Thursday, March 31, 2016

Success And Complacency

I’m a huge Carolina Panthers fan.  They had a great year.  Unfortunately, one of the problems my Panthers had this year was that they lost when they went into a game thinking they were better than they actually were.  When they started believing everyone who told them how awesome they were, they lost their mojo.

I used that rather labored analogy to say that writing is the same way.  I think most of us have had at least one piece of writing we consider a success.  It feels great when we produce it, and it feels even better when someone tells us how great it was.  However, problems arise when we start buying our press on that.

Remember how hard you worked before you found success?  You likely stayed up nights and weekends laboring over every piece of writing you did.  If you’re anything like me, you wrote, re-wrote, and edited the hell out of your work to make sure it was good.  How about afterwards?  I’ve had to force myself to knuckle back down because I’ve been caught in the trap of saying, “That last thing came out so well.  If I don’t put the effort into this, it really doesn’t matter because now I’ve learned and gotten better.  It’ll just come out good naturally.”

What a load of crap.

Thinking that way has produced some of my worst writing.  I go back and look and what I did in those circumstances, and two things come to mind – first, I’m horrified by how bad the writing was; second, I feel a little bit of despair because I know I’ll have to go back and re-write the whole damn thing because I took shortcuts I shouldn’t have.

Approach your writing as if you haven’t succeeded.  I don’t mean to not be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but just put it into perspective – you did great because you were willing to work at it.  If you let it go to your head, you’ll fail, and your ego will bring you crashing back to Earth.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sequel Perks And Drawbacks

Some of my favorite books are done within the context of a series.  From Harry Potter to the Trilogy of the Damned to The Lost Regiment, I love staying within a universe I already enjoy.  Characters become like old friends, and each new novel is like catching up with an old friend.

That’s not to say that sequels don’t have drawbacks.  Books within the same series are limiting in how they present characters(after the first novel), as well as the twists they can introduce.  Writing in the same series has its own set of challenges, and a good writer understands all of them before diving in.

First, the perks…
1.  There is a built in audience.  If you’ve been successful with your first novel, then the audience is already ready for more.  I know that when I find a book I like, I often go looking to see if there are other books in that series.  They already have me interested, so I gobble them up as quickly as I can.
2.  Character growth.  There’s only so much you can develop a character in one book.  Sure, that character can grow significantly over the course of a novel, but think how much more nuanced and long reaching you can be when you go beyond just one.  You can introduce facets of that character that you had to ignore in previous books because you didn’t have room, so now you’re able to add elements that can shape your story in new directions.
3.  The universe is familiar.  When you write a new novel, you have to build a universe from scratch.  Even if it’s set in where we live in the real world, there are still aspects of it that you have to figure out(Why are the current crop of nations in existence?  Why did Tom and Jennifer get divorced?  Can all dogs talk, or just a set few?).  In the second, third, and fourth books of a series, this stuff is already there – you’re simply setting your story on a stage already designed.
Now the drawbacks…
1.  The potential for creation in your universe is limited.  When a novel is new, you can go in any direction you want.  However, in books that come after, that’s not really an option.  How would people have reacted if in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, new graduates from Hogwarts suddenly had the option of joining an elite British special forces unit that used magic?  Wouldn’t that undermine the premise that the wizarding world is secret?  No one in Twilight would’ve accepted Bella being a werewolf in Breaking Dawn.  These potentially interesting twists of first books look stupid in later ones.
2.  Your characters are defined.  As great as it is to introduce new growth into characters, you can’t go overboard, or your audience will desert you.  One of the reasons readers come back to sequels is the familiarity with the characters, so if they start acting in ways contrary to what the audience is used to, you’ll turn them off.
3.  Each one has to be better than before.  One of the things that draws readers to sequels is the hope that the next book will not only match the magic they found in the first, but will exceed it.  You have to up your game with each book, and that can create pressure.  Suppose your first was the best you’d ever written – how do you top that?  And then how do you do it again after that?
Sequels and series are great, but know what you’re getting into.  If you do, it can be fun.  If you don’t, it can be awful.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Everyone Knows The Right Way

Talk to anyone about writing, and everyone knows the “right way” to write.  Well, everyone except those of us who do this for a living.

