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Posts Tagged ‘Shimmer’

Layoffs & Excel: How I Started Writing Shimmer

August 17th, 2010 Comments off
Somehow, when I was 35 years old, I found myself as Chief Operating Officer of a $15 million publishing company. We employed 200 people, we published all over the country, we had plans to grow even bigger, faster. I think I got that title largely because of a moment some years earlier, when we were trying to raise money from venture capitalists, but lacked a CFO who could provide them the details they needed. The owner of the company looked at me and said, “Do you think you can put together a spreadsheet?” I had no financial background. Minimal understanding of accounting. I’d been hired as an editor. But the owner was, like so many entrepreneurs, one of those people to whom it is almost impossible to say no. “Sure I can,” I said. I locked myself in my office for a month, taught myself the dark inner workings of Excel, and proceeded to construct an extraordinarily — perhaps ridiculously — elaborate model of all aspects of the company’s operations. When I was done, it was more than 500 pages long. There was no Ponzi scheme behind the model. But as we presented it to potential investors, it became clear that the complexity of the model gave it a self-fulfilling quality. The investors studied the numbers. And they wanted to believe. And so, in those same meetings, my mind started to wander. What would it be like to create a model built on a lie? At night, in the morning, I started to work on Shimmer. Meanwhile, the publishing company had grown too fast and gotten too big. We started cutbacks, layoffs, firings. It was awful. I stood in rooms of 20 people, all of them getting laid off. I met with a woman who’d just had a baby, laying her off as she cried into her hands. I laid one person off over the phone, calling her at home because she’d been sick, using a speakerphone to end it as she lay in bed in her trailer. She’d been with the company for 10 years. Those moments haunt me still. The realization that with my extravagant title, my elaborate model, and my power to have hired so many of these people, with all that I had taken these people into my trust. Every layoff and cutback, however, felt like a violation of that trust. I violated it often. In 2002, I bought five cases of beer, called a staff meeting, and told the remaining 60 people they no longer had a job. We had found investors, but they turned out to be in financial trouble beyond anything I could have imagined. The bank cut our funding. They stopped taking my calls. In the end, there wasn’t even enough money to file bankruptcy. We just walked away. For weeks, the phones still rang. The Web sites were still live. Even the email worked. I assume it was the landlord who finally shut off the lights.

Genres and the Voices in My Head

August 4th, 2010 1 comment
I don’t think I ever picked how I write, or even a genre in which to write. It’s more, for me, about the voice in my head. I’m not sure I know where that voice came from. Maybe I don’t even want to know where it came from. But I started to write because, somewhere in my mind, there was a story and a voice and a fundamental thing that I wanted to say and that I thought people would want to read. I’ve written in a variety of different voices or styles, now that I look back on it. Many of the first stories I published were in a much darker, more barren, even sometimes violent style. But that changed over time so that, while Shimmer is still often fairly dark, it’s also sometimes funny. There are light moments. And, certainly, it’s a book without violence, in style or content. That said, to some degree, I’ve always been influenced by, or even tried to emulate, writers I like, particularly Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. And yet I don’t think I ever particularly sound like the writers that have most influenced me. Shimmer certainly doesn’t sound anything like Cormac McCarthy and similarities to Delillo are, maybe, there. Maybe. And so it really comes back to the unexplained voices in my head. Excerpts from an interview on This Book For Free. http://thisbookforfree.com/?p=1002

Deleted Scenes – Shimmer Putt-Putt Gone Wild

July 5th, 2010 Comments off
When Unbridled bought Shimmer, the editing process was fairly light. This is in part thanks to my agent, Gary Heidt, who’d had me do a last edit of the manuscript before he sent it out. He gave me what was, for me, the best type of criticism: General feedback, not particularly specific cuts or changes. “It sort of loses focus around page 220,” is what I remember Gary saying.  “And somehow, Robbie’s just a little bit too passive.” I spent a few months trimming and focusing the last third of the book, which was muddied by a series of strange subplots, and making Robbie less passive. The latter point was relatively easy when I realized that all I needed to do was shift a fair amount of the decision-making in the book from Whitley to Robbie. In the earlier draft, it was Whitley who took the lead in dealing with the near collapse of the company after the hacker attack. It was Whitley who dealt with Wall Street in rebuilding the company’s reputation. It was Whitley who, too often, drove the changes in the company. In the edited version, Whitley remains strong enough without making those decisions. And the book is better for Robbie being that much less passive. The only major edit that Greg Michalson at Unbridled asked for was to cut an extended scene of putt-putt golf between Whitley and Robbie. I’d always liked the scene as a relatively silly digression from the growing tension in the book, the increasing distress the characters are experiencing. It may have even been that, for me, writing that scene was a relief from the increasing darkness of Shimmer. The book gets more dark, less funny. Ever more severe. Maybe I was the one who needed a break, not the reader. The scene survived in a much more purposeful, focused moment that better portrays the changing relationship between Whitley and Robbie, and better shows Robbie’s realization of how to extend the life of the company, if only temporarily. Here, though, is the original scene, in its entirety. I have to admit, it is pretty silly. (The italics are, for the most part, what was cut. The bold text is text I knew I wanted to keep, one way or another.)

