Driven: Writing a Book About Self-Driving Cars

The self-driving car as imagined in the 1950's

The self-driving car as imagined in the 1950's

Recently, I have become fascinated with the topic of self-driving cars.  It started when my friend Nick Paredes, who is a designer, asked me to edit an article he wanted to write for FastCompany, the popular technology and design magazine.  The article was on the topic of self-driving cars.  I was more than happy to help, not only because, as Mark Twain said, there is nothing more powerful than the urge to correct someone else’s writing, but because Nick recently helped me with the design for the cover of my novel “The Wind in the Embers”.   Now I should say that while Nick is a talented designer he is not the most coherent of writers, and after trying to pull apart and reassemble his prose, I decided the best approach would be to rewrite in my own words what he was trying to say; and what he was trying to say was fascinating.

The gist of it was that the general public is not prepared for the revolution that will be the self-driving car.  Most people think of the self-driving car as essentially a car, albeit one that will be able to operate without a driver when called upon to do so.  This falls far short of the mark.  

The self-driving car will be a paradigm shattering innovation that will impact society on a level not seen since the invention of electric light, not only because it will be a cool new type of automobile, but because it will be the first fully autonomous robot capable of learning from experience and acting independently of its operator.  If you have not thought of it that way, you have been thinking about it all wrong.

The technology necessary to develop the self-driving car owes far more to the fields of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) than it does to the field of mechanics, which is at the core of the current automobile.  The difference between them is the difference between a jet airplane and a bicycle.  But it gets even crazier than that when you consider the direction the research is heading.

Google and Tesla are at the forefront of development in this field, and they have moved decisively away from the incremental approach Detroit favors toward the introduction of a fully autonomous vehicle within a decade.  What does that mean?  It means the cars they will introduce will drive themselves without human input—no steering wheel, no pedals, and, most importantly, no override switch to allow the human to take over when he wants.  All that the human will be able to do is tell the car where to go, and the car will go there.  And here’s the kicker: the human does not even have to be in the car.

If you need to pick up a prescription from the drug store, let’s say, you simply tell the car to go get it, the car drives to the drive-thru window, picks it up and brings it home.  That, as Nick points out, is more than a car, that’s a personal servant, a robot valet; that’s a dramatic shift in how we think about robots and computers, and, oh, by the way, it’s also a car.

Anyway, when I got to thinking about it, I realized that part of Nick’s problem with coherence was that he was trying to say too much at once, not unlike a person who is excited and has a lot to say and stumbles and stammers and backtracks.  The implications of this self-driving car thing were way too much for a single article.  He needed to think about writing a book.

One of Nick’s many strengths is his networking ability, his ability to make contacts, follow up, and build networks of professionals he can call on.  Notably, this one of my biggest deficiencies.  He also has the ability to be comfortable in an interview setting.  I am horrible at that.  On the other hand, Nick is not a natural writer.  As a designer, he is a visual person.  If he is going to write a book, he is going to need some help.  So I proposed we collaborate.  He happily accepted.

Presently, we are in the preliminary stages, trying to read the relevant books and articles on the topic to get an understanding of what’s already been done so we can shape our thesis.  We’ve already begun to massage some ideas.  Once we are done with that we will outline a broad structure for the book and line up interviews.  As the interviews are conducted we will gain more insights and the book will begin to grow organically within the framework, which, in all likelihood, will have to be revised.

So that’s the project I’m working on concurrently with the sequel to “The Wind in the Embers”.  For the next six months or so I expect to be bouncing back and forth the between the past (5th century Rome) and the future (the year 2050 when it is projected that more than half the cars on the road will be autonomous).  I’m excited.  I feel driven.  I’d better be.  It's going to be a lot of work.  Plus, I also have a business to run.  I don't know how I'm going to get it all in, but it's the kind of thing I love to do.  So hopefully that will carry me through—that and superior time management. 

