Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why Write?

Many have said to me, "Russ, why do you feel the need to write?  You're probably not going to be an enormous success like Stephen King or Dan Brown, so why do it?"

The answer is very simple - because I have to.

I don't mean that in the sense of "someone will chop off my left leg if I don't," but rather that I have an urge I can't explain.  Most writers I know have this urge.  We tell stories - it's what we do.  Asking us why we write is like asking a normal person why they breathe.

I've been telling stories since I was nine.  In 4th Grade, we wrote stories a few times a week in a blue journal that we kept in our desks.  At the end of each week, we got to read those stories to the class.  I was so excited that I rattled off several stories and read each of them with glee to the enraptured audience.  That each one was basically a cheap knock off of Star Wars wasn't the point - it was that people were hanging on what I had to say.

During that 4th grade year, something else happened that opened up my imagination.  A girl that sat across from my desk wrote a story about a dark crystal that everyone sought to help save their minds.  She finished it in a cliffhanger that to this day I never found out the ending of.  However, what struck me most was how original it was.  My cheap Star Wars knock off no longer seemed as creative, and I resolved to try and create my own work.  Unfortunately, I was nine, and that level of creativity wasn't yet at hand.

I spent the next few years re-writing different science fiction stories I liked and calling them original.  I loved V, so several of my stories were just expansions on that universe.  My mind seemed incapable of going off of what I didn't already know, but there was a bubbling just below the surface.  I had to find something original to write about.  Non-writers don't understand, but those who've looked at a blank page and seen possibilities instead of despair know what I'm talking about.

Then in high school, while daydreaming in English class, I saw a group of glowing craft attacking my school, and I saw it clear as day.  I spent the next week finding out why and how we would respond in the post-apocalyptic aftermath, and my first truly original story was born.  Later that year, another, this one about humanity's isolation following a devastating war, came into my head just as clearly.

I needed to tell these things.  Late night philosophical discussions at college dorms led to my telling of a few stories I'd designed, and I was surprised when my friends encouraged me to keep writing, so I did.  We had a computer lab in the dorms(this was before the days of everybody owning a computer) that took floppy disks - yes, the ones big enough to eat off of - and I wrote down my next story, one that would eventually become my first novel, On Freedom's Wings.  That the novel was so awful that I wouldn't show it to anyone now doesn't take away from the fact that I completed a full novel.  I was thrilled, but the desire hadn't gone away.  Instead, it had only increased.

It continues to this day, and it's something most folks won't get.  Even if no one ever reads what I write, I will continue to write.  I have several dozen stories to tell, so many that I intentionally have to shut down my imagination or new stories will intrude on what I'm currently writing.  Sometimes I wish the desire wasn't as strong, but I'd lose a part of what defines me.  Further, if I ever hope to make this thing a career, it had better be a strong desire.  Rare is the instance where a "meh" desire becomes reality.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What Are You Reading?

It has occurred to me that while I like to talk a lot about reading and writing, and even though I give mention to several books that are favorites of mine, I've never delved into what I'm currently reading(or have recently completed) and what I thought about them.  This is my chance to correct such an oversight.

11/22/63 by Stephen King is an incredible book about how good intentions don't always lead to the best outcome.  The main character is a man named Jake Epping who has discovered a time portal back to 1958.  He can return to the present whenever he wants, but the portal will always take him back to the same day in 1958, so he can get a "re-do" if things don't turn out like he likes.  Anyway, like so many who live in nostalgia rather than the real world, he's convinced the world would've been a much better place had JFK survived the assassination attempt in Dallas, so he decides to change it.  He spends years keeping tabs on Lee Oswald, but it's not as easy as he thinks - each time he tries to do something with big historical consequences, the world does something correspondingly big to try and stop him.  In the end, he discovers that maybe there were some benefits to JFK's murder(such as whether the country would've been as motivated to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if Kennedy had lived and just managed to squeak by re-election in a divided nation as opposed to LBJ's landslide in the aftermath).  An interesting look at just how much the road to Hell may be paved with good intentions.

When Angels Weep:  A What If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Eric Swedin is a great counterfactual that posits the U2 flight that discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba took place one week later than it did in our reality.  Had this happened, several missiles would've already been operational and JFK would've had little choice but to respond militarily.  A general nuclear war follows the invasion of Cuba, pushed along by a series of mistakes and the paranoia of each side.  One might think that a general nuclear war would end the planet, but Swedin makes a convincing argument for why that might not have been the case.  To be sure, the devastation in the US would've been catastrophic - the book says that over 30 million Americans would've died - but the outcome would not have been as disastrous for the planet as it would've been just ten years later since most of the weapons of the time would've been air bursts with little radioactive fallout(ground bursts wouldn't be commonplace until the early 70s when hardened silos made them necessary).  Also, a little overlooked historical point, is that the US was far ahead of the Soviets in both numbers and technology at this point, something not as prevalent just ten years later when missiles would replace bombers as the primary weapon of choice.  In short, although the US would've been hit hard, it could've staggered and then bounced back, but such a scenario would've killed the Soviet Union, likely resulting in over 150 million dead.  Exploring the reshaped geo-political consequences of a world following a nuclear war was fascinating, if horrifying.