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Maybe it was the relief of knowing that Regence’s attack had failed.  Maybe it was the success of having restored the network in time.  But one week after the attack, I had what I can only call a vision. It happened near the end of eighteen holes of putt-putt golf, on the advanced course known as Pebble Beach.  It only lasted a second.  But, in that second, I had a revelation.  A revelation that came from Frederick Fadowsky. In the week since the attack, I’d taken to re-reading Fadowsky’s published journals late at night, poring over the pages as I waited for the sun to light my living room.  Three years earlier, when Trevor had first brought me the idea for the Blue Boxes, I’d read the entire published set of annotated journals.  Now, as I came back to them, Fadowsky struck me as more visionary than ever, an arrogant but brilliant man haunted by wildly prescient, deeply inspired insights into the future.  Fadowsky had foreseen a networked world, and had seen it in a light so separate from any of the purely technical issues. What he’d seen was an entirely new relationship between people and time. “The future network,” Fadowsky had written back in 1977, “a truly robust and high-speed network made up of a near infinite number of interdependent machines, a network such as this alters completely and forever people’s relationships to one another.  Fundamentally, a network such as this alters time.  It renders distance meaningless.  It renders physical space unimportant.  It renders such artificial constructs as time zones and borders irrelevant as it recasts the very notion of human interaction.” Wordy, self-important, filled with an inflated sense of his place in the world, Fadowsky was nothing if not arrogant.  But he was also right. And so it was that as I entered a game of putt-putt on Friday afternoon, my head was filled with Fadowsky’s thoughts. Although, thinking back, I know it was more than Fadowsky’s writings that inspired my vision.  It was also the game of putt-putt itself. I was playing in a group of four, partnered with Whitley, the two of us matched up against a pair of remarkably skinny Java programmers carrying binoculars, a mobile surveying kit, and two handheld GPS units.  There’d been some resistance to the programmers using the GPS units during the game.  Whitley and I hadn’t raised any concerns, but the marketing coordinator on seventeen who doubled as manager of the Pebble Beach course had been wary of allowing the use of any type of electronic navigational devices.  As manager of the course, the marketing coordinator was charged with tracking the scores of all registered players, checking out clubs and balls to those who didn’t have their own, and upholding the course rules as defined by the Official Core Tournament of Putt-Putt Specialists (OCToPuS, or more commonly, Octopus).  Octopus acted as a standards body for each of the six separately operated courses within the building and the five more located in field offices worldwide.  After asking the Java programmers to give a thorough demonstration of the features of the GPS units, the Pebble Beach manager was concerned enough that he called one of the members of the Octopus executive committee. “This is Rick up at Pebble Beach,” the call started, “looking to see if Octopus has a precedent on the use of handheld GPS.”  He paused, listening.  “Yes, I can hold.” So common was the internal dialect of games and competitions within the company that none of the players, course attendants or spectators standing near the marketing coordinator’s desk even smiled. And so ingrained was the culture, that no one thought twice about doing this in front of their CEO. After a moment, word came that there was not a previous ruling barring the use of GPS, so the units were allowed on the course. I had never played Pebble Beach.  Only now, as I looked over an eight-page color booklet mapping out the course, did I realize what I’d gotten into.  With eighteen holes stretching across four floors, eight departments, sixteen divisions and a remarkable thirty-two sections of the company, players had to wend their way from the mailroom on four to the cafeteria on eighteen to the edge of the lobby on one, ending again in Marketing on seventeen.  The terrain varied from the relatively slow, low-cut carpeting covering most of the building, to the horrendously fast linoleum in the break rooms and lunch areas, to the uneven, highly unpredictable tile surfaces in bathrooms and various meeting rooms.  The course took players through hallways, workspaces, conference rooms, break rooms, closets, three different elevators, a copy center, two sets of hard steel stairs, three vice presidents’ offices, and a small atrium I’d had no idea existed.  There were chip shots over conference tables, long balls sent careening across the carpet of a fifty-foot hallway, combination shots to be bounced off of printer stands, file cabinets and doors. I noticed, in a footnote, that the course had been designed by Perry. Like all the putt-putt courses, Pebble Beach was as much an obstacle course as it was a golf course.  The obstacles included furniture, printers, potted plants and the nearly endless movement of people through the building.  