Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cliffhangers versus Resolution

It's a difficult job for a writer to know how to draw a reader in and tease them just enough where they want more, but not so often that you get written off as only a flirt who can't come to completion.  Twin Peaks and Lost were notorious for always ending on a cliffhanger and never resolving anything.  Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural, on the other hand, never let a storyline go past a season and a half.  In his words, audiences want to get some closure along the way.

This is challenging for me, and I suspect it is for a lot of you as well.  Don't provide enough leading tension, and people will put our books away as boring.  String people along too long, and they'll throw your book away in frustration that they never seem to reach the end.

Most of my chapters leave just enough unresolved tension so that the reader will turn to the next one.  However, I recognize that there are storylines that, while important, simply aren't going to be vital to the final chapter.  The reader wants closure, but you can't wrap up five storylines at once, so you have to do so within the body of the work every so often.  I use a ratio of around five to one - I'll leave one chapter resolved for every five that create tension.  This allows readers to take a breath and not be completely exhausted by the end of the book.

Speaking of the end of the book, this also applies to entire storylines.  I don't personally care for many stories that go beyond the level of trilogy.  Yes, there may be the iconic character who you can do a whole bunch of things down the road with, but even in such instances, story arcs should be complete by the third book.  I think on the Thrawn Trilogy within the expanded Star Wars Universe and how Timothy Zahn wrapped everything up, even while leaving the world intact to revisit later should he choose to do so.  However, I didn't walk away from that trilogy feeling like I had unresolved questions, so it was a satisfying read.

William Fortschen made, in my opinion, a classic mistake with a book he wrote about a decade ago - Down to the Sea.  He took a storyline that had wrapped up from The Lost Regiment series, and he began a new adventure within it.  The world was open enough to do this, so there should have been no problem.  However, he abandoned the series - there have been no new books since, even though numerous plot points have yet to be completed.

A few authors have done this - they've written a storyline that people got invested in, led them into tension, and then never gone back.  It's one thing if you've read the most current work in a series and are just waiting for the next one to come out, but it's quite another if it's been six years and you can see the writer has no intention of delving back into the world, and this is maddening.

I know we have innumerable stories spinning through our heads - entire worlds that go on regardless of whether the story has been written or not.  However, readers aren't given a cable that hooks directly into our psyche, so they need these things to come out.  And unlike real life, they want them to come to a conclusion.  Why?  Because it provides a sense of order and happiness in their lives, qualities not always present in the real world, so people turn to stories for comfort.

It's okay to draw people in and find ways to push them into new stories.  However, you can't always flirt and never close the deal; people will eventually leave.  And we definitely don't want that to happen.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

To the Abyss and Back

A few posts I've read recently have gotten me thinking about characters.  What is it that makes us root for them?  Just how far down the path of difficulty do we really want them to go?

I'm pessimistic by nature, at least in how I see a story coming out.  My mind almost always leaps to the worst possible case scenario.  I don't know why that is, but it's something I've recognized and tried to take into account.  That being the case, I have to be careful that the characters in my stories don't end up at the bottom of a pit with a ton of bricks sitting on their chests.

So I've thought back to the types of stories I've enjoyed and how I wanted them to end.  Even more, I've thought back to stories that pissed me off with the ending, and what I'd have done to change them.  Most of what I've liked has been where the characters were in a situation that you logically knew was impossible for them, that created such hopelessness there was no recourse, and then they clawed and scratched their way back and into the sunlight.  Characters who overcame extreme obstacles and showed the kind of courage and perseverance we all wish we had are usually the ones I've gone back to over and over again.

I think on Colonel Andrew Lawrence Keane from The Lost Regiment series, and how how he fought in the face of impossible odds against the Tugar, Merki, and Bantag, and how no one should've gotten out alive.  I remember Harry Potter, abandoned and alone by the middle of the last book in the Harry Potter series; he defied those who told him to give up and triumphed anyway.  In a perverse way, Jack Torrence was the hero of The Shining - taken over by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel and bent on killing his family, he managed to overcome that evil just in time to save his family and ensure the hotel was destroyed forever.

Maybe that's why I write the stories I do.  I want my guys to have to overcome the impossible.  As writers, we know that no one will read something that's just hunky dory all the way through.  As much as it pains us, we have to put obstacles in their paths, and those obstacles have to be sadistic.  The reader has to believe that it's real; stuff that can be easily overcome by almost anyone bores people.

I rarely let my characters catch their breath.  Just when they think they've conquered one situation, I'll put another one in there that is even more daunting.  A novel I'm working on now has the main character's girlfriend getting kidnapped by a gang of monsters that request a meeting.  During this meeting, the main character manages to slip a GPS onto the bad guy and tracks him back to his hideout.  However, it all turns out to be a trap and the bad guys were anticipating the trick, so they used the hideout as a diversion while they went to their real objective, leaving the character, who so recently was patting himself on the back for his brilliance, flummoxed again.

