Thursday, December 31, 2015

2016 Resolutions

The New Year looms in front of us.  As such, there is a list of writing resolutions I want to accomplish before the 2016 calendar expires:

1.  Complete two more books and finish expanding a third.  I've already begun on the last part of that sentence by creating a new act for Schism.  I've taken Acts Three and Four, refocused them, and added a new Act that helps fill out the story.  I expect this to be done within the week.

The second part of this is a little more than it appears.  First, I'm about to start work on a new novel that, as yet, has no title.  We all know that the winners write the history books, but what if someone was so arrogant that he wrote the history in advance?  In other words, what if The Book of Revelations was revealed as little more than propaganda?  Suppose that the Devil didn't play by it and won Armageddon?  What would a post-Armageddon look like with Satan in charge?  Would there be resistance to that rule, and what might that entail?  I know that many will call me a heretic or something blasphemous for going down this road, but if my previous works didn't do that already, I doubt this one will put me over the top.

Lastly, my final work prior to publication will be a collection of short stories.  I've got seven ready, and I want 25-30 before I consider it final.  I think a short story collection will allow me to write several different ideas so I don't get stale.  It's also a different type of writing, so it lets me check other skills.  A good short story collection will let me put out something different for readers as well.

2.  Begin the publishing process.  Although my first book won't be out until May of 2017, I can start gathering things like the ISBNs and putting together the business aspects that will make the job easier once it gets moving.

3.  Sending out more email updates.  I'm terrible at this.  I have a list about 350 people long that have said they'll buy Akeldama, but I haven't written anything to them in quite a while.  I'm sure that those who even still remember me are wondering if the book is ever coming out.  Others have likely forgotten about their commitment altogether.  I need to fix that.  At the very least, I need to send something out every three months to remind people I'm still here.

4.  Get back to commenting on other blogs.  My current job has prevented me from staying as in touch as I would like.  However, that'll change in June and I'll have more time.  One of the ways I need to use that time is to re-engage on the blogosphere.  I used to be real good at both reading other blogs and engaging on them, but that has fallen off.  By June, I'll pick that back up.

Those are the areas I want to work on over the next year.  What are yours?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Being Social

Social media has revolutionized our world.  As such, it has revolutionized writing in ways we all need to be cognizant of.  For starters, and most obviously, it has given authors a platform to speak directly to readers.  In the past, the way to interact with readers was slow at best - via the written letter.  Sure, there were the occasional events like a conference or book signing, but many folks sent their favorite writers letters.  I still remember being in 5th grade in writing to Donald Sobol(for those who don't know who he is, google him....he was BIG).  Most of my class got form letters back(like I said he was BIG), but I felt special because he included a rare personalized note on my form letter in red pen(he told me I was the first person to ever inquire about Encyclopedia Brown's IQ, but he couldn't tell me because it was a secret).  Lost in this excitement was that it took six weeks for our letters to get to him and for him to send most of us a form letter in return.

Now, however, most of us have Facebook and/or Twitter pages.  We can interact with the audience in real time.  Readers get to know us and our quirks, and we can seem more relatable.  Of course, this has drawbacks when writers very stupidly stray from talking about their work to talking about controversial subjects, but it has been an overall positive.  People are more drawn to those they find accessible, and these platforms definitely provide that.

The other big advantage of social media is that it provides a no cost advertising platform.  Facebook is free(it's never going to charge you to sign up, no matter what other folks may tell you), and so is Twitter.  Have a new novel or a book signing coming soon?  Put that information out and see what response you get.  You no longer have to take out half page ads in the New York Times to garner attention.  Obviously make sure you don't overdo it - I've seen people actually lose audience because they don't know when to give it a rest - but don't be afraid to test the waters.

Further, if you catch lightning in a bottle, these platforms let you gain momentum much more quickly.  One person liking you can lead to hundreds or thousands of others doing do.  In the olden day, back before all these fancy electronic gadgets(just kidding...I'm not that old), you had to find some even more elusive way to get others to take notice.  Social media, trap though it may be sometimes, can let fans fan you(yes, that was intentional...I know, I know...I'm a dork).

Just be careful with this stuff.  Used properly and with restraint, social media can be a fantastic platform for promotion.  Used poorly, without keeping your eye on the ball, and your career can sink more quickly than the Titanic.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Price Insanity

I've tried.  I've tried and tried to understand the pricing of ebooks by traditional publishers, and for the life of me, I can't.  Go onto Amazon and look at the price of almost any ebook published by one of the Big Five publishers and you'll start wondering what the hell they're thinking.