To Defend Earth by William Strook is a collection of short essays that chronicle an alien invasion of the planet.  It takes a different approach by postulating that Earth isn't facing a united alien government bent on galactic domination, but rather that we're essentially a rich man's fantasy as he brings his private army to Earth.  Although stretching the bounds of believability at some points, it was a fun read that re-establishes the point that mankind can resist whatever is thrown at us if we're willing to unite against a common threat.  It brings in the expected political infighting, as well as how we overcame the inherent technological disadvantages connected to fighting a race advanced enough to come across the stars.

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen is what I'm currently on, and it's a fascinating juxtaposition of Bram Stoker's classic tale.  This one imagines the story as told from Dracula's point of view and details the paranoid madness of those around him, as well as the fanatical devotion to his destruction by Van Helsing, a fanaticism that borders on religious zealotry.  I'm always intrigued by books that show things from a non-traditional standpoint, as evidenced by the book I wrote from the point of view of the ghost as opposed to those he haunted.  Dracula is no innocent wafe in the tale, but his actions are more clearly understood, and it gets to the point where you want to see him succeed in finding a new life in England.  I can't wait to see how Saberhagen depicts the ending.

So that's what I'm currently on.  What are you reading?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Physical Books versus E-Books

If you're anything like me, you have an ereader of some kind.  Whether it be a Kindle, Nook, or something else, you have a device that you've got lots and lots of digital books stored inside of that is easily portable and holds more than your bookshelves at home do(that's saying a lot in my case).  Perhaps you have a neat protector for yours so it resembles more of a "book feel," or, like I have on occasion, maybe you've enjoyed reading on it without the protector and pretend that you're Captain Picard reading a data card on the USS Enterprise.

Too much dork-like data there?  Okay...moving on...

Let me caveat this by saying I prefer physical books - that's just a given.  There is little that beats holding the latest hard bound work from your favorite author in your hands.  It's almost like you can connect with this tiny instrument of wold pulp and ink.  I wish I could have a pill that I could apply water to, and voila - there's be a regular book for me to peruse.

Unfortunately, we don't live in Should Land.  Time stops for no one, and I moved into the 21st century last year when I got a Kindle for my birthday.  Of course, this is your basic no-frills Kindle, and I like it that way.  To show you what a primitive I am, I still have a flip phone from 2006, and it works just fine.

My Kindle, just as with other e-readers, gives me all kinds of advantages that traditional books don't.  For starters, I can carry hundreds of books with me without taking up space.  I don't have to worry about choosing which book or two to bring along on a long trip.  This greatly reduces the weight of my carry on and provides me variety in the event that one book isn't doing it for me.  Also, it saves me from figuring out what to keep and put on my shelves, and what I need to take to Book Off so that I'm not featured on an episode of Hoarders.  I can keep on my shelves only those I know I will want to go back to again and again, and it reminds me of a collection of fine wines.  After all, no one keeps a bottle of Southern Comfort next to a bottle of Dom Perignon.

Going to depending more on e-books has also opened up what I'm willing to take a chance on reading, and for several reasons.  First and foremost, e-books are cheaper than physical books(although some traditional publishers could stand to have this lesson sink in a bit more).  Since I'm an absolute cheapskate, I like that stuff I might enjoy reading is cheaper.  Second, I'm more willing to buy something that I don't have to worry about cluttering up my house.  Books spilling off shelves isn't terribly appealing, but they don't spill out of a Kindle, so there's greater incentive to open up my selection.

This isn't to say everything on e-readers is all sunshine and rainbows.  One of the best things about physical books is that I can flip back and forth.  It's easy to go back and re-read a part I maybe didn't understand, or to go back and re-live those parts I liked the best.  With an e-reader, it's a lot more of a laborious process, almost to the point of not being worth it.  Sure, I still do it on occasion, but not near as often as I do with physical books.

Then there's electricity.  Yes, a minor thing for the moment, but I don't have to worry about a power outage or an EMP with my paperback version of The Shining.  I also don't have to plug in Bloody Roads South every few days just to make sure I can read it.  I've left my Kindle on my table for too long a couple of times with a low battery and returned to find I can't pick up where I left off because my Kindle is out of charge.  My copy of Way of the Pilgrim doesn't stare blankly back at me if I didn't plug it into the wall, and waiting for such things to be finished can be maddening when you want to get back into a story.

There's also something about looking at a shelf full of books.  It can be invigorating as you decide what to select(some call it intimidating, but those guys are wimps).  With my Kindle, I can't flip through potential selections, and I can't enjoy them staring back at me.  Basically, it generates all the arousal of Sunday brunch at mom's.

