Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Challenging Yourself (and my Dragon Con schedule)

This week, I want to talk a little bit about pushing yourself and challenging yourself. 

It's something I'm a big believer in. I think if you're in a situation where you're writing the same kind of thing over and over and over again, you're not going to be growing as a writer in any meaningful way. I'm the sort of person who needs everything to be at least a little bit difficult or I feel like I'm doing it wrong.

I think the best way to learn is to make mistakes and you can't do that if you're not taking risks and not going out on a limb.

There are a lot of different ways to challenge yourself and I want to make some suggestions based on ways I've challenged myself with my writing.

  • Deadlines/Speed - Sometimes I'll challenge myself to write a piece that might be acceptable to a publisher in a certain amount of time. Sometimes that's something like, "Can I finish a short story in one sitting?" And other times it's like, "Can I finish a short story this week on top of my normal load of writing?"

    The thing that got me to where I am today was a small challenge that got me to start this website in the first place. I started this space for myself in 2005 (I apologize for the poor design, still) and challenged myself to write and post a short story every month. After two years of that pace, of challenging myself in other ways, I felt capable to start a novel, which I did in 2007. My first. It was that constant deadline challenge that kept me going.
  • Subject/Content - I often hear people say "write what you know." And it's solid advice when you want to fly on autopilot or learn other aspects of your craft, but if all you write is what you already know, you're going to be stuck in a rut very quickly. Challenge yourself to spread your wings and write things outside your  regular wheelhouse. Deconstruct what makes it tick, whether that's a genre of story or a setting. Would it surprise you that I've written contemporary fiction? Romance? Fantasy? Sci-fi? All of the above? Because I have. Some of it was good. Some of it wasn't, but I had to get in there and learn and explore the genres and the voices it took to accomplish it. And I've challenged myself by setting things I didn't previously know anything about. What do I know about the French trenches of World War I? Nothing at first, beyond what I learned in movies, but after all kinds of research, now I have a novel and a few short stories in that setting and I think I did a good job of nailing it. Getting outside your regular setting forces you to examine what you actually need to write down and what you can take for granted in the environment. I'd never know this if I didn't challenge myself.

    Another thing to do is to say yes when people ask you if you can work on a story you didn't come up with the idea for. Some of my favorite stories that I've written spawned from super-specific prompts for anthologies.
  • Voice - My protagonist through my early writing, with very few exceptions, was a straight, white male. Just like me. But why? Why was that my default? There were so many different sorts of people I could try to see through the eyes of. Write something out of your normal comfort zone and get into the idea of being in someone else's mindset. Are you a Republican? Do your best to write a sympathetic Democrat. Are you an atheist? Try reaching into the mind of a religious person. Try to write from a female's perspective. Imagine what it would be like to be something other than yourself. It will help you grow as a writer, I promise.
  • Scope - This is one I struggled with. My first published novel, Lost at the Con, is told from the first person perspective of a single person. It's scope was only what this character could feel or see with his own eyes. For my next book I wanted to have a cast of people whose heads I could get in. And in trying to spread my wings a little, I made a LOT of errors with the point of view. But because I challenged myself, I was able to learn how to do it. And then with the next book, I wanted almost an opposite response. How could I make a character cold and dead inside and keep him mysterious, and have the book told in a third person perspective skewed toward his point of view? That book turned into The Serpent's Head
I've tried to reach further with every book I've ever written and because I try to do that, I feel like I learn a little bit more than I would otherwise. The book I'm working on now, the fantasy book, is the single largest story I've ever tried to tell. It's part of a series (and all of my books to date have been one-offs), and it has more moving parts than I've ever worked with before. But I've given myself permission to make mistakes, learn from them, and figure out how to do it better the next time.

I hope you can find a new way to challenge yourself in your storytelling this week.

I know I will be.

As far as writing this week, I published a new piece for StarWars.com and wrote about the film Ex Machina and how it relates to The Force Awakens. I hope more people check out that film. It was incredibly inspiring to me. 

I'll be at Dragon Con this weekend as well, and I hope to see many of you there. The following is a breakdown of my schedule. I would LOVE to see as many of you as possible at my reading and signings. And I should have some announcements to make about my upcoming books.


Title: Speculating on The Force Awakens
Time: Fri 11:30 am
Location: Grand Ballroom West - Hilton 
Moderator / MC for panel 
Description: SPOILER ALERT! All speculation! What are your crazy theories?

Title: Seminar 5: Screenplays & Narrative Fiction That Bridge the Divide
Time: Fri 4:00pm
Location: Hanover A - B - Hyatt
Description: Tips & tricks to keep your mind working for both worlds interchangeably. [Extra fee workshop]

Title: Legendary SW Authors Talk Mythos
Time: Fri 5:30pm
Location: A706 - Marriott 
Moderator / MC for panel 
Description: The hero's journey, mythology—it's all there in Star Wars. Hear it from the experts who wrote it.