Balls had to be played between the running feet of the office messengers, the clogs of the assistants in HR, and the slow-moving sneakers of wandering programmers. The course not only tested players’ ability to determine the shortest routes to the holes, it also tested their ability simply to locate the holes at all.  It was a situation made more difficult by the fact that usually the holes were not really holes, given that cutting into the floor on a regular basis had been deemed “impractical and inappropriate” by the facilities department in a still-famous memo written by Julie.  “Although the requested holes would result in no impairment to the structural integrity of the building,” she’d written after Octopus’s joking request had somehow made it to her desk, “the addition of such holes presents an engineering challenge unprecedented in the history of this company.  Sadly, it is also a challenge insurmountable at this time.” And so, although cups were sometimes placed on their sides, although shipping tubes were laid lengthwise on the floor, most of the holes were actually objects that had to be hit with one’s ball.  A steel trash can, a clay planter, a fire extinguisher, a broken and soon-to-be-discarded computer.  This meant that in the company’s tech and marketing departments, where the various courses most frequently crossed over one another, there was often a noise like a violent Midwestern hail storm as players slammed balls into objects spread out across the floor. As with most of the Octopus courses, it took about an hour to finish Pebble Beach.  Most playing took place at lunch or between three and midnight.  Even if the playing had taken place throughout the day, however, there was no manager in the building worried about the apparent loss in productivity.  The people who played most tended to be the top performers in the company – extremely bright, deeply committed, and highly stressed people who, if they hadn’t found putt-putt, would have had to participate in some other form of emotional and physical release.  And during the games themselves, a remarkable amount of work was usually accomplished.  Players talked through a range of solutions to seemingly impossible system problems, they discussed strong but incomplete ideas for new products or services, they formed plans for pursuing new strategic partners.  All of this meant that most players – the best and worst, those who played a few times a week and those who played only every few months – could name the course and hole they were on when some bright moment of clarity had come to them. I played only every few weeks, usually limiting myself to nine holes and staying on the novice or intermediate courses.  But today I’d found my way onto Pebble Beach with Whitley, who’d encouraged me to extend a weekly security meeting with her.  “You look especially tired,” she had said as she led me toward the first tee – a printer stand in a hallway on the north side of the building. Through the first few holes, I was too occupied with the security plan we were still discussing to notice how well Whitley was playing.  By the fifth hole, though, I realized what was happening.  Playing with a care, speed and purpose that was at once deeply creative and hauntingly dispassionate, Whitley had built an eight-stroke lead over the rest of us.  By the seventh hole, she was ten strokes ahead of us. “I’m a one handicap,” she said to me as we rode up an elevator, the Java boys desperately attempting to recalibrate their GPS units despite apparent interference from the elevator’s doors. “Which means?” I asked her. She tapped her white teeth.  She pulled at her black sleeve.  She smoothed her black suit coat where it lay against her sides.  In a moment, one of the Java programmers said quietly, “It’s the highest possible rating in the Octopus system.” “I had no idea,” I said. The two programmers nodded slowly, seriously.  Wide-eyed in the presence of genuine greatness. Whitley shrugged, smiling lightly.  “It’s true,” she said, turning away from me, pushing that sharp black hair from her eyes as she then gripped her club with a casual balance and care.  “I’m a bad ass.” She leaned back, lifted her club nearly two feet from the floor, then all but drove the ball out of the elevator as the doors opened onto thirteen. For most of the first nine holes, I had been barely hanging in the game.  I fell as far as twelve strokes back, totally unfamiliar with the course, the obstacles, even the color maps we were following through the building.  But that began to change.  Maybe I was inspired by Whitley’s methodical commitment to the game, by the Java boys’ obvious passion for each shot they took.  Maybe I was gaining confidence as we entered a series of floors that were much more familiar to me. Whatever the reason, by the twelfth hole I’d pulled ahead of the Java boys.  By the fifteenth hole, I’d cut Whitley’s lead to four. “So much promise,” Whitley said, watching as I sank a twenty-foot shot.  “Some would even call it hope.” The sixteenth hole was another elevator shot.  This time, though, we had to hit the ball into an elevator as it opened, rather than swinging out of the elevator.  I stood near the center of the floor, the four of us hidden behind a series of abnormally high workstation walls.  We were sixty feet from the elevator.  Essentially, the hole was a maze, the kind of hole that, more than anything, challenged players’ knowledge of the building’s layout and their ability to read the course map.  