I know I sound like a wheezened old man shouting for his next can of prunes.  Don't get me wrong - I love my e-reader, but I'd be lying if I pretended it fit me perfectly.  Best to say it's an imperfect solution to a problem of liking to read.  To paraphrase Reverend Oates in Coming to America, "If loving reading is wrong, I don't want to be right."  Sappy, but true.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What Writers Are Thankful For

I know, I know - I'm a little late with the whole Thanksgiving post.  However, I was enjoying stuffing my face with deep fried turkey, and a post on Thursday during the day would confuse people who aren't used to seeing me until Friday.  :-D

Anyway, instead of posting what I'm thankful for in my life, I thought I'd post what I'm thankful for as a writer, so here goes:

1.  A wild imagination.
An absolute must for a fiction writer, I'm blessed/cursed with an imagination that has led some to call me insane.  My mind will go  to some bizarre places if I let it, and I often let it.  I've found myself wandering through the galactic strings as humanity flees a berserker race of living machines, poking through Japan as detectives investigate a series of vampiric murders, and in front of the Throne of God as a tragic character confronts the Almighty over his life's circumstances.  These things in isolation might qualify me for the nut barn, but in totality they help springboard me towards a career as a professional writer.

Lots of folks say they have a good imagination.  Pardon me for being immodest, but most people are wrong.  There's a difference between "I can tell a good story around the campfire that I've heard a million times" and "Let me take you to a place you've never even thought of before."  Writers have to be part of the second group, and I'm thankful God has given me that gift.

2.  An ability to tell a story.
Second on the "must have" list for a writer.  A good imagination is a start, but the ability to translate it to the page is another.  Most of us pride ourselves on the ability to get our points across, and we cringe when we come across incoherence.

We play with words, arguing with ourselves over the best way to make someone understand our story, but we enjoy the struggle.  One of the greatest compliments I ever got on Salvation Day was when people told me they envisioned the story instead of just reading it.

3.  The boom of indie publishing.
Only five years ago, writers were at the mercy of both publishers and agents.  Lack of contacts and not finding the right agent on the right day made it difficult to break through.  Due to this, publishers exercised dictatorial control over contracts, virtually enslaving authors to those houses.  The rare one that could name his or her own terms, like Stephen King or JK Rowling, were the exception.  Most had to pray that they found success in the first month or two of release or their publisher would declare their book out of print and the writer couldn't get the rights back.

However, with the advent of things like the Amazon Kindle and print on demand, indie publishing has become a viable option for many looking to get their work in front of the public.  Such things have eliminated the middle man and even made agents approach obsolescence.  Success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey have allowed those who publish on their own to get mega deals from publishers who are coming around to a new way to introduce writers to the world.  It provides hope for lots of people shut out before, as well as creating hissy fits among those who view publishing as a kind of country club where only members should be allowed in, once they meet the standards of those already inside of course.

4.  Time to write.
This one is subjective and varies, but I'm thankful I can write for a little while each day.  It takes, on average, 30 minutes for me to do 1,000 words, and my wife is exceptionally patient in allowing me to do it.  I can block out distractions and get those stories out of my head and onto paper, freeing up my mind for other pursuits.

Yes, there are things that get in the way sometimes, but I can usually find 30 minutes in a day, even if it comes in spurts of ten minutes at a time.  I'm lucky that I can do this when a lot of others may not have that time.  My job, while demanding, isn't overly so - as it has been in the past - and my family, set to grow in the next few months, let's me get enough down on paper that I'm on the verge of finishing my second book within the past year.

5.  Readers.
Last, but certainly not least, I'm grateful for those who choose to read my stuff.  Yes, I would continue to write even if no one bought what I wrote, but having people willing to give my stories the time of day is what I may be most grateful for.  We writers sometimes have egos of crystal, and when folks take time out of their busy days to look at what we've put down, it's like the sweetest nectar out there.

I don't think I have ever, or ever will, turned down someone who has asked for material from me.  My response is usually that of a 9th grade virgin faced with the possibility of scoring, and I have to slow my eagerness to print out a piece.  Yes, I try to act all cool, but I'm usually jumping up and down on the inside.  I have yet to meet a writer who doesn't lunge at the opportunity to share his or her work, and I'm grateful for every person who has asked.  To those who've read my work, and to those who will in the future, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Anyone out there think they've reached the pinnacle where they never need to get better?  Anyone?  Yeah, I didn't think so...

We should always strive to get better as writers.  That doesn't mean we should be falsely modest and not acknowledge when we've done something good, or even brilliant, but that we should never think we've gotten to the point where we can't improve.  Such a static position would end up being boring.  Imagine reading what you write ten years from now and thinking, "Gee, this is as good as stuff I used to write."

So, how does a writer get better?  Let me count the ways:

1.  Read, read, read.
If you want to write well, you need to know what good writing looks like.  And since there are as many authors out there as there are grains of sand(ok, not literally, but you get my drift...stop busting my balls), you should read a lot of different folks if you want to get a good sample of what good looks like.

However, it's not enough to identify good writing.  You also have to find bad stuff.  I've learned almost as much from shitty literature as I have from what's great.  I learn what not to do - clichés to avoid, sentence structure to stay away from, and how to avoid sounding like a ten year old.  Remember, for every The Shining out there, there are ten other types that are waiting to ambush you, so it comes down to economies of scale.  Basically, there's a lot more garbage out there than gold, so you have to sift through both.

2.  Learn to edit.
Writing is fun.  Editing sucks.  Most of us hate to go back through our babies and hack off the parts that we know we need to, even though we poured our hearts and souls into them.  Further, editing is going back over a story we've already written rather than bringing forth new life into the literary world.

