Coffee vs tea – the writer’s perspective

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Every morning across America, war erupts on the granite/stone/laminate landscape of the kitchen counter. A war of epic proportions, waged over the centuries without any hope for resolution. The players are bitter enemies, strained after decades of losses and having faced the daily grinds of war. Trouble brews constantly, offering little solace from a situation that could easily boil over if left unattended.

It’s the battle between tea leaves and coffee beans.

On one hand, tea offers subtle flavor complexity and has a history that goes back almost to the dawn of man. It’s a staple across the world, and is great at any time of the day. Coffee packs a substantial punch in the morning and serves as fuel for the working man. There’s truth behind the slogan “America runs on Dunkin.”

Tea

As mentioned above, the subtle flavor differences in tea are astounding. They’re wildly different depending on the type of tea you buy, how it was stored and how you make it. Of course, its source of origin is chief among those.

Unlike its potent opponent, tea has less of a caffeine kick, allowing it to be used at night. With tea, there’s less of a chance you’ll be up into the wee hours of the morning with insomnia. While it lacks a hefty amount of caffeine, various tea blends have been used as health tonics for centuries. Green tea with a bit of lemon and honey is still a staple home remedy to soothe a bad throat, among other issues. It also does less color damage to your teeth in comparison to coffee or even black tea.

(Alton Brown has a perfect brewing method for those looking to begin their loose leaf tea devotion. And yes, using loose leaf tea makes a world of a difference compared to using bagged tea.)

Coffee

This potent brown liquid downed by billions across the planet fuels us in the morning, fuels us in the mid-morning and even during the afternoon pick-me-up for some. Like tea, it’s picky in how the drink is brewed and varies depending on the method. And like tea as well, its flavor varies on the type of coffee purchased, as well as its roasting origins. Whether taken straight or with some sort of additive (milk, sugar or syrup), coffee has a wide array of flavors in its arsenal.

Unfortunately, due to its high caffeine content, many can’t drink it past the early afternoon. And, the decaffeination process, if not executed properly, can harm the drink’s flavor.

Coffee is more popular than tea in America, in most places, dating back to the Boston Tea Party. I’m not saying drinking coffee is more American, but it goes to show how a great beverage can have staying power when it’s coupled with a cultural mindset.

And my winner is…

Coffee, by an incredibly small margin. Either way you slice it, tea and coffee are the liquid foundation for most writers, and I’m hardly an exception.

Both have kept me hydrated and warm as I continue to write. Seeing “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” in January was a big part of my decision to pursue creating a novel. While it wasn’t a great box office hit, the movie’s pacing and character development really hit home. While other movies tried to be grand and offer some sort of soliloquy and heavy-handed dialogue, “Jack Ryan” was just a fun, fast-paced thrill ride.

In closing, thanks to Stoakes Books for his Liebster Award nomination. One of his questions served as the impetus to write on this topic.

5 items on my desk

Workspaces provide a glimpse into what matters to someone. Photos, letters, funny little placards and various other items all play a part in someone’s personality. I’ve had my fair share of funny pictures (Vote for Ron Swanson) and inspirational quotes (Sense of Urgency) and blanket statements (This is a snake-free environment. Please keep it that way.) in workspaces throughout my career… here’s a glimpse at what’s currently on my desk.

- Backup and portable hard drives 

Working with photos and video means my computer’s hard drive tends to disappear fairly quickly. So, there are a couple of spare hard drives nearby to help back up and add a bit of padding to my files. Never go without a backup, a computer crash is just around the corner!

- Wacom tablet

I’m hardly a great artist when drawing by hand. It’s hard to mess up a stick figure, but somehow I do just that. With the tablet, however, I’m able to touch up photos and use Photoshop with more precision. When working with different brushes, it’s an invaluable tool. And, since it’s a pen, it makes me believe I can actually draw something.

- A thank you card from last year

I have a bad habit of keeping cards. Christmas, birthday, a creepy newspaper reader note slid under the office door and thank you cards are all boxed away. A select few, however, do remain out on display. One thank you card from last October has been on my desk for a few months now. It’s the simple things that keep you grounded and encouraged amidst the chaos of life.

- Flashlight

Because random noises at night are creepy.

- Coffee mug

There are times I have too much blood in my coffeestream. A cup of coffee usually fixes that. I’m a big fan of Spokane’s local roasters, Thomas Hammer in particular. Their breakfast blend is perfectly balanced in terms of flavor and mouthfeel. It’s by far my favorite wake-up tool in the morning.

Are word counts killing your writing?