More later,  



Outlining the Plot for my New Novel

An artist's sketch, like this one by Edward Hopper for his painting "Nighthawks", is similar to a plot line for a writer's novel.

I have just spent the past week immersed in the plot line for my next novel, and, I must say, I found the process enjoyable.  I can say without reservations that this is my most detailed plot line ever.

A plot line, for those who don’t know, is the plot of a projected novel condensed into twenty or thirty pages.  It is the authorial equivalent of a painter’s sketch before embarking on the actual painting.  It allows the artist to position things and get some sense of relationships and proportion.  When the actual project begins, it is a touchstone to keep the artist on track.   

One reason I enjoy this part of the process so much is because it is where I attempt to weave the story of my characters’ lives into the fabric of history.  As such it requires me to research the historical background of my characters.  What I learn about how they actually impacted, and were impacted by, historical events gives my novel its narrative framework.  

Since all of the characters in the novel are actual historical figures, nothing that happens in the story can violate the truth of what is known.  This can be difficult.  It is not too much to say that if the novel was written about characters that lived in the 20th century, it could not be fictional at all.  Too much would be known about them.  It would be reporting, not storytelling.  But because the history of the 5th century is so sparse and fragmentary, what I am left with are snatches of information, brief episodes, allusions, and the fleeting speculations of people who were there at the time. 

A paragraph from the plot line of my upcoming novel

A paragraph from the plot line of my upcoming novel

Consequently, I am forced to deduce my characters’ purposes and motives by reading between the lines.  If Placidius did this, and Maximus did that, and this event occurred right afterwards, then it seems reasonable to assume that Maximus’s reaction to what Placidius did was this.  You see, it requires me to be a bit of a sleuth.  The story takes shape as these sinews of speculation bind together the muscle and tissue of the facts.         

But there is a danger here.  The story can become mired in a slew of historical minutiae.  For the story to be entertaining it must have a clear trajectory and a compelling character for the reader to relate to.  It has to have a character arc.  The character arc is intrinsic to a successful plot since readers always care more about what happens to other people, especially people they feel invested in, than they do about the window dressing of settings or events. 

Writers of Romance fiction for whom the characters and their relationships are everything understand this intrinsically.  But for writers of other genres it can be challenging, and especially for writers of historical fiction where the temptation to ladle on the historical detail is great.  A book called “Creating Character Arcs” by K.M. Weiland helped me focus on the growth of my main character as I laid out the story of her life over an eighteen-year period of European history from AD 437 to AD 455.  By using this book as a reference I was able to stage the major turning points in her story for maximum effect without getting lost in the weeds.

My plot line for this novel came in at twenty-four single-spaced pages.  At the front I laid out a list of characters ranked by importance.  There are eighteen of them, of which six play major roles.  For those of you who read the first book you may be interested to know that Placidius, Aetius, Galla Placidia and Justa are back for this novel.

The last thing I do is group the paragraphs that make up the plot line into chapters on the broad assumption that each paragraph in the plot line represents a narrative segment in the novel.  This gives me an idea as to how many chapters the book will consist of and how long it might be.  If it will need trimming, I can already see that before I begin writing.

With the plot line in hand, I can start the first draft.  Writing the first draft is usually a 6-8 month project but with a thorough plot line it can go faster—or at least that’s the hope.  As I dive in, I will keep you apprised of my progress and provide you insights into my thinking, as many of you have expressed interest in my process.

The next time I post, however, I will take you in a slightly different direction.  It looks like I may be writing another book at the same time I am writing this one.  This book will be non-fiction and will be collaboration with a friend of mine who is a product designer.  We are pursuing a keen interest in the future of self-driving cars.  More about that next time.  Thanks for reading.


The Fall of Rome. Is America Next?

As today is July Fourth I thought I'd write a few words about one of the most popular topics of discussion around the fall of the Roman Empire: the question of whether or not the United States is headed in the same direction.

