Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Cool Or Real?

Reading a few books recently, I've found myself in the crux of a dilemma - should the characters I write be more on the "God I wish I was that cool!" side, or the "That is so me!" side?  In other words, should the main character be super-cool, or should the main character be more relatable?


There's nothing wrong with either.  We've read about both.  Harry Dresden and Jack Reacher are both guys' guys who are always able to come up with the right solution and react with little to no emotion beyond, "Eh, no big deal."  Even  alcoholic Bobby Dollar from The Dirty Streets of Heaven always has the right weapon, is rarely afflicted with self-doubt beyond being cool enough for everyone, and always gets the gorgeous girl in the end.  Most people aspire to be this happy-go-lucky, even with all of the problems associated with it.  As an aside, my go-to for cool characters is Dean Winchester from Supernatural - I freely admit to having a man-crush on him, as he is every bit of cool that I've always wanted to be.


But here's my problem with writing guys like that - I'm not cool.


No, this isn't a humble-brag.  I've done some cool stuff(jumping out of airplanes, leading troops in combat, rappelling out of a helicopter), but I'm not personally cool.  I love to watch the news and sci-fi shows.  I like to read about zombies, vampires, and werewolves.  I play online games like Warcraft.  I played chess in high school, and I still know enough to beat the average person.  I didn't date much until college, and even then not until my senior year.  I wear t-shirts that were made in the 1990s.  I'm the guy who doesn't talk much around folks I don't know because I don't want to come across as either stupid or lame.  All of that makes it hard for me to write about "cool" and have the audience believe it.


However, I think us uncool people, with all our geekery and self-doubt, are the ones in the majority.  Sure, most of us like to read about the cool guy, but we know we're not him, which I believe makes it hard to relate to a character that's so cool.  I think that a character can do cool things while being uncool, like the characters I've written in Akeldama and Salvation Day.  The main character in each does cool things - like killing vampires of leading an assault that could determine the fate of humanity - but they're not cool per se.  They doubt.  They're angry.  They hold grudges.  They're horrible with women.  But they're good at heart an strive to overcome the world in spite of their own uncoolness.


Call it a weakness of mine - I write uncool characters doing some cool things because that's who I am, so that's what I can write.  I liken it to the character I tried writing for Wrongful DeathI originally wanted Christian Gettis to be a teenage girl, but I couldn't make her believable, no matter how hard I tried, because I've never understood the minds of teenage girls(especially when I was a teenage boy).  However, I've been a teenage boy about to graduate high school, so it was much easier to write a character like that.


But what does the audience want?  In the end, that's who needs to care the most, since those are the folks who buy our books.  Do they want slick perfection and someone who didn't know the Friday night lineup on ABC?  Do they want the guy who drops the mic, kisses the supermodel, and then shrugs it all off as no big deal?  They might.  Surely we all want to know folks like that, if for no other reason than to pretend we might one day be that cool.  Or will they better relate to someone more like them, the geek who is a bit awkward at times but who rises to the challenge presented to them?  While I like the cool guys mentioned above, I want to know my heroes have flaws, for when they do, it lets me know that perhaps I can accomplish the same kinds of things if I just put in the effort.  To me, the best heroes, the ones who get an empathetic reaction out of me, are the ones who I can envision being.  The cool guy may strive, but it doesn't seem like a big deal when he wins.  However, the real guy who wins is exhausted and allows us to revel in the triumph with him.


Don't get me wrong - either way works.  I just have a hard time writing the first way(cool guys).  Maybe readers don't want the uncool.  I guess I'll find out starting in May.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Humility

We writers aren't very good with humility.  Sure, we talk a good game, and we're good at being self-deprecating so that everyone thinks we don't fully believe in ourselves, but let's be honest - most of that is an act.  Yes, we may be insecure when it comes to hoping others like our stories, but in the end, we all believe we're so much smarter than the rest of the world.  We're creative!  We write in ways that can make our readers cry!  And deep?  Hoo boy, we're so friggin' deep.