Word counts have both benefits and drawbacks, sometimes occurring simultaneously. After reading a post on Victoria-writes, it really struck me that I haven’t written with a proper word count in the past three or four years.
For some, having a set word cap sets a goal in place. Providing a proper finish line allows writers to focus on reaching the end point.
The biggest drawback for word limits, I think, is the potential for the content to suffer.
On one hand, the writer may need to cut back on key elements of a story just to make it fit a specific word limit in order to please a publisher. In a sense, that forces writers to be creative and cut down on some of the descriptive details that may otherwise bog down a story. Trimming the fat and making your piece flow smoothly is much better than overwhelming the reader with the description of an ornate wooden staircase that isn’t seen later in the manuscript.
Conversely, setting a word count can kill a story that isn’t meant to go on for 100,000 words (or whatever the word count is). Sure, it can be argued that, once again, it spurs creativity as the writer is then forced to whip up some extra details for the manuscript. In some cases, the additional material could provide background to a character, explaining their motives and what drives them in the story.
Over the past three or four years, I’ve written news articles that had a minimum requirement of 500 words. It was generally accepted that you’d go over that level, as there’s almost always something more to say. But, excepting about once every two weeks, there weren’t any set word limits. It was freeing to have the ability to shape a story, or news report, in a way that could best benefit customers.
In the end, I don’t think there’s a straight answer to the question of whether word counts are helpful or detrimental. Like everything else in life, having moderation in writing is a good thing. Also, there’s the old adage that comes to mind: “Leave them wanting more.” If writers overstay their welcome on the page, it’s ultimately doing more harm than good.
So what’s something to take away from this? Have a general word count in mind when starting to write. That helps with pacing, tone and the story itself. Instead of searching for the right timing along the way, having a general idea of when certain actions happen helps all of the plot elements fall right into place.
How do you approach word counts, if at all? Have they been beneficial for you?

My own case study: building a storyline

I wasn’t expecting writing inspiration to come from watching “The World’s End” last night, but to my great surprise, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg went through their process for writing the movie.
As I mentioned last week, I struggle when it comes to nailing down a storyline. I’ll frequently get decent ideas only to see them crumble in a heap of disappointment and frustration after trying to give characters a purpose for their existence.
Back to the movie. Wright and Pegg showcased numerous pages of their development process, from the basic one-line idea behind “The World’s End” to a complicated set of paragraphs and a fully realized 105-minute movie. They were struggling to creat the same thing I wanted: a solid, entertaining storyline that takes people on a journey through characters’ lives.
So, this afternoon I set out to attack a short story in a similar fashion to their scriptwriting process. Start with a simple concept and develop the storyline from there, branching out to describe the setting, motivations for the main character, Marty (Monica Woods’ “The Pocket Muse” was a great help to get the ball rolling). My morning today was spent getting Marty’s background in line and giving him reasons to exist in the world I create for him.
Before I begin putting the story on the page, I’m describing the important parts of the story: a new store in town, Marty, and the town itself. From there, I’ll give a 40,000-foot description, breaking down the plot into acts and summarizing the big events in each section. Each next step down, like Wright and Pegg, will add more to the story, factoring in the little elements that can turn a small idea into one that’s manageable and interesting.
Sure, my concerns about turning this simple idea into a fully-developed story are still there. But it won’t progress into the next stage by taking up space inside my head.
The roadmap of our writing lives is often full of detours and delays of our own creation. “Will this sell?” “Why would anyone want to read this?” “I don’t know enough about that subject, so I can’t write it.” “This idea about elves and spaceships isn’t mainstream enough.”
Instead of worrying about whether something will sell, just write. Think a story isn’t good enough to turn into a novel? Just write and see.
This week, I’m blocking out 40 consecutive minutes in front of the keyboard every day. It’s a start, but actually taking the time to hammer out an idea will get things rolling, even if it’s not the direction you initially wanted.

Running into the hurdles of writing

One of the most difficult parts about writing, for me, is storyline.
I’ll get a concept going, albeit a small one, and try to form it into something coherent. Sometimes that works, most of the time the idea ends up in a folder in the corner of my closet, buried underneath plastic bags of clothes I haven’t touched for years. On the rare occasion that it actually works, I’ll be at the keyboard for hours at a time, hammering out the details and making characters and situations follow the melody of that storyline.
A storyline is really quite easily compared to a song, one where the rhythm is persistent and purposeful with every action the characters are made to take.
The challenge of making a coherent storyline is the reason why I stuck to writing short stories for a while. (That is, when I actually made the effort to write them.) For years, I let my professional writing intrude on the personal writing. Instead of creating stories about a young man discovering the true story behind a box of items willed to him by his grandfather, I focused on making sure my newspaper article was properly structured.
Instead of writing that spinoff to “The Office”, I stuck to ensuring I didn’t have more than three or four sentences in the paragraph of a news article.
And, instead of bolstering my creative writing, I made excuses and told myself “I’ve done enough writing this week. There just isn’t any left in the tank.”
You see, writing isn’t easy, and I’m not trying to boost my ego or make further excuses here. For some, crafting a story with various subplots and making everything flow smoothly in line with the storyline’s drum beat is easy. For others, writing a 20-plus word lead and filling in the rest of the details in an article just over 500 words is easy.
For myself? I can write a traditional news article simply enough. It’s merely churning out a simplistic storyline and tossing some quotes in to balance the article’s objectivity.
But ask me to create a world from the chaos of my imagination and turn it into a coherent work? That’s not easy. Add in the challenge of making it marketable to a mass audience, and that’s a pretty tall order.
That is precisely why I’ve strayed from creative writing over the last few years. It isn’t due to a lack of ideas or a lack of ability. Creating a cohesive plot that works for several hundred pages is enough of a challenge on its own, and one that I haven’t ever successfully accomplished.
I would, however, like to add that to the ever-growing list of goals for this year.
A couple of good friends have already published their own novels. It’s time I join their ranks.

