Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Walt Simonson on Writing

Those who know me know how much I love Marvel's Thor character. Those who know me well know how much I utterly adore Walt Simonson's run with that character. It's one of the most formative reading experiences I've ever had in comics and I really loved everything about it since I was young. 

You can imagine my excitement when I was given an opportunity to speak to Mr. Simonson last year for The Huffington Post and for Big Shiny Robot!

We talked about quite a lot of things, but the interview was mainly about the re-release of his adaptation of the film Alien. Our conversation ran long though, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk to him about Thor (and his time on Marvel's Star Wars book.) Through that conversation, we talked a bit about writing his run on Thor and I felt like some of the things he said would be useful to you guys. It was certainly useful to me.

The first question I asked about was the ability to turn Thor into a frog and get away with it. In one of my favorite arcs of my run, Loki transforms Thor into a frog, where he becomes embroiled in high drama and epic conflict between the frogs and rats of Central Park. Eventually, he comes back to Mjolnir, which doesn't restore his human form, but instead bestows the power of Thor on his frog shape.

It's such a fun, well told story, but something that many people might scoff at.

I asked him how hard it was to get it past the editors. "It wasn’t," Simonson told me. "Honestly, that story is kind of a parody of heroic fiction in general of my own stories in some way, but it’s told completely straight, and one of the lessons I got from Stan and Jack in their comics, not only in Thor, but Fantastic Four and the other work they did, was that really in those books, in that time and place, you could do almost anything so long as you kept a straight face."

I think that's brilliant advice. I wonder if it still holds true with audiences as jaded as today's, but I find that if something is done honestly and openly, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and embrace it.

Mr. Simonson continued, "My feeling is you tell the story you want to tell, keep faith with the reader all the way through, and pretty much go anywhere you want if you can do that well. So in the Thor frog story, and in fairy tales everywhere. There’s a lot of folk and fairy tale stuff in the Malekith tales which are based, in part, on Celtic fairy stuff, so I could use any of the fairy tale stuff as grist for my mill. You go back to the Brothers Grimm, people often get changed into frogs, princes and stuff, so it was a standard trope, so I decided a frog was the way to go. About the time I did this, I was living about a block from Central Park, we were a little south of the reservoir where the action takes place, but I knew the park pretty well, and they were always putting in rat poison to kill the rats, and they were always putting up signs saying ‘rat poison, don’t let dogs eat anything’ that kind of stuff, so the background, how fantastical the story itself was, was quite real, and I think that was what gave the story a little gravity. Once again, it was set against stuff that had basis in reality, as goofy as the idea was. And of course, I went for the urban myth, which wasn’t Norse, or God knows where else, like the crocodiles in the New York sewers. Tall tales and legends of any sort, I love them, animal fables, going back to Aesop, so it seemed to work pretty well. It fit perfectly in the plot, as it was evolving at that point, with Loki, and I still am really pleased how that story worked out, especially that last issue where Thor is really the large frog, but the business with switching hammers how they all worked out, I was really pleased how that was able to turn out as a series of plot threads that all came together in the end."  

I think more than anything, what he's saying, at least to me, is that you really have to know and be familiar with the stories that came before you. Study folk and fairy tales. Study your myth. Read lots of books and become inspired by them. In the interview, he talked about the entire idea of Thor turning into a frog was initially sparked by a desire to homage Carl Barks and actually turn Thor into a duck (Barks is famous for the Disney Duck comics, Uncle Scrooge, etc.) It's not only okay to take inspiration from these other places, it's vital. But it's also important to ground that inspiration in reality. Readers have to feel what we're trying to convey, and that sense of reality is the way to do it.

Another great bit of wisdom he conveyed to me was about story arcs. In fact, this whole conversation is what sparked me to start work on some serial fiction (which is something I'm sure you'll be hearing about soon.)

His run on Thor seems like one massive story, but the way he tells it, he looked at it as much smaller story arcs with a few recurring images he knew he wanted to pay off somehow. "Another lesson I got from Stan and Jack is that I tried to break this longer Thor story down into smaller, more digestible story lines, where the Beta Ray Bill story, which was four issues long, was the longest story arc in the entire book, as far as one single story goes. I mean, Surtur ran over a number of issues, and didn’t show up, as far as making a physical appearance, as far as where you really got to see him, and even then it was these one page things, that was more than a year to get to there. But I ran short stories, the Last Viking was a story I really liked, that was three issues, and there were other stories that were only two. So, I tried to break it down, I tried to make it so each issue had its own dynamic and felt like a complete package of something, and I tried to make each little story arc its own story that was eventually furthering the Surtur stuff until he bubbled to the surface and became the focus of the next batch of stories."

It's great advice and his work on the book was gripping the whole way through. The amazing thing about Walt Simonson is his ability to match character, words, story, and visuals together, marry them into something bigger than the sum of their parts, and create something great. He truly is one of the best writer/artists in comics and has been for longer than I've been alive. It was my great honor to speak to him, and I hope this tidbit of our conversation has inspired anyone reading this as much as having the conversation with him inspired me.

Monday, January 28, 2013

7 of 7

Once again, my friend and author R.T. Kaelin has got me on another one of these chain things and this one proved too interesting to ignore. It's called 7 of 7 and it's very simple. You go to line 7 of page 7 or page 77 of your current work in progress and reveal the 7 lines that follow. 

I have three unpublished books and I thought it might be fun to do this with all three of them. I figured I'd tell you a bit about each of them.

The first is 'The Serpents Head." This book is coming out in June and is an sci-fi western if with a Sergio Leone sensibility. It's about a gunslinger on the frontier of space who comes across a village massacred by a posse of creatures called Glicks. The only survivors, three young children, are taken in by the stranger, who is convinced to help them try to rescue another young girl who had been kidnapped by the murderers.

So, here's 7 lines starting with 7 lines on page 7.

A few, particularly those on the outskirts, seemed constructed of old fashioned wood.  It seemed out of place because wood was so rare this far out. There were no trees here, at least not any mature enough to produce wood. Anything made of wood would have had to have been imported by starship, making it prohibitively expensive. 
The stranger jumped down off his steed, grateful for the chance to stretch his legs and walk the rest of the way in. Leading his mount by the reins, he wandered closer to the building, close enough to see the wood grain was simulated on a metallic material. 
Harumphing, he kept walking.

I'm in the process of revising that book, so anything could happen with this passage, up to and including total deletion. I suppose that's true of any of these excerpts. 

Next up is 7 lines from the first book I ever wrote that has gone through two drastic revisions and I swear, one day, it'll get published. It's tentatively called "The Low Road to Zion," and it's about a pair of teenage boys living in Utah County in the late 90s. They sieze an opportunity to play hooky for a week and drive the midwest, learning a lot about themselves and the world in the process.

This comes from page 77:

“Is he following us? Is he there?”   
He peeked through the side-view mirrors and cranked his neck, praying they weren’t being followed. 
“No. He’s not chasing us. Would you relax?”  
“Jesus Christ, I shouldn’t have done that.” 
“Why not?” 
“That guy would have torn me apart, is why. He was a fucking gorilla. Did you see the size of him?”

Again. This book is still in revision mode and everything is subject to change, but this comes from a scene I really liked and I hope one day you'll be able to read it.

The last comes from the book I'm at the absolute end of writing. I work in a totally linear fashion and have the last chapter or two to write. At this point, it's tentatively titled "Every Night and All" or "The Aeronaut." I haven't quite decided which. The easiest way to describe it is that it's a Steampunk take on A Farewell to Arms as written by Bryan Young by way of Graham Greene.

I'll warn you, this one has had zero revision. This is straight from my brain to rough draft, but since I'm in the middle of writing it now, it's the one I like the most, so I decided to include it.
“You must have been exhausted.” 
The voice to my right was thick with accent. It was the same thin-mustached fellow who’d led me to the steam shop. He sat on a bunk of his own, sipping from a tin cup of steaming coffee. He clutched the cup and a cigarette in the same hand. The tarred smoke mixed with the steam of the beverage, filling the room with a white fog.  
“I hadn’t...  slept. We went over the wire the day before last, were called back, then the Germans came over as soon as we were back over. We’d fought until they called a retreat and I haven’t slept.”

I hope this is a book you guys will be able to read in 2014.

Hopefully that wasn't too overwhelming. I write a lot in a lot of different genres and voices. If nothing else, I hope you guys are actually interested in reading some of these.