The impetus behind the pricing of most books is the cost to create them.  You have to buy paper, run a press, buy ink, bind them, etc.  With an ebook, however, you simply have to upload a file.  So why do traditional publishers still want to charge $12.99 or more for a book that has almost no overhead?  The only thing I can think of - the only thing - is that they want to protect their hardcover sales.

If that's what they want to do, I think they're failing miserably.  Sure, it might have an effect if something comes out that you really, really want to buy - maybe you've been dying for the newest Stephen King book or want to check out James Patterson's latest - but those are the exception to the rule.  Most people browse books they barely know but sound intrigued by.  By not reducing the prices of ebooks, they're losing market share and potential profits when people scoff at paying those prices.

Perhaps I shouldn't be even bringing this up.  After all, the less people want to buy traditional books, the more they'll give indie a chance.  Indie books are usually priced far more reasonably, around $5.99 or so, and give people less sticker shock.  Are the traditional houses really this stupid?

I think the answer is yes and no.  I don't think they're intentionally stupid, but that they have no regard for a changing market due to the perceived nature of their monopoly.  Let's be real - traditional publishing doesn't consider indie a real threat to their market.  Since there's less competition with the consolidation of so many houses, traditional publishing figures they have things locked up.  Of course they're still losing money and can't seem to find the formulas that once worked 25-35 years ago, but they figure that's a glitch rather than any flight from what they have to what indie offers.

Here's a newsflash to traditional houses(but one they won't listen to):  people are not going to pay the same for a downloaded version of a novel as they will the hardcover version.  Despite what you think, they're not stupid.  The public knows you don't have the same overhead, even if you still have to pay for editors, secretaries, and cover artists.  Words on a screen aren't perceived as valuable as a book in the hand, yet publishers refuse to accept this reality.  Maybe that's why traditional publishing is dying.  It may take a while, but even a 75 year old in a wheelchair can live another 20 years...they just won't necessarily be a fun 20.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Sorry, but a post on Christmas Eve seemed kind of crass and shallow.  I know I've said to avoid politics and religion, but this doesn't really qualify.  I just want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.  May you enjoy the holiday with your family and loved ones.  Remember this day's special message:

"Peace on Earth, and goodwill towards all."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Trimming Wild Growth

Books can become wild growths of kudzu if we let them.  Our heads are often full of so many great ideas that we just can't wait to put them on paper.  Sometimes these extra threads can add to a novel, but they can just as often distract.  We need to recognize when that starts to happen.

You should have a main plot, and possibly one or two smaller plot threads that tie back into the primary storyline.  Unfortunately, not every idea does this, and when we discover that, we need to cut it off.

If we're lucky, we do this early in the process.  Maybe we make that great idea a throwaway designed to highlight a character flaw or introduce someone new to the story.  However, I've seen story threads that just kind of cut off, leaving the reader wondering what happened.  Worse, I've followed story threads that keep going and going and going and going, maybe resolving by the end but having next to nothing to do with the main plot.  I've sometimes looked back in disgust and wondered, Why did the author take me on this meaningless journey?

If you decide to create a tangent, think hard in advance about why you did so and where you want it to go.  Was it a quirky idea you wanted to play with, or was it something you need so that you can resolve things in the end?  Extraneous bits of story might be fun for us to write, but they distract the reader and end up wasting time, both theirs and yours.  The reader gets miffed that you pulled them down an empty road, and you wasted valuable writing time on something that didn't matter.

Make it matter.  Make it all matter.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Too Much Research?

I've spoken before that I do more research for pieces of fiction than I ever did for school.  Keeping your writing grounded is necessary when you start touching on points that a large part of your audience knows, like the structure of the Catholic Church or the layout of the interstate highway system in the US.

However, you can take this too far.  Of course it's always great to know things, but in finding them out, we oftentimes feel an obligation to let everyone know as much as we do.  After all, what good is all that research if we can't share it with our audience?

Don't get caught in this trap.  Your research is to provide enough background and realism in your story for the reader to enjoy it, not for you to become a professor.  I found myself in this trap when writing The Onyx Cluster.  The main character goes forward in time, and he needs a great deal of energy to do this, to say nothing of the mechanics of time travel.  Therefore I did a lot of research on cyclotrons and curved space/time apertures.  It was very heady, and I felt so smart explaining how it was accomplished in the first chapter.

Then I caught myself and erased nearly the whole thing.

Time travel was a vehicle to get us into the story, but it wasn't the story itself.  I had to remember that the audience cares just enough to accept that time travel could really happen.  They don't care about how many coils the machines at the FermiLab have.  I went back to my work and deleted a great deal - nearly 3000 words - that would've made a great speculative science paper but did nothing to tell us about the post-apocalyptic future the main character encountered.  It hurt, but it was necessary.