First, let me say, that to ask the question assumes a good deal of hubris on our part.  Rome existed as a powerful political force in the world for 1,000 years, and for much of that time, it was unrivaled in power or influence.  The United States, on the other hand, only became a powerful presence on the world stage after the Spanish-American War in 1898, making its tenure as an imperial power only 120 years old; and for much of that time it had to share the stage with powerful imperial rivals like Great Britain or the Soviet Union.  

Still, people are fond of drawing comparisons, so let's see what parallels we can draw.

It strikes me, in studying the Fall of the Roman Empire, that a sense of entitlement among the public was a crippling defect that undermined the state.  In the late Roman Empire, as in the United States today, people resented paying taxes.  They did so grudgingly, or, if they were wealthy enough, they avoided paying taxes altogether. 

Because the Roman public was literate and informed, they could form their own opinions about how their money was being spent, and they often arrived at the conclusion that their government was reckless and corrupt in the handling of their funds.  This naturally led to the conclusion that had the government been more competent and less corrupt, the public's tax burden would be less.  So the upshot was: The government is stealing our money and wasting it, so we feel no obligation to support the government.  What's more, we want all the benefits that come with being citizens of the Empire, but we refuse to pay a penny more, because we've already paid enough.  Sound familiar?   

And, just like being a citizen of the United States, being a citizen of the Roman Empire, came with a lot of juicy perks, things that were widely regarded as entitlements, like good roads, access to clean water, a reliable constabulary, and an administrative state that kept everything running smoothly.  Oh, and let's not forget, the biggest drain on the imperial coffers both then and now: a state of the art military that was second to none.

Yet, interestingly, the Roman public in the Late Empire had the same attitude toward military service that many Americans do today, namely, that it was somebody else's problem.  Wealthy Romans, like wealthy Americans, avoided sending their sons off to fight in wars.  Instead, they looked to the lower classes to provide the cannon fodder while they profited from the sale of arms.  

And as the Roman middle-class grew, fewer and fewer citizens were willing to be the dupes in this deadly game.  So the Roman military started looking outside the country to fill its ranks, recruiting immigrants, only the Romans didn't call them immigrants; they called them barbarians.  Before long, the Roman army was heavily Germanized, a state of affairs that didn't make the average Roman citizen feel terribly comfortable because so many of the people tasked with defending them were, in effect, the same people they were fighting. 

The upshot was: Romans didn't want to make sacrifices to defend their own country.  Romans distrusted the government and tried to avoid paying taxes.  Yet Romans demanded the juicy entitlements that would accrue naturally to responsible citizens willing to pay their taxes and defend their country.  The outcome of this was not hard to foresee.

The government went into deep debt.  The cost of its military was unsustainable.  The barbarians enlisted in its armies were looked down upon and underpaid, and so when forces from outside the empire began to press on it, the government lacked the manpower and resources to hold them at bay.  The Roman Empire began to come apart at the seams.

Am I saying this is what will happen to America?  Not necessarily.  The United States has one big advantage that the Roman Empire didn't have, namely, the example of the Roman Empire as a warning.  Perhaps we will look and learn.  The benefits of a great society come with a cost.  The impulse to avoid paying them doesn't make us righteous or clever.  It makes us vulnerable to collapse. 



Drafts All Around

This morning I finished the first draft of my novel "The Scourge", which I've been working on since mid-January.  The novel is about the invasion of Europe by the Huns in 376.  It started out as some leftover chapters from my first book about the Fall of Rome called "Expendable Gods".  With its completion, I now have three books in the nine book Amulet Series that are completed at least as far as the first draft.

Curiously, the sixth book in the series, when considered sequentially, is the first book published.  This is "The Wind in the Embers".  It worked out this way because of a misguided attempt to write to the market - something seasoned novelists warn you not to do.  I had already written the first book in the series, "Expendable Gods", and was shopping it around when I was told in no uncertain terms that "the only historical fiction that sells these days is that which is for women, about women, and by women.

While I could do something about the first two of these, short of undergoing a sex change, there was little I could do about the third.  (Although I should point out, my wife urged me to write under a female pen name).  Nevertheless, I had already been planning to write a novel about Galla Placidia, the wonderful historical figure at the center of "The Wind in the Embers", so I figured if that's what the market wants, that's what the market gets.

This meant that the sequel to "Expendable Gods", the book about the invasion of the Huns, would have to go on the backburner.  So I stopped writing that and started writing "The Wind in the Embers".  Fast forward two years and "The Wind in the Embers" is published and the first draft of the book about the Huns, called "The Scourge", is completed.  Now things get even more complicated.

Because "The Wind in the Embers" is the first book in the series to be published, and because it is centered on a woman and therefore will appeal to female readers, the next book to follow cannot be "Expendable Gods" or "The Scourge", both of which are centered on men, and have very few female characters.  Instead I will have to write a sequel to "The Wind in the Embers" that centers on a female.

Fortunately, the historical material is there.  The daughter-in-law of Galla Placidia, a woman named Licinia Eudocia, is herself a colorful figure who will support a thrilling narrative.  But it means the novel I just finished about the Huns will have to go into a drawer, along with "Expendable Gods", to be resurrected at a later date.

Ah, such are the vagaries of being a novelist in the age of Amazon.  In any case, it always feels good to finish a first draft, so today I am celebrating.  Tomorrow I will have to hunker down with the history books and start researching the life and times of Licinia Eudocia.  I will keep you apprised of my progress.

Just a reminder, the print version of "The Wind in the Embers" is now available on Amazon.  If you haven't bought your copy already, please do so.  And thanks.


Big Thanks to Everyone Who Attended the Book Launch Party for "The Wind in the Embers"

A good time was had by all at the book launch party yesterday for "The Wind in the Embers".  We had a terrific turnout, good food, drinks, and conviviality.  I want to thank everyone who attended and picked up a copy of the book.  In addition, the book went live on Amazon yesterday and is available for $11.74 and Free Shipping.  Get your copy now and tuck in for a good summer read.  Thanks! 

The Road to Here

Well, we are getting ready for the big book launch party tomorrow.  We're expecting 30-50 people.  It's really an epic event for me, something I've been striving for all my life.  I'm hoping some old friends will come, too.  I've been chatting with some people I haven't seen for thirty odd years - and, at times, they have been odd years indeed.

When I was in my twenties, I still harbored ideas of becoming rich and famous from writing.  When that dream died, I stopped writing for about five years.  I didn't even read a book.  When I started reading again, I started writing again.  Reading good writing inspires me to write in the same way that listening to a good musician makes a person want to play.  It's its own reward.

Then when I went through a really rough stretch in the 90's - quitting my job, getting divorced - writing helped me through it.  In the pages of my fiction, I did horrible things to the people who disappointed me.  It wasn't very good writing, but it helped me to exorcise some demons and to channel my angst constructively.  It was writing as therapy.      

In 2001 I was surprised to find myself upset by 9/11.  (I thought I could intellectualize it but found I couldn't).  I was mad and scared.  So I decided to write a story about a person who was caught in the tower when it collapsed.  (Incredibly, people really did survive the collapse).  I wanted to get as close to it as I could.  So I did the research, read the accounts of the survivors, and wrote in the first person.  It helped.       

I was no stranger to research,  I had done quite a bit of it before when I was struggling to write a novel about Ireland — a novel that never materialized.  This time, however, it was even more interesting and fulfilling, and I was ready to write.  So I decided to write a historical fiction novel that would demand a lot of research.  I decided to pick a period of western history that was obscure, the one period of western history that was the least known and least understood by scholars.  Surprisingly, I found that this was the Fall of the Roman Empire.  

So that's how "The Wind in the Embers" and The Amulet Series was born.  And tomorrow I'm going to have the book launch party for my first book in this series.  

It's been a long road, and yet, at last, here I am. Thank goodness.