Author Archives: Evan Braun

The Ultimate Philosopher King

Picard3Jean-Luc Picard is the ultimate philosopher king (but this guy is a close second). The term “philosopher king” is thrown around quite a bit, but let me take you back to its origins. Plato wrote, in Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings… that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils… there can be no happiness, either public or private. (Encylopaedia Britannica)

And then, later:

…[the] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to… the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship. (Wikipedia)

In other words, Plato was saying that a community—or entire civilization—could not flourish or eliminate human vice, until those in power embraced wisdom, science, philosophy… and I think diplomacy probably fits well into that same category.

Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to read that and not think immediately of Gene Roddenberry’s revised Star Trek premise. When he developed The Next Generation in the mid-1980s, he conceived of a future a hundred years further along than Kirk and company, one in which no human vice existed in any form. It’s much more utopian in perspective than the original series, which contained, along with its high-minded notions of equality and diversity and peaceful coexistence, its fair share of fisticuffs. In The Next Generation, there were almost no fisticuffs to be glimpsed. Instead, problems were solved almost universally around a conference table, in long meetings presided over by a true philosopher king, with a crack team of scientists (and even a psychologist advisor) at his right hand.

(The ubiquity of The Next Generation’s endless meetings has been soundly mocked over the years, but I confess that I actually like them. I’ll take a serious philosophical discussion over thrown punches any day—both in real life and in my fiction.)

I think I fell in love with Jean-Luc Picard from the first moment I laid eyes on him. I admire his rationalism, his steadfastness, his urgency, his fairness, and his willingness to dialogue. He doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay because he doesn’t solve problems by himself; he surrounds himself with smart, qualified professionals who help him understand things. In one episode, literally moments before his ship is about to explode, as the bridge is shaking apart around him, he looks to his crew and barks, “Suggestions!” There is no crisis too great or urgent for a conference.

Picard can often be seen reading works of high literature; in a world of PADDs and digital technology (or should I say isolinear?), he still holds paper books in his hands. He appreciates art and sculpture. Again and again, he is shown to value theatre. He is a musician himself, and he often listens to opera and classical music. He attends concerts and poetry readings. He is also a scientific man, deeply rooted in history and archaeology. He speaks several languages. And perhaps most of all, he is a peacekeeper, a diplomat who brings opposing sides together and negotiates compromises.

Picard is a man of passions, but he is not governed by passion. In his romantic entanglements, few and far between (and always carefully considered), he is never depicted as falling head over heels. He is not subject to whims. Nor does he use sex or romance as a weapon or tactic.

I’m not sure a character like Picard would be so readily loved or admired anymore in the same way he was in the 80s and 90s. Picard is almost too perfect, too boring in our world of antiheroes and villainous protagonists. He is emotionally stable, and he rarely succumbs to errors in judgment, and when he does he acknowledges them and learns from the experience. All the same, when imbued with Patrick Stewart’s gravitas and intellect, Picard is awfully compelling.

He is the respected leader we all want to follow, a powerful figure when compared to the corrupt politicians and corporate executives we see everywhere in the here and now.

Indeed, he is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Plato would have been proud.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Not a Secret, Not Surprising

Work-life balance? Ha. If I wrote this blog post on a random Tuesday, it might be about the fact that I have finally managed to achieve a fragile balance and I’m working to maintain it. On Wednesday, I might write about the fact that I have no balance at all, and frankly it’s a bit depressing and balance might be impossible anyway. And on Thursday, I might write that I enjoy great balance.

So, as you can see, my thoughts on this subject are schizophrenic and highly unstable.

I love my family and my job is usually slightly better than tolerable (more than a lot of people can say), but like so many of us creative types I still occasionally entertain this fantasy that I could someday devote myself one hundred percent to my chosen work and not have to worry about all the other things. I fantasize that I could write nine or ten great books per year. In this scenario, my preferred cause of death is “creative exhaustion,” something which may but almost certainly doesn’t exist in the real world.