Title: Autograph Session
Time: Sat 1:00pm 
Location: International Hall South - Marriott 

Title: Reading: Bryan Young and Gregory Wilson
Time: Sat 2:30pm
Location: Roswell - Hyatt 

Title: Aaron Allston Memorial Kids' Writing Workshop
Time: Sat 4:00pm 
Location: A708 - Marriott
Description: Advice & encouragement for beginning writers. For kids 7+, but all ages welcome.


Title: Pixar Place
Time: Sun 2:30 pm
Location: A708 - Marriott 
Description: Fans on Pixar Movies from 2010 & beyond. Where have we been before, & where's Pixar going in the future?

Title: Meet the Stars of Star Wars
Time: Sun 4:00pm
Location: Imperial Ballroom - Marriott 
Moderator / MC for panel 
Description: It’s a saga that spans generations. How has it changed? Our stars will take your questions.

Title: Superpowered YA
Time: Sun 5:30 pm
Location: A707 - Marriott 
Description: There's a superhero explosion at the box office, but what about in graphic novels and YA books?

Title: Strong Women of SW
Time: Sun 8:30pm
Location: A706 - Marriott 
Description: From Leia to Padme, Ashoka Hera to Sabine, SW is adding more Sheroes for the next generation.


Title: Reading: Gregory Wilson and Bryan Young
Time: Monday 10:00am
Location: Roswell - Hyatt 

As I said, I hope to see you at Dragon Con. That's it for this week. 

As a reminder, here's a list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process. There are links to dozens of essays I've written about each individual bullet point and I think some people find it helpful.

As far as my work outside of all this: I'm keeping busy for Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Writing Process

Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig, author of the upcoming Star Wars: Aftermath, wrote a post about his writing process and challenged other writers to share theirs, so I thought that would make a perfect post for this week.

I'm the sort of writer who works really well with a consistent routine and something to always work on. My routine has been something I've slowly been coming to over the years and I really like where I'm at because it's allowed me to create a tremendous and, I think, quality output.

Though I used to be the exact opposite, I'm an early riser and do my best to get to my local coffee shop or my office by 6:00 am. At that time in the morning, there is no one trying to send me emails, no one calling or texting, the kids aren't awake, and I'm left with nothing but my thoughts. Lately, I walk to the coffee shop as often as possible. It gives me time to collect my thoughts.

Then, I sit down with my writing notebook and journal for a little while. Using one of my two fountain pens, Herugrim or Kusanagi, I'll write two or three pages in my Moleskine notebook to get my mind started with the act of putting down words. Sometimes I'll write about my dreams from the night prior, sometimes it's about a movie or a story that affected me in the last couple of days, sometimes it's literal journaling of life-changing events that have happened, and sometimes it's just me stressing out about how much work I'm not getting done.

After that, I've found it helpful to make a checklist of all the projects I have to work on in a given day. Usually, I can get everything on that list done, but sometimes I don't. But I have so many balls juggling in the air, it helps me remember what I have to work on and what's important. Today, for instance, my list looks like this:

That's Kusanagi pictured there, Herugrim currently needs an ink refill.

Virium Noctis is the super-lame and pretentious working title of the fantasy novel I'm working on and that's always the first thing on my list. I give my first thousand words or so of the day to my novel. I feel like the first thousand words I have to give are my best and most important, so I always give those to myself.

Then the next thing is a book proposal I'm working on.

After that is revisions on The Aeronaut (which might still be killing me.) The pages giving me the most trouble have been printed out and I keep them in a large manila envelope in my bag and I make notes on them whenever and wherever I can.

There are more projects on there and they're all important and all on various deadlines that I can't talk about yet.

Obviously my blog, which is the lowest priority (sorry), is here.

And as I wrote this, I forgot that writing my pub quiz (the one I host - Wednesday nights at Lucky 13 in Salt Lake City!) needs to be the seventh item on my list. I've added it now, but I'm not re-uploading a photo.

As I write things, I keep track of what my daily word count is, as well as my monthly word count, and the word count for each of my notebooks. (It takes me about two months to fill one of these moleskines.) This lets me know if I need to pick up my pace and lets me know if I'm hitting my goals.

On days where I have to go to my day job (since I'm not selling enough books yet to be solely a full time writer), I'm out of the coffee shop and at work by 8:00 am. When I get off work, I'll finish whatever else I have left on my list with whatever energy I have left, which is why I usually leave the lower-priority stuff for later.

On weekends, I'll go write until the kids want to have breakfast. Since my kids aren't morning people, that might extend my hours until noon. On good days I'll have my daily goals hit and the rest of the day is spent dedicated to family and friends.

I write in Apple Pages. I found that it works for me very easily and it's a great program for layout and can export straight to Word for submitting to editors and ePub for stuff I might decide to publish myself. I bashed my head against the wall trying to use Microsoft Word for a long time and I just decided I hate it. I use Final Draft for screenwriting as well.

I keep my outlines and story notes in two different places: First, there are many hand written in my notebook (so I can keep them portable and easily refer to them). Second: I'll create the outline in the Pages document I'm working in, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I tend to do a very broad overall outline, and then very detailed outlines for the next few chapters at all times. This is something that's worked well for me, but, like any piece of writing process, your mileage may vary.