This goes back to the revelation that everyone is sure they have the next Great American Novel inside them, and all they need to do is transcribe it onto paper so that their dreams of riches can be realized.  Of course, they never actually get around to writing said novel, but that’s because things just kept coming up, gosh darn it.  They’ll get to it once they get promoted out of their administrative assistant job, or once the kids get over the flu, or after they get that mortgage for the house.  It’s always some excuse.
But they’re happy to give advice on how you should write.  “Don’t put that comma there!”  “Don’t you know you should lead off with action?”  “You need to vary the dialogue and make sure everyone knows which character is speaking at every moment.”  These things coming from those who pretend to have expertise but haven’t written anything except a comment on
So who should you listen to?  After all, there have got to be at least a few people who can give good advice, right?  The answer to that is easy – go to those with proven records.  If you know someone who is published, seek their advice.  Read On Writing by Stephen King.  And most importantly, READ!  Reading what’s already out there and successful will give you much more insight than your co-worker who just knows how to do it but hasn’t.  You can read books for sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, and ideas on how to build a story.  Remember, these authors have actually done it, so you’re not wasting your time with a wanna be who dreams big but has less experience than you do in writing.
When you seek out the advice of true experts, what you’ll often find is how humble they are about their accomplishments.  Very few who really know what they’re doing go around bragging about it.  That’s not to say that they lack confidence about how well they write, just that they’re not insufferable about it.  They won’t push it on you, but they’ll be happy to give you their perspective – all you need to do is ask.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

First Draft Sucking

Some writers can sit down at a computer and belt out the best, most coherent story anyone has ever seen.  The words flow effortlessly across the page, and while they may have to go back in a tweak a sentence or correct a bit of punctuation, the basic framework of what they wrote will always remain intact.

Like most, though, I’m not one of those writers.

Sure, I’ve had that one book that required hardly any revision(Salvation Day), but the majority of my first drafts have sucked.  I look at Canidae and large parts of Schism and wonder how I ever deigned to think I had talent.  Then it occurs to me – they’re supposed to suck.  That’s what first drafts are for.

The shitty part of recognizing that a first draft sucks is the realization that you have to go back in and change it.  Well, you don’t have to, but if you want anybody other than your mom to say it was any good, it’s probably a good idea.  And knowing that you have that extra work coming after all the effort you put into that first draft can be demoralizing.  Who wants to go in and re-write their thesis?
But you need to.  And don’t go back in right away – at that point, you’re still too close to the work.  You need to wait several months so you can look at it with fresh eyes.  That way, you can pick out the parts that were truly awful and are in need of a re-write.  You can also better envision how that re-write will affect the rest of the story so you’ll know the scope of work you have to put in.  Sometimes it will be minor, bit other times it will require nearly re-writing the whole damn book.  I have three right now that are in need of such work, and it seem soul-crushing, but I know I have to do it because these drafts are nowhere close to ready for publication.
You have to swallow your pride and recognize that your first draft is likely to stink to high heaven.  If you can objectively look at what you wrote, you’ll be able to figure out when it really needs work.  If you’re incapable of that, then you have to have friends tell you what needs to be re-done, and that’s going to hurt.  A lot.  But in the end, it’ll produce a better book, and, hopefully, better sales.  After all, aren’t creating good stories and getting good sales a large part of the point?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Transferring Live Speech To The Page

Many of us have been told we’re great speakers.  When we talk about our work or the stories we create, we get animated.  Further, we can convey ideas and meanings so much better when we speak face to face.  So how do we transfer that to our work?

It’s made all that much tougher in writing by the dreaded rules of grammar.  How we speak is often the way our intelligence is judged, and since writing is simply speaking in a different form, if we write poorly, people will assume we’re stupid.  But how closely are we to follow the rules?

I think that’s a question each of us has to answer for ourselves, and that’s influenced by the audience we want to address.  We’re often told not to end a sentence with a preposition, but don’t we often end our sentences when talking like that?  How does grammar tell us to slow down the reader so they can get the sense of time that we intend(I do so through the use of…ellipses).  Should your dialogue be more formal?  I like fast paced dialogue that’s much more casual, so I’m not exactly proper.  Further, although we should try to eliminate extraneous words, don’t we often talk with extraneous words?  I think that using them in specific instances helps the reader relate better to the writer.