Lately I’ve been working on my writing career only intermittently, but I have big plans. (Don’t we all.) The main culprit is that I’m growing a new business that is flourishing beyond my initial expectations, and my other day job is finally becoming more lucrative than it ever has been before. So I’m a bit consumed with establishing my heretofore nonexistent nest egg. As such, my life is stable and mostly happy, but the outlook of my writing career fluctuates month to month, day to day, sometimes hour to hour.

Of course, this is a normal amount of confusion. And we’re all afflicted with it.

I will be the first to say that the kind of balance we all crave is elusive. I’d like to tell you that I believe long-term balance is possible, and here’s how to do it—but I don’t know if I really do believe that. Like any successful marriage (or comparable relationship), the balance between a writing career and the rest of one’s life must be constantly renegotiated. Solutions and strategies will change over time.

One strategy that works well for me is one of the oldest, so tried and true that it almost doesn’t bear writing about—except that it works so well for me that I still consider it a game-changer. Just break down your tasks into manageable bits, and track your daily process. Just two things, but they change everything.

I’m a huge proponent of tracking daily progress, which I’ve written about before on this blog. I track the number of words I write daily, the number of pages I get edited… even the number of minutes I exercise (as well as distance traveled and calories burned). The numbers make the progress substantial and real.

Because I need goals to succeed at anything. I’m not a good “casual” writer; I’m either all-in or it’s not on my radar. But all-in doesn’t have to mean all-consuming. For me, all-in means that I’m writing or editing a little bit everyday, in a way that I can track.

It’s not exactly a secret, nor would most people be surprised by any of this. But the keys to true success—unlike what those obnoxious click-baity Buzzfeed headlines will tell you—are rarely secrets or surprising.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing both hard and soft science fiction, he is the editor-in-chief of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Life in the Cosmic Fishbowl

I think it’s because I come from a small town. Growing up, there were about 1,500 people in Niverville, Manitoba. As I’ve grown into adulthood, my hometown seems to have grown with me, to the point where the population now is just shy of 5,000. By most everyone’s definition, however, even after this lightning quick population boom, we are tiny. A mote of dust in the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s eye.

The truth is, I like it that way.

When I attended college, I packed my bags and moved to the nearest city: Winnipeg. It is now, as it was then, about 750,000 persons strong. A city of moderate size, and hugely spread out. You’d be hard-pressed to find another city anywhere, much less a regional capital, with such low density. After college, I lived for a couple of years in Huntsville, Alabama, home to a mere 450,000. Winnipeg was larger than I liked, and Huntsville, while just about right in terms of population, was most enjoyable for me when I relocated to its most distant suburb.

So it should come as no great surprise that I eventually returned to little ol’ Niverville. Recently, in fact, I doubled down and purchased property here. For the time being, barring some unforeseen life changes, this will be home.

It’s an interesting thing, but the fact that the town doubled in size during my time away has profoundly changed my experience of it. When I was a kid, I knew everyone. If you showed me a face, I could tell you who they were, or at least who they were related to or where they worked or where they went to church. Now? More than half of my friends from high school have moved away, and the people who’ve taken their places are largely unfamiliar. Somehow a lot of strangers have decided that this town is perfect for them.

I no longer know all their names and faces, and more often than not they aren’t related to anyone I know. Because I work from home, I often don’t know where people work, and I certainly don’t know where they go to church (probably because I myself don’t go to church anymore).

In short, 5,000 may seem small to you—but the difference between 1,500 and 5,000 is pretty big.

Why am I going on and on about the populations of the communities I’ve called home? Because I think it has a strong bearing on the kinds of communities represented in my fiction.

My books aren’t very urban. In The Watchers Chronicle, the characters visit a number of cities, but it’s a travelogue, so most of the time the characters are in smaller, quieter locales or travelling through countryside and otherwise empty spaces.

My more recent stories take me to (1) a tiny and insulated Martian colony, (2) a small ship of cryogenically frozen interstellar travelers, (3) a generational space vessel, and (4) a future Earth overrun by wilderness and devoid of human life.

