Sunday, April 26, 2015

Don't Make The Political Personal

More and more, we're becoming increasingly polarized, at least from a political perspective.  A stray comment or random remark can cost us friends, business, and lead to our ruination.  This whole concept is, in fact, the underlying theme of one of my novels - Schism.

Unfortunately, this is creeping into what we enjoy as well.  I can't recall the number of people I've heard from that have said, "Did you hear so-and-so likes (insert political cause here)?  I can't believe it!  I'll never read his stuff ever again."

I might offend some folks by saying this, but get over it.  Geez, people - each of us has a varying set of beliefs that lots of folks would find nauseating.  Unless that opinion creeps into the work - which, I'll admit, has happened - then it shouldn't get in the way of a good story.  Stephen King is one of the biggest liberals around and openly flaunts his love of President Obama and the Democratic Party, but that doesn't mean he can't build tension and give me chills with the best of them.  William Fortschen is about as right wing as they come(he even collaborated on two novels with Newt Gingrich), but that doesn't detract from his building a world of adventure that I can get lost in.

We sacrifice so much - too much, in my opinion - when we demand that our favorite authors conform to our political views.  Who cares if someone whose stories we enjoy doesn't fit into the preconceived character we desire?  Sure, it might mean that you won't want to hang out with that person and enjoy a beer with them, but does that really mean they can't tell a good story?  Must we tie everything into our political straitjackets?

In the end, the only person we hurt when we demand ideological purity, especially in places where it shouldn't be a prerequisite, is ourselves.  The writer in question is still going to tell a good story.  Something tells me that a person so petty that he or she won't read a good story because of someone's personal political views has a stick jammed so far up his or her ass that no story would ever be good enough.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Blog Wars

You may have noticed that the blogroll on the right side of the screen has changed recently.  I've been meaning to update it for a while, and I still have a little cleaning to go.  I added a few blogs I've been meaning to, and I updated a few sites that have moved domains.  However, I also removed a blog that I felt strayed too far from writing and into activism.

Activism is fine, but I put this blog up to discuss writing, not to make a social statement.  Even then, I don't just get rid of a blog that happens to talk about the state of the world.  We all have our beliefs over the way we'd like the world to work, and it kills us sometimes when others don't share those views.  So I get the inclination to want to speak out.  Where I draw the line is when it becomes petty.

If you disagree with someone, that's fine.  If someone doesn't like you, that should be fine too.  Unfortunately, we can't always handle those that shun us, so we seek revenge.  The blog I got rid of had a spat with another blogger and encouraged its readers to strike back at the offender.  This blog even went so far as to call the other blogger a villain, denouncing the offender in such terms that you'd think Hitler himself had been reincarnated.

The offender didn't defile children or burn down a center for the disabled - the person held a different view from the instigator.  For that, the blog that I removed called upon supporters to deluge the other person and, in essence, sought out that person's personal destruction.

Our current political climate is anything but civilized.  The wrong phrase or word can cost you friends and even your job, and we don't help things by participating in such nastiness.  I was in shock that the blog I removed showed such a spiteful nature.  It wasn't even over public posts, but rather over a private disagreement as to guest posting.  Call me crazy, but if it's my blog, then I get to decide the rules on who posts and why.  To cry about not being allowed to play in someone else's yard is what a four year old does, not a grownup looking to be a professional.

Again, I don't care what your views are on the various issues.  I don't even care if you express a view I find abhorrent.  What I care about is when you get small and seek out revenge because someone was, in your view, mean.  We should all be more mature than that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Pushing Through

We all want to present our best writing to our readers.  If you're anything like me, you spend hours editing and polishing your stuff so that the best possible product reaches your audience.  Even then, you're sure you could've made it just a little bit better if you'd gone back one more time.

Unfortunately, we sometimes use that as an excuse to not write.  We're too tired or too busy, and we know we won't produce our best stuff, so we slack off.  Sure, we assuage our guilt with empty platitudes about how we want to give it our best, but, deep down, we know the truth - it's just not important enough to us to get past our exhaustion.

Writing is like going to the gym - each day you don't write, it gets easier to find another excuse the next day to not write.  If you want to have any chance to get better, you have to write...even when you don't fee like it.

Yes, writing in these circumstances will often mean that you produce crap.  That has to be okay.  Remember, just because you write something, that doesn't mean you have to publish it.  Just get in the habit of writing.  Put down a few random thoughts.  Work on your newest story, all while knowing what you write will require massive revision.  Who knows, you may even come up with a jewel in the debris of your exhaustion.