Then there’s body language and tone of voice.  This is exceptionally challenging to convey, so we often have to add it at the end of a bit of individual dialogue.  We may say that a person sighed, or that they smirked, or some other body cue intended to convey the tone the character is speaking in.  It can get tedious at times, but you have to ask yourself how important that stuff is as opposed to what’s being said at the moment.

One of the things that has always helped me is to go back through a page or two and read it out loud.  If I can do that and maintain the tone I wrote it in, then I’ve at least gotten close.  However, if I stumble over my words or they don’t come out the way I envisioned, then I know it’s time to go back in and re-write them.

All of this requires practice, as well as a willingness to both experiment and change when things don’t work.  It’s going to be frustrating, but being able for people to read your work and think that you’re merely having a conversation with them is the distinction between an okay writer and someone with the potential to be great.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Indie Thoughts For Consideration

It’s real easy to say that you’ve chosen one way or the other in regards to publishing and your writing career.  Some will say, “Yes I’m going to go traditional – I want my books in Barnes & Noble.”  Others will say, “Obviously I’m going indie – I want freedom from the Big 5 publishers.”  However, I hope that those making these statements have really given though to what truly goes into each.

Time – Time is the biggest consideration when choosing, and by that I mean how you want to spend your time.  Once this becomes a profession, we quickly learn that actually writing is the fun part…and one of the parts we spend the least amount of time on.  Unless your name is Rowling or Patterson, you’re unlikely to just wake up when the sun is warm, pour a fresh cup of brew, and start cranking out your new masterpiece.  What you’re more likely to do is either do something in the query process – write your query, send our your query, polish your query, research who you should query, etc.  Whether you like it or not, this is how most writers spend their time, so decide which way you want to spend it.
Money – Money is a consideration in both methods, but it’s different in each.  With traditional publishing, you need to consider whether your effort is worth a 15% commission on a print run of 5,000 books.  Can you handle only being paid twice a year?  Do you want your agent taking 15% of your pay?  For indie, the money concerns come up front – Can you afford to buy ten ISBNs?  What will your cover cost?  How much will you have to pay an editor?  Do you have the funds available to run through each of these steps, hoping for financial success on the back side that may never materialize?
Editing – These can be an emotional topic.  If you go traditional, can you handle an editor at one of the major publishers cutting out parts of your book that you were in love with?  How will you react when they ask you to re-write parts of it(and they will)?  Are you really attached to your title?  In the indie game, how will you find an editor?  Self-editing is grand and all, but you really need an outside set of eyes to look at your stuff so you can get objective feedback.
Distribution – Do you have your heart set on getting into Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble?  If so, are you prepared for a limited print run that you will have no rights to increase or buy back once the publisher decides that novel has no more sales potential?  If you go indie, how will you get your work into the public domain?  Are you going to go exclusively with ebooks, or are you going to print hardcovers, and if so, how will you get them into stores?  What happens when you print 5,000 books and they have to sit in your garage because no one wants to sell them?
I’m not asking these questions to be a killjoy.  I simply want to make sure you understand the paths of each so you can make an informed decision.  After all, no one will care about your career as much as you do.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Blog Topic Forgetfulness

I come up with topics for blogs at the strangest times – when I’m walking my dogs, when I’m taking a shower, when I’m cooking dinner, etc.  My mind wanders quite easily, and every so often I’ll stumble across a subject I’m interested in and will say, “That sounds like a great topic for a post.”

Long ago, I learned that my memory is terrible, so I had to take to writing down the topics I came up with as soon as I could.  Sure, I used to tell myself that I would remember that topic later, but I always failed when I sat down and stared at a blank screen.  Therefore I knew I had to write them on my notepad just as soon as possible.

I have a regular notepad next to my computer, and I write my topics down on this.  As I get through each topic, I scratch it off my list and move to the next one.  However, being as forgetful as I am, there have been times when I’ve looked down at the title of a post and asked, “What the hell did I mean by that?”

