What’s Happening in 2017

Hello everyone.

The blog is on hiatus right now.

For the past two years I’ve used this blog to talk about…

  • Story Structure
  • Creativity
  • Novel Writing
  • Health/Inspiration/Motivation

Now it’s time for me to bring all that research to bear on my own novel. Book 1 of my fantasy series, Turtle Island, is still in the works.

I’ve been working with a professional developmental editor for the past 8 months. My novel is coming along, and in the meantime I’m getting a crash course in writing from someone who does what I want to do – someone who deals in words for a living. Most importantly, I’m getting direct feedback on my writing. Which is scary, and painful, and exactly what I need.

I still plan to have the novel published on Amazon in 2017. But because this is my first time going through the process, it’s hard for me to judge exactly what month I’ll be able to publish.

My blog hasn’t slowed to a halt because I don’t care about writing anymore; it’s just that, I’m trying to stop talking about writing and do the damn thing.

When I do re-start the blog, I’m actually considering doing it in the form of a podcast. In my podcast I plan to break down famous novels, especially fantasy trilogies and series like…The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin and The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. The podcast will be the result of some intense reading and studying I’ve done in preparation for my own fantasy trilogy. Because how better to learn than by taking notes from the greats?

 

But the podcast is not right now. Right now I’m in radio silence mode. Working my day job, day dreaming about writing during my day job, and coming home every evening to write.

So that’s where I’m at. When I’m back here next, I’ll be carrying a basket of good news.

 

How to Make a Character

pengubengan road

The boxcar full of innocent people is hurtling toward the cliff. Superman wants to save them but WAIT! Lois Lane is on the cutting board, the laser inching closer and closer to her exposed neck. What’s it gonna be Superman – your love or your duty?

Everyone pretty much agrees about life’s core values. Is FAMILY important? Yes. Is GOOD WORK important? Of course. What about SOCIAL JUSTICE? What about PERSONAL HEALTH?

Yes yes yes. There’s not much room for debate here. We all nod, love and truth amen.

But a novelist tortures his characters by making them choose one value over the other. It starts to get interesting when you ask someone, “which value is more important – FAMILY TIME or PERSONAL HEALTH?”

Superman usually figures out how to succeed in both. But us regular people have to decide: should I take the money job that requires me to work 12 hour days? Should I skip the gym membership so I can spend evenings with my grandparents in the nursing home?

These decisions always hurt. They differentiate you from the people around you. These decisions are the structural support beams for the building that is your Character.

The Terminal Man: Tuesday, August 25th

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but his novel The Terminal Man was even less thrilling than it sounds.

Now I’m not a fan of critics or criticism. I believe that the artist should always be given the benefit of the doubt. Even someone who creates poor art is benter than no artist.

Also, me critiquing a Michael Crichton novel is like an ant telling a bee how to make honey, or like a wristwatch telling a flashlight how to shine.

Michael Crichton died in 2008, on the same day as the US Presidential Election. Who knew? But his techno-thriller novels catapulted my childhood brain from black and white to color. Who didn’t have their heart and brain thrilled by Jurassic Park? Man I wish Crichton were still around to comment on the state of current affairs – our people and our planet and our technology. I wonder what he would think about Iphones and 3-D printers.

Anyway my point is, now that I’ve been studying so much about story, novels, the art of story, and the way that good stories are crafted – I couldn’t help but be disappointed by The Terminal Man.

In the novel, we are supposed to be surprised and scared by the idea that men and computers are merging. Actually this aspect of the novel was more funny than it was disappointing. The damn thing was written in the early 70’s, so we can’t exactly blame Crichton for the fact that his techno-thriller doesn’t hold up. Because of how fast technology has changed in the last few decades, the novel feels much older than it actually is.

But I think, precisely because that techno thriller aspect didn’t hold up, I was able to see the other parts of the story for what they really were. The magic curtain was drawn back. The skeleton of the novel was exposed, and I was left hanging on to the characters, the emotion, the plot and the development of the story action.