Show what you wrote to a friend who is used to reading your stuff.  I like to show my less than stellar work to a buddy who can usually intuit what I'm trying to say even when I don't get it right.  He points out where it comes up short and where it has just gone off the rails.  Then, when I'm more coherent, I polish it into something worthwhile.

But I can't get better if I stop writing because life gets in the way - life will do that enough on its own, and you giving it a helping hand will hurt you in the long run.  On the plus side, just like exercising when you're tired, writing when you're not at your best will make it so that you can eventually write better under those circumstances.  You'll figure out how to push through the cobwebs of your mind, and you'll start getting better.  That should, in turn, translate to being even better when you're at your best.

If you choose not to write when you just don't feel up to it, don't get upset when you have no success.  Remember, those who make it are the ones who put in the long hours after everyone else has decided to take a break.  By pushing through, your dedication will translate into a better story.

Or you can relax and gripe about why no one appreciates your work.  We know which path leads to better success.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stars

I've written before that we all want our work to be liked.  It can be ego-shattering when someone tells us our work sucks, even if they say it in a nice way("It just wasn't for me.").  However, getting too caught up in this can have a detrimental effect on not just our public reputation, but on the integrity of the review system as a whole.

More and more stories have come out about authors seeking out those who gave them a poor review and berating them.  This leads to a triple effect - the person doing the berating looks like a loon, those who give reviews start shying away from providing them, and those who are left pile on like a zombie on brains.

Kathleen Hale was just the beginning.  I've been reading stories about everyone from publicists to publishers to parents seeking out a person who gave a review that wasn't up to snuff, and then doing everything they could to get the reviewer to change it.  In many cases, the reviews in question aren't even of the one-star "this is the worst novel in existence" kind.  Rather the reviewer simply didn't give a glowing four-star write up and tell everyone that survival in our world depended on reading this work.

I understand some of that frustration.  The system is subject to inflation, and those who maintain integrity by giving books what they honestly felt they deserved as opposed to an OH-MY-GOD-THIS-IS-INCREDIBLE write up are increasingly rare.  It happens in every area where grading is done - school, movies, work, etc.  In my own line of work, grade inflation has gotten so bad that they have had to revamp the evaluation system every few years to try and stop everyone from being the #1-top-superstar.

However, that doesn't justify the screeching at reviewers that I've seen.  If you get a one or two star review, so what?  What you want is a lot of people reviewing your work.  If you get a bunch of poor reviews, then you need to ask yourself why.  But if you get a couple that don't say you're awesome, while most seemed to enjoy what you wrote, then forget about them.  Remember, reading is subjective, and not everyone has the same taste.  It's only when it becomes a trend that you need to be concerned.

Another thing to remember that the internet can also be merciless to those who show they can't stomach poor reviews.  Ask places like Windermere Cay in Florida what happens when you show that you not only dislike poor reviews, but that you stalk and threaten those who give them.  In the past, in an era where we were limited to foldup newspapers and TV snippets, the market on reviews was constricted.  Since the advent of the internet, and the voice it gives to people from all walks of life(an internet mob?), more and more people can and will get involved on reviewing work, and some take delight out of beating the shit out of those insecure enough to say they hate those who deride their work.

If you want good reviews, then write good stuff.  If you really have talent, the good reviews will outweigh the bad ones.  If they don't, then figure out why as opposed to being a fool who goes after those that don't care for you.  You might not like the reaction you get.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everyone Loves Surprises

Although throwing swerves into a novel just for grins is something that might annoy readers, those same readers also aren't looking for something boring and predictable.  I know, I know...some of you are shouting at me, "Dammit, you just scolded us for being too tricky, and now you're saying we aren't tricky enough.  Make up your damn mind!"

Obviously, the key here is balance.  You want to be unpredictable without going overboard.  Yet how can you be unpredictable if you can't even surprise yourself?  That is where the key lies, in my opinion - most swerves are planned just for the sake of being swerves, whereas real surprises just seem to happen.

Many of us start a story and know exactly where it is going.  Since we are expecting what's next, we will usually write it like that.  This creates tedium and allows the reader to cruise along without engaging the mind in any meaningful way.  That will lead to the reader putting the book down - not the result we want to see.

While it's good to have a general idea where the story is headed, knowing too precisely is a recipe for disaster.  I almost never go into a story knowing every detail of where it's headed.  For that matter, I often don't know the ending - I simply get in the car and follow the story wherever it leads.  Sure, I steer it so it doesn't venture down too dangerous a path, but I'm not always certain of the destination.  This allows me to be surprised by what happens.

