Writing Tracker. This is because those functions have been deprecated. Several months ago, I updated the master branch with code that uses the newer DriveApp object model. I have been using that code for a few months with no errors. If you are seeing errors in the last few days caused by DocsList objects, I recommend you pull the latest version of the scripts. That should fix the problem. Please see the readme for additional details and instructions.

I’ll be at RavenCon April 24-26

As I am about to head off on the road for the better part of the week, I think now is a good time to remind folks that I will be attending RavenCon in Richmond, Virginia next weekend, April 24-26.

At present, this is the only science fiction convention I’ll be attending in 2015.

My friend Allen Steele will be there, as will Jack McDevitt. RavenCon is the first convention I ever attended after selling my first story back in 2007 so it holds a special place in my heart.

On Sunday, April 26, Bud Sparhawk and I will be giving a talk on “Plotters vs. Pantsers,” Bud being the “plotter” and yours truly being the “pantser.” We’ve done a version of this with respect to online writing tools at Capclave, but this talk is focused on the two methods and their respective advantages and disadvantages. It should be a fun talk if you can make it.

I’ll be arriving in Richmond around lunchtime on Friday, and staying through the convention, so if you think you’ll be there, and you see, say hello.

 

Stagnation and Transition to Medium

After years of grown, activity here on the blog appeared to have peaked right around the beginning of 2015. At that time, the blog was receiving 6,000 or more visits per day, on average. Since then, there has been a steady decline in visits. These days, I’m seeing under 3,000 visits per day for the first time in a long time. Perhaps, the single biggest reason for this is a lack of content. Or interesting content, anyway.

I suppose this is understandable. With the limited time I have to write each day, my focus has been on getting my fiction-writing done first. If there’s time, I’ll might write on the blog. Might. Because lately, I’ve felt stagnant when it comes to the blog. I used to write whatever came to mind, but I’ve shied away from that lately. In part it’s time, and in part I’ve worried about a lack of interest, and that I might come across as trying too hard.

Then, too, I have felt for a while now the need to move beyond WordPress as the primary tool for my blog writing. I’ve considered changing things up, using a new theme, but really what I need is something entirely different. This feeling of stagnation and the need to break out into something different lead naturally into transition.

Going forward, I will be doing the bulk of my blog-type writing over on Medium. I’ve been impressed with Medium for a while, but I wasn’t sure why I was impressed until recently. I think it comes down to a few important factors:

1. Simplicity. Medium is easy to use, and far easier to maintain than a self-managed WordPress installation. The time I gain back in maintenance can be used to write the kind of things I’m interested in writing more frequently than I have been.

2. Aesthetics. Medium is beautiful. I love reading things there. There is a simple elegance to the design, that makes reading a pleasure. Then, too, those same aesthetics apply to the writing experience. It is easy to write and format stories on Medium. It had interface that makes me want to write more.

3. The right metrics. Monitoring WordPress metrics became a kind of part-time job for me. How many views? How many clicks? From where? Drilling down into Google Analytics data, when I could be writing. And I’ve come to believe that most of those metrics don’t really mean that much. After all, someone can visit a post but not read it. Which is why I like Medium’s approach: They track one key measurement: “read ratio.” It’s a measure of reads to views, and it tells you how many people are actually reading what you wrote.

4. Discussions. Nothing beats Medium’s commenting and discussion system. You can comment on any part of a story. You can highlight pieces, and recommend the story. Like everything else about Medium, it is simple and elegant.

I want to assure folks that this blog here is not going away. However, it’s function is changing. Over on Medium I’ll be writing about writing, and technology, and paperless lifestyle, and productivity, and baseball, and lots of other things. But I won’t be making announcements over there. That’s what this blog will be used for.

I suppose you can think of it as this blog becoming my author “platform” (I dislike the term, but I can’t argue with its appropriateness in this case.) New publications, new stories, articles, appearances, and things like that will be announced here for those interested.

I have built up a wonderful audience over the years, and I can only hope that some of you will be willing to follow me over to Medium and keep up with what I am writing over there. You can even add my Medium posts to your RSS feed, using this link. I understand not everyone will want to make that transition with me, and that this might be a good time to pursue other blogs, or cut back on blog reading. But I do hope that moving to Medium will help rekindle the fires that kept me blogging for nearly a decade, and that the lessons I’ve learned over the years will make me a better writer because of it.

As an example of one kind of thing I am trying to do over on Medium, take a look at the post I wrote there  earlier today called, “Excavating Old-School Self-Tracking.” And if you are interesting in following along with me on Medium, you can find my profile at: https://medium.com/@jamietr.

W. C. Heinz and the M*A*S*H Connection

I have mentioned before how my favorite long-form nonfiction is the baseball essay. Reading those essays leads to all kinds of places. I was discussing these types of pieces with a friend of mine, and he recommended a recent book put out through The Library of America called The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz edited by Bill Littlefield. I’d never read any of Heinz’s pieces before, but I am having a delightful time going through this book. His pieces tend to be short: 800 words, compared the the baseball essays that I most enjoy. But Heinz’s voice carries the day in these pieces, which cover all manner of sports, from baseball, to boxing, or horse-racing, and beyond.

But the most remarkable thing I’ve learned in this book is something about Heinz himself. I am also a big fan of M*A*S*H. The book, upon which both the movie and the series was based, was written by Richard Hooker. Well, it turns out that Richard Hooker is a pseudonym for pair of writers. One is H. Richard Hornberger, a doctor who served in Korea. The other writer was–you guessed it–W. C. Heinz.

I thought that was a pretty cool connection, when I learned of it in the intro to the book.

To my friends and fellow fans who might not be able to afford a Worldcon membership

Earlier today, Mary Robinette Kowal offered 10 (now 20) supporting (voting) memberships to the World Science Fiction Convention in 2015 to fans who might not otherwise be able to afford a supporting membership. The membership allows fans to vote for the Hugo Award, which is often considered to be the most prestigious award in science fiction.

I know that I have friends and fellow fans out there who can’t afford a supporting membership, and so, taking a page from Mary’s book, I am offering 5 supporting memberships for Worldcon for people who can’t otherwise afford one.

Part of the fun of the World Science Fiction Convention is being able to vote on your favorite works from the previous year, and that $40 supporting membership is difficult for some folks. If you can afford, it, I encourage you to get a supporting membership. If you can’t afford one, shoot me an email at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin [dot] com with your contact information. Also, because of the controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards this year, I want to be clear that for folks who get these supporting membership: please don’t feel constrained in your vote. Participation in the fan process is all that I am hoping for.

Next week, I’ll pick the 5 names randomly from the requests that I get, and buy the memberships through the Sasquan website on their behalf.

ETA (4/15): All 5 supporting memberships have been given out to folks making requests. As it turned out, I had exactly 5 requests for a membership through today, so that made things easy.

George R. R. Martin on Guilt by Association

From George R. R. Martin’s Not A Blog:

I do not believe in Guilt by Association, and that’s what we’d be doing if we vote against every name on the Puppy slates simply because they are on the slate. That was a classic weapon of the McCarthy Era: first you blacklist the communists, then you blacklist the people who defend the communists and the companies that hire them, then you blacklist the people who defend the people on the blacklist, and on and on, in ever widening circles. No. I won’t be part of that.

I completely agree.