At least this is the conceited world in which most of us live.

However, every so often, something comes along that reminds us that we're not as good as we think we are.  For me, that point came this week while having folks look at Akeldama.  I was riding high - my cover looked great, the book had been formatted just right, and I was ready to move to getting a proof copy.  Yet I still had a proofreader out, but I just knew that that was a formality.

So this person approached me on Friday with a few things he noticed.  I shrugged, confident that he just didn't get one of the ways I was using to give voice to the story...right up until he pointed out a minor spelling mistake that occurred in multiple places.  Damn! I thought.  I guess I'll have to send that back to the formatter.

Much to my dismay, that wasn't the only one.

Several of my sentences that were questions ended in periods.  And one of ellipses had only two dots instead of three.  And I'd misspelled "methemoglobin"(which this asshole found with a simple spell check).  Plus I'd pluralized one of the character's names instead of making it possessive as it needed to be.

Fuck me, I thought.  This is humiliating.

So I prepared yet another correction sheet and sent it off to my exceptional formatter, Cheryl Perez.  She has been very understanding throughout this process as I meander my way through my first publication.  And although she has been very professional and assured me that this is nothing out of the ordinary, I can't help but feel like a dunce.

This whole episode has reminded me of a lesson you'd have thought I learned after 43 years of looking like an idiot when I get too confident - just when you think you're at the top, something will remind you you're not as good as you thought you were.  And you know what?  We need that lesson.  We need to be reminded that while confidence is great, arrogance can come back to bite you.  Imagine if I'd gone to press with what I thought was a finished work and people came up to me with their copy and pointed out the mistakes.  Not only would it have been both embarrassing and amateurish, it would have been expensive as I recalled those crap bags and re-done them.  Or I could've just gone with what was out there and been shown up for not being the professional I've aspired to be.  You know...just to be a conceited prick.

Yup, this lesson will be with me for a long time.  Hopefully I won't have to keep repeating it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Dashing Around

One of my favorite punctuation marks is the em dash.  Although I know that most people are now thinking WTF is an em dash, I cannot express how much this tiny line has had an impact on the style of my writing.

The Punctuation Guide says an em dash is one of the most versatile marks in writing, as it can be substituted for parenthesis, commas, or colons.  In other words, em dashes are used to signify breaks in action.

Even though I'd used them for years, I had no idea what this small line was called.  Then, this past summer, I submitted a piece of writing to someone for review, and they asked about the use of it.  They knew the proper term - em dash - but rarely saw it in action(just to brag, the person in question said that I used it to great effect).

Em dashes can be a great tool.  I usually use it to create a flow of action or dialogue when I think there needs to be a break in the flow of thought but believe the colon is too formal in that spot(confession - I often think the colon is too formal...it reminds me of my 9th grade English class).  I use it as an extension of thought that helps the reader feel the action at the pace I want the action felt.

Of course, this particular mark can be used too frequently.  If used every paragraph, or multiple times in a single paragraph, it becomes visually distracting.  Although we often think of writing as little more than a medium to transmit description, good writing can evoke emotions based on visual effect as well(think of the single use sentence in the middle of a page for shock factor).  The eye gets drawn towards anything out of the ordinary, and the em dash is certainly that.  However, when the unusual becomes the norm, it loses effect.

There are other times to use it, such as in place of commas and parenthesis(as mentioned above), but, once again, do so sparingly.  I recommend no more than twice on a single page, and even then I wouldn't do it every page.  Em dashes can create order and flow, but too many make the reader think you're a cheap carnival barker.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mind Numbing Fantasies

I have a confession - now that Akeldama is nearing release, I've begun indulging in fantasies about what life would be like if it exploded into massive commercial success.  Yes, in the past I've told people to not worry about fame and fortune, for those things are so rare that you'll never feel successful if that's all you seek, but I'm now fantasizing about just those very things.