This is also another reason why I don't like to outline too far in advance.  Aside from finding times when the story takes on a life of its own, thus rendering said outline useless, it also has the potential of boxing me in.  I feel like I have to go a certain direction, and it limits enthusiasm, and when I'm not enthusiastic about writing, it shows in my work.  Trust me - if you aren't enthusiastic about what you write, the reader won't be either.

I like what I'm writing to surprise me.  I know that if it catches me off guard, it'll catch the reader off guard.  Stephen King stated that one of the best surprises of his writing career came when he decided to blow up the Free Zone Committee in The Stand.  He said he felt that the novel was meandering along and getting nowhere until Harold Lauder set a bomb and shook up the entire world of the book.  It sure as hell shook me up, and I struggled with what happened, wondering what would happen next, as well as whether others characters I cared about were in danger.

And that's what surprises generate - excitement.  King said he didn't see the bomb until it happened, and if he couldn't see it, readers sure wouldn't.  When the author is surprised, the reader is surprised.

So don't get into too predictable a pattern when you write.  Be willing to go against your own grain.  How will your readers be interested in what you wrote if you're not?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Time

As I was writing some on my new novel, I discovered something - I suck at passing time.

Most of my stories follow a single person or event over a pretty compact period.  I prefer to see what's going on from moment to moment since I wonder what I miss if I skip ahead too far.  This leads to some pretty intense stories.  Unfortunately, I can't do this in my latest work.

The novel(that I still don't have a title to) follows one man's journey over the course of over 70 years.  It starts with an alien invasion that nearly wipes out humanity, progresses towards a great counterattack, and then proceeds to follow mankind as it leaves Earth to find refuge on a new world.  The book is divided into three acts, and each act will cover between seven and eight years of time.  Obviously I can't write every single thing that happens in eight years, so I have to skip ahead if I want the novel to come in under a million words.

My challenge comes in trying to figure out how to do this.  Since I cover a great deal of detail in the action I've written so far, I worry how the transition will look.  The reader will get all of this great information and be into the story...only to suddenly find that three years have passed.  How do I get there without them asking, "What the hell?"

Many novels have figured out how to do this, and maybe it comes with practice.  I have a funny feeling that some of these transition points will receive several re-writes because the first time or five will be bumpy.  Will such space between time periods leave the audience with less feeling towards the main character?  He's the focal point of the entire thing, so if the reader loses empathy, the novel falls apart.

This may get easier in acts two and three.  Act two will entail humanity building the spaceships that lead us into the interstellar void, and I'm sure I can skip over parts of the building process without too much trouble.  After all, just how much can one talk about welding together sheets of titanium?  And the third act, the one that details our flight through space to a new galaxy, will be fine because during a lot of this journey, when they're not actively exploring a new system or running from other races in the cosmos, they'll basically be sitting around watching stars go by.

However, it's the first act that presents the greatest degree of difficulty.  The main character is building the resistance movement that strikes back at our attackers, as well as discovering what works against them and what doesn't.  It's seven and a half years of active warfare, so how do you choose what to gloss over?  War may be an abomination, but when it comes to books, it's certainly the action part.

I know, I know - I'm just whining about elitist writer problems.  Whatever I come up with won't feed hungry children or cure a disease, but it's important enough to me to spend time on.  I want to give the reader the best experience possible, one that draws him or her in to become invested in the outcome.  Getting past the 4th Dimension in a way that doesn't make them wonder what they missed is daunting.  I'll figure it out, but it'll take...um...time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Arrogance Versus Confidence

Writers are an interesting study in duality.  We tend to be among some of the most conceited people on the planet - of course I'm an awesome writer...most folks couldn't hold a candle to what I put on paper!  We can also be exceptionally insecure with an ego of crystal when it comes to what we write, and if someone tells us our stuff sucks, we're crushed.

This duality creates a blurred line that many of us have trouble finding, and that line is the one that separates confidence from arrogance.  I've found that most of the arrogance exists in newbie writers, while it moves towards confidence as one grows in experience.

Most newbies started writing more for two reasons - they love it, and other people have told them they have talent.  Therefore, once we start taking this more seriously, we're convinced that our work is awesome.  An editor?  Who needs one?  Beta-readers?  No one can check my stuff any more critically then I can!

Of course, this arrogance leads to disaster.  Our first novel or two, the ones we poured our hearts into and were convinced would change our lives, end up sucking.  Sure, our friends are nice about it, but it's pretty obvious that they hated it and only finished because they felt obligated.  Once we realize this, it hurts.  A lot.