Although this technique can draw readers in, a writer should be careful with it.  You can't put your characters in a hole so deep that it's impossible to climb out.  The stories that pissed me off the most were the ones where I was denied the satisfaction of the hero coming out on top in the end(horror stories are usually the worst culprits).  As sappy as it may sound, I think the kid in all of us still roots for a happy ending.  The reason we enjoy the pitfalls is because they make the triumph that much more satisfying.  However, when a writer rips the heart out of a readers and doesn't provide a glimmer of hope, that writer risks alienating readers to the point where they no longer trust him.

Put your characters through Hell.  Just make sure there is a way for them to claw their way towards Heaven in the end.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Blog Hop Tour

Christine Rice recently tagged me in a blog post of hers where she answered ten questions about her next work, and then she passed the game along.  I don't usually participate in chain letter like posts, but I wanted an idea on what to blog about, and this seemed like a good one, so here goes.  The rules are to answer 10 questions about my work-in-progress. I have one work-in-progress, and I haven't yet discussed it, so this is a "first look" at a novel where I hope the first draft will be complete by Thanksgiving.

1. What is the working title of your book?
Canidae, although I've toyed around with Bestia and Pactum Dioboles.

2. Where did the idea come from?
This one's a spin off from Akeldama, and it seemed like the next logical progression.  A lot of novels concerning vampires talk about fighting them, but few deal with the aftermath of a world following a vampire war.  I wanted to explore what would happen when the fighting stopped.

3. What genre does your work-in-progress fall under?
Same as Akeldama - Horror/Thriller.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Unfortunately, the main guy I have pictured for the main character has been dead quite a while - River Phoenix.  The others, James Franco and Uma Thurman, might be a bit out of my price range for the moment.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
As the Catholic Church tries to pick up the pieces from the Vampire War, an ancient evil returns to try and reclaim its place at the top of the food chain.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I expect to indie publish all of my works, unless something comes along that I simply can't pass up.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It's still in progress, but I expect it will be done in about a month.  Once it's complete, it will have taken me just over five months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within its genre?
Jim Butcher's chronicling of Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I inspired me!  As a writer, I come up with crazy ideas, and some of them make it into book form.  This is one of those.  :-P

10. What else about your book might pique reader’s interest?
This is not a "traditional" horror story.  It combines elements of crime drama(whodunit) with action thrillers that move quickly and get the reader turning pages, all in a horror setting.

Thanks to Christine Rice for the blog post idea.  As to passing it along, the two I'd be most interested to see post their own answers would be Kevin Hanrahan and Dan Smith.  Let's see if they'll play along.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Take a Break

I love to write.  I know - shocking!  I like to play with words and figure out how to craft a sentence in order to bring out the maximum amount of emotion in a reader.  Writing is a great release from the pressure of the day, and I can't imagine not doing it.

That aside, there is something to be said for burnout.  We've got to learn how to step back and take a break sometimes.  We need to watch a movie that requires no thought or sit alone on a beach and stare at the surf.

"But Russ," you say, "how are we to become world famous authors if we don't write?"

I'm not saying to give up writing - I'm saying that we should take it in slower measures sometimes so that we can preserve the creative zeal and story quality that makes what we do fun.  There is more to life than writing, and if we lose sight of that, our writing will end up sucking out loud.

I'm in the middle of writing another novel to build my stash for when this writing thing goes full time.  I'm at 90,000 words of what I project will be about 120,000(before editing).  However, I take breaks in order to enjoy things like my daughter's Tahitian dance classes or help my wife decorate our house for Halloween.

I also refuse to write more than 5,000 words in a single day.  Usually I only do 1,000 to 2,000, but I steadfastly refuse to do more than 5,000.  Why?  Because after 5,000, the words begin to blur together and I lose focus.  I forget to be patient and allow the story to develop, and I begin to assume the reader will know what I'm talking about, even if I don't describe it well.  Also, a lot of times, I'll start to outrun my outline, and that almost never leads to good results.  Therefore, I stop at 5,000 words so that I can let the story breathe and retain a certain level of excitement when I pick it up the next day.

More writers need to remember the need to break away from the work sometimes and just do other things.  Besides giving the brain a break, experiencing other things allows us a broader base of perspective that we can bring to our work.  The battle scenes in Salvation Day wouldn't be anywhere near as intense if I hadn't participated in certain events that shaped my world.  Akeldama would've been a lot less thrilling if I hadn't been able to break away from writing and tried to enjoy other hobbies.

Learning how to break away can be hard.  We define ourselves by what we do, and a lot of us feel guilty if we aren't writing every single day.  I know that in the past I've talked about how writing is like going to the gym - miss one day, and it's easier to miss another.  However, even the best conditioned gym rat needs a break from clanking down barbells every day.  If you keep missing your writing because you just didn't feel like it, that's one thing; however, taking calculated rest breaks helps the mind recover from the daily grind and figure out how to recharge so the next story is even better.