Unfortunately, editing is a necessity.  Without it, our work will be inconsistent, jumbled with spelling and grammar mistakes, and likely missing key elements that we inherently understand because we wrote the book but which no one else will get.  It's necessary to edit and make your good work even better.  And just like with writing, editing will get better over time.  You'll learn to get a feel for what belongs and what needs to go, and it'll flow more smoothly.

If you don't want to edit, that's fine.  Just understand that your "final product" will suck and people will eventually stop reading it.

3.  Practice.
Anyone think Tom Brady or Drew Brees just go out and fling the pigskin on Sunday because of nothing but pure talent?  Yes, they have talent, but they also work their asses off each week to fine tune their skills.  It works the same with writing.

The main way you got better than you were years ago is because you've spent countless hour writing.  You've figured out what works and what doesn't, and you've applied that.  Now, when you turn that practice up a notch, you can find yourself improving in leaps and bounds.

4.  Learn to take a hit.
From an emotional standpoint, I hate being critiqued.  No one likes being told that what they wrote could be better.  We'd all prefer that if there were flaws in our stories, we found them ourselves, and everyone out there in Reader Land stick to gushing over our work.

However, being as attached to our stuff as we are, we often miss things that either don't work or could be done better.  It takes a strong person to take constructive criticism, discern whether it's warranted, and apply it accordingly.  For the most part, avoid friends and family on this unless you have experience with them giving you brutally honest feedback.  Your friends and family love you(hopefully) and don't want to hurt your feelings, so they may be more constrained in their critiques than you need.  That doesn't mean you should stand for someone simply being a jerk, but you need someone who can put aside trying to protect your feelings and give you feedback that's useful.

5.  Trust yourself.
Last on this list is for you to trust your instincts.  We've probably all read something where we could tell the writer was trying too hard, where they moved every which way but loose in an attempt to convince you, and probably themselves, that they can write well.

As a writer, you know when something is well written.  Learn to recognize it and trust that you'll get it right, if not in the first draft, then in the revision.  Over time, you'll hone your instincts into something much sharper, and this will come naturally.  But don't doubt yourself.  That doesn't mean be cocky, but people can tell when your writing has no confidence.  Know that you've given your best and that people will love it.  If they don't, then work on what you can fix.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Creating Conflict

My novel wasn't yet finished.  As usual, she was being difficult.

"You're hot, you're cold, you're up, you're down," I grumbled.  "You're like a friggin' one woman circus."

The Muse stood there with her arms crossed and fixed me with a glare that wouldn't be out of place in divorce court.  As was the case with most women in my life, I had no idea what I'd done to make her mad, but I was sure that it wouldn't be easy to assuage her wounded spirit.

I decided to try a different approach.  "Come on, you know I can't do any of this without you.  You need to help me understand how to best create conflict in a story.  What could the antagonist do to make the main character mad?"

A twinkle appeared in her eyes, and I didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.  She slinked up to me and took a good long look up and down my body, like she was appraising a horse before auction.  Then she reared back and kicked me in the balls.

God there were times I hated that bitch.

"There, did that make you mad?" she asked in a sugary voice.

It took me a second or five to prop myself back on my knees and pry my nuts from my nostrils.  I tried to return her glare, but in my state, it looked more like I had a bad case of gas.

"Why do you have to be so difficult?" I asked.  "If you would be more forthcoming, things wouldn't be so hard between the two of us and life might actually be good."
("You'll get the words when I say you can get the words," the Muse spat)
"You don't care about me at all," she said, her voice quivering.

"What are you talking about?"

"The only time you ever call is when you want a story of some kind or inspiration you can't find on your own.  You never come by to see what I'm up to without you or care if I disappear for weeks at a time while you're off at Disneyland with your family.  I'm tired of being taken for granted."

I suppressed a sigh, but just barely.  I didn't have time for this nonsense - my release date was barely three months away and I still didn't have believable conflict between the two main guys in the story.  They needed to have a reason to not be getting along, and all my Muse could offer me was some pouty bullshit about being ignored.

"Maybe if you came around more often when I needed you, I would think more about your feelings when I don't," I said.

Her eyes narrowed and she stormed out of the room, her toga billowing behind her.  Clearly that wasn't the right thing to say.

I walked downstairs and wondered if I was about to embark on yet another hide and seek adventure, so it stopped me short when I got into the kitchen to find her holding my manuscript in one hand, a lighter in the other.

"What are you doing?" I demanded.

"I looked over these pages you wrote without me," she said.  "Garbage.  Pure garbage."

In the next instant, I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn't stop her.  She flicked the lighter and touched them to my pages, three weeks worth of work turning to ash in less than five seconds.

"Hey!" I yelled.  "I worked hard on that.  Now what am I supposed to do?"

She blew the still smoldering cinders at me before saying, "You don't get it do you?  It's not enough for you to say that Charles hates the villain - he has to have a reason to hate him beyond the fact that he's bad.  Further, you can't just tell everyone the reason, like 'Gil killed Charles' family' or 'Gil burned down Charles' house.'  The audience will never feel the righteous anger you want them to feel unless they experience what Charles experiences as well."

