I’m having way too much fun with Zoom backgrounds.

So, yeah.

The new normal is that those of us fortunate enough not to be furloughed or laid off during the current insanity communicate with our co-workers using email, texting, Skype, and…of course, Zoom.

Indeed, more and more of us are diving into the app and using it as a sort of virtual conference room, despite stories of hackers and other ne’er do wells crashing such environments for their own amusement as well as the numerous warnings that Zoom’s security features are about as helpful as a fishnet condom. Some of the warnings are legit and – at least as they’re telling it – the folks behind Zoom are doing their best to address and improve the various security concerns.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are just Zooming away, thrilled with the ability to project a professional image from the waist up while everything below the camera level is an unfiltered party zone filled with chicks and guns and fire trucks and hookers and drugs and booze!

Okay, so maybe that sort of thing isn’t happening with everyone. Your mileage may vary.

In and around all of this, I’ve been having a bit of fun with one of Zoom’s personalization features, the “virtual background.” Rather than broadcast a video feed of me sitting at my desk with my whiteboard on the wall behind me – which may or not contain various sensitive scribblings about projects in progress and so on and so forth – I can just insert myself into any real or imagined place in the universe. I hinted a bit about this the other day in a piece I wrote about working from home, but since then? Yeah, it’s gotten worse.

I mean, sure. At first it was the usual sort of thing you’d probably expect from me:

Zoom-Enterprise Bridge(Taken during our 2017 trip to the Star Trek Original Series Set Tour in Ticonderoga, NY)

And why have just any starfield as a backdrop when you can have one from the animated Star Trek series?

Zoom-Trek-TAS-Starfield

NOTE: Click any of these to biggie size, by the way.

From there, I started playing. It was innocent enough, at first going from the Best Care Anywhere…
Zoom-Mash-Compound

…to a place where there’s no air anywhere.

Zoom-Moon
But before I knew it I was offering fellow Zoomers sneak peeks into other, heretofore unseen areas of stately Ward Manor….

ZoomBackground-HallOfJustice
Zoom-Batcave
Then I decided a virtual background deserved a window into an actual…you know…virtual world. So, I took the red pill and freed my mind.

Zoom-Matrix

That was before I decided I needed something a little more retro, which led me to my current favorite. It’s one that should be immediately recognizable to anyone with at least one foot standing deep in 1980s nostalgia:

Zoom-MaxHeadroom
Of course, no sooner did I sit down to write this piece and find a few sites boasting nice collections of backgrounds so you too can use to add a little extra zip to your Zoom sessions than I found this:

Zoom-JohnWick01

Uh huh.

Now, I’m by no means revolutionary in this regard. Indeed, there are a number of sites which have already posted collections of backgrounds you can use to spruce up your own little virtual presence. Check out the offerings at these sites to list just a few:

Pocket-lint.com

CNET.com

GoodHousekeeping.com

Star Trek via DailyStarTrekNews.com

Nerdist.com

That should be enough to get you started, right? Have at it, fellow Zoomers.

Zoom-Dayton

This whole “working at home” thing.

In recent weeks as we’ve settled with varying degrees of comfort and success into our “stay at home” protocols, I’ve been asked a few times about how I handle working at home. Mostly these are folks who were used to “home life” and “work life” being two very dissimilar things, separated by at least some distance and at a minimum defined by two markedly different physical locations. Now their worlds have been thrown into a blender and mixed together and they’ve been working these past weeks to establish a new paradigm, set of habits, expectations, and so on.

“You’ve been doing this forever,” they say. “You’re used to having to remain productive even in the face of frequent distractions,” they say. “How do you manage it all?” they ask.

Granted, my work really hasn’t been disrupted by the current situation to any significant degree. I’m still employed, for which I am immensely grateful as that lessens the stress I’d otherwise be feeling on any number of fronts. Yes, this has been a transition — in large part due to the kids — but we’re making the best of it with assistance from their wonderful teachers and school support staff, who also are doing their best to push forward despite the challenges they face.

Between the last few years of my corporate life and my switching over to be a full-time writer (aside from one brief stint where I took a contract writing job that required commuting to an office), I’ve been working out of my house for well over a decade. It started not long after my first daughter was born, which was helpful as I was in a position to get her (and, later, her sister) to and from daycare/pre-school and ultimately to and from “regular” school. Then we moved into the current Ward Manor in 2014 and they started taking the bus to school.

In the early going, establishing a routine was easy. Kids and my corporate job required I come up with a schedule and stick to it. Without going into specifics, my job involved a series of deliverables which had to hit their marks every month in order to keep the larger process moving. Most of those deliverables were due on specific dates each month, regardless of when those dates fell on a calendar. So, weekend or holiday? That’s the way it went. Hit the mark. If I screwed up, it affected the people waiting on me and so on, to a point where my company could be financially liable for violating service level agreements. So, not much room for dicking around.

Anyway, between work and getting the kids to school, it didn’t take long to establish a routine whereby I was up, clean, groomed and presentable, and ready to go on a regular daily basis. This continued to serve me as I left Corporate America and moved to freelancing full-time. Even as the kids have grown older and become more self-sufficient, I still use their schedule as a guideline for keeping my own routine on track. It works more than it doesn’t, even when you don’t factor in extended stay-at-home orders in the face of a pandemic.

Though I admit to moving the goalposts here and there with respect to start and stop times, I try to stick to something resembling a schedule and routine, especially during the week. First and foremost, I get up and get cleaned up. I know we all joke about staying in our jammies all day or maybe just going completely smokeless as we dance through our abodes, but for me getting dressed and all that is a mental button I push that tells me it’s time to be productive. Granted, during the cooler months that might very well mean sweats, but it’s something other than what I wear to bed.

Once all that’s done – including fixing breakfast if I’m hungry — I’ll finally make my way to my office. The basement in our house was completely finished by the previous owners, and the layout is a sort of “L” shape that divides the level into two main areas along with a full bathroom and closets. It’s basically a small apartment, for all intents and purposes, and the way our house is built and landscaped means the basement level is a walkout to the garage and ultimately our driveway. I even have decent windows so it doesn’t feel as though I’m toiling in a dungeon. It’s also far enough from the kitchen that I’m not as tempted to go fridge forraging.

My office area is separate from the part of the room that has a TV and couch, and the layout is such that I can’t see the TV from my desk. Still, the nature of my writing work does mean I’m on the couch with my laptop from time to time, watching something for research at some point during a project. Otherwise, I tend to work at my desk. That’s where the library is, and I’ve usually got music on for background noise.

The first part of the morning is usually spent going through email and seeing if there’s anything pressing I need to do for this or that client. This transitions into my writing up a brief “To Do List” for the day’s activities. My rule of thumb is to organize what I perceive as the day’s tasks in ascending order of time needed to complete each action item. So, I knock out the quick stuff before moving on to progressively meatier tasks. This approach provides a little series of warm fuzzies as I get to cross items off the list, for which I confess a weakness because it tells me I’m getting shit done.

More often than not, the meatiest item on my daily menu involves the major writing project on my plate. The novel-in-progress, for example. Depending on various factors, things come along during the day that get added to my list and I adjust as necessary. If it’s a hot item then I may move it to the top of the day’s pile and proceed from there, otherwise it gets set aside for adding to tomorrow’s list.

I make sure to take breaks throughout the day, whether it’s for lunch or hanging out with the kids for a bit. With the current situation, they have school during the week via “virtual learning.” It’s not nearly as structured as a regular school day so we have to make sure they’re doing okay with their assignments and other activities like practicing with their instruments (one daughter plays the viola, the other the cello) and doing the challenges put forth by — for example — their P.E. teachers. They’re old enough now they have their own preferred ways of keeping busy and they can fend for themselves if they’re hungry. They’ve even been pitching in with meal prep. As needed or just because I’m feeling antsy, I get outside to work in the yard at some point during the middle part of the day. I also make sure to hold up my end of things like cooking and cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, and so on.

(This is probably a good time to admit some of these practices long predate working at home and even my stint as a cog in the private sector wheel. Military life instills routines and habits for pretty much every aspect of your existence at some point, including figuring out how best to allot time and attention spent on mundane tasks like laundry and housekeeping. Despite being a civilian for more years than I care to say out loud, a few of those ingrained habits and approaches to accomplishing such tasks linger to this day.)

Work interactions, as they’ve always done, continue to involve email and phone conferences. Phone calls factor into a daily task list, and it’s only recently that video chats have been added to the mix. I’ve done a couple, but even those were enough for me to up my Zoom game with a few different virtual backgrounds. For example:

There almost certainly will be others.

Anyway, the routine I’ve established takes up most of the daylight working hours. Pretty much every “sucessful work at home strategies” article you’re going to read will tell you making and sticking to a schedule is essential to that success. It’s a good guideline but let’s face it: If we’re on the jazz then schedules go out the window. There are more days when I keep working into the evening than not. Sometimes it’s because I’m on a roll, but others it’s due to my being behind on a project and a deadline is looming and I feel like I need to put in the extra effort. Work comes in waves where I’ll be at it for days on end with long hours, broken up by periods of little or no pressing deadlines or other tasks. That’s when I get to do things such as catch up on leisure activities like reading or plowing through the TV backlog.

As with anything of this sort, what works for me may or may not work for others. You have to find an approach that best fits with all the various things and people going on in your life. It takes time for a schedule to become a routine before solidifying itself into a habit, so don’t be too hard on yourself in the early going. Look for the rhythm that’s right for you, and dance to it.

Just don’t dance too close to the fridge. Or the windows, if you’ve opted to go without pants. Or, maybe you want to give the neighbors a thrill. Whatever tickles your…whatever.

2019 in review: “My job is weird.”

Dayton-BeatYep. I think the headline says it all.

2019 was definitely a year of new and exciting things, on several fronts. There was much change here at Ward Manor, but in reality the more things changed the more they stayed the same. This is a good thing.

First, I’m happy to report that Clan Ward is doing well. Our daughters, now in 7th and 6th grades, continue to amaze me. They’re both excellent students, involved in extracurricular activities in and outside of school, and generally just awesome kids in every way worth measuring. I’d like to think my wife and I had something to do with that, but one can’t discount the value of the teachers from whom they’ve learned as well as the friends they’ve made along the way.

We’re fortunate to live in a neighborhood that is rather close knit in many respects, and the friends we’ve made since moving here have been amazing. I don’t make new friends all that easily and for far too long I was pretty okay with that, so there are times when I’ve had to take a pause and reflect on just how big my social circle has grown in the past few years. That’s thanks in large part to meeting and hanging out with the parents of the kids our daughters call friends. Now we’re to a point where our family vacations with a few of these other families. If you’d told me even five years ago that would be a thing, I’d have given you severe side-eye.

Yet here we are, and I’m pretty damned cool with that.

Continue reading “2019 in review: “My job is weird.””

2020 convention calendar…so far.

With 2020 along with its slew of Barbara Walters jokes and vision quips looming ahead, I’ve started looking to the new year with respect to the work I hope to be doing and projects that excite me. Part of that is figuring out which conventions I’ll attend in my role as “Guy Who Writes Things.”

On that front, a couple of events are pretty much locked in as they are every year. First, there’s the Starfest Convention held annually in Denver. Kevin and I make a point never to miss this one, and 2020 will mark our 17th consecutive appearance as guests of the show. This year it’s set for the weekend of May 1-3, and of course Kevin and I are already keen to start that drive west.

Later in the year is Shore Leave, the other con I try to never miss. This year it’s the weekend of July 10-12, and unlike previous years there’s enough of a gap between this one and Comic-Con International and the big Star Trek con in Las Vegas convention that his work requirements for those shows aren’t as much a concern. At last report he’s hoping he can make the trip.

Closer to home, Planet Comicon is once again shaping up to be even bigger and better than previous years. It’s slotted for the weekend of March 20-22 and Kevin and I are already confirmed as guests, with table space in the exhibitor area and plans to participate in programming. As always, we’re totally down with supporting our hometown show!

Gearing up for its second annual con after a successful inaugural outing last year is ArtCon. Sponsored by the Neosho Arts Council, it’s set for Saturday, February 8th. Several creators from the region have been invited to attend, including Kevin and moi. Readers with sharp, long memories may think Neosho rings a bell, and that’s because a significant chunk of The Last World War takes place there. How ’bout them apples?

ArtCon2020 ArtCon-Kevin-Dayton

Meanwhile, Kevin’s work at Hallmark sees to it he attends several shows I likely won’t get to, such as the aforementioned Comic-Con and Vegas Trek con as well as New York Comic Con. It’s possible I may also attend a couple of these, and I’m considering a couple of shows that would be new to me this year. Details on this if and when things firm up.

As is always the case, you can keep tabs on our con schedule by visiting my Appearances page. Stay tuned for more updates!

Talking about writing Star Trek novels with David R. George III and Trek.fm!

For reasons which continue to surpass my level of understanding, people want to talk to me. About writing.

Further, they want to record what I have to say on the subject and make it available for other people to hear. Like it’s some kind of punishment or humiliating task they need to accomplish before they can pledge to a fraternity or sorority or something.

I don’t get it, but here we are. Again.

Sandwiched between the normal news updates and reviews from the world of Star Trek publishing in all its various forms, the latest episode of Trek.fm‘s Literary Treks podcast brings me together with friend and fellow Trek wordsmith David R. George III so the show’s hosts, Bruce Gibson and Dan Gunther, can grill us about the crazy world of writing Star Trek novels.

Let’s face it, calling it “crazy” barely scratches the surface.

Over more than an hour, Bruce and Dan hit us with a pretty wide range of questions about this rather odd niche of writing. We discuss our secret origin stories and how we got into the game, the wickets a Star Trek story must go through from concept to finished novel, the differences between writing media tie-in fiction and original fiction, what “rules” exist when working with someone else’s characters and settings, collaborating with CBS, editors, and other writers to maintain something resembling consistency when working on larger efforts like ongoing series or “event series,” and the challenge a new writer faces when attempting to break into the realm. We even find a moment or two to lament the gone but not forgotten Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contest, which we all know holds a special place for me.

Have a listen, if you’re of a mind to do so:

Literary Treks 276: There’s A Line We Can’t Cross

lt-276-th-sq-1440

Many thanks to Bruce and Dan for having me on the show once again, and also to David for inviting me to be his wingman for this outing. I hope we didn’t crush too many dreams, but if we did know it was done out of love.

Wait……what?

Tales of the Strange and Unusual: A very special anthology with a super cool origin story.

A few years ago during the annual StarFest Convention in Denver, Kevin and I found ourselves “neighbors” in the Author’s Alley area with Shelly Goodman Wright, a writer local to that area. Over the course of the weekend, the three of us got to chatting and sharing “war stories” as our writing backgrounds were rather dissimilar. After the con was over we stayed in touch thanks to the wonder that is social media and in the years since our first meeting, we always make sure to get neighboring tables at each successive StarFest and even participate in con programming when such opportunities present themselves.

TalesStrangeUnusual-CoverOne of the things we learned along the way was that Shelly is a creative writing teacher for the Writers of High Country, a group of high school-age kids who are working to learn the craft of writing fiction and poetry. With Shelly and other volunteers guiding the way, the students have just recently published their first collection of short stories and poetry, Tales of the Strange & Unusual.

Indeed, last weekend while the con was still in full swing, Shelly was preparing for the students’ first over book signing. To hear her describe it, it went down in much the same fashion as I’ve come to expect from such venues as the Shore Leave convention, where fans wielding copies of a favorite anthology are able to run a gauntlet of authors who have a story in that particular book and are therefore able to get multiple autographs in rapid succession.

It was very cool to listen to her stories of how hard the students worked, writing and polishing their stories and poetry in preparation for publication. All were excited at the prospect of taking this bold step, knowing it could be the first of many if they continued to bring the same drive and determination which had seen them travel this far.

As part of our conversation last weekend, I learned something I didn’t know before: As part of her writing instruction, Shelly had occasionally shared with her students various anecdotes, writing exercises, and other bits of so-called wisdom that she had taken from other writers, including me and Kevin. According to her, some of these tips, nuggets of advice and encouragement, and other insights into the craft (and business!) of writing for publication proved informative and even inspiring to the kids. That was nice to hear, though I admit I often have a rough time accepting such comments or similar praise.

Then Shelly presented me and Kevin with copies of the finished book, fresh off the presses and autographed by all of the students, who requested we receive them as gifts.

Right in the feels, y’all.