So take a break.  Go on a vacation without your laptop and enjoy Disneyland with your family.  Put away the outline and go fishing.  These things keep us sane and help us define our writing instead of the other way around.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


The folks who know me - at least the ones who've known me since I was a kid and I've shared stuff with - know that I have some, shall we say, unusual dreams.  Some of them get so out there that one of my closest friends has told me that I need help on more than one occasion.

I've had dreams where my me, my mom, and Tom Cruise have been fighting zombies at a local putt-putt, and if they got to us, we'd turn into zombies ourselves.  In another one, I was running from a pale faced guy with a hole in his forehead that he covered with a transistor radio, and when he took the radio away so that I could see his head, my skin started to boil off.  A recent one I've had included me and one of the guys from The Exorcist trying to push disembodied spirits back up a dryer vent so that we could watch TV without interference.

Freaked out yet?
(The dream about my daughter and I conquering Mars was a little out there)
I don't think I'm alone in having bizarre dreams.  In fact, I think that most folks have strange visions while they sleep that they wouldn't want anyone to know about out of fear of a padded cell.  That I choose to share some of mine may mark be as a little bolder than most, but when I've been able to coax things out of folks, I'm reassured that I'm not alone in my psychosis.

Why have I chosen to share these things with you and risk people screaming as they sprint away from me as fast as they can?  Because I've decided to try and put together a dream journal.  A few of the out there things my subconscious runs through when I'm not awake are cool enough to make the cut in some of my stories.  I've already used a few things in previous novels, and I think I could get even more traction out of them if I wrote down a more detailed account.

Of course, that means keeping a writing journal next to my bed and trying to be alert enough to write things down the moment I wake up.  We tend to forget our dreams within minutes of waking up.  Yes, we may retain snippets from the most intense ones, but most of it goes away quickly.  Think about it - you're certain you've had a lot of crazy visions, but how many can you remember in detail?  Samuel Coleridge claims to have written the poem Kubla Khan after coming out of an opium enhanced dream.  He immediately wrote down his vision, but he was interrupted by a visitor, and when he finally got back to trying to write down the rest of it, the details of the dream were lost.

We writers are a little messed up in the head anyway.  Shouldn't we do what we can to use all available resources, including our dreams?  The results might not always be something coherent, but I bet it'll be a fun ride.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Author Interview - Hugh Howey

I'm incredibly honored to interview Hugh Howey, author of awesome stories like Wool, the Molly Fyde saga, and I, ZombieWool has recently been optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a potential feature film, and it was just featured as the Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon.  Please check out his website, as well as his work on Amazon.

1.  What inspired you to become a writer?
My love of reading. I think when you enjoy something so much, you aspire to create some of your own. I found early on that I enjoyed relating stories, both real events from my life and made up tales, and so I began to dream of one day becoming an author. Not that I thought it might really happen!

2.  How did you come up with the idea for Wool?  Did you envision it as a series, or was it one tale that people demanded more of?
It started with this question of whether or not we can know the world by staring at a single screen. It’s something that occurred to me from watching the advent of 24-hour news. In my travels, I’ve seen one sort of world, a pretty nice place. On the news, I see something largely horrific. What does this bias toward what’s newsworthy do to us?
And so I thought about a society that can only see this dismal view of their landscape. They live underground. They aren’t allowed to question what lies outside their limited scope. But there are those who do, and their punishment is to be let out to see for themselves.

3.  I see from your website that you're working on several books(including two in the Wool saga).  How do you plan out your work?  Do you outline or simply write as the words come to you?
I do a lot of both. I outline the general plot, and then allow the characters to roam freely as they go from a set beginning to a set end. New and unsuspected twists pop up, and I work to incorporate them. I think the best stories are told if they are well thought out and planned ahead of time, but I think the best writing happens when you allow the characters some liberty and just go where they take you. The trick is to find a balance that works.

4.  How have your travels over the ocean affected your books?
Immensely. My view of the human condition would be less well informed if I had stayed in one place. And my travels put my life in jeopardy several times, which gave me an intense appreciation for its worth and for what that sort of danger feels like.
Then there’s the characters and the cultures I encountered throughout the islands and abroad. They all find their way into my stories. Fact is far crazier than fiction, so all I have to do is tone down what I see and experience, and it makes for unbelievable drama on the page.

5.  What do you think of the current market transformation concerning the shift between traditional and indie publishing?
I think it’s wonderful. There are more choices for both the reader and the writer. And the shift is benefiting traditional publishing as well. The large publishers are loathe to take risks, and by signing successful indies, they are able to promote works that readers have signaled they want more of. The market, in essence, is becoming smarter and more efficient.
My message to aspiring writers is to view the indie route as the best way to begin one’s journey as an author. There’s zero risk. A book that fails on the open market can be unpublished down the road. A book that fails with a traditional publisher can make it more difficult to get a second contract. Now that the stigma is gone, now that publishers no longer fear taking on independent authors, what used to be the path of last resort is now the best path to success. You can languish in slush piles or you can prove yourself with your audience. Wool would never have been published by a major press. Neither would many of the erotica works tearing up the charts these days. Only the readers know what they want. The market is now designed to cater to them. Everyone should find this exciting.