As I finish a draft, I save it and leave it preserved in amber. I save every iteration of my stories in case I need to go back or a hundred years from now professors will be teaching my oeuvre and will wish to use my drafts as examples, they'll have it. All of my documents have a version number on them. So right now, Virium Noctis has a file name "Virium_Noctis_rough." The Aeronaut is currently "Aeronaut_v7." And I've kept everything in between for all of them. Sometimes I'll find that I cut a scene from my rough and then in the third draft I find I still need a piece of it, so I'll be able to refer to it or even copy and paste it.

I try to read a lot about the processes of other writers, too, and incorporate what I can into my writing. And I'll try to even write a whole book from their perspective. Right after I read Stephen King's On Writing, I wrote a whole book using his method. It turned into a really fascinating book (that you might get to read next year) but I only incorporated pieces of that process into my next book.

That's generally my process. I'll leave my emails and business kind of stuff for the middle of the day when my brain doesn't need to be so focused. But if you catch me tweeting between 6 and 8 AM (MST) any given morning, tell me to close my browser and get back to work.

Speaking of my work: I had a piece come out for Salt Lake's Alt-Weekly, City Weekly, and it's about how a Dungeons & Dragons could actually be rad. You can read it here, please do, and spread that link to anyone who might be interested.

As a reminder, here's a list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process. There are links to dozens of essays I've written about each individual bullet point and I think some people find it helpful.

That's it for this week.  Sometime this week I'll post my Dragon Con schedule.

As far as my work outside of all this: I'm keeping busy for Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Importance of Staying Focused.

When you're writing, it's easy for me to get distracted.

I'm not just talking about the Internet and family and work and everything else that can come up while you're at your notebook and keyboard, although that's also a danger for distraction.

I'm talking about with other stories.

I'm currently 30k words into my new novel. It's a fantasy epic and I'm probably not even a third of the way through the book. I know there's a lot of hard work coming to get it finished and there's a lot of words I'm going to need to write. I'm still passionate about it and I love it. The setting is fascinating, I'm really happy with the characters, and as far as story and action it might be the most exciting thing I've ever written.

But I'm a writer. I have lots of ideas. Ideas tumble out of my head a dozen a day, at least. And some of them are, I think, really good. Some of them are so good I get really excited about them. And now, as I'm slogging through the hardest part of a novel for me, the middle, my mind is starting to wander about possibilities about other books in completely different settings. I'm writing fantasy, so naturally my brain would rather be writing a science fiction story. I'm writing prose, so I brainstorm a screenplay I want to write. There are a lot of projects I can work on, but the trick is learning how to stick to one until it's done.

Neil Gaiman said, "You have to finish things. That's what you learn from, finishing things"

And I think that's 100% true. I've learned so much every time I finish a project, because I know what to look for the next time I'm starting a story and not make the same mistake twice. So even though my mind is wandering, I have to force myself to stay focused on this project in order to finish it. There are writers who can write only when the fancy strikes them and they'll do okay, but I'm not one of them. Mickey Spillane was one of them.

I interviewed Max Allan Collins about Spillane's process, he talked about how Spillane could only work on things in the white heat of passion and would abandon it if it couldn't keep his attention. He left scores of manuscripts behind for people like Max Allan Collins to finish, which is fine if you're Mickey Spillane, but no one will want to come back and finish my manuscripts after I'm gone. So I have to finish everything.

So how do I cope?

This is why I write in my notebook every morning as a warm up to my prose writing. I put all these ideas down on paper so I don't lose them. And when I don't write them down, I DO lose them, no matter how good they are.

This process allows me to modestly explore the ideas, fuel more creativity, and put them down in a place that will allow me to explore them later.

Maybe it's not the best system, but it's certainly effective in keeping me on track.

As for my writing, I've been hard at work on two different mystery projects that I'm not allowed to talk about yet. And I've been plugging away on my fantasy novel. I've been working on revisions for the Aeronaut as well. I think it's finally getting there. Calculating it out, I've written every day for last 45 days and have averaged 1,626 words per day across each of these projects. It's the most consistently prolific I might have ever been and I hope to keep this pace up in perpetuity.

I was also interviewed by Holly Frey from Stuff You Missed in History about my book in advance of our live event. It's about "A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination" and you should watch it:

Then we have our regular reading event at the downtown Salt Lake City Library tomorrow night. Write Out Loud! is a chance for writers to get together and read their own work and get a little bit of constructive criticism, but it's also a place for readers to gather and have stories read to them.  Here are the details.

If you haven't already picked up a copy, this is a reminder that I have a new short story in the Silence in the Library Anthology "Contact Light." It's now available in paperback as well as digital. 

I've also had a new piece come out for StarWars.Com. This time I take a look at how Charlie Chaplin and his film "The Kid" had an influence on Star Wars, in particular my favorite Gungan, Jar Jar Binks. Read that piece here and be sure to let me know what you think, so long as you remain civil.

That's it for this week.  As far as my work outside of all this: I'm keeping busy for Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith.