Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Criticism

We all want to be loved.  It's natural human instinct to want others to shower us with adulation.  Trouble is that no one is universally loved, and no one's writing is adored by all.

I recently read an article by Stephen King that elaborated on this.  King is one of the most universally acclaimed writers not just of this generation, but of all time.  Judging by his influence on popular culture, it's safe to say that King has reached the pinnacle of a career most of us would kill to have.  Therefore it surprised me when I read about just how hated he seems to be by many.  His work has been called racist, homophobic, and psychotic.  Some of his work indeed goes down some dark roads, but I always assumed that if someone doesn't care for a piece of work, they won't read it.  Apparently some get off on reading what they hate and then telling the writer about it.

King's advice - shrug it off.

He's right.  People will criticize what you write, and not just strangers - friends and family will do things to dissuade you from writing.  They'll say you should have other priorities or that you're not good enough.  You've got to push through that mess.  Yes, listen to criticism and see if it makes sense, but don't let it discourage you, and certainly don't listen to those who just go on long rants about how much you suck.

This leads to the next point - write what you enjoy.  Some people will turn their nose up at your taste.  Let them.  Some people don't like Kool-Aid, but that doesn't stop me from drinking it by the gallon.  Why should my writing be any different?  If you don't write what you would enjoy reading, there's no chance in Hell that the audience would enjoy it.  Your enthusiasm comes through in your work, so figure out the stories you want to read, and write them.

I get it.  It's hard.  We writers have egos of crystal.  However, part of being a grownup is knowing that you have to let that criticism go.  You've got to find a way to be dispassionate or you'll go insane trying to please everyone.  Pleasing everyone isn't going to happen, so why bother?  If someone gives a valid critique, listen; but if they rant just to throw invectives, write them off, no matter who they are.  You'll be happier in the long run, and you'll write better stories.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fight Or Flight Finished!

After what has seemed like an eternity, I've finished the first draft of Fight Or Flight!  I was so excited yesterday to type those grand last words - The End.  Those of you who write know there is little more satisfying than finishing a novel.

Although it took a while, it really came together in the last two or so months.  As I've said before, Fight Or Flight is essentially three books in one.  The first act, about a third of the book, took nearly five months.  I was encumbered by work and moving away from Hawaii, plus it was always going to be the hardest part since I needed to describe a war and the building of a worldwide resistance network.  That act came out to just over 80,000 words.  However, the next two acts were about 145,000 words combined, and I did that in just under ten weeks.  So yeah, I feel really good about what I accomplished.

Further, I felt better about what I was writing as I went along.  I won't pick up Fight Or Flight again for another year at least.  I'll need that much time to decompress and look at it again with fresh eyes.  Even so, I feel that the first act is going to be the one that will require the most revision.  Act Two was more coherent, and it all seemed to flow in Act Three.  Of course, I may pick it up 12-18 months from now and say that my thoughts were exactly reversed.  You never can tell with the editing process.

Completing this story has helped grant me closure on a story idea that has been playing through my head for the past few years.  To get ready, I went back and re-read Homecoming to make sure the stories lined up(Fight or Flight is Homecoming's prequel).  After knowing what the story was but not feeling great about my first take on it, I was surprised by it on my next reading.  The stuff I needed to cover in this novel seemed to leap out of the page.  Also, the Homecoming story was more coherent than I remembered.  That's not to say some revision won't be required, but it's good to know that it basically makes sense.

Of course, Fight Or Flight won't be out for about four years.  I have several other stories that need to be published first.  Even so, both this and Homecoming have set up a universe I can return to for more stories.  That's the beauty of an epic novel - it lends itself to so many more webs that can be spun.  Maybe I'll get another itch regarding its universe.  For now, however, I'm content to just sit back and let that itch rest in the back of my mind - I'll take a little bit to bask in the pride of my accomplishment.

And then I'll get on to writing the next story...

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sequel/Series Pitfalls

Sequels and series are easy for both the writer and the reader.  Maybe I should say they're easier rather than easy, for it takes work to write a story or become engrossed in one.  However, they're not as hard to write or read as an original story.  The world has already been created and the characters have already been established.  As writers, we just put already established characters into new situations in the same world.  As readers, we greet series and sequels like old friends at a reunion.

That doesn't mean all is rosy with sequels or series.  There are pitfalls that must be avoided if the next installment is to be anywhere near as good, for we've all seen sequels made that seemed to shit all over the franchise.

Continuity errors - This is a biggie.  Characters that are killed in previous works can't come back.  Sure, sometimes the author does a little razzle dazzle to bring back those we loved, but to me, it always diminishes the end product.  I expect a story to progress, and bringing back those I've already mourned over holds it back.  Further, new powers and rules that contradict the old universe create an entirely different story.  That'd be okay...if it wasn't set in an already familiar universe.