6.  A lot of writers hate the business side of writing.  What do you think is necessary for a writer to be successful in getting his or her career off the ground?
I think you have to love every aspect of writing if you hope to be successful. I have friends who are traditionally published, and they have a lot of the same obligations that I do. I get requests from my overseas publishers to film a video of me speaking to a particular audience, or write this letter to book reps, or okay this cover, or do this bit of social networking. It keeps me very busy. So I don’t think there’s this huge difference in the amount of work necessary to be successful. If you are with a big publisher and all you do is write, you don’t do any marketing or promotion, I don’t think you’ll gain a very wide audience.
I should also note that I still view writing more as a hobby than a career. A hobby is something you love, something you would do even if you weren’t getting paid. It’s healthier and more honest for me to view my own writing in this manner. If everyone stopped buying my books, I’d still be writing.

7.  Editing our work is one of the hardest things for a writer to do, especially a newbie.  Describe your editing process.
I do 7 or 8 full passes through my work, from rough revision to hunting for typos. Then I pass the work off to my wife and mother, who mark it up with all the problems they find. I fix these, then send the work to a dozen or so beta readers, all of whom find issues. I fix these, and then I publish the work. Of course, errors still creep in there (where the hell do they come from?!), so I make corrections to the ebook over time as readers point out errors. It’s a lot of work, but I would do most of this before submitting to an agent or publisher if I wasn’t self-published. There’s this perception that other authors get to write rough drafts and send them somewhere to be polished to perfection. That doesn’t happen.

8.  What kind of books do you like to read?  What's your favorite and why?
Non-fiction, mostly. I’m curious. I enjoy learning. My writing is full of the things I encounter in history books, works on human psychology, biographies, and the like. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, went through a long phase of gobbling up the classics, but now I mostly read non-fiction.

9.  How influential has your wife been in both inspiring your ideas and supporting your career?
Oh, she’s been amazing. My muse and my first beta reader. She has been very tolerant of my desire to live in small, affordable homes so I could squeeze by working part time in low-paying jobs while I concentrate on my writing. And she has been equally tolerant of all the new demands on my time and my frequent travels. But I think it helps that she’s a fan of my writing. She often complains that she can’t find anything to read as good as my rough drafts. Then again, she keeps telling me that I get handsomer as I get older, which I know isn’t the case, so maybe it’s a bunch of baloney!

10.  What advice would you give to a newbie writer just starting out?
Ask yourself why you are writing. Is it to get rich? You’ll be disappointed. Is it to amass legions of readers? Again, that’s not a goal you’re likely to meet. And it isn’t because success is rare, it’s because I firmly believe that what you write and how you write are determined by why you write. This is true for me, and I suspect it’s true in general.
Write because you love it. Write to tell the stories you wish were out there, as a reader. Write for that audience of one, that single stranger who will pick up your work and find that it resonates with them. Write beautifully and tell interesting stories. If you do that, you can’t fail. If your motivation is to be happy while writing, success is guaranteed.
This is how I approach it. It’s a hobby. Like gardening. Could I buy my vegetables at the store for less than the time and effort cost me to grow my own? Of course. Could someone who enjoys fishing save themselves similarly by going to the market? Yes. But that’s not why we garden and why we fish. It isn’t why I write.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


As you may have gathered, I've decided to go the indie route for publishing my books.  Yes, this will mean a great deal more work, but it also provides a sense of freedom that is incredible.  In essence, I can speak my mind and not worry about pissing off agents and publishers.  In the traditional publishing world, a writer has to tread carefully and not annoy the wrong people, or that writer will find themselves on the outs of the profession.

A few of my writer friends have, very calmly and politely, said, "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!?!  NO PUBLISHER IS GOING TO WANT TO TOUCH YOUR WORK BECAUSE YOU'RE PISSING THEM ALL OFF!!!"  Many of my posts have gone out of their way to call out some of the troubling practices that agents and traditional publishers engage in, and several people have emailed me, horrified that I would say such things where anybody, including agents and publishers, could read them.  Not that my friends have disagreed with the content, but that I'm being too bold as a nobody in calling them out.

Ten years ago, or maybe even as little as five years ago, this would've been an exceptional hurdle to overcome.  I'd like to say I would still be just as brash, but I can't say that honestly since I'm not in that situation.  I hope I would still be straight, but I really don't know.

The advent of print on demand and the Kindle or Nook digital publishing markets have removed that obstacle.  A writer no longer needs to kiss the ass of publishers or agents to make a good living and get his or her work in front of the public.  I can go directly to the audience, and the traditional folks can do little but sit on the sidelines and fume.  Yes, that puts all the burden on me, but since I'm a control freak, that sits just fine with me - I've never been keen on handing all that control over to someone else anyway.