As I try to write my own stories, I want to remember, and learn from, the aspects of stories that I don’t like, just as much as I learn from stories I love.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the novel…

  • I didn’t like that ending was so damn predictable.
  • I didn’t like that there was really no clear protagonist. I didn’t know who I was rooting for. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters. So I didn’t really care what happened in the end.
  • I felt like I was being preached to. Even if the technological aspect had been current and cutting edge, it still felt like Crichton was jamming the point down my throat. The message kept interrupting the story, whether it was the narrator who was waxing philosophical, or the characters who were saying things that the narrator obviously forced them to say.
  • Along the same lines, I didn’t like that the novel had such a strong and obvious theme. This only made it easier to guess the ending.
  • The characters were really just representations of different ideas. They never seemed free to act on their own will.

***

Michael Crichton you’ll always be my hero. It’s humbling to know that even you wrote a few mediocre stories when you were starting out (before the phase where everything you touched turned into a hollywood blockbuster). Thanks for giving Jurassic Park to the world. And Eaters of the Dead and Andromeda Strain too. And for The Sphere; Dustin Hoffman was great in that movie, and I’m still afraid of the deep ocean ever and jellyfish to this day.

Writing is the Easy Part: Monday, August 3rd

Here’s a secret that not many writers share: Writing is the easy part of the Writing Process. 

Like you, I was shocked when I learned the truth.

Before I go any further, let’s take a quick look at the generally agreed upon writing process:

  • Have an Idea
  • Brainstorm/Workshop/Develop your Idea
  • Form those ideas into an Outline
  • Write the First Draft
  • Revise and Edit into a 2nd Draft
  • Use Editors/Peers to Edit into a 3rd Draft
  • Package and Publish your Story
  • Market your story, Try and find readers

Taking an idea all the way from “Concept” to “Realization” is a mysterious, complicated process. As you can see, there are many stops along the journey of writing a book. The writing itself is only one link in the chain.

Any novel author would admit that they spend considerably a lot more time editing the manuscript than actually writing it. (I’d love to see a pie chart, or some kind of breakdown, by the hour, of how much time a novel writer spends on each step of the process, during any given project).

Now, writers like to write. We write for fun. We write when we’re bored. Most of us know they we are writers from an early age, even if it takes us many years to admit what we know is true.

But just because you like to write, does NOT mean that you know how to craft a story. Story craft is the art, the form, the technical aspect of writing. Story craft does not happen accidentally. Good stories are written by experienced, studied, time-tested individuals.

A novice writer does not pull beautiful stories out of their nose, no matter how passionate they are. Passion does not translate directly to expertise, as any musician, olympian, or world champion will tell you. A novice writer becomes a storyteller through hard work and repetition.

So writing takes hard work. That’s no surprise. But where exactly the hard work happens, I think that’s what’s generally misunderstood.

In the world of “Writing Lore”, we have a tendency to romanticize the actual writing itself. We always hear advice like…

  • Put your butt in the chair
  • Write everyday
  • Write without editing
  • Go go go – Just write!

But none of that matters if you don’t know what you’re doing, or where you’re going. You can exhaust yourself by running in circles, but you’re not really getting anywhere, you’re just exercising.

Working hard is not difficult in and of itself. No matter the task, all the same principles apply. Get lots of sleep. Drink lots of water. Put in a little bit of work everyday. Stay healthy and stay consistent, and you’re bound to finish the job eventually.

Working hard is easy – it’s mindless. Working smart is key.