"You mean I have to spell out each step?" I asked.  "There's too much background, and it'll eat up half the book."

"Welcome to the world of being a writer," she said with a grin.  "Besides, the reader doesn't have to see everything - they just have to see enough.  And you can do it in action sequences, conversations, flashbacks, etc.  But however you do it, you need to show why Charles has made it his life's work to bring this guy down.  It also might help if you had the two of them interact a little bit."

Now my eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets.  Who was she kidding?  "You don't talk to guys you hate; you fight them."

"Only if you want to keep the tension private.  Think about it - all the greats had some kind of back and forth in their work.  Harry Potter and Tom Riddle had that scene in the Chamber of Secrets, Robert E. Lee and Andries Rhoodie spoke at great length during the aftermath of the Confederate victory in the Civil War, and even Darth Vader and Obi Wan went back and forth.  It doesn't matter if the interaction lasts very long, but it does matter that it happens."

I was quiet for a little while, and I didn't know if that was because she'd made a good point or if it was because I was too tired to argue any more.  I kicked at the ashes laying at my feet and turned around to go back upstairs.

"I guess I'll start over, but it'll be more wasted effort if you don't come back upstairs with me."

"I'll think about it," she said.

The stairs felt steep as I trudged up them.  Part of me wanted to look back to see if she was following, while another part wanted to turn around and wring her scrawny neck.  If she didn't come, I could have two or three more drafts that would deserve to meet the same fate as what she'd torched, but I wasn't about to beg.  After all, there was pride to consider.

Like I said, there are days I really hated that bitch.  Unfortunately, without her, I'm nothing.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Guide, Don't Force

A lot of writers I know seem to me like they would be lousy in bed, as they have no concept of foreplay.  What do I mean?  Consider the following passage:

Steve looked into the fiery pit and watched the demons begin their murderous advance.  He felt anxious and knew that it was up to him to stop their escape.  Pulling out his trusty rifle, he wondered if there were enough bullets in the clip to make a dent, but he knew he had to try.  He fired again and again knowing that this fight would determine just when the world would end.

Now consider it if it had been written a bit differently:

Steve peered into the chasm.  The demons slithered their way up the sides and into the world.  Steve knew the sweat by his collar had little to do with the shimmering heat escaping from the pit, but he swallowed hard and leveled his rifle at the first creature.  Just holding the weapon steady was a challenge, but he managed to get off a shot.  As instinct took over, his fear shifted to whether his clip was too light to stop the onslaught.

The first paragraph definitely gives a feel for what's going on, but, in my opinion, it gives little wiggle room for the reader to get emotionally invested.  Instead, it tries to grab you by the collar and shout, "THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD FEEL - HAHAHAHAHA!"

Don't get me wrong - there are times when you need to kick a reader in the balls and shove them in the right direction, but such a tactic should be used sparingly and only when there is little other choice in order to keep the story moving.  If you pull open the door and push people through too often, they'll eventually fight back and will become numb to what you are trying to show them.

I think the second paragraph paints a better picture and allows people to enter the story on their own terms.  Such techniques pull people in rather than push them, and it grips them in such a way they don't realize what's going on until they're knee deep in it.

Inference and allusion are much better tools in the writer's arsenal than simply telling you exactly what happened.  I believe that any fool can recite a description, but it takes someone with talent to put something out there and let the reader come to his or her own conclusion.  This requires trust in your audience - the belief that they're smart enough to understand your meaning without you having to tell them.  If you have to explain step by step, that ruins a large portion of the fun, kind of like explaining the punch line to your favorite joke.

Yes, sometimes the reader will come to the wrong conclusion, but if you've done it well enough, those instances should be few and far between.  The point is to get them to feel the emotions you want them to without screaming in their faces, because that usually produces little but a Spock-like reflex.

The best writers - Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Harry Turtledove - are masters at this, but it's one of the hardest things for writers to do, even experienced ones.  We so badly want people to "get" what we're saying, that we often treat them like idiots, and the publishing industry hasn't helped.  It has all been about "get your point across in as few words as possible."  While it's important not to be wasteful with your words, drawing readers into the story properly takes patience - you have to set the scene, build a character's personality, and make the tension believable.  Unfortunately, those few souls who understand this generally have it beaten out of them by a publishing community that shortens everything to less than its bare essence(yet another good reason to indie publish).

Remember, good storytelling is about coaxing your readers down the path you want them to go, not kicking them in the ass until they fall over.  If you're going to do that, at least provide them a safe word so they can leave when they want to without fear of further harm.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I know I talked recently about how to make your heroes more relatable to the reader, but the hero is only one part of the story.  To go along with him or her, there is an assortment of people who provide boundaries to the story and help keep it moving along.  So where do such people come from?

I have two main sources my characters come from.  The first is from my personal life.  People I know very well, as well as people I've only met in passing, have made it into my work, albeit in altered forms.  I've also melded several people into one on an occasion or two to create someone new.

TV and movies have also provided the impetus for some of my characters.  Some, like the mentor Patrick Levinson in Akeldama, were almost exact duplicates who were simply pasted into the tale.  Others, like the main character's lab partner Gary in Salvation Day, are the spitting physical image of someone famous, but with traits that I found more attractive than the original person(Gary is based on a fairly controversial politician, and I didn't want that to get in the way of the story).

So what gives?  Why can't I just create an original character out of whole cloth?  Mostly because that's not the way it works in real life.  Even the most famous of writers draw on what they know for inspiration.  Jack Torrance in The Shining was made up a lot from what terrified Stephen King about himself.

We will do this whether we realize it or not.  Most of us dream when we sleep, but did you know that even in dreams you steal characters?  According to research, you don't dream about anyone you haven't encountered before, even if that encounter was very brief and not remembered on a conscious level.  With this in mind, is it any wonder we draw on experience for those who go into our work?

Pay attention to those around you and see if they could, in some way, make a significant, or even an insignificant, contribution to your story.  Do they have an odd facial feature that adds weight to your tale.  Or is there some personality trait that might create a storyline others would be interested in?  Is this person a positive or negative influence in your life, and what would their impact be to your book?  Also, what would you modify about that person to make them more conducive to your story?

You are not surrendering your creative talents by doing this - you are enhancing them.  Think about some character you'd like to include in your next story.  Maybe it's a chef who works at the restaurant your hero likes to frequent, and this chef holds the key to unlocking the heroes past.  I'll bet an image of that person has already formed, and I'll bet that person has a familiar face.  Does it look like your uncle?  Maybe it looks like Matt Damon or Halle Berry.  Could it be your garbage man?  Regardless of who it looks like, your brain is scanning the thousands of faces you're familiar with and trying to match one of those faces with the person described above, so why fight it?

Additional characters are so vital to our work, yet so difficult to make real, that we should accept help where we can get it from, even the real world.  Doing so doesn't detract from your imagination - it gives it heft and makes a more believable tale.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Paths to Success and Failure

I realize that I have yet to publish anything, but my travails and observations over the last little while have helped me understand a few things.  While we all have our opinions of what writers should do to be successful, and here's the list I've come up with:

1.  Interact with your readers.
This is especially helpful to those who are just starting out.  However, it is my earnest hope that writers don't lose this as they gain success.  Faithful readers are the base of success for any writer, and the one who forgets this does so at his or her peril.

We should always be willing to take time to interact with those who've shown an interest in our stories.  From my own experience interacting with those whose stories I enjoy, the enjoyment drawn from even getting acknowledgment is one that is difficult to describe with mere words.

2.  Put yourself out there.
Anyone can come up with a story.  Beyond that, a large portion of those folks can tell that story exceedingly well.  However, those tales will entertain only ourselves if we don't share them.

Further, we have to find ways to draw in readers.  The way we do that in today's world is through social media.  Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc., are all good ways to put yourself and your work on display.  But simply going on Facebook or Twitter isn't enough, just as having a blog isn't enough.  Dovetailing with number one, it helps to interact with others.  Go to other blogs and leave comments.  Email writers you like and see if they would be willing to provide interviews(this helps both of you in terms of exposure).  As you publish, contact local publications and see if they would be interested in doing a review.

Lots of ways to increase your exposure, but you'll never know unless you expose yourself.

Heh heh...expose yourself...

3.  Stay in your lane.
In this profession/hobby, people want to hear your stories.  However, that doesn't mean they want to hear your opinion outside of your area of expertise.  Too many celebrities - sure, writers can be celebrities too - think that because they have a platform, their readers want to hear that author's take on the world, from politics to religion.  Given the polarized world we live in, that's not always such a good idea.

I love to read the Monday Morning Quarterback column from Peter King of CNN/SI.  Unfortunately, King sometimes strays from sports and into politics.  I don't think he gets that we are bombarded all the time with political crap, and we are looking for an escape when we go to sources that aren't advertised as having political content.

It's good to have an opinion, but having it too loudly when it's not asked for can alienate people.

4.  Be consistent.
This goes with the first point on this list.  Readers see what you put out on a consistent basis as interaction - it provides one bit of consistency in an otherwise chaotic world.  When you violate that consistency, readers think you've blown them off.  That might not be right - maybe you had a kidney transplant or something - but that's how a lot of them will see things.  They will probably let you get away with it once or twice, but not all the time.  Think about it - how long do you put up with that one asshole in your group who always lets you down?

5.  Embrace insanity.
If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a little bit crazy.  Too many of us are afraid to go down those dark paths since society might shun us.  I say, so what?  Only a crazy person could come up with a story about a series of ghosts saving a man's soul on Christmas or one about a little boy living in a psychic hotel with his alcoholic father.

You need to crack the door on insanity if you want to find a great story.  Yes, sometimes there's little there to work with, but the occasional jewel will eventually stand out.

These are just a few things that lead to writing success, and the list is by no means exhaustive.  Wait, did you think I was going to reveal everything?  Puh-lease - I need to keep some for later posts.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I'm a Slacker

I had great plans this week to write close to 15,000 on my new novel.  I'm on a business trip and have little to do at night besides pour forth my brilliance onto the page so that I can finish this one before Christmas.  I was going to do 6,000 on the plane and first day of my trip, 2,000 more the next two days, and 5,000 on the plane ride back.  Unfortunately, it hasn't turned out that way.