Too many fledgling writers refuse to be honest about the process.  They're content to be stepped on, accept crappy treatment and terms, and come back begging for more.
(Please please please think that I don't mind your arrogance and condescending ways)
The indie movement has allowed aspiring writers the ability to tell traditional folks to take a hike.  In the end, I think this will create a better environment for writers since publishers, who are going to become irrelevant if they don't change their ways, will have to start treating the talent better if they want to stay in business.  The change will come slowly as traditional publishers find themselves combing the indie circuit for new writers rather than getting them from cold querying.  The indie writers who attract notice are likely already doing well and will have the ability to accept or not accept terms, which will lead to better terms.  This change won't come quickly, but it will come.

In the end, it allows us to express ourselves freely and not worry about freezing to death in the winter because we have no money to pay our bills.  We can speak our minds, confident that there is more than one way to career success.  And calling out the more questionable practices should lead to those practices changing.

Or I might just be an asshole.  You make that judgment.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why Writers Fail

A lot of people want to write books.  It seems like every other person I encounter wants to write the next great American novel.  Why then are there so few people out there who are successful?  Why do so many hit a wall that they can't get over?  I think there are several reasons for this:

1.  Many people write for the wrong reasons.
I have a friend who envisions that he can just poop out a book, and since he's such a fabulous writer, people will flock to his work.  He'll shoot up the New York Times Bestseller List, and the movie offers will roll in shortly thereafter.  In other words, he wants to write so he can be rich and famous.  After I got done laughing in his face, I did all I could to disabuse him of his delusions.

You have to write because you love to write, because you have stories inside you that will come out whether anyone picks up one of your books or not.  Unless your name is Kardashian, Canseco, or Cowell, you will have next to no cache to build an audience from, so you can't count on instant success.  Fame and fortune come later, if they come at all, once you're established and people are knocking down your door to read your next work, but not while you are struggling to build an audience.

2.  Writers get discouraged.
Being a professional writer means you need to have thick skin.  Not everyone will like your work.  Further, a lot of people will not only hate it - they'll go out of their way to tell you they hate it.

A lot of artistic people have egos made from crystal - one sharp tap and it'll shatter, and that writer's confidence will never return.  I've seen some who get a negative review and then walk away crumpling their pages before throwing them in the trash.  It's okay to evaluate the criticism and re-work your stuff, but it's another to give up on it wholesale and decide you're never going to write again just because someone told you that you sucked.  People told Stephanie Meyer that she sucked - and many still tell her that - but she fought through it to sell over 50 million copies of those sparkly vampires.
(This whistle has more talent than you do - you gonna cry now?)
Lots of writers get discouraged because they couldn't land a book deal or because they failed to sell more than five copies this month.  The life of a writer isn't all rose blossoms and peppermint - you have to fight through the rough patches if you want to catch on.  Yes, you might never catch on, but I guarantee you won't if you quit.

3.  A lot of writers fail to account for the business side of the house.
My ideal life would be to wake up when the sun is warm, pour myself a tall glass of my favorite beverage, and write my next masterpiece.  In this ideal world, someone else would worry about all that nasty marketing, warehousing, and promotion stuff, and they'd send me a check every month so I could continue to live as I should - focused on creating wonderful stories.

Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work this way.  Writing is only about 50%(if that) of being a professional author, and, of course, it's the fun part.  However, it's that other 50% that will get your work sold and keep food on your table.  Many writers get hives when they have to start making phone calls to solicit a signing or have to write that small town paper and beg for a review.  Shouldn't their talent just carry them?  Um, no.

There are plenty of writers who are willing to put in that legwork, and some of them have talent too.  Until you become an A-List writer, you can be ignored by others because they won't know you exist, and they won't care.

You need to get how to work taxes, what to do to create a website, and the ins and outs of creating your own small business so you can properly bring your work to market.  None of it is sexy, but the real world rarely is.

4.  Many writers shoot their load in one work.
Like I said above, a lot of people fantasize about writing a book.  However, when I ask them what they're going to do after the first book has run its course, they look at me like a 7th grader who forgot to study for his math test.

Are you in this for one book, or are you in it for a career?  If you're in it for a career, you better have a long term plan(back to that business thing again).  Some folks can sit down and crank out a book in a month.  Some need a year.  But whatever the case, you have to have more than a single novel if you want to do this full time.  Plan ahead - know that the month(at least) on either side of your release date is going to be so busy that you probably won't have a lot of time to write.  Beyond that, you better have at least a few ideas about your next novel.  If you want this to be a hobby, one book is fine, but if you want a career, you better be able to go beyond a single story.

5.  Some folks just don't have talent.
Not everyone can play in the NFL.  A writer can be persistent, hardworking, and business savvy, but it he or she can't craft a sentence and the stories are bland and boring, I don't see how someone overcomes that hurdle.  Desire isn't enough; you need to have some ability to carry it out as well.