Although I managed to keep my game face in place while we were on the floor, I have to admit to being more than bit choked up. In my mind, I didn’t think I’d done anything unique or special while talking to Shelly, but to hear that a young writer found value in something I said and that it helped with their own writing is flattering, and even a little humbling as the first thing I think is, “What did I say?” followed by variations of “Was it stupid?” “Did I cuss?” and/or “Did it violate an NDA?” along with assorted other panicked responses. Only one chance to make a first impression, and all that, amirite?

Many thanks to Shelly and the Writers of High Country for including me and Kevin in their celebration of this wonderful achievement. Tales of the Strange & Unusual is published by Many Hands Publishing. Go and give it a look-see, whydontcha?

The Veterans’ Voices Writing Project.

Among the various additional benefits of volunteering at the National World War I Museum and Memorial is engaging with veterans. Many of our visitors are either active or former/retired service members, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation as I’m wandering through the galleries or working out on the courtyard and taking folks up into Liberty Tower.

Our corps of volunteers range in age from late teens to late eighties and early nineties, and veterans make up a large portion of that group, from career officers to those who did just a single enlistment term. Several of these volunteers have penned books, including historical tomes or guidebooks about the Great War as well as the odd novel here and there. I’ve picked up a few of these, either to add in my ongoing study of the war or because it just sounded interesting and I wanted to support a friend and fellow writer.

When I started volunteering at the museum last year, I became reacquainted with the Veterans’ Voices Writing Project. I’d heard of the program here and there over the years but never really looked into it, so when I finally had cause to do so after finding an issue of their magazine in the museum’s volunteer lounge back in the spring, I was intrigued by what I found.

Based right here in Kansas City, the project has acted as an outreach program for veterans since the end of World War II. Veterans have been sharing their stories with the project since 1946, when the project began as the Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project working in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Volunteers went into V.A. hospitals and other facilities and encouraged service members to write down their stories as a form of therapy while recovering from their wounds. In 2015 and recognizing that not all veterans seek or are afforded easy access to this or other programs, the project expanded its scope in an effort to reach veterans outside the V.A. system.

As the VVWP website puts it:

Today, it serves all veterans with therapeutic writing programs to heal their unseen emotional and moral wounds. Veterans write about personal experiences and innermost thoughts to help manage the effects of PTSD and to reduce the risk of suicide. They also write for creative expression. It offers the opportunity for community in writing groups and to have their work published. The program continues its important work for those serving in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Now, with the return of injured veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and other recent conflicts, the project is more important than ever.

Mental well-being is an important component in the health of returning military veterans. Veterans Voices Writing Project, Inc. (VVWP) a 501(c)(3) organization helps veterans heal from the physical and psychological trauma associated with military service, whether from actual combat, war training or emotional trauma. The project helps military personnel transitioning to civilian life to heal from emotional scars by encouraging them to write down their thoughts, concerns and reflections.

Using writing and other forms of creativity to help deal with all manner of personal issues is not new, of course, and neither is it even a recent development in veterans’ circles. What does seem to be a relatively recent development, however, is widespread acknowledgment of the benefits derived from such activities. The VVWP is just one group working to raise awareness about the benefits of therapeutic writing. You can read more about the program’s history by clicking here.

The magazine and the project are non-profit ventures and funded via donations. Volunteers comprise their editorial staff, each of them committed to helping veterans share their stories. Volunteers help out with everything from organizing fundraisers and other awareness campaigns to serving as writing aides to veterans and even transcribing submissions received in longhand or as audio.

I started paying attention to the effort thanks to copies of their magazine I found at the museum. Any veteran is eligible to submit their writing for consideration, and each issue presents a broad selection of personal stories, anecdotes, and poetry submitted by men and women representing all branches of the service across multiple generations. The most current issue I have on hand features pieces written by veterans of World War II all the way up through current conflicts.

If you’re a veteran (or know someone who served) and are looking for an outlet to share stories like those showcased in Veteran’s Voices, you might consider reviewing past issues as well as their submission guidelines and why the project is important:

Veterans’ Voices – Back Issues

Submission Guidelines (pdf)

Writing as Therapy

Allowing a veteran to connect in the privacy of his or her own space and tell the nation what is going on in their world – the world that lives inside themselves – the world they served and the country they came from is awesome.”
— Rich Wangard – Neena, Wisconsin
(as quoted on the VVWP website)

Today is “National Day On Writing!”