At that point, we have a choice.  Many choose path A - we stink and we're never writing again.  We give up in the hopes of never getting stepped on like that in the future.  Much like our first relationship, it simply hurt too much to be worth the pain,  Sure, we console ourselves with empty words about not being that into it in the first place and how people just didn't understand us(it was their fault!), but deep inside we feel this overwhelming sense of failure.

Path B, on the other hand, is the one taken by those who might eventually become successful.  We try to figure out what went wrong, and we use that experience in our next work to make it better.  We put ourselves back out there, once again risking rejection, and see if we've improved.  Our skin gets thicker, and we find that criticism can be incorporated to enhance our skills.

Path B is hard, but it creates that confidence I spoke about earlier.  Getting stomped on, as anyone who has ever written has been, turns our arrogance into despair.  However, time and experience turn that despair into confidence.  Once you've written enough to know what works and what doesn't, you gain confidence.  Almost no one succeeds on the first attempt, and it's only through being bad that one gets good.  Even the most talented among us have been terrible, and they knew it.  But they grew in skill and became more confident with success, while putting the occasional setback, which will happen, in perspective.

Reach for your confidence, and be careful it doesn't slip back into arrogance.  Your readers can tell the difference, and they'll let you know in no uncertain terms.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Breaking The Rules

Writing has some fairly rigid rules - capitalize the first word of a sentence, use commas to create a pause in thought, words are supposed to be spelled certain ways, and so forth.  These are necessary since writing is language, and without the added benefits of body language and tone of voice, following these rules helps the reader understand what we want to say.

Of course, many great novelists break these rules all the time.  Stephen King, in particular, is notorious for this, and it helps make him one of the best storytellers of all time.  Unfortunately, his ability to do this with such ease gives a lot of writers the idea that they can do so just as easily.  The problem is that most of us don't have King's mastery of writing, so we look foolish doing things just to do them.

Allow me to relay a story to demonstrate - several years back, I was playing paintball with some people, and, as the leader, I thought it'd be a great idea to split up my forces to go after the other team.  I broke my team in half, placing one half on a ridge and the other half on the trail below.  I didn't have any particular rhyme of reason for this, but I remembered that Robert E. Lee split his forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville, and he won a tremendous victory, so I thought it must be something awesome.  Of course, it became a disaster - my forces weren't mutually supporting, and there was this big gap between where our fire could reach that the other team found.  My guys got isolated and my team was defeated in detail.

I spent some time afterwards trying to figure out why Lee could do it and I couldn't, and the only conclusion I could come up with was that Lee was a tactical genius with tons of experience...and I wasn't.  Lee knew when to take such a risk and carefully mapped it out, while I just did it for the sake of doing it.

Writing is similar.  There are times when breaking the rules can be genius.  However, these need to be carefully planned, for if they're done incoherently, you've just screwed up your entire book.  Starting a sentence in the middle or intentionally misspelling a word should be used to throw the reader and create an effect rather than done just for the sake of it.  When we throw these things in because they look cool rather than thinking them through, we confuse the reader and make our work harder to understand.

We also need to remember our skill level and experience.  Folks like King can do these things because they've spent decades doing so, and they know what works.  Most of us are inexperienced, so we should tread cautiously.  Try it with something you aren't looking to publish, and show it to a friend.  Insert it into a work, give it to a beta-reader, and ask specifically if it works.  We obviously need to practice, but we need to know whether we have any skill at it too.

Breaking the rules can be good when done well.  However, much like crossing the street against the light, doing it poorly can result in bad things.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Being Psychic

This post is going to seem like one big brag, even if it's not meant to be.  The more I've gotten into writing, the more I've found myself critically reviewing every piece of storytelling I come across, from movies to novels.  I find myself wondering, How would I write this?  What ending would I provide?

More often than not, I've discovered that I can predict the ending of a story with pretty good certainty. (**SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD**)  This first became a conscious part of my thought when I read Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove.  As the story progressed, I could see that Earth would figure out faster-than-light travel and gain superiority over The Race.  When I read Doctor Sleep, I was barely a quarter of the way into the novel before I figured out that Danny Torrence and Abra Stone were related.  And while watching shows like Once Upon A Time, I can tell when people are going to turn, as well as which villain will be introduced next.