Nearly everyone thinks they can write well.  Unfortunately, that's not true.  Shit, it's not even common.  Talent is something we either have or we don't.  That doesn't mean everyone's talent is well polished.  Even the best beef wellington once started out as a bloody hunk of meat.  If there's a spark of talent, a person willing to work on it can make themselves better.  However, if you have no ability to run and throw, you won't be quarterbacking the New England Patriots.  If that's the case, you should find something else to do where there might be a chance of success.

This is why there aren't more successful writers.  However, I'm sure I've missed a few reasons for failure - what do you think?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Blog Post Length

I love to read.  That should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog.  However, sometimes I'll look at something and despair as to whether I should even get started.

War and Peace could be the greatest story ever told, but its heft has always dissuaded me from getting into it.  The same thing goes for blogs I read.  In my ever so humble opinion, a single blog post shouldn't be more than a page and a half.  Beyond that, it gets tedious and people start skipping whole paragraphs just to get to the end.  Instead, they'll skim the first sentence of each section and then move on.

We live in a world of people with short attention spans.  Even those who love to read will only put up with so much.  A writer who goes on ad infinitum appears to not be able to be direct and will just talk around every tagline without getting to the meat of the story.

When I check my posts for spelling and grammar, I cut and paste them into a Microsoft Word document. Most of the time they'll come out to a page, with some spilling over onto the next page by a line or two. If I cut and paste something that runs over half a page, I go back with a machete and figure out what needs to go. That's because I understand that the public dislikes rambling.

Maybe this is a consequence of what I do for a living when I'm not writing or blogging, but I can't stand when people drone on and on about stuff, no matter how interesting it might be.  Tell me what this means to me and why I should care!

Ever look at a paragraph - whether in a newspaper, a blog post, or in a book - and see nothing but a solid wall of writing?  Such things give me a sinking feeling, like, "How the hell am I ever going to get through this without stabbing myself in the eyeballs with a sharp stick?"  There's a reason why most writers keep their paragraph lengths to three to five sentences - it provides the illusion of breaking up the writing so people aren't overwhelmed.

Too many, from novels to the blogging world, shrug off this basic tenet.  What they have to say is so important that surely the public will understand.  And yes, the public might understand...once or twice.  However, when you make it a habit, you risk people finding something shorter that doesn't surge over their senses.

I admit that I might be off base here.  After all, I have only myself to use as a gage, but I think I'm a pretty good gage.  Much as I like some folks and enjoy hearing their thoughts, there are a few War and Peace size blogs I avoid.  That's not because they haven't found great insight, but rather because they want to dazzle me so much that they can't stop talking.  Please don't be that person.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Editors versus Critique Groups

I recently got into a fascinating discussion with Kevin Hanrahan about using critique groups versus using an editor to make your work better.  We have, shall I say, a slight difference of opinion on the best way to move forward.  Kevin is big into thinking that professional editors are the route you need to go, while I lean more towards using beta-readers and critique groups.

There are times a writer absolutely needs a professional editor to look at his or her work.  However, I think this should be geared more towards structure and grammar than content.  The reason I say this is because I don't view an editor as any different from an audience I'd like to reach.  Tastes are subjective, and one editor isn't likely to be a greater indicator of the mood of the general public than someone off the street.  The editor is (hopefully) better trained than most folks in what looks right on paper from a structure perspective, but given how many people out there love books, I don't think an editor knows any more than most about what the public wants to read.  Recent trends back me up on that.
(Another editor shows emotion over a recent novel)
Plus, a great number of editors I've run into seem like they'd rather have been writers, but they didn't want to go through the trouble of, you know, actually having to write a novel - they just want to re-write yours.  As the author, I know the story I'm trying to tell.  However, a few editors have tried to get me to make changes that would've turned the story into something altogether different.  Then they get pissed when I've told them that I wasn't going to make those changes, as if I'd insulted their artistic intelligence.

Critique groups, on the other hand, let me get my work in front of the target audience I will eventually try to sell to.  Not all of them will see the work in the same vein, and they'll usually suggest changes.  Some of the suggestions are good, and some are shitty, but it lets me know what my audience is thinking.  Plus, if more than one person makes the same basic suggestion, that's an indicator I should pay attention.

For me, it boils down to who you want to target.  If you want to get your work to editors, that's who you should go after.  However, if you want the general public to buy what you've got, you should get them to look at it.  How many times have you looked at what a movie reviewer said, then you watched the film and thought the reviewer was crazy?  Editors and critics were the ones who liked The English Patient and hated Star Wars, while we peons in the general public were going wild over those works.

Critique groups also allow for much more back and forth.  You'd think a professional editor would give you this kind of dialogue, but as stated above, a fair number of them view not taking their word as gospel to be a personal affront.  In a group, beta-readers can let you know what you made them feel and if your plot worked.  Someone may have a wild suggestion that you should incorporate, while others will have the kind of input that belongs in the round file, but at least they don't view themselves as a Solomon passing law over what you're written that should, nay must, be changed.