The programmers were now studying the GPS units’ bright displays, heads bent low, staring intensely, seeming to believe the machines could foretell their fortune and future.  Whitley had clearly decided to follow whatever path the Java boys took, she too putting her faith in the predictions of the machines.  But as I waited for the programmers to absorb the GPS results, I happened to tap the end of my club against a file cabinet behind me.  I turned, hearing the flat, metallic sound echoing out from the cabinet, and after a moment I noticed that there were actually two cabinets, very wide and tall, pushed together behind me.  They’d been placed back-to-back, their tops forming a five-foot by five-foot platform some six feet in the air.  And I had a thought.  With surprising ease, I lightly flipped my ball up onto the tops of the cabinets.  It bounced twice, rebounding easily off a forgotten pile of paper, then rested almost dead center on the two cabinets.  Whitley turned around a moment later, just as I was lifting myself up. “No,” I heard her saying slowly.  “Don’t.” I stood on the file cabinets now, my head in the space near the open duct work and fans that hung from the ceilings of every floor.  I was still sixty feet from the elevator.  But now I had a clear line of sight.  I would have to hit the ball the full sixty feet in the air, above the workstations, the walkways and an open meeting space that lay between me and the elevator.  I’d also have to wait to hit the ball till the elevator doors opened, given that I wasn’t quite willing to drive the ball toward the doors before they opened, in so doing exposing a group of innocent employees to my oncoming ball. It was a bad idea from a number of points of view – the club was ill-suited to an airborne shot of any distance, let alone sixty feet; there was a quite high risk of injury to passersby and the growing group of spectators who were watching their CEO stand on two file cabinets with a golf club; and, not least of all, there was the significant likelihood of a lawsuit or workplace safety filing whether I hurt anyone or not. I decided to try the shot nonetheless. “Clear out, please!” I yelled, cupping my hands to my mouth.  “This will just take a second!” Heads popped up from the workstations around me.  A group of five now sitting in the meeting space near the elevator all stood to turn toward the voice.  People in the walkways stopped in place, looking around, finally settling their eyes on me.  After a minute, all had cleared out of my way, pulling others along with them. I watched the elevator doors open once, then again, then a third time.  Even people who didn’t play putt-putt knew the Octopus rules prevented them from helping me at all – holding open the doors, pressing the button to draw the elevator back to the floor, even calling someone on another floor and warning them to stay clear of that particular elevator.  Everyone knew the shot had to take place within the normal flow of the natural workplace, even if it was a workplace made artificially self-conscious by the presence of four putt-putt golfers and the now fifty employees standing to the sides, watching them. I stared as the elevator doors opened again.  I silently counted out the seconds before they closed.  I made note of how long it took the passengers to step forward from the door.  In all I tried to get a sense of the elevator’s motions, its timing, its rhythms. I took a practice swing.  I slowed my breathing.  Whitley, standing near my feet, quietly asked if I’d ever even been on a real golf course.  I shook my head.  No. And in what to me would seem like one long second, one motion, one thought, one vision of all the space around me, I then saw the elevator doors open, saw two people slowly clear out of the elevator itself as I moved my head to the ball, already drawing back my club, bringing it forward not hard but firmly, making contact with the ball, lofting it out into the air above the emptied workstations, over three small statues of the empire state building decorating someone’s desk, over the now abandoned chairs of the empty meeting space, toward the doors now beginning to close, closing not slowly, not quickly, but, it seemed, at the perfect speed. The ball slid in as the doors made contact. And the crowd went wild. And I saw myself there, standing on two file cabinets, putt-putt golf club in my hand.  Not sure what I was doing, not caring at all, thinking for that moment about this section of this floor of this building in New York, fifty people sharing the silliest of experiences here for this short second as work went on around them, Core Communications passing data to its clients worldwide, its employees talking to co-workers, suppliers, partners around the globe, its shadow network bouncing data between satellites and hidden outposts, all of it in motion in that frozen second as we cheered. And I saw it. Fadowsky was right. The kind of high-speed network made possible by the Fadowsky Boxes changed completely how we had to view time.  The shadow network working simultaneously in every hemisphere, above the north and south poles, in just seconds passing information from a western day to an eastern night.  Time meant something else completely. I stood [on the file cabinets] and saw the network.  Saw myself.  And I saw an answer.  A way to take so much pressure off the shadow network. … …