Not even close.

Yes, I got through 2,000 words that first day, including 1,000 on the first leg of my flight and another 1,000 in the Atlanta airport.  However, I just wasn't feeling it.  And when I got to the hotel, I was too wiped out to write anything good, and I knew it.

There are several factors in this, this first of which was the plane ride itself.  It was an overnight flight from Hawaii, and I wanted to get a little bit of sleep that night.  Of course, by the time I got to Atlanta, my uncomfortable fits of sleep in an upright position left me in no position, intellectually, to write.

The second was what happened Tuesday.  I don't know if you noticed or not, but we had an election.  Those who know me on a personal level know I'm a political junkie, so I spent my non-business time that day watching every news network out there.  For reasons I've gone into previously, I don't want to go into which side I supported, but I watched coverage all night and didn't get into bed until 2:30am.

Then I went to finish my business trip on Wednesday, and although I had grandiose plans to do a lot of writing that day, I ended up surfing around of Facebook when I should have been working.  By the time that was done, Supernatural was on, and I couldn't miss my favorite show.  I'm hoping to get a lot done on the trip back to Hawaii - I'm writing this post before I depart - so we'll see what happens.

So what does that mean for me?  Should I commence self-flogging coupled with the occasional tire iron to the head?  How does one handle such monumental failure?

Easy - I let it go.

Writing, while my hoped for eventual profession, is still fun at this stage, and if it gets un-fun, it won't continue.  Besides which, I still think I can finish this novel before Christmas, and if I don't, I'll finish it when I do.

This break has also reinforced two previous lessons.  The first is that I have to stop outrunning my outline.  I get to the end of my thoughts, and I think I can wing it for a few thousand words.  WRONG!  While not overly detailed, my outline helps steer me through the rough waters of when I can't think of what should come next.  It also gives me detail that I might have thought was awesome at the time but can't remember it in the heat of the writing moment.  Second, writing is very much like going to the gym every day - the more you skip, the easier it gets to skip.  I have to get back into my habit so that I stay on target.

Enough recriminations about this.  Suffice to say that while my daughter is doing school this holiday weekend on Friday and Monday, I'll get back to where I need to be.  Besides, my next business trip is the week after Thanksgiving, and I'm sure I'll make it all up at that time.  ;-)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Heroes or Real People?

In my writing, I always face a conundrum.  Like most folks, I read for an escape, which means I need to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the book.  However, while there are a lot of elements of fantasy I'm willing to overlook - I know, for example, that there are no time machines to bring the AWB back in time to supply the Confederacy with the AK-47 in The Guns of the South - there still has to be a certain plausibility in the story.  Lack of that plausibility leads to something too far out there to really enjoy.

Most of the plausibility I find comes from the characters.  Realistic actions and reactions from people are the hallmark of a good book, but it got me to thinking about the makeup of those people in the first place.  When you read a book, how "ideal" do you want the protagonist to be?  How about the villain - should they be a bastard on every level, or should their motivations be a little more complex?

I know some people who want the hero to be that person they could never be - always principled, strong, and ready to face danger without even a hint of doubt.  On the other hand, I prefer my heroes to be a bit more nuanced.  The ideal exists nowhere in our world except in people's imaginations - Ghandi wrote letters to Adolf Hitler in which he called the maniac "my friend," Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist despite freeing the slaves, and JFK was a known adulterer.  We might like to believe these folks were great men who never had a bad thought or evil intention, but that's not always the case.  Yet these men also did great things.

The heroes I like to read about, indeed the ones I like to write about, are a bit closer to us than the ideal.  I prefer for my protagonists to be ordinary people who overcome great odds despite their flaws.  I want people who have moments of doubt and aren't always self sacrificing, but they're able to reach inside of themselves and still do what's right.  Why is that?  It's because I want my heroes to be people I can relate to.

We all have our dark places, those thing going on inside our minds and our lives that we would be mortified for others to see.  I think it grants comfort to the reader to see a hero that's much like themselves - flawed, possessing the occasional doubt, yet always striving to be the best they can and overcome their own humanity.  This allows the reader to put themselves in place of the hero and see that they too can become greater than they think.

I know that each of us has times when we wonder if we can be the hero.  We present one face to the world, but we know in our own hearts what we really are.  Sometimes this gives us pride, and sometimes this causes us shame.  We tend to think of others as not possessing the flaws we know we have, and this can create self-doubt.  It's important to remember that no one is perfect, and I think that heroes in our stories that show this, and still do the right thing, give hope to people.  Even good people can do horrible things, but if we can show our heroes to rise from the ashes of their own actions and eventually do what's right, it lets us relate to that person.  In the end, I think this provides a more satisfying reading experience, and one the reader can understand more than some alabaster saint that might be so perfect that no one will ever match them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Staying Engaged

I was scrolling through one of my favorite websites the other day - The Passive Voice - and I came across a post done by literary agent Janet Kobobel Grant.  Aside from reminding me exactly why I've decided to eschew agents, as well as the pathetic tone of most of those who salivated over her in the comments section, one quote in particular stood out to me:

"Anything that absorbs the business headaches is a gift, allowing authors more time to focus on writing. Thank you."