In the end, it's your work.  You have to decide whether a suggestion on content change is right for you.  You also have to decide if that spelling mistake or grammatical faux pas should be corrected, of if it was part of the character's accent.  Regardless of your technique for feedback, take ownership of what you write and put out the best product that you want to, not the best product someone else wants to - our critical eye is just as valuable.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Blog Editing

All of us hopefully know the difference between writing a novel you want to sell, and creating a blog post that you want to reach as many people as possible for free.  On the first one, you spend countless hours combing through the manuscript, spotting spelling mistakes, adjusting paragraph structure, and tweaking word choice until you have just the right mix to evoke emotion in your readers.

The second one can be a free for all.

The bloggers I know write their posts in a single sitting, and it usually just comes from whatever they're feeling at the moment.  Sure, we might give some thought beforehand about what we'll be writing - I keep my post ideas in a black and white journal - but we rarely go through the same kind of outline and planning detail that we will with our novels.

After reading a few of my posts, I wonder if maybe I shouldn't put more into trying to pre-plan what I write, or at least whether I should put more effort into editing them before they go live.  As any good artist, or even any number of bad ones, I like to go back to my stuff every now and then and re-read it.  Yeah, I like to say I'm carefully looking at what worked and what didn't, but we all know that wouldn't be but about 25% of the truth.  The rest of the time, I like to just look at what I wrote and think, "I hope this made someone think.  Plus, it's pretty good."

Everyone wants to believe that their stuff is masterful, but in re-reading my recent work, I know that's not always the case.  There's a definite quality difference between what I post on this site and what I write that I intend to publish for the public to buy.  The easy things to correct are the typos and mini-grammatical mistakes that are present.  The hope there is that not too many people noticed before I could make the correction.  However, there are other things that aren't as simple to fix.

I despise the redundant use of words.  There are words you have to use over and over, like their or likes, but others, ones that you don't hear a lot in everyday conversation, become clumsy if you use them too often in a short stretch.  One of my biggest editing tasks when I'm going back over a novel is to find those types of redundancies and eliminate them.  Sometimes that requires only a small change of words.  Other times, due to context, it takes a wholesale re-write of a paragraph.

Also, when editing a book, you can work on the flow much easier.  I rarely get so far that changing the flow is difficult.  Plus, the length of the story helps me put those changes into the proper perspective.  Unfortunately, a single blog post is just one short flowing stream, so changing it up might require doing the whole thing all over again, and honestly, I'm just not going to do that.

In order to avoid these mistakes in the future, I'm going to try to write my posts and let them sit for a few hours before I publish them.  That way, I can look at what I've written with fresh eyes. 

There are lots of things I write that need work.  Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame would throw away weeks of material that he thought wasn't worthy, which is one of the reasons his final product ended up being so good.  With blogging, I don't always take the time for that quality control, and I know I'm not alone.  Therefore, I'll try to look at things with a more jaundiced eye and not let "I just need to get something posted" take over my blogging life.  I won't always be successful, but it should improve the quality of work in the end.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Action and Dialogue

The Muse smacked me in the back of the head on her way by.  It hurt.  A lot.

"You can't just go for a novel that's straight dialogue or straight action," she scolded.  "You have to have a good mix of both if you want people to get into your story."

I looked up from my desk and prepared a witty retort, but she was already gone.  The door to my office slammed behind her as she left, and I know she wanted me to give chase.  I hated when she did things like that.

Getting up, I strode to the door and yanked it open.  "Get back here, you little bitch.  You still owe me another 500 words before I can turn in for the night."

"You can look, but you'll never find me."  Her soft voice carried through the house, and I knew it wouldn't be easy to figure out where she was hiding, but that didn't mean I could give up.

I crept down the stairs and into the darkened kitchen.  The light by the stove was on, so I wasn't completely blind.  Still, the paltry shadows cast by the light didn't help me much.  I looked under the table and peered between the cook books, but there wasn't a trace of her.

"Come on out," I said.  "I'm tired, and this isn't funny any longer."

But there was nothing.  She was putting up a good fight tonight, and I needed to focus if I wanted to not only find her, but get her to cooperate as well.

There were flashlights in the silverware drawer, so I grabbed one that was pink and a little stubby - it belonged to my wife - and shined the light into the pantry.  I moved a couple of boxes of rice, as well as a can of soup that was a keepsake from college, but she didn't leap out.

"This is ridiculous," I mumbled.

"You're just not trying hard enough," she called out.

My head instantly swiveled towards the TV room and the leather recliner in the corner.  She might've made good use of the acoustics, but I was close enough now to know where she was.  I walked towards the chair heel to toe so as not to make a lot of noise.  If I scared her off, who knew how long it'd take me to find her again.

I jumped on the chair and looked over the top.  "Aha!"

She was curled up in a ball on the floor, but as soon as she saw me, she grinned.  The Muse stood and dusted herself off.

"That was fun," she said, "but don't think this ends the evening's entertainment.  You still haven't caught me."

She tried to make a break for the stairs, but I'd anticipated that.  With speed belying my age, I leapt from the chair and tackled her, wrestling the snooty woman to the ground and pinning down her arms.