I know, I know...this sounds like a cheering session where I revel in my predictive powers, but I swear that that isn't it.  Instead, I'm wondering how many other writers encounter this phenomenon about themselves.  Is this a function of storytelling in general?  Is putting our imaginations to use for a living giving us insight that many either don't have or choose to ignore?

Admittedly, this can take the fun out of some of the entertainment, but I've found a new joy in seeing if my hunches are right.  I'll write down in a notepad what I think it going to happen - my wife has forbidden me from doing this out loud any longer...I guess she likes surprises - and see how closely it matches up to what comes out.  My success rate is above 80%.

Not to sound like a snob again, but I think this comes from only getting into what I consider "good" storytelling.  I relate to what I'm coming across, and it's in line with what I'd have written.  As a snob on storytelling, I discard that which I find either poorly written or just plain boring, so I don't get the chance to see if I could transfer this ability to those stories.  The few times I've watched or read what I consider wretched, I've rolled my eyes at what the storyteller came up with, for it's either juvenile or waaaaaayyyyyyy out there(see Sleepy Hollow).

Reading back through this, it definitely comes off as one of my more arrogant posts, and I'm fine with that.  I suspect that, deep down, more writers than would care to admit it would, if you got them drunk enough, cop to the same thing.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Indie Publishing Fears

I've spoken to a number of writers since deciding to go indie for my publishing choice, and there's a lingering fear amongst most to even think about going that route.  It's as if merely whispering about brushing off traditional publishers is some kind of taboo to not even be countenanced.

There are a few common themes that run through most writers' minds on this, so I thought I'd compile them into one big list:
1.  If I go indie, it means I've failed.  This is the most common fear.  Going indie strikes many writers as giving up on success and going the only route available.  According to most, the only reason one goes indie is because he or she wasn't good enough to get a "real" publisher.  Tell that to folks like Joe Konrath and Terry Goodkind - both were successful as traditionally published writers, and both got fed up with the way traditional publishers treated them.  I say that rather than go through the years of crapiness, preempt the garbage and go indie from the outset.

2.  I can't make any money if I go indie.  Another ENORMOUS falsehood.  In fact, this is ass-backwards.  Hugh Howey makes more in a month than most people do in a year...especially writers.  The vast majority of writers laboring under the yolk of a traditional publisher don't make enough to write full time - they have to have another job and keep hoping that they'll break through.  Indie writers, on the other hand, often out-earn their traditional counterparts even when they sell fewer books.  Let's be honest - without the distribution infrastructure of the traditional market, you're not going to get the exposure a traditional author would, but so what?  The royalty rates and payment schedules of traditional publishers render this moot.  As an indie author, you get nearly the entire pie, as opposed to a diet sliver given by a traditional publisher right before he pats you on the head.

3.  Agents and publishers will hate me if I go indie for even one book.  This is total horseshit.  Okay, maybe they'll hate you a little, but they won't excommunicate you.  Above all else, they exist to make money, and if you look like you can get them more greenbacks, they'll approach you.  How do you think Fifty Shades of Grey got started?  Don't you think publishers wish they'd had seen the potential of The Shack?  If you bring in money, traditional publishers will backseat their hatred, so long as they think you can make them more.  Just know that once you get approached, you now control the levers of power, so don't be seduced by a glitzy sales job - make sure it's the right thing to do and you won't lose money in the long run.

4.  Business and numbers scare me.  One of the greatest fantasies writers everywhere have is that if they make it big, they can just write while other people will worry about all that nasty "business stuff."  I hate to break it to you, but unless you're into getting screwed over, you need to have a working knowledge of business long before your book hits the stands.  Everyone involved, from your agent to your publisher to your editor, is in this to make a buck, and they'll squeeze every cent out of you they can.  Worse, they won't always be ethical about it.  However, without some knowledge of how the system works, how are you ever going to be able to throw out the bullshit flag?  And if you're going to know the details anyway, why not forgo all that extra garbage and do it yourself?

5.  People will laugh at my indie book.  Ah, the great shattering of the crystal ego of the writer - the worry you'll be laughed at.  First of all, this isn't 1995 anymore.  You can produce your indie hardcover with the same quality as a traditional publisher through any number of outlets.  Second, with the advent of ebooks, your work shows up the same on a Kindle as a book from Harper Collins does.  Third, if people want to laugh at you...I'm forced to ask again...so what?  You're not going to be universally appreciated.  No one is.  You must accept that some people will think you're a moron for what you're doing.  Do it anyway.  Visionaries succeed where others fail precisely because they push through the ridicule.

Now that our fears are out there, maybe we can shed them together.