Remember why you research.  It's not to come off as an erudite know-it-all.  If your readers wanted to read about the Battle of Cannae, they'd have bought a book about that, not your epic on the mysterious intrigue about replacing Hannibal with an inter-dimensional creature who wanted to alter Earth's history.

It's okay to be smart and learn in order to make your book better.  Just don't outsmart yourself.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


This post was originally going to be about how I like to write down blog ideas as I have them, for I'll otherwise forget.  However, upon further reflection, I think the scope of that post is too narrow, because I have ideas about more than just this blog all the time.

There are times during my job when I'm waiting for my boss to be available, or during a meeting, or any number of other times when an idea will come to my head.  Sometimes it's about this blog, but other times it's about a book I'm working on or a story idea I haven't even begun playing with yet.  And since I'm becoming a forgetful old troll in my later years, I don't always remember these ideas or points when I need them.

Therefore I've started carrying a small notepad with me at all times.  This is for those "AHA!" moments when something sparks inside of me.  I rarely have time in that moment to do anything, but I need the idea later.  So I jot it down.  Depending on the idea, maybe it's just a quick bullet to remind me what to talk about when I blog.  Perhaps it's a little more so that I can go back and really delve into it.  Whatever it is, it's designed to overcome the limitations of my memory.

Such a thing can have practical applications too.  For example, jotting down notes in a meeting can make you look more studious than you are.  Now I know that some of you are always studious, but I'm talking to the more realistic part of the populace out there who knows that you don't always take copious notes when someone is talking during a meeting.  This gives you a way to do so.  Of course don't sacrifice your job for this, but let's face it - sometimes the speaker is boring you to tears.  It's okay to admit that to yourself and find ways around it.  We can't all be interested in everything someone says all the time.

Find a way to have something to write on all the time, and make sure it's something you'll keep.  I wouldn't make it your "normal" outlining notebook, for it'll get crowded fast, but keeping something simple that has random ideas is a plus.  You'll be a more prolific writer for it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Planting Seeds

One of the hardest things to do in writing is to properly foreshadow events.  Sure, lots of writers try it, but it usually comes across as "PAY ATTENTION TO THIS - IT MEANS SOMETHING BIG WILL HAPPEN DOWN THE ROAD!!!!!"  It's got the subtlety of a jackhammer and often comes off as annoying and insecure.

Some will look at the last sentence and say, "Insecure?  How do you figure that?"  I figure that because most authors don't have enough trust in the audience to pick up on the things they write.  Many feel that if they don't lead the reader by the hand, the reader won't see it coming and won't know just how smart the author is.

The thing is that you've got to trust your audience to be as smart as you are.  Stop all the flashing neon signs and see if they can get it on their own.  Or see if they'll put it all together when you finally reveal the payoff.  Either way can be rewarding.

I often try to plant subtle seeds in my novels to foreshadow certain events.  Maybe I'll mention a tertiary character and not let folks know that the person is the focal point for the main character's angst.  Or I could leave out a certain character and only provide subtle clues that they even exist, but when the person is finally revealed, it sets the story in a whole new direction.  Whatever the seed, it's designed to get the reader delving deeper, looking for other clues that he or she missed that might be vital to the story.

It's a delicate balance because it's easy to either overdo or underdo.  You need to provide just enough that the reader will later say, "Aha!" without beating their head up over it.  Maybe throw in a character quirk once or twice, or mention an object's color, making it seem like a minor detail when it really means much more.

The fun thing as a writer is when I don't even realize I've planted that seed.  I've often said that I don't always know where my story is going.  As further plot points are revealed, they sometimes tie back into something I truly thought was a throwaway when I wrote it, only to later say, "It could be interesting if I put in X since that ties back into Y."  Of course you sometimes have to dress it up upon revision, but you still may plant seeds you don't even know about until later in the book when you more clearly develop your plot.

Plant those seeds, and plant them just under the surface.  You'll be amazed by the fruit they produce.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Giddy Over Comments

I love interacting with readers of my blog.  It lets me get into the mind of those who've taken time out of their day to read what I have to say, and it makes me feel good that maybe I've had an impact.  Honestly, I don't get many comments, but when I do, I find myself smiling from ear to ear.

I make an effort to respond to every comment I get, a policy that will continue for the foreseeable future.  Now I admit that I don't always respond in a timely manner.  Due to the nature of my job, I don't get to check this blog or my gmail account as often as I would like.  I've opened up my gmail after a two week absence to find several comments I never got to, and I feel awful when that happens.  Still, when it does, I jump back on and try to give an individualized response to each and every person.  After all, you took the time to comment, so why shouldn't I?