Lots of the subjects of the posts are obvious by what I wrote down – Indie Versus Traditional, Outlining, Novel Update, etc.  Unfortunately, some of what I write down isn’t always as clear.  I looked at one that said “Happy Procrastination” recently and spent 15 minutes wracking my brain to figure out what I meant by that.  Another one, simply entitled “Complacency,” also threw me for a loop when I couldn’t remember if I was talking about personal complacency or the complacency of traditional publishers.

So how does one solve this issue?  For me, if the title isn’t readily apparent, I have to jot down a note or five next to the topic to spur my memory.  Yes, it makes my sheet messier, but it saves me aggravation when it comes time to sit down at the computer to write.  Given the already prickly nature of my personality, anything that staves off such stuff can only be good, right?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Every once in a while, we writers will introduce a new character simply because the scene demands one.  We don’t intend for this person to stay around very long, and once they’ve served their purpose, we discard them and they’re never seen or heard from again.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

However, what happens when you set up a scene or two with a throwaway character only to find that that person has more of an impact with the audience than you intended?  In Salvation Day, I introduced a character called Gary.  Gary was meant to act as a sounding board for the main character, Mike Faulkner, as he worked through his grief and temptation to the dark side.  I saw him as just an extension of Mike’s thoughts, but a monologue in Mike’s head would be boring, so I put that monologue in the visage of a person, never intending for Gary to be anything other than an afterthought.

So imagine my surprise when my first few beta-readers wanted to know what became of Gary by the end of the book.  It seemed I’d created a character people cared about, an overall good guy who had a conscience and was the moral avatar of the first part of the novel.  People demanded resolution since Gary never made another appearance after the first third of the book, and I didn’t provide closure of some kind for him.
It taught me a valuable lesson – never create a character, no matter how minor you may think that character is, on a whim.  Stories spin out in strange directions, and although you may intend a specific effect and feeling, readers have a funny way of deciding on their own what they will and what they won’t care about.  They’re almost like people that way.
As to Gary, and a few others like him in other books, I’m not sure I can shoehorn them into a narrative that’s already complete without making the story too cumbersome.  However, in the fantasy world of fiction, there is always the chance to revisit people in sequels, so I think that’s what I’m going to do.  Gary will make an appearance in the next book in the series since he made such an impact, and I’ll find a way to wrap up his storyline in the greater context.  Hopefully it doesn’t come across as forced…and hopefully the audience will be just as enamored of him as they were the first go around.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Screw The Doubters

Every once in a while, I’ll read a screed from a writer who is giving up.  This usually comes in one of two forms – either the writer has determined that he or she has no talent, or the writer’s friends and family have persuaded them to “be more realistic” with their life.  These supposedly well-meaning people have said that making a living with this whole writing thing is just too hard, and the writer should be doing more productive things with their time instead of wasting their time on a pipe dream that will likely never pan out anyway.  Sure, the way they say this may be soothing or compassionate, but the basic message is always the same – stop writing and do something else.  I’ve got only one thing to say about those people in your life.
Fuck them.
Seriously, why are you allowing yourself to be brought down by such negativity?  Real friends will help you along your career path because that’s what you want.  Unfortunately, there will be lots of people who either disagree with your decision or are jealous with the path you’ve decided to take that they can’t stand it.  Lots of people feel they need to assert control over you “for your own good.”  The arrogance required for this is both staggering and common.
If people say you can’t write, ask them what they mean.  If what they say makes sense, then work to get better.  If people say you should be doing other things, cut them out of your life.  Yes, that sounds harsh, but better to cut a toxic person out rather than cling on to them out of a misguided sense of loyalty that that person isn’t returning.
All too often I see writers failing to even attempt the endeavor because of self-doubt and the doubts of those that supposedly care about them.  While there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed if you try, I promise that you won’t succeed if you never even give it a shot.  Most folks who succeed have failed time after time after time.  Real winners figure out a way to break through the bullshit, dust themselves off, and plow right back into the morass.  Even if you eventually fail, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot.  If you don’t try, all you’ll ever be left with will be a fantasy with a question mark over whether or not you really could’ve done it.
Screw the doubters.  If they had a better way, they’d be doing it rather than ragging on yours.  Get rid of them and find your own way ahead.  At least you can say you succeeded or failed on your terms rather than someone else’s.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

That Feeling

If you’ve written for any amount of time, you know that feeling, the one you get when you’ve perfectly envisioned a great scene.  It can be as satisfying as anything we do in telling our stories, and it’s one of the moments we search for in what may otherwise become drudgery.