Writing into corners - As a series progresses, the story has to go somewhere, so we put it on a path and see where it leads us.  Usually it leads us into a new adventure, but every once in a while, it leads us to a dead end where the plot no longer moves and the story is stale.  Although frustrating, this isn't really a big deal if the novel isn't finished.  Once it's published, though, it defines the direction of the next novel whether we want it to or not.  If we've led the story into a ditch, that's where it'll stay once the next in the series is on shelves.

Is there a purpose - Do we write a sequel or story because we really had a fresh idea, or did we do it because we ran out of ideas?  If it's the latter, the reader will know.  Stale ideas are easy to see, and they taint readers' minds the same way mold taints cheese.  Before delving into the continuance of any tale, be sure the story needs to continue.

Resolution - Some folks like for stories to continue in perpetuity.  I'm not one of them.  I like to find closure.  I want to know the characters I've come to care about have found their happy ending.  If the story just goes on and on and on and on, I'm cheated of that closure.  Even Harry Potter eventually beat Voldemort.

These are just a few things to remember when writing sequels or series.  Do them for a reason, not just to do them.  Readers can tell the difference.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why So Many Movies?

I've been asked on occasion why I reference movies so often if this is a blog about writing.  "Doesn't writing mean books?" they'll ask.  I understand the confusion.  However, I reference movies so often because the stories I write are movies in my head.

I grew up a child of television and cinema.  My parents made me go outside, but I'd often find a friend's house, and we'd watch all the movie channels my parents never had(until after I moved out of the house).  I immersed myself in the raucous adventures of faraway lands.  As I got older and found a love of reading, I discovered a new way to play movies in my head through the pages of a book.

All of my stories start as movies in my head.  I see the action and dialogue, and I try to jot it down.  Sometimes I can describe the story better than others, but it's still just a matter of transcription.

Good movies are hard to find these days.  Not only does Hollywood seem intent on retelling the same stories, but they're getting terrible at doing it.  Therefore, when I find a gem, I return to it over and over.  Movies and TV aren't the only venue I do this with - I re-read the books I love again and again as well.  Since I'm a fan of good storytelling in any form, I have no problem talking about those stories whether they come in print form or through a visual medium.

And let's face it - people are visual animals.  When we read a book, most of us aren't just absorbing the words; we're thinking about how those words translate to something we can see.  The reason for character description or depiction of action is so that we can visualize what's happening.  The words are a way for us to get from the page to our minds, so it's not confined to simple scratchings.

Since this is about storytelling rather than just the tangible product of Guttenberg's invention, I'll continue to reference any good story, regardless of format.  After all, the best among us can take from one format and translate it into another.  Isn't that what storytelling is all about?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The End Of The World

Given the subject of my most recent novel, I've been giving a great deal of thought to the end of the world.  In Fight Or Flight, the world has essentially ended - aliens have invaded, they've destroyed every bit of support structure we've ever built, and they're on the verge of wiping us out.  The few survivors remaining are huddled amongst the ruins and trying to find a way to escape.

It got me to thinking - what is it about the end of the world that attracts us so?  My novel is far from the only one about the end of the world,  The current zombie craze is predicated on people sifting through the ashes of the apocalypse.  Falling Skies is all about what happens after the world goes to shit.  Novels from The Stand to World War Z to the classic Earth Abides all feature life after the end.We have a morbid fascination with the ruination of society.

When we read a novel, most of us tend to put ourselves in the story.  Ergo, when we read an end times story, most of us are imagining ourselves in the lead role.  Who hasn't seen himself as Stu from The Stand as he tries taking on Randall Flagg?  Haven't we read stories like Rise and seen ourselves taking on the zombies as we lead others to safety?

There's certainly a heroic aspect to it.  All of us want to be the hero, and these types of tales provide opportunity for that in spades.  Rarely are there marauding armies where a person's identity can get lost, but rather it's that lone hero against the world.  We see such things and want to be that.

Of course, it's easy to imagine being that lone hero from the safety of our bed or couch.  We all seem to think that, of course, we'd be one of those few survivors, rather than one of the hordes of dead people snuffed out as Armageddon began.  But think about that - doesn't the world go to shit precisely because nearly everyone dies?  You can't have everyone survive and still call it an apocalyptic novel.  For that matter, you can't have most people survive and still call it an apocalyptic novel.

For those who've never been in a real shitty situation, where you've lived in the mud and eaten crap for weeks or months on end, such a story might sound noble, but it's really not.  It's hard...hard to the point where more than 95% of those reading this wouldn't survive.  In fact, most wouldn't want to.  Most would rather crawl back into bed, confident in the knowledge that solace means only putting down the book and grabbing a cup of tea.