Am I perfect in this regard?  Unfortunately no.  There are a handful of comments that I never got to, either because I was unable to log on at that moment and forgot, or I was lazy.  It doesn't happen often, but being human, it does happen.  If this has affected you, please know that I wasn't intentionally blowing you off.  Life simply got in the way.

If you can spare an extra minute or two for a post you liked, or even one you hated, comment on it.  I want to know what you think.  Was what I wrote cheesy and over the top?  Did it inspire some new technique for you to try?  Did I offend you in some way?  Whatever the topic, I want to hear from you.  Either way, you will have made my day.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mixing Genres

I've heard it said that a writer needs to pick a certain genre for his or her story and stick to it.  If it's horror, don't go too far down the romance aisle.  If it's a detective story, don't make it the centerpiece of a sci-fi universe.  I've often wondered just how true this advice is.

Of course readers want to know what they're buying.  Picking up The Firm when you're really looking for Twilight can be disheartening.  So your novel needs to fit into some category without  going too far into another.  Further, picking one genre helps figure out where to place your book in stores and online.  Readers can't find you if they don't know where to look.

That said, I think that the advice might be a bit too rigid.  After all, what we're after is a great story, and no great story fits neatly into one particular box.  I think the guts of the tale has to come first.  Yes, you should have an idea where you want it to go, which will lend itself to a certain genre, but you need to first focus on telling a good story.  If you get too caught up in "Gee, is this romance or humor," you'll drive yourself to paralysis.

When you've finished, ask your beta-readers what they think.  If you've found a good group of folks who are willing to give you honest feedback, they'll tell you if they thought the genre was clear enough to categorize, or if you've simply confused them.

In the pursuit of a good story, sometimes you're going to have to mix genre elements.  Don't be afraid of that.  Add in whatever is necessary to bring out your book.  If that means you break convention, then so be it, but limiting yourself will keep your novel from growing into what it might be - something special.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing Stinkers

Writers have egos of crystal.  We love our stories, but even more than that, we want other people to love our stories.  The joy we get from bringing out the imagination of others is one of the biggest reasons we became writers.

Unfortunately, although we may all have great ideas, we often don't have the talent or experience to write them in a way that doesn't suck.  Sometimes this holds us back.  We get so caught up in not wanting to stink that we never write.

Get this point early in your writing career - you're going to stink.  You're going to suck out loud.  You'll look back in five, ten, fifteen years and cringe at what you put on paper...and that's okay.  Just like we missed the basket the first time we played basketball or ran the curb the first time we drove a car, we have to go through periods of being awful in order to get good.

Stephen King is one of the masters of the writing world, but even he admits he used to write garbage.  He got rejection letter after rejection letter.  Those stinkers he wrote, though, gave him experience that enabled him to write better and produce the wonderful works of fiction we read today.  None of us - and I do mean none of us - has so much natural talent that we can produce a masterpiece on our first go.  Even when we're writing and thinking we're great, the first time or two we will produce horrible stuff.  I've spoken before of my first full length novel and how bad it was(and trust stunk to high heaven).  At the time, I thought it was wonderful, but years of experience have helped show me just how bad it truly was.

The thing is that I never would've gotten better if I'd not written it.  I learned so many lessons I didn't even realize at the time that it made me a better writer.  Only by doing bad can we figure out how to do good.  So write, even if you know what you're writing is awful.  Let others look at it, putting your ego in check so they can tell you how bad it is.  Being able to be objective about it will let you do better next time(I know, I know...being objective is easy to say and hard to do, but it's essential).  Remember, even Rocky had lots of losses before he beat Apollo Creed.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What Is Writer's Block?

Writer's block.  We've all heard the term.  In fact, most of us have used the term.  But what does it really mean?

Sometimes it's real.  It means that you're at a point in your story where the ideas aren't flowing as well as they once did.  You struggle to figure out the next sentence or get that dialogue just right.  However, sometimes it's simply laziness.  Why do I say that?  Because it's an excuse I've used on occasion myself.

Let's face it - writing is hard.  It's fun, rewarding, and gratifying, but it's also hard, especially if you want to do it right.  It can be frustrating when we're not at our best or when we can't figure out what to say next, but many of us often use writer's block as a reason to stop writing.  "I just need time," we'll say, or "I'll come back to it and be even better."  These are mealy mouthed bullshit reasons that don't let us push past it.

And pushing past writer's block is what we need to be doing.  If you find yourself staring at the computer screen without knowing what to say, just say anything.  Yes, it might be crap, and you might have to re-do it when you're done, but it's like using Drano - do everything you can to clear out the gunk so that real ideas can return.