For me, the very first time I had that feeling was with Salvation Day.  I was looking for a way to add an element of horror that would drive the main character further towards insanity and the dark side.  It occurred to me to have him find a dead body in his bed, and then to have that dead body suddenly animate and talk to him before disappearing.  I could see the waxy color of the person’s skin and feel the fear in the main character’s voice.  As I outlined it, I made sure to be very specific on what I wrote down because I wanted to capture it exactly when I finally committed it to paper.
Needless to say, it was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my writing career.  Of course, coming as early as it did, I’ve struggled to feel that way again.  That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed similar success on envisioning exact scenes, but those instances have occurred further apart than I originally thought they would.  Since that feeling happened so soon in my first big novel, I figured it’d be the norm.  It wasn’t.
And that’s probably why I’m writing this, to stress to you to savor that feeling when it happens.  Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame said that every once in a while an artist will find himself sitting in a beam of light while angels sing in the background, but not often.  That’s what it feels like when you’ve figured out that perfect scene, but if you experience it too early in your career, it’s easy to think it’s an everyday thing.  It’s not.  Search for it and savor it.  Believe me, you’ll know when you find it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Turning Fan Favorites

A while back, I went over what it might do to fans and writers when you kill off a character.  However, there’s an offshoot to that – turning a fan favorite.

Here’s what I mean – turning people from bad to good and back again is a favorite tactic in films.  In professional wrestling, turning someone from babyface(the good guy) to heel(the bad guy) is amazingly common.  In our writing, though, this can have a detrimental effect on our audience.  Making someone completely unexpected turn out to be the bad guy can be a great trick…in a single story novel.  Unfortunately, done in the fifth book of a seven book series, it can piss people off.
Imagine, for example, that you found out in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Interesting from the standpoint of story continuity, but each book also stands on its own.  How can you go back and re-read old stories without having the way you read it change?  After all, you’d know from the beginning that this person you associated as being a force for good in the main character’s life is actually a dastardly villain you want to die.
I get the temptation to throw a wrench into the works and shake things up a bit.  However, be careful with which wrench you throw.  If you want to shake things up, kill off a major character or introduce a new one, but if you change someone who everyone was rooting for, you may find that your audience will start to view you as the bad guy.  After all, it was you who crushed their affections, so will they ever trust you again?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pick Your Beta Readers Well

I’ve spoken at length about the need for beta-readers.  Beta-readers can give us an objective view of our work and allow us to see flaws that we might otherwise overlook because we’re too close to the work.  Unfortunately, not all beta-readers are created the same.

I recently gave my work to six different people who volunteered to read it and give me feedback, and I’m kind of sorry I did.  Out of the six, only two wrote me back.  I get that times can be crazy and people have their own lives, but we’re talking about only 10,000 words, and it has been over a month.  The four people who have gone silent should’ve said that they had no time.
But beyond that, of the two that gave me feedback, only one of them gave me anything worth a damn.  One of those who provided feedback missed the entire point of the novel(in this case, the book is about Satan winning Armageddon and what that world would look like, so don’t go evangelistic on me and tell me that Satan isn’t God’s equal…you just took yourself out of the pool by acknowledging from the start that you are incapable of providing an objective view).  The final beta-reader actually gave me something useful by pointing out where a character’s words and actions didn’t coincide, so I can appreciate that.
Yes, we’re all supposed to be grateful for anyone who reads our stuff, but that’s not a license to do a shitty job or blow it off entirely.  If a potential beta-reader feels up front that he or she can’t do something well, then that person should simply pass on the offer.  Being free and doing a favor doesn’t mean you should take it lightly.
I know I sound frustrated, but that’s because I am.  Too many view such a request as if I’ve suddenly become Oliver Twist asking for another bowl of gruel.  This is supposed to be a back and forth based on mutual respect.  If you don’t feel you can handle it, or you take the request so lightly, then just turn me down when I approach you.  If reading what I have is an inconvenience or you’re unable to break out of your preconceived world, that’s fine – just let me know so I don’t waste time and effort on you.
I think we writers are so desperate to get advice sometimes that we take any old crap that gets sent our way because we’re afraid of offending those who took up our offer.  I say screw that.  If I put myself out there, the least someone can do is take me seriously.  If that’s too big a hassle, then don’t volunteer.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Dark Muse