Perhaps that's the appeal - that we can live vicariously through the story yet find safety at the end of the day.  If that's the reasoning, I can live with that.  However, lines get blurred when most really think they could survive the end of the world.  Sorry, but most couldn't.  That's the whole point.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Keep Learning

I'm an arrogant SOB.  It's okay - I can admit that there are times my conceit rages out of control.  And you know what?  I don't think that's always a bad thing.  I think it takes a bit of an ego to believe you can tell a great story that lots of people will enjoy, just as it takes a bit of ego to think you can play professional basketball or perform brain surgery.  Conceit stems from a belief in yourself, and a belief in yourself is a vital component of success in any field.

However, one must keep conceit in context by never letting it keep you from getting better.  If left to its own devices, conceit can keep you from listening to others and learning better ways to apply the craft.

I've subscribed to a number of writing websites.  If you've ever subscribed to them, then you know that they always seem to be putting out one article or another telling you how to be a better writer.  Do your potential success a favor and read those articles.  Then go to a writers' convention and listen to the panelists.  For that matter, listen to other writers who are just in the audience.

To be sure, you're going to have to sift through a lot of bullshit.  I think I'm a better writer than a lot of people, and I find much of what is said to be either self-obvious or just plain stupid.  I know how this sounds, but haven't most of us at least thought like that at some point?  Maybe it's that most of us won't admit to it.  That doesn't mean that there aren't kernels of inspiration and truth you can take.

Some of what I read when I see an article like "8 Things Every Successful Writer Does" or "The Key To A Great Opening Chapter" makes me roll my eyes.  Some of it is beginner stuff or things that should be apparent to anyone who has ever taken writing seriously.  However, that doesn't mean that I haven't nodded my head sometimes and said, "Hey, that's a great point.  I need to start using that."

As soon as you think you've learned all you ever can from writing, you're destined to fail.  Even seasoned writers like Stephen King and JK Rowling keep learning so they can write a better book next time.  No one becomes a master overnight, and only by learning what's out there, as well as what's important enough to become part of your playbook, can you get further along that path.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Sexual Encounters

Harry Turtledove is one of my favorite authors.  When I was 20 years old, I discovered Guns Of The South, and it took my breath away.  He kept on putting out quality work, from the Worldwar Series to The Great War Saga.  If more authors could write like Turtledove, I might never put a book down.

Unfortunately, I do have one problem with Turtledove's work - he oversells the sexual aspects.  I don't mean that he slips in the occasional innuendo or describes a bit of titillation.  No, sometimes Turtledove's work reads like a soft core porn novel(soft core?  There are times it's hard core).  His depictions of sex leave little to the imagination.

I'm no prude.  Sex happens in life.  I've even been known to enjoy it on occasion myself.  Leaving it completely out of our novels would sanitize life to such a degree that it would lose realism.  Therefore I'm not saying to ignore both the acts and the effects.

However, know how to exercise discretion.  What you put into a novel doesn't have to read like a letter to the Penthouse Forum(no, I won't link to that...get your minds out of the gutter).  Sometimes simple allusion can achieve an effect within the minds of our readers without getting graphic to the point where we'd be embarrassed if our grandmother read it.

I bring this up because I've had to try and figure out this balance in my most recent novel, Fight Or Flight.  With the end of the world, people are more prone to lose themselves in whatever pleasures they can find, and sex is always available if two people are willing.  Additionally, one of the dilemmas my main character is figuring out is how to deal with a serial rapist onboard a ship escaping Earth, and describing the crime is part of that story.  So...what to do?

The shower scene in Psycho has always been known as one of the greatest horror scenes of all time, not because it showed a pretty girl getting stabbed into ground beef, but because of how it alluded to that fact.  Sex in our books can be the same thing.  I think we can provide allusion without getting cheesy and achieve a greater effect upon the imagination rather than sounding like a 15 year old who found his dad's porn stash.

Sex is part of life, but what one person enjoys, another finds uncomfortable, and vice versa.  I think getting too graphic, while drawing in some, turns off others.  Why turn people away when we can draw from both crowds by using just a little discretion and writer's tact?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Vision Of Reality

As writers, we must envision the venues our stories take place in.  Mmost of my novels are set in the world you and I inhabit, so I have to find a way to describe real places that readers might actually go.  Since traveling around the country, and indeed the globe, can be both time consuming and extremely expensive, I do most of my visiting on the internet.

Through articles and pictures, I get an idea of where my story is set, and I try to describe it in a credible way.  Unfortunately, that doesn't always match up to reality.

On a cross-country trip to my family's new home in Kansas, I got the rare pleasure of visiting where several scenes from my novel are set.  Akeldama's first main plot thread takes place in Salina, Kansas, so my wife and I visited the city and toured several of the areas the vampire battles take place.