5 ideas to reboot Star Trek gaming

It’s a well-known fact that most Star Trek games have failed to catch any sort of good critical reviews or have strong mainstream sales. The latest movie tie-in failed to gather either of those, plagued by bugs and a concept that wasn’t fully developed. It had the potential to be a great production that jump-started game developers to consider Star Trek once again, but instead that hope may have been vaporized.

Not all games in the franchise, however, have been terrible. Elite Force, Star Trek: Borg, Bridge Commander, Armada and the Starfleet Command entries stood on their own and were pretty good. Star Trek Online continues to be pretty popular, although I have yet to play it. Other games like Hidden Evil, Legacy, New Worlds and the latest game, Star Trek, fell flat on their faces.

The last great Star Trek game.

The last great Star Trek game.

Now that the franchise is somewhat cool, due to the great movies directed by J.J. Abrams, the one thing missing from the picture is a series of strong games that stand on their own. Here are a few suggestions:

1. A “Civilization” game
How many races are there in the Star Trek universe? Hundreds is the easy answer. But we never really get a chance to explore their culture or history or interact with them in a diplomatic setting. “Birth of the Federation” was riddled with bugs, although serves as a good foundation from which to build. Let’s have a game where the Federation and the different major races are able to start from the ground-up, make or break diplomatic ties, engage in battle with each other, or work together to reach a common goal.
The long-standing “Civilization” series is a great template for Star Trek, and could be a great mainstream success if promoted to the right crowd.

2. Starship SimCity
Create the Enterprise in your own configuration and manage different rooms and operations throughout the ship. Just think of it, there are so many different rooms throughout each ship that were never explored in the Trek movies and TV shows. Sure, there were the hallmarks: the bridge, engineering, some crew quarters, the mess hall, the transporter room and shuttle bay. But we never really saw the guts of the ship, let alone had the chance to create one on our own or choose the ship’s leadership.
Back in the ’90s, the game Starship Creator came close, letting gamers customize the look and crew of a starship. It was a good start, but let’s have the starship operate like a city. Instead of roads, there are turbolifts. Instead of homes, there are crew quarters with varying densities, with the potential to refit a starship to have bigger population sizes. There could even be financial disasters using Federation credits. And, of course, it wouldn’t be like SimCity if there weren’t disasters along the way. Warp core breach anyone?

3. A choose your own destiny game
Mass Effect has been heralded as one of the best game series in recent years, and is what many believe Star Trek games should have been. As an officer, you’re able to settle events either through diplomacy or through the barrel of a weapon. For ages, Trek fans have clamored for a game where diplomacy is a viable option, residing in line with the original Star Trek message: the improvement of humanity in the future.
The new “Star Trek” game was marketed in a way to compare it to Mass Effect, but there wasn’t any chance of developing characters on your own. Kirk couldn’t weigh the balance between good and evil, Spock didn’t have a choice to follow logic or go by his emotions. Those two fatal story flaws ruined the game for most people.

4. Star Trek: Section 31
This is practically begging to be made. A first-person shooter using the storyline of Section 31 – a shadow organization in Starfleet that officially doesn’t exist. Little is known about it, but a game series could easily expand on that small background. A first-person shooter game about an officer working for a shadow organization, taking down bad guys across the universe. How is that not a winner? All you need is a decent storyline taking place in a Star Trek setting and this type of game will sell on a massive scale.

5. Trapped in the Holodeck
Just consider it. If you can’t make a Star Trek-themed game, make something else fit inside the Star Trek universe. Star Trek: The Next Generation had the holodeck villain of Moriarty take control of the ship, trying to become a real person. Consider a game like “Assassin’s Creed” with a few Starfleet officers, or even turn it into an educational game for kids, taking them to different eras of history to learn various lessons.

There is so much potential for Star Trek to have a string of great games, and the market is there. We aren’t seeking after games like “Star Trek: Trexels”, although there are elements of the game I like, particularly the ability to build your own ship.
It’s time for a good, high-quality Star Trek game, and the market is eager to see it happen.

Given these suggestions, what type of Trek game would you like to see come to life?