"You are going to help me tonight.  I'm 500 words short of my goal, and if you don't give them to me, I can't go to sleep."

"Aw, poor baby cannot figure his story out," she said in a mock whiny voice.  She puffed out her lips for emphasis.  "Maybe this will help you go to sleep."

And she head butted me.

It took a second for the pain to register, and another second for me to realize that she was off and running again.  For a mythical creature that's supposed to as old as time itself, she was surprisingly nimble.

Once I shook out the cobwebs, I got to my feet and took off after her again, clomping up the stairs and headed for my office before she could lock me out.  That had happened once before and I ended up sleeping on the couch and trying to explain to Sherry the next morning why I'd failed to come to bed.  My sordid stories of trying to chase down a half naked Greek goddess didn't go over too well.

But this time she didn't lock the door.  I burst through it to find her perched on my desk.  She lazily pushed down one of the straps on her shoulder.

"Wouldn't you rather think of something else besides that stupid story?" she asked with a wink.

"Not really," I replied.  "I'm tired, and I just want to pump out the rest of this chapter so I can stop worrying about it.  Now, how does the vampire get into the compound?"

"We may never know," she said.

That did it.  I raced over to her and put her in the hardest headlock I could.  "Dammit, just give it up!  Does he leap over the railing, or was he in the car with the main character the whole time?"

When she didn't speak, I tightened my grip, but she flipped me over and I found myself falling over the desk and onto the floor.  However, I still had her by the throat, and I wasn't about to let go.

"Fine," she breathed.  "He used the trees by the southeast corner and jumped over.  He also spotted the main character before the van left, so he'll be following him onto the second floor balcony."

I released my grip and looked at her.  Panting, I said, "Now, was that so hard?"

For her part, the Muse didn't look phased at all.  In fact, she even wore a bemused smile.  She hopped up on my desk and crossed her legs.

"The chase is part of the fun," she said.  "If I just told you what to do without much action behind it, you wouldn't appreciate me as much."

I pushed her out of the way and sat at my laptop again to churn out the last part of the chapter.  She looked over my shoulder and whispered a few words of encouragement into my ear.  It may have felt good, but there were times I wish I'd simply bought a dog instead.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


(Keep on truckin')
In my last post, I talked about the random ways that a story can develop.  Well, one of the things that brought that on was the pace at which I've been working on my latest novel.  Although I've talked about a story ending when it needs to, I still decided on a general word count goal of 120,000 for my most recent work.  Yes, I know - focus on plot, worry less about length, figure out where it's going and get it there...blah, blah, blah.  I get all that, but the number I came up with isn't something hard and fast whereby I'll slit my wrists if I'm off by 15,000 words in either direction - I simply use it as a yardstick to help me gage my progress, nothing more.

Anyway, I'd like for this novel to be done by Christmas, and in order to get there, I've established a daily word count goal of 1000 words per day.  I can usually do that in about 30 minutes if I'm in a rhythm.  Unfortunately, as it always does, life sometimes gets in the way, and I wasn't always able to get around to what I wanted to do.  I had to work, play with Rachel, take my dogs for walks, and spend time with my wife if I didn't want to end up in divorce court, so I failed to hit the mark every day.  I wanted to get to 60,000 words by the end of September and I fell 2000 words short.

However, even though I feel I still have a quality novel that continues a story told in an earlier work, it felt a little bit like I was reaching for a few days.  Some of my pages felt like filler material that I was using just to get to my word count goal, and that's not a good thing.  A story has to stand on its own and keep the reader turning pages, or else they'll put it down and find something that maintains their interest.

Part of this was my focus on writing without as much emphasis on outlining.  I'm not someone like Stephen King who can just sit down and poop out a 150,000 novel without so much as an idea as to where it's going.  I need to think out at least a general outline as to where the story is going, while being careful not to get so far down the road that I don't allow it to breath on its own.  I just moved along within the story and didn't focus on the ideas, which left it feeling bland to me.  This one is part horror, part action thriller, much like Akeldama, and I realized that I lacked enough action, and the suspenseful/horror portion had little for the reader to enjoy.

So I've gone back and looked at where I can spice things up.  Some of the "filler material" will stand because I found that it's actually a necessary component to advance the story - you need the conversation between the investigator and the patient at the Utah State Hospital in order to establish why certain monsters are treated the way they are in the book.  However, some will soon be gone, and even more won't survive the editing process.

The biggest takeaway from the past month of writing is to breath and enjoy dishing out the story.  Part of me wants to do this so I can build up that stash of books I'll need once I start this as a full time career, but I still have to turn out a quality product for people to enjoy.  Yes, being done by Christmas would be nice, and is still very achievable, but I can't let that get in the way of a writing a good book.

I think I can do another 30,000 words in October, especially seeing as I did over 41,000 words in September, but I think I'll catch my breath and focus more on the craft rather than the count.  If 30,000 words this month happens, that's great.  If not, at least I've got a few four day weekends in November to keep on moving.