Shimmer: Now In Easy-To-Open “Paperback” Edition

June 13th, 2010 Comments off
The paperback of Shimmer comes out July 1. Word has it that the books are already at the warehouse. I’ll get a copy soon. There were a lot of years when it seemed like I would never get a book published at all. To have the book come out in hardcover, then in paperback a year later, is incredible, somewhat surreal and still surprising. There’s an updated trailer for the book at www.shimmerthebook.com, and the uncomfortably self-indulgent site about me, www.ericbarnes.net, has been updated too. I’m back on Twitter as well, and Facebook, and generally doing whatever I can to promote the paperback. Over the course of this month, for instance, selections of the first chapter are being Tweeted by @ShimmerTheBook. (www.twitter.com/shimmerthebook) In the end, though, there’s only so much I can do. I knew that before the hardcover, but especially so now. In the end, it’s about the publisher and the booksellers and the reviewers. I had great support from the publisher and bookstores last time, and the reviews were great too. I hope it’s the same this time. I haven’t put any updates up here in some time. Once marketing of the hardcover wound down in the fall, I needed to write. It’s hard to focus on promoting the book and write at the same time. At least it is for me. Through the fall and winter, I was able to work on edits of another manuscript, formerly called High of Sixty, Occasional Rain and now called Owned but still focused on a bankrupt bill collector living in Alaska. My agent is shopping it to publishers. It’s a painfully slow process. I have to block it out most days. And then I was finally able to start a new book in the winter. It’s about a couple and their four children. I’ve tentatively called it Perfection. It’s meant to be funny. Thanks for listening.

A Web Site, a Book Trailer, and 12 Days Till Publication

June 17th, 2009 Comments off
ShimmerTheBook.com - A book trailer

ShimmerTheBook.com - A book trailer

There’s a trailer now, a preview basically, of Shimmer. www.shimmerthebook.com And it’s on a new Web site, although it’s basically just an address to host the trailer. I like the trailer very much. I could say it’s not like the book, not technically accurate, in a hundred ways. But it is absolutely like the book, absolutely accurate in how it feels and what is captured, in a hundred more. And so I like it very much. Ridiculously enough, I still struggle to explain, quickly, what the book is about. But now I’ll just send people to the trailer. Readings coming up: Chattanooga, Rock Point Books, June 18th, 7 pm. Memphis, Davis Kidd Booksellers, June 30, 6 pm. You are invited. Your friends are invited. Their friends and their family and everyone you’ve ever known are invited. Which sounds a little callous and self-interested. I hope not. Technically, the book is now being sold via Amazon. And I saw it in Bookstar a few miles from home. And I’m doing a reading on the 18th. But, in truth, the book is still not really out, released, published, hasn’t arrived in every bookstore that will sell it, for a few more weeks. So, to some extent, I’m still holding back. Still waiting. Just a few weeks more. Thanks for listening.
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Stories, Drafts & Shimmer: How I Write

May 4th, 2009 Comments off
Sometimes people ask how I write. They want to know about the logistics. Do I write with a plan? An outline? Do I know how the story or the novel will end? It’s usually a little disorienting when I say, “No. I don’t have a plan. I have some vague idea. Maybe a place. A person. And really, for me, it all depends on the first sentence.” And so because I’d been needing to do some sort of video blog post, here’s this post about how I write: Stories, Drafts & Shimmer.
Stories, Drafts and Shimmer

Stories, Drafts and Shimmer

Thanks. (If you have trouble with the version above, try the Windows Media Player version here or here on YouTube.)