Wait, isn’t that supposed to be every day? Did I get a different memo from everybody else? Hmph.

Launched ten years ago by the National Council of Teachers of English, the “National Day On Writing” seeks to increase awareness about writing and its critical connection to literacy in our everyday lives. As posted on the NCTE’s website devoted to this day:

“You see, people tend to think of writing in terms of pencil-and-paper assignments, but no matter who you are, writing is part of your life. It’s part of how you work, how you learn, how you remember, and how you communicate. It gives voice to who you are and enables you to give voice to the things that matter to you.”

My wife and I are very fortunate in that both our daughters seem to have taken an interest in writing, whether it’s keeping a personal journal or writing stories and other papers for school. They’re also big readers, so you can bet I’m knocking on every piece of wood within reach.

Instilling an appreciation of writing as a necessary skill to navigating life is essential. For kids, this means both in school and at home, and includes challenging perceptions that some writing is somehow “better” or “more valuable” than others.

When you consider how much “casual writing” we all do every day (texting, e-Mail, Tweeting, Facebook, blogs, notes to self or others, etc.), and how much of it is dismissed for one reason or another, it starts to put things into perspective. Learning to appreciate all of that along with more traditional or “accepted” forms of writing as having its place when it comes to developing strong writing skills is important. Connecting it to the ability to read and research and to think and convey one’s thoughts is vital, especially when it comes to teaching our kids the value of writing not just as something “writers do” but what we all do in order to better communicate with others and even ourselves.

For more information about the National Day On Writing initiative and its goals, along with resources such as writing tips and other references and how to get involved furthering the message, be sure to visit their website:

Why I Write.

Oh, and check out the #WhyIWrite hashtag on Twitter to read inspiring (and sometimes humorous) insights from various folks about….well, why they write. Example:

So, you know, that’s me. Your mileage may vary. Tell me why! 🙂

Write on.

“Oh, man,” they say. “He’s talking again,” they say.

Yep. Babbling. Again.

Actually, I babbled back in July, but the results of said babbling have only been just recently been made available. The incident occurred at this past summer’s Shore Leave convention, held as it is each year in Hunt Valley, Maryland and at which I was one of many writer guests in attendance.

Why the Baltimore County Public Library saw fit to lavish extra attention on me remains a mystery, but I’m certainly appreciative for the opportunity to talk about my life as a professional word pusher, and in particular the very specific kind of madness that is required to do something like writing within the ever-expanding Star Trek universe.

It’s a short interview, but we managed to cover quite a bit of ground within the five minutes or so that is this bad boy’s running time. We talk about the “rules” and challenges of writing in an established universe like Star Trek as opposed to something I might make up from scratch, the “levels” of freedom we enjoy when writing for the established screen characters versus characters we’ve created, my transition from part-time to full-time writer, and even my views on “writer’s block” and “the writer’s muse.”

We also talk a bit about the con and the panel programming it offers, including workshops offered for beginning writers, and my advice for “new” writers. Not to spoil anything, but my advice pretty much boils down to “write.” Oh, and read and go live a life so you have something to inform your writing.

Wait…you just read all of that and you still want to see it? Fine. Cool. Here you go:

It was a fun interview, and I’m grateful to Carl Birkmeyer and the BCPL for giving me a few minutes to talk turkey. All of you reading this, be sure to support your local public library!

Reading about writing about war.

Huh?

Yeah, I know. Bit of a tongue twister. I’m such a stinker, ain’t I?

Reading books on various military topics was something I started when I was a teenager, thanks to my uncle–himself a retired Navy warrant officer–and his rather voluminous library. Later, when I was wearing my own uniform, the Commandant of the Marine Corps instituted a rank-specific reading list as part of our continuing “professional military education” program. Today, such lists are commonplace across all branches of the service, and individual units even have their own additional lists to foster guided discussions and other education-related activities. They typically include titles focusing on history and leadership including biographies and memoirs, and other topics relevant to the profession of arms and the challenges our military faces, such as strategic and regional studies.

Continue reading “Reading about writing about war.”