So what if you write terribly in a writer's block period?  You're writing.  You're fiddling with what works and what doesn't, and your brain keeps processing stuff.  I've often compared writing to going to the gym - the more you don't do it, the easier it becomes to keep not doing it, and the harder it gets to get back into writing shape when you return.

Keep pushing.  Push past your laziness, your ego, and your blank screen until you clear out the garbage.  You could say you're just wasting time, but if you're not writing, is it any different?  After all, nothing is going on paper, so isn't that the same thing?  Or are we so worried about wasted effort that we shy away from it?  Who knows - you may find a gem in that confused mess of a mind.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Happy Endings

I'm big on realism in books.  I can suspend my disbelief, but only to a certain point.  If things get too fantastical, I call bullshit and go on to something else.

Unfortunately, this can have drawbacks, and one of those is the inclusion of happy endings.  Let's face it - we live in a world that can be crappy at times.  It kicks us in the crotch and laughs at us when we least expect it.  Incorporating this into works of fiction helps add gravitas to what we're writing and lets the audience feel more like the story could actually happen.  The problem is that this can also lend itself to endings that don't always feel good since realism often produces results that aren't happy.

As writers, it's okay to do this every once in a while, but we also need to remember that people read books to escape.  We want them to connect with our characters, but they connect because they care, and people usually want good things for people they care about.  Sure, we want to see them struggling in near-impossible scenarios, but only so that they can get out of those scenarios and let us cheer their triumph at the end.

This has caused me to go back and rework the ending of my most recent work, and this isn't the first one I've done that for.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I got that people would be pissed if they invested so much effort in the main character, and all that happened at the end was that he died or became crippled or turned into another bad guy.  Most would fling the book aside in disgust.  How do I know this?  Because it's what I do.

Recently, I've found myself getting mad at movies and books that try to be "deep" by having an ending that doesn't let us cheer.  In spite of appearances, I like seeing people happy and overcoming challenges, so when folks just get sucked down deeper into the muck, I get annoyed(this is one of my biggest criticisms of The Walking Dead). The reason to invest in a character is to see them happy at the end, and when we are denied that, it affects us as well since we often see the characters as extensions of ourselves.  Why keep reading about someone if unhappiness is all you ever find?

Go back and look at all that "deep" material you've been writing.  Is there a way to make it happy in the end?  I don't mean flowery and unrealistic, but some way for the main character to come out on top.  Remember, the greater the struggle, the greater the payoff should be.  If you can find triumph in the end, include it.  Think of your audience.  Even better, think of yourself and how you'd react to nothing but crappiness.

Life is hard enough as it is.  Give it a little ray of hope when you can.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Never Too Good To Outline

As I worked on The Onyx Cluster, I relearned a lesson I wish I could just get through my head - I'm never so good at this writing thing that I can just do it off the top of my head.  I need to outline so that I know where the story is going.

I was cruising along on my most recent work, having gotten the basic framework down months ago, when I started running out of material.  Sure, I knew the gist of what I wanted to say, but I was struggling to find ways to give it depth.  It took me all of five seconds to figure out that I was trying to write by the seat of my pants rather than just take the 20-30 minutes I would need to outline the next 5,000-6,000 words.

Outlining lets us slow things down and focus on where the story should go.  We can play around with ideas and scenes in a way we really can't do when we're at the computer typing.  Sure, we could decide to play around with those things while doing the nitty-gritty of writing, but that results in a great deal more time spent than just outlining since I can outline 5,000 potential new words in 20 minutes, but it takes me around two and a half hours, if I'm on a roll, to write 5,000 words.  What's worse, if I get through with those 5,000 words and they're shit, I've lost much more than time; the loss of time and shitty ideas have also killed my motivation.  However, while outlining, I can scribble, cross out, and totally rework ideas I find terrible, and I've lost maybe about three minutes.

So why does it take so much effort for me to go back to outlining?  I think it has to do with the basic flaw in most writers - we just want to write.  We love getting our stuff down on paper, and we feel that if we're doing something else, our juices aren't flowing properly.  We all need to understand that there's a difference between being an amateur hack and trying to be a professional.  Being a professional is so much deeper than just sitting down to write.  It means outlining, editing, re-writing, and so forth.  These are the unsexy things that differentiate between a hobbyist and someone who has a chance to do this for a living.

Although it might seem to take up more time to outline, I think it saves time in the end by allowing momentum to continue when we're actually writing since we don't have to stop and mentally outline in the moment.  We have a ready reference to go back to when we get stuck.  It takes effort to think about this, but when we do, we can produce work that is of greater quality, and that makes us better writers.