Her mood is dark.  The black silk dress she wears is similarly unexpected, accented by long black nails.  She slinks up beside me, running one of those fingers along my forearm.

"Remember, pain is necessary," she intones.  "Just imagine the pleasure he'll take from such pain."

Her voice is much deeper than usual, and the gleam in her eyes speaks more of an eternal pit than a sparkly twinkle.  There's no doubt about it - this novel has changed her mood.  A lot.

"I'm not sure I like him taking such pleasure in this kind of punishment," I say.  "It makes me feel icky."

"He is the Devil, is he not?" she asks.  Once I nod, she continues, "Then you can't expect him to be a fluffy bunny.  Had you not chosen to tell part of your story from his point of view, you could afford to take things a little more lightly, or at least more sympathetically.  However, by insisting we see part of this tale through his eyes, you've made understanding him integral."  She laid back on the bed, stretched out her arms, and purred.

"Yes, but to enjoy running someone through a spit?"

"Is he also still the villain?"  I nod again.  "Then creating sympathy for him in the traditional sense will undermine your entire story.  No, no...he has to be every bit as wicked as intended or you've just created another tragic tale where the audience will start to like him.  You don't want that, do you?"

I shake my head and peer back at my computer.  My Muse has never been able to be this intensely evil, and it scares me sometimes where her mind will lead me.  I feel myself getting lost in this increasing fog of darkness.  Once I do what I must, will she ever let me find my way out?

She props herself up on an elbow and glares at me.  That's right - glares.  The look isn't the playful come-hither stare I've grown accustomed to seeing, but rather a look clearly intended  to convey to me how far she wants to go.

"He should rape the girl next," she says.  Before I can register that horror, she continues, "And he should enjoy it."

This is almost too much for me to take.  I have trouble kissing a woman unless I know she wants me to, so describing a rape, especially one done with pleasure, is going to be a bit of a stretch.  As I run this over in my head, she whispers, "You pussy.  You were the one who wanted to go dark, and now you want to back out.  Well I won't let you."

The last sentence was said with a near growl.  All I can wonder as I dive cautiously into this scene is, will I ever be the same?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Emotional Connections

I recently got asked a very interesting question - how do I feel when I kill off one of my characters?  Stephen King once said you have to kill your darlings, and he's right(to an extent).  The unexpected death of a major character can throw an entire story off balance and keep the reader guessing.  It creates tension, and, hopefully, an emotional reaction from readers.  But how does it make the writer feel?

I've had mixed emotions over characters and honestly haven't killed off too many of them, or at least not the ones I liked.  Only twice have I killed a character I really cared about, and in one of those instances, the character changed to the point where it didn't affect me.  However, there was once I've killed a major character and wondered if I did the right thing.

The novel in question is in need of a re-write, but the character I'm thinking of still has to die.  It saddens me because this person was instrumental in the story and provided the impetus behind the main character's drive.  Unfortunately, the story gets stuck if this person stays alive, and despite the time I've invested in the character, death is necessary.

I'll be honest - I don't know that it affected me on an emotional level.  I think where I felt it most was when I thought about the story and this person's involvement in it, but the death wasn't something I dwelled on.  I went back and forth over how to move the plot along, and the character's death seemed to be what had to happen, but it caused me no great discomfort.  Does that make me a bad person?

Of course, I haven't had to kill off a character that I really liked yet either.  Perhaps that's because most of my stories only have one or two points of view.  Killing off the main POV character would halt the story entirely, so it's not feasible.  Maybe I should make it feasible and see what happens(in some future novel).  Could I do it?  I don't know...