These are the settings that resonate to me, the ones I gravitate to. They’re very intimate, with a relatively small number of characters who are often incapable of getting very far away from each other in a pinch.

The whole “write what you know” mantra totally applies. It’s funny, because logic dictates that you’d need to squint to see the similarities between Niverville, Manitoba and a little dome of civilization on the Martian plain. But really, they are much more alike than you’d think—including in temperature, sometimes, but I won’t go there.

Everyone knows everyone else, for better or worse (often for worse). People’s lives are deeply tied to their pasts, to their reputations. A small number of larger-than-life personalities can wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence. The family you were born to, or marry into, carries big significance. It can be hard to outrun your problems, and really hard to hide from your mistakes. Life lived on a small stage, ultimately, is subject to greater exposure. (You know what they say about life in a fishbowl, right?)

This is what I know—and frankly, it can lend itself to some stellar drama.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing both hard and soft science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

The Power of the Word Count Tracker

Last year, when January rolled around, I had to face facts: I had to somehow wade through the toughest writing of my career so far—and in record time. The third and final book of The Watchers Chronicle could not wait another spring, another summer, another year. It was summer 2015 or bust. That wasn’t a lot of time to wrap up my most ambitious book to date.

I needed help. I need motivation.

Some other writer on Facebook (I don’t remember who it was) seemed to be in the same boat, and they shared a blog post which espoused the practice of using an Excel-powered word count tracker.

The picture got my attention right away, and I said to myself, I must try this.

That happened on December 30, so I didn’t have much time to waste. I jumped on Excel and did my best to replicate what I’d seen on that timely, heaven-sent blog.

Sixteen weeks later, this is what it looked like:

Word Count Tracker

The essence is that you write down your daily word total—honestly—and color-code your achievements. Maybe only a minority of people will respond to the reward of getting to upgrade the color of a little spreadsheet box, but I am unashamedly one of those people. I would get near to the boundary between yellow and orange, and pick up my pace significantly.

Of course, the color-coded word count tracker only works well when you’re actually writing loads of new words. And by the eighth week of 2015, I finished my first draft and had to jump straight into some heavy editing.

As you may intuit from my picture above, I reworked my spreadsheet to allow me to account for edited words. Two passes are clearly recorded. From Week 8 to Week 12, I focused on cutting as much as possible, since my first draft was about 25,000 words too long. Each day, instead of counting new words, I counted the number of words I had cut. This worked well enough.

Then, in the middle of Week 12, I set upon my final draft proofing, a kind of work no longer conducive to counting cut words. What I did was count the overall number of words I edited in a given day, then halved that number. This produced numbers generally in line with the rest of the chart (this seemed important at the time, because I was also calculating daily and weekly averages).

Though it’s been less than a year, no matter how long I squint at the chart, I can’t quite remember just what exactly I meant by those brown-colored, italicized “750” boxes in the last couple of weeks. I think I was doing edits of polished material, resulting in very high numbers—and in order to keep those numbers in line with the rest of the chart, I just wrote down an arbitrary average. Hence, 750.

Which is kind of dumb, if I think about it too hard.

Anyway, my point is this: I finished my book at the end of Week 16 and entered into a period of extended hibernation—a state with which I suspect most writers can identify. As a result, I abandoned the chart. After entering in a week and a half of black zeros, I finally deleted the shortcut from my desktop and tried to forget this word counter ever existed.

But the word counter was very helpful for the time that I used it, and a part of me greatly regrets that I didn’t carry on with it for a full year.

That’s a goal I hope to achieve if not in 2016, then at some arbitrary 365-day period in the future that doesn’t have to begin and end at the turn of the calendar. Who’s to say you can’t start on February 22? No one. Absolutely no one.

Today I encourage you to keep yourself accountable, even if just long enough to complete an important goal. As for me, I’ll be starting my next first draft in March.

I smell another word count tracker coming on…

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, was released earlier this year. In addition to specializing in both hard and soft science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.