(There are supposed to be pictures here, but they won't transfer from my phone for some reason, so you'll have to imagine them)

For starters, I learned I'd been pronouncing it wrong.  I thought Salina was pronounced with a short 'I," like the way Selena Gomez says her first name.  However, as we were walking through Indian Rock Park, a local informed us that the "I" is long, like Sal-EYE-na.  Kind of torched my first vision right there.

I also found that one of the places the book is set in, the aforementioned Indian Rock Park, is not the barren patch of land on the edge of town I thought it was.  In fact, it's smack in the middle of several neighborhoods.  There are houses clearly visible from parts of the park, which takes away a little from the effect I was going for.

And the lonely part of town I envisioned where a fight breaks out between a vampire and the main character?  That part of town isn't anywhere near as lonely as I thought from Google.  In fact, it's a bustling area of shops and restaurants.  Once again, that detracts from the scene.

So why do I care?  Mostly because making a place real adds to the story.  We've all heard tales about folks visiting Stull Cemetary or La Push just to get closer to the story they love.  Imagine a fan's dismay, indeed their outrage, at getting to one of their favorite spots and find it's nothing like it was described in the book.  An author stands to lose credibility quickly in such an instance.

I plan to slightly alter my novel to accommodate this information.  I will acknowledge the housing close to Indian Rock Park but set it against the indifference of the community.  As for the diner, I found an abandoned lot about half a mile back from the main area originally set that will serve equally as well.  It might not appease everyone, but sometimes settings have to bend to the will of the writer, and sometimes the writer has to bend to the will of settings.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Our Love Of Sequels

Go Set a WatchmanHarry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsHeir to the EmpireDoctor Sleep.

What do all of these have in common?  They're all sequels, of course.

Why do sequels enthrall us so?  We always bitch about how there's never a good new idea out there, yet we then we flock to sequels like they're made of gold.

I think the answer comes down to a few things.  First, the world of the sequel is familiar.  For all of our griping about wanting fresh ideas for stories, we wrap ourselves in the familiar.  It makes us feel safe when there's something we understand and have seen before.  Look at America's love of comic strips - the most successful ones are the most familiar, right down to the clothes they wear everyday.  A novel sequel is similar in the fact that we've already been introduced to the world and the characters, so returning to them feels comfortable.

Additionally, very few novels wrap up a character's life in such a neat bow that we don't want to know more.  Sure, we can always read the "And they lived happily ever after" part of the ending, but most of us want to see them live happily ever after, even if that means there are a few more bumps along the way.  To watch them continue with life and its struggles lets us know that people we care about continue to exist.

That continuity provides balance to life.  We see that others can endure, so it helps us endure, as well as escape our own doldrums.  When I sit down to read a sequel, I can lose myself in the story of a friend, and as artsy-fartsy as it sounds, we do come to think of these folks as friends.  We want to know our friends keep on going, so we hold sequels tight as a way of seeing that.

We can always say no one has an original idea, but if we keep taking on sequels, don't we lose at least a little bit of the right to complain?  I'm not saying loving a sequel is bad, only that we often get what we ask for, even if we stomp our feet and yell that we don't.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Revealing Scene

I've noticed a recurring theme throughout my work - I have a tendency to create a special scene in my novels to sit down and tell the reader how everything comes together.  I never set out at the beginning of a book to do this, but it always seems to happen.

In Salvation Day, there's a major scene where the main character has a conversation with God as He reveals the reasons for why the world is the way it is.  In Akeldama, I have a split scene where two different people in two different parts of the world simultaneously tell the story of why the vampire world exists.  In Wrongful Death, there's a scene where the main character is shown by a spirit guide why he's haunting the wrong person.

I think this is due to an OCD part of my personality that demands I tie the plot together and answer readers' questions as to why things are the way they are.  Thinking back, I don't think I have a single novel where I don't have a revelatory scene of some kind.  I have an innate desire for readers to "get it," and while I can advance the plot and develop the characters through subtlety and innuendo, I can't get across the purpose of the novel to readers that way.

Looking back at some of what I like to read, this isn't terribly uncommon.  JK Rowling had a great revelatory scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Dumbledore lets Harry in on everything that has been kept from him his whole life, just like Alan Dean Foster reveals the need for mankind's involvement in a galactic war in A Call To Arms.

As writers, we want our audience to know why they're reading what they are, so this is something we slip in.  Not every novel requires it - Tim Zahn, for example, spreads this out over several novels of The Thrawn Trilogy - but more do this than I realized until I started paying attention.  The key question for readers is whether they'd get the purpose without this.  I admit that I wonder about this sometimes...