Here are a few things I learned about writing fiction that I didn’t know before I started writing:

  • Every author knows AT LEAST the beginning and the end of the story, before they ever write the first word.
  • Most authors know a LOT more than this. Most authors have the whole thing mapped out before they even write the first word. They’ve spent hours, days, months, even YEARS plotting and planning before they begin “writing”
  • Some authors like Stephen King write without knowing the ending. But that’s only because they have decades of experience. When you’ve been writing for 30 years, maybe you too can “go it free”.
  • Even writers who call themselves “pantsers” have some concept of the END. They can see that final conflict in the distance, like a star to navigate by, as they go through the journey of writing the story.

It’s a very mysterious process, this business of coming up with ideas.

If I knew how it worked, I’d tell you, and together we’d get rich.

The process of creativity is not easy to pin down. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. And so frustrating. It wouldn’t be magical if we understood it from all sides.

My point is that, beginning writers need to focus on developing their idea muscles, and shaping interesting stories, just as much as they need to focus on the nuts and bolts of producing words.

The true currency of the writing ecosystem is not the hard work of writing itself, like many believe, the million-dollar-skill is IDEA DEVELOPMENT.

For tomorrow’s post, I’m going to list all of the best methods that I’ve learned, read about, heard about, stolen from other people…. for developing ideas.

Love Your Ideas: Friday, July 17th

“Where do you get your ideas?” It’s the question that successful creatives get asked over and over and over again.

The author Neil Gaiman says that his ideas come from out of nowhere. “I make them up. Out of my head.”

The problem is, that’s not a very satisfying answer for the aspiring writer who want to know, “how can I find some million dollar ideas?”

Gaiman suggests asking yourself some questions, and following those questions down the rabbit hole. Personally I really like these prompts:

  • What if…?
  • If only…
  • I wonder what…
  • Wouldn’t it be interesting if…
  • If this goes on…
  • What if I engineered a tree that sprouted dollar bills?
  • What if I woke up with wings?
  • What if someone gave me the secret book that explained, in detail, the truth of all conspiracies and historical secrets – the truth about all religions, leaders, wars, and kingdoms?
  • If only I could have a conversation with my great, great, great grandfather…
  • I wonder what toys do when people aren’t around?
  • Wouldn’t it be interesting if the global currency was a system of smiles and hugs?
  • If this goes on, and humans finally replace ourselves with robots, then what’s in line to replace the robots?

In Gaiman’s article, he says,

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

I found this quote very telling. And it goes back to my idea the importance of habits. Authors and creatives like Neil Gaiman have been developing ideas for so long that the process has become second nature.

They have the same amount of ideas as anyone, but they are more aware, more tuned into the process. They’ve got a notepad on them at all times, or (like one author I heard recently) they dictate speech into their phones while they’re waiting around at the bus stop.

An idea can be a person or a place or an image, from which you start and begin to build. The single idea itself is only a jumping off point. When you combine one idea with another, then you’re off to a good start. But the magic really happens in the development, the fleshing out of the idea – which is a process that takes work. It takes brainstorming, writing and re-writing, constantly turning the object over in your hands to view it from all sides. This is the point where the author gets their hands dirty.

To creatives, ideas are cherished, loved and nurtured. The nurturing and development is what turns those seeds into saplings, and those saplings into forests, into entire ecosystems and solar systems. Now the reader, or the listener, or the casual observer, can come inside to this new world and have a look around, play for a while, even connect emotionally and get involved and become changed themselves by the idea. And that’s magic at it’s finest.

My Problem Is: Friday, July 10th

So here’s my problem.

I spend approximately 10 hours / week writing these blogs. Maybe 15 hours if I’m enjoying myself. Never less than 5.

But that’s not the problem. The problem is that I’m not writing as much “story” content as I’d like. I’m getting at least one short story finished each month. But I think that I could do more. And I want to write novels at the same time.

I want to be writing stories, every damn day, because that’s the only way to write better stories.

Every minute of every day counts. So when I think about 10 hours per week of blogging, or 40 hours per month, well that’s a lot of valuable hours. And maybe more of those should be spent writing stories instead of writing about writing stories.

Now I’ve been going 4 months of blogging 5 days a week. I’ve never missed a day and I’m proud of that. But what are goals worth if they’re not steering you in the right direction.

But I can’t just quit blogging. I can’t even just say, “OK, now I’ll cut back to two days a week.”

Because I’m afraid that, if I did that, it wouldn’t actually lead to more story writing. Maybe it would just lead to more Youtube Watching, or more Bike Riding, or more Sleeping in on Sundays.

So here’s my brilliant solution / compromise.

I’m going to keep posting 5 days a week. Only some of those posts will not be “nonfiction blogs”, they’ll be some kind of story, some kind of serial or ongoing fiction plot-line.

That way, I’ll keep the daily posting, which I like because it kicks my ass into producing every day whether I like it or not, but I’ll turn more of those hours into “story producing hours.”

***

Now that I’ve had the idea. I know this needs to happen. But I’m scared to do it. Because it will probably mean even more weekly work. It will mean I need to plot a full story arc (or two) before I can begin the first installment. And it will mean publishing more stories at a faster rate, which for me feels more high stakes than just a nonfiction blogpost.

So because I’m scared to start this, I’m gonna go ahead and say, “to begin at an undetermined date.”

So, hopefully in the next month of so… (that’s the anxiety talking again)

I’ll jump into a slightly different routine of… 1 short story per month. 2 blog posts per week about writing. And 3 installments of a short story series per week. Or something along those lines.

Obviously I’ve got a lot to figure out. But right now the idea feels right. More to come.

***

Have a fluffy, feathery weekend everyone!!

I’m All Jazzed Up!: Thursday, June 25th

I’m excited to share my new short stories. I’ll post them to the blog next week on July 1st.

The first one is called “Mr. Green.” It’s a really short spy/crime type scene that I imagine being the opening scene of a television show or a movie.

The second story is the one I’ve really been putting a lot of time into. It’s called “The King’s Puzzle.” It involves riddles and wizards and treasure and I hope it’ll be fun. I’m submitting it to a short story contest in mid-July, but I’m trying to finish it by July 1 so that I can post it to the blog sooner than later.

These past couple months I’ve gotten into a good habit of just writing a little bit of fiction each day. When I first started writing these stories, I would spend weeks planning and plotting (which mostly just means feeling stuck and not writing anything). Now I’m doing better with producing something each day. Even if I don’t know where it’s going, just the act of writing helps me come up with ideas. This shouldn’t have surprised me at all, since I’ve always used writing as a way of sorting my thoughts.

The most encouraging part of this blog/story project so far is that I’m developing the habit of producing and being creative on a daily basis. I’m frustrated because I want to do more, I want to write novels and publish them on Amazon. I want to hire an editor because I know that’s a really important step in a writer’s development. I want to write better rounded short stories with more kick to them. I have so many ideas for my website, for my novels, for a podcast that I want to start… But I can’t get too far ahead of myself. Right all that matters is write, write, write – build up my stories and try and improve every month.

It’s encouraging to see all of the posts and stories pile up, even though it’s only been a few months.

I’m super excited to send out my newsletter at the beginning of July where I talk more about how things are going.

I guess this Thursday I’m just feeling really grateful. The comments on the blog really fire me up. I love interacting with other readers and writers and creatives.

For everyone who has given my stuff a chance, thank you big time. I hope this is just the beginning of a really long and wild journey.

Making Big Decisions: Wednesday, June 3rd

Making decisions is hard. Mostly we just avoid big decisions and go through the motions. It’s easier not to think about it: car or truck or bike, big family or no family, doctor or lawyer, married or unmarried, employed or unemployed, live here or live there? In our adult lives, we settle into those decisions like a tree roots itself to the ground.

When those gamechanger decisions do come around, the stress is almost too much to handle. Where am I going with my life? Is this the right job for me? Do I really want to _______?

Writing is intense because you have to constantly be making those sort of decisions. Every minute that you write fiction, there are a million possibilities that lay ahead of you, and you have to sort through the pile and choose the right one. You decide who dies and who lives, who finds redemption and who meets a tragic end, you decide the fate of entire countries and nations. Even though they take place in a story, these decisions are not easy to make.

You can’t multitask while you’re writing; you can’t cook dinner or put your kids to bed at the same time. So much of what we do everyday is just going through the motions, but writing requires all your attention.

When you’re writing and making all of those decisions, it can be overwhelming. That’s why you have to try and listen to your characters and let them lead the way. Good writers are never untrue to their characters. Good writers let their characters loose instead of keeping them chained to a script.

So I guess the answer is, it’s a sort of outsourcing. That’s the key for the author – get to where you don’t have to make all those big decisions anymore. You just introduce the setting and the problems, and your characters, being the quirky people that they are, will do the rest.

(I like this idea of Outsourcing. It’s probably also a psychological game that writers play – outsourcing their flaws and problems to a character, and letting the character play those out instead of the author… but that’s another post altogether.)

Genre Fiction: Tuesday, June 2nd

Hundreds of years ago there was only “literature.” There was no “fantasy” or “romance” or “sci-fi” or “young adult”. The idea of “genre” has everything to do with marketing. And marketing is all about expectations. The merchant tries to give the customer exactly what they want, and the customer, while shopping, tries to find exactly what it is they want.

Genres, like all stereotypes, can be limiting – but mostly it’s a useful tool for quickly sorting through the massive catalog of literature.

When a reader picks up your story, they knowingly or unknowingly expect certain things and not others. In comedy they expect a happy ending. In a thriller they expect nonstop action and life or death stakes. In a Sci-Fi/Western they don’t expect a lot of romance. A genre is a promise. A dissatisfied reader is probably someone who made the wrong promise, or who got their contract broken.

The front cover of a book is so vitally important because that’s when a potential reader starts to judge what kind of story they’re getting into. If you’re familiar with the book industry, you can glance at any cover and immediately know the genre. The picture on the cover, the font of the title, all of it is a promise form the author to the reader.

The exciting part about the internet, and about self-publishing, is that it enables readers to find exactly what it is they want. We have infinitely more choices online than at the bookstore. Emphasis on “Genre” is sometimes viewed in a negative way, but most importantly it’s a device that connects the right authors to the right readers – and that’s always a good thing.

The Pole Vaulter’s Approach: Friday, May 29th

The pole jumper relies on momentum. He would be silly to stand in place, directly underneath the bar, and suddenly try to launch himself up and over. Instead, he starts really far away. Because he can’t make the leap if he hasn’t been running. And he can’t run fast if he hasn’t been running for some time. And he can’t start running until he takes those first steps.

The best thing for a writer to do is be prolific. That way you gain momentum. A study of the world’s most successful writers showed this: successful writers are very different from one another, they vary greatly, and have almost nothing in common EXCEPT… they all have produced a large body of work over a long period of time. 

There are no shortcuts or freebies, but the path to success is well paved and well understood. Plenty have gone before and lit the way, which means you and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

James Scott Bell says, “The best writing advice I ever got, and I got this early on and I’m glad I did, was to write a certain number of words on a regular basis – a quota of words – because you look up at some point and you’ve got a completed novel. And you learn so much by completing a novel.”

The law of averages says that if you put in some work every day, then progress is not only probable, it’s inevitable.

When I first heard about this mantra, and this approach to writing, it was the first time in my life that I thought, “Aha, I could do that.” Because it’s not about being the best. It’s about work. And working hard is something I know how to do. For the first time in my life, being a writer seemed like an attainable goal instead of a silly dream.

I can see the high bar in the distance, the one I have to jump over at the end of my runway, and it’s scary as hell. But I don’t have to worry about that right now. All I have to worry about is moving forward. Slowly, slowly. Surely, surely.