I shook my head at the absolute naiveté of the statement.  Then I remembered that most writers have this mentality - once they make it, someone else can worry about all that messy "business stuff," and they can focus on why they went into this line of work to begin with, which is to write.

I'll admit that this is a tantalizing prospect.  Imagine being able to wake up when the sun is warm, pour yourself a mug of your favorite beverage, and write your next masterpiece in complete security, knowing that you will always be swimming in cash and won't have to worry about money.  Dollars will magically flow into your account, and all you'll have to do is sign some paperwork your agent or publishers sends every few months.

Unfortunately, writers who do this set themselves up for an epic fall.

You have to have a certain degree of business knowledge to make it in any line of work, and writing is no exception.  Even bestselling authors like JK Rowling and Tim Zahn keep an eye on the business side of their empires.  To do otherwise is to set yourself up as a slave to those who control your contract, and/or to forfeit your earnings to a guy who sits behind a desk and spent about as much time on your book as you did brushing your teeth this morning.

Most writers don't care for business.  That's why they write.  However, you need to have a certain degree of sense, and if you don't, you damn sure better learn some.  People all over the world will rub their hands together gleefully at the prospect of another rube coming down the pike, one full of talent and no idea what to do with the success they find.  I wish that everyone in the world was enlightened and always willing to do the right thing - I really do - but that's just not the planet we live on.  If you eschew your business dealings, you'll end up on the wrong side of one-sided contracts you can't get out of.  Worse, you'll discover that the books you wanted to shop around and try to start a bidding war on are now the exclusive province of some publisher that has automatic first crack at them, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Further, in all that nasty "business stuff," you should at least learn how to read a royalty statement.  Ms. Grant claims that one of her duties is to do that for you.  However, even the best intentioned people make mistakes.  Don't you want to make certain you're getting all the money you're entitled to?  What if they made a mistake on the percentage, or they forgot to include the last 25,000 in sales that you know occurred?  Was there an incentive clause in your contract entitling you to a greater royalty rate after the first 50,000 in sales?  Ignoring all of this means less in your pocket.

I understand that most writers don't want to bother with all that because it makes their head hurt, but trust me when I tell you that whether you put in the time and effort or not, someone else will.  Do you want to be taken advantage of and not maximize your earning potential just because you didn't take the time to learn the inside story on what's really going on?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

This is probably going to be an unpopular post with lots of writers I know.  NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it occurs every November.  The idea is for people to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November, and this is supposed to spur a lot of people into really getting into their writing careers.

I, on the other hand, hate NaNoWriMo, and I think it's an exercise for those who aren't serious about being writers.  "What?" you say.  "How can writing a 50,000 word novel appeal to those you claim aren't serious?"

I've written before about the fact that every Tom, Dick, and Harry out there - or Tina, Dora, and Henrietta, if you prefer - says they want to write a novel.  There is no shortage of surefire bestselling authors out there who just need to pen that one great work that will put their name on the lips on everyone who reads.  The reality, though, is that most people don't have the follow through.

To me, a writer writes, regardless of what month it is.  I don't need a special mark on the calendar to get me in front of my computer to pen my latest story - there's simply something inside of me that compels me to write, and I find it insulting that someone thinks I need a special month in which to do it.

Let's be fair - this month is mostly spoken of by "artists" as they wistfully dream about how unappreciated they are in their time.  But, by God, they've completed NaNoWriMo, and they think this gives them a certain amount of street cred.  "You haven't done NaNoWriMo," they'll scoff.  "Therefore you aren't a real writer like I am."  Of course, they'll soon put down the manuscript and won't go back to it until the next NaNoWriMo, if ever.

I typically do about 30,000 words on whatever I'm working on per month.  Sometimes I've fallen a few thousand words short, and sometimes I've exceeded that by a little bit.  However, I'm always writing.  Those who talk pretentiously about what they accomplished in NaNoWriMo won't ever put pen to paper again.  Instead, a lot of them will bitch about no one giving them their shot, and how the industry is only for insiders...all as an excuse for not being successful.

Further, unless you're doing it full time, and most writers have day jobs, you can't write a good novel in a month.  Sure, you can poop something onto paper that might be marginally coherent, but it's usually just an exercise in Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that never sees the light of day because the writer knows that they rushed to meet the timeline in order to brag about how awesome they were.

Someone recently said to me, "It's like running a marathon - it was an accomplishment just to finish."  To which I responded, "Sorry, but that's pure bullshit.  You don't get points just for trying.  A real accomplishment would be writing something someone else wants to read and paid you for."  If you want to go out and just do it "for fun," then please do so.  However, don't have any illusions that what you're doing matters.  There's a difference between running that marathon in four and a half hours, and the guy who took the medal stand at the end.

Yes, this is very harsh, but most people who do this are posers.  If you feel you aren't a poser, then it's incumbent on you to show that by not stopping once NaNoWriMo is done.  That's where most "artists" fail - they reach the end of a month, let out this big sigh of relief like they did something useful, and they go back to their regular lives.  That's not persistence - it's pretension.

Now everybody go ahead and tell me what a jerk I am for daring to question the sanctity of this special month.  While folks do that, I'll just go back to writing.