I believe most writers have those same fantasies, even if few will admit them.  We all want to be the lead panelist at some fan convention, or able to write whatever we want from the comfort of our plush office in our new Beverly Hills Mansion.  However, we also know that such fantasies are both unrealistic and a little self-aggrandizing.  Many say it's arrogant to spend(waste?) time fantasizing about what hasn't happened(and probably never will).  I disagree...to a point.

Don't let such fantasies become obsessive.  Don't spend all your time on them.  But if you're out on your front porch for a few minutes late in the afternoon with no other pressing matters, I see nothing wrong with letting your mind wander.  It can be a fun way to keep from being bored, the same way many fantasize about winning the lottery after buying a $1 ticket at the local convenience store.  As long as you don't sit in your bedroom all day thinking about it, it's harmless.

Sometimes these things help us smile in the moments when it feels like all we do is prepare but never seem to actually get to our destination.  I don't believe for a minute that I'm alone in these fantasies; in fact, I'm certain I'm not even in the minority in this. 

Maybe it'll happen.  Maybe it won't.  For now, I'll just let myself dream.  After all, I may get a few good stories from it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Building Up, Paying Off

As writers, we all want to craft a great story.  I don't think there's a single writer who hasn't said that he or she would like to create a piece of work that transcends the ages and is quoted by others as part of the societal narrative.  Part of that is ego, and part of that is the little kid in each of us looking for approval.  It's what lends itself to our toiling to make stories that are larger than life.

Unfortunately, while many of us can build a terrific story, we struggle with an ending that is worthy of what we just wrote.  Johnny Carson once said something along the lines of how the longer a joke, the funnier the payoff has to be, and the same applies to books - the greater the buildup, the better the payoff has to be.

We've seen plenty of this failing to come to pass in modern entertainment.  Twin Peaks was notorious for building up tension and never providing resolution until the very end.  Star Wars had great hype for its new movie, only to have it seem kind of blasé when it finally arrived.  These things built up expectations so high in the minds of the audience that almost nothing could've satisfied the rabidity with which they were greeted.

It's a trap we need to be careful of as writers.  I tend to think that stories are easy but endings are hard.  We spend so much time building the perfect narrative that the ending rarely matches.  No, I'm not telling you to not build a great story - I'm telling you to spend at least as much, if not more, time on crafting the ending so the audience doesn't walk away deflated.

This also comes down to knowing your audience.  If your audience is the kind that likes shocks and turns where the good guy doesn't always win, then find a way to surprise them with an ending that'll keep them thinking.  For me, I Am Legend by Richard Matherson did this.  We were all expecting Neville to be the good guy, but it turned out he was the monster and the vampires were creating a new society that I certainly didn't see coming.  However, if your audience is lighter and looking for happy endings, doing something like this would piss them off(imagine if JRR Tolkien had Sauron take the ring and rule Middle Earth at the end of the novels).  Or if in The Shining, Stephen King had the family just walk out of The Overlook and traipse merrily down the mountain rather than the boiler blowing up and Jack Torrence saving his son.  The story itself would've been meaningless.

Be aware of the buildup you've created and spend that kind of time on your ending.  Make sure it's worthy of your story.  Otherwise, you risk pissing off your audience, and pissed off audience members rarely return to get pissed off again.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Acknowledgements

As I finish up the process to publish Akeldama, there are other things creeping up that aren't related to the story.  One of those things is the acknowledgements page.

We've all seen them in our books, pages where the author thanks the myriad of folks who've been instrumental in bringing the book to the public.  Most writers thank their agents, their families, and sometimes a few other random people that are important to them but who mean little to the vast majority of those who read the story.

There are, of course, several landmines possible in this kind of thing, the biggest being if you leave someone out.  In Akeldama, I've thanked by name those most directly responsible for helping me put it together(the cover artist, the ebook and print formatters), as well as my family.  I made passing mention of those who've inspired or encouraged me, but there are so many that mentioning all of them by name could've been a book unto itself.

What I don't want is for someone to be pissed because they didn't get a mention.  There's my best friend who has seen me toil since 6th grade and who has read nearly everything I've ever written, including the puke inducing stuff I once thought was good.  His encouragement has never wavered.  There have been those whose advice I've taken, whether they knew it or not(mostly because it was general advice on their blogs or in their lectures), like Joe Peacock, JA Konrath, Sarah Hoyt, and Hugh Howey.  These exceptional writers have provided insight on both writing and publishing that I've used to make things come to fruition, and the only thing they may know about me is my name.  There are even villains that have inspired me - mostly agents and publishers, but a few naysayers as well - who've either ignored me or told me I never stood a chance.  I don't know if these turds have any idea just how much motivation they gave me to prove them wrong.

Inevitably, someone will get left out, but will it matter?  I'm not an ungrateful person, and I cherish everyone who had a hand in helping me along.  Still, I can't mention everyone, and I'm hoping that no one's feelings get butt hurt over it.  Further, does anyone but the writer and his family even read the acknowledgements?  The only time I've ever skimmed them was when I used to think about traditional publishing and I was scanning for agent names.  Let's be honest - most readers don't give two shits.  The acknowledgements page is something to skip past so they can get into the story itself.

So is there a point to this whole pile of steaming lamentation?  Not really.  It came up as I moved towards publication, and I wondered just how many other authors struggle with it.  Anyone else have any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

By Any Other Name...

A friend of mine and I were talking recently about pseudonyms.  This buddy recently finished writing a small book on freedom and responsibility in society entitled Common Sense For The Modern Age.  I know I don't normally discuss politics on this blog, and I'm not saying the book in question is pro or anti what I believe, but since my friend wrote it and it's now available in the Kindle Store, with his print version coming out around March 20th, please do me a favor and at least check it out.


Anyway, he wrote it under the pseudonym "Publius II."  For those who don't know, Publius was the pseudonym that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote under when they published The Federalist Papers.  He envisioned this tome as an update to their version, and while a bit pretentious(even he admits that), he thinks his pseudonym captures the spirit he's striving for.

I asked him why he decided to write under a pseudonym(other than the obviously conceited reason of trying to emulate the guys who wrote the friggin' Constitution), and he said he did it for two reasons.  The first was to generate buzz for sales.  The second was to protect himself.

Like me, he knows the hazards of getting too political in today's world.  If he got on the wrong side of someone influential within his company, it could spell disaster, so he wrote it anonymously in the hopes that it couldn't be traced back to him.  He felt he went out of his way to avoid getting too controversial in the book, but everything in today's polarized world seems controversial to someone, so he hid it.

That got me thinking of the use of pseudonyms and their usefulness.  Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman during a time when publishing houses were convinced that writers couldn't publish more than one book a year without oversaturating the public(a line of reasoning I've always found stupid).  His son wrote under the pseudonym Joe Hill(and still does, I think) out of a desire to succeed on his own rather than on the coattails of his father.  JK Rowling has written under Robert Galbraith out of a desire to see if she could capture lightning in a bottle again based solely on her work rather than on her original brand.

It made me remember that even RD Meyer is sort of a pseudonym.  Yes, my name is Russell Dean Meyer, but my namesake is known for work I'd rather not be associated with(go on...Google Russ Meyer and see what comes up - just don't do it at work).  It makes me personally very hard to Google, so I needed some way to stand apart.

What's the point of all of this?  I'm not sure there is one, other than to say that even authors want to create something special aside from their work.  It's a new way to make it in the world and pretend to be someone else(like writing fantastical stories isn't enough).  At first, I scorned my friend for what I perceived as his cowardice, but once I really thought about it, it made sense.  He wanted anonymity in a polarized world, so he made up a new persona.  In a way, I've done something similar, and so have many other authors.  I guess only time will tell if we made the right decision.