This is the part where I'm supposed to tag other authors, but I'd very much leave that up to you. If you're an author reading this who wants to be tagged, drop me a line with your name and your website and I'll add a link to your site on this post.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Guest Post: Janine Spendlove on Interacting with Readers

My good friend and fellow author, Janine Spendlove, is taking over this space to talk to you about interacting with potential readers. She's written the incredible War of the Seasons trilogy, a YA Fantasy that's definitely worth your time. But for once, you're not here to read what I have to say, so I'll let her take it away:

Bryan Young and I met camping in line for Star Wars: Episode I. This should tell you most of what you need to know about our friendship. I count myself blessed that not only is Bryan one of my very best friends (and has been for well over a decade now), but that we've been able to work together & encourage each other on our personal "writing" journeys.

When we decided to guest post on each other's blogs I asked Bryan write a piece on finding time to write (he's one of the busiest people I know), and he asked me to write "a piece about the importance of networking with other writers and not being a jerk, since you're so good at it."

I laughed and said something along the lines of that it's not something I consciously try to do... that's just me being me.

So he followed up with writing a piece about "how to interact with potential readers at conventions."
Well, let me tell you, it's one and the same. You treat people the way YOU would like to be treated. Meaning that they are important, that what they have to say is important, and what they have to contribute is important. Even if someone is talking to you about paint peeling, and you find it to be the most asinine/boring story ever, remember that to them, it's important, so to you, in that moment that they are sharing their pain peeling story, it's important to you too.

My long winded point is be nice to people. Talk to people. Be genuine. Don't view people as potential "customers" or "connections to get in good with an editor." No wants to be a commodity, or viewed as merely a dollar sign or a bridge to someone better.

And you can't fake this - you have to really believe it. Everyone is important. Talk to people, even the ones that you think would never in any way shape or form want to read your book. Who cares? They're probably really awesome, and because you're just looking for a customer you'll never know that. Additionally, they may have some fantastic personality quirk or background that will inspire a story for you to write, or a future character trait in one of your books. Again, if you don't talk to them you'll never know.

Now I know for many people getting out there & socializing can be scary, or at the very least uncomfortable. Just remember that I'm not asking you to be BFFs with these people, just smile & say hi. Chat about a cool costume - or if they're in a costume ask if you can take their picture. Compliment them... anything, really. Just be nice, be friendly, and be genuine.

The same goes for "networking" with other authors at conventions (and for that matter, people who run conventions).

Oh, and trust me, if you're a jerk, or keep to yourself, or stab anyone in the back, or lie... people will know. Your reputation is really all you've got, and if it's found out that you're an untrustworthy douche-bag? NO ONE will want you at their con.

I love to get work done at conventions. I set up laptop, put out my sign that says "Author at work, please disturb!" (yes, I WANT to talk to people), and wouldn't you know it, I never get any writing work done, but I make friends & acquaintances.

Just through socializing with people I've been invited to be a guest at various conventions, had authors/book reviewers ask if they could read/review my book (this is huge for promotion), and built a network of artist, editing, and author professionals that I've been able to tap into for future projects.
The best part about all this is IT'S FUN!

So get off your butt, make eye contact, smile, say hi (practice at work if you need too), and above all else stop chasing the sale/networking and truly be interested in other people.

Be nice, be genuine, and have fun!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Janine K. Spendlove is a KC-130 pilot in the United States Marine Corps. Her bestselling first novel, War of the Seasons, Book One: The Human, was published in June 2011 and her next novel, War of the Seasons, Book Two: The Half-blood, was released in June 2012. She’s also had several short stories published in various anthologies. A graduate from Brigham Young University in 1999 with a BA in History Teaching, she is an avid runner, enjoys knitting, playing Beatles tunes on her guitar, and spending time with her family. She resides with her husband and daughter in Washington, DC. She is currently at work on her next novel. Find out more at JanineSpendlove.com.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Writer's Rules Revisited #12

It's been incredibly busy 'round these parts lately. I've finished two more short pieces for eventual publication since last I posted. And I've been working with the artist for the cover for the next novel I'm putting out. I've also started revising that book pretty heavily based on notes from a couple of trusted advanced readers who saw...lots of room for improvement. 

I've also been pretty focused on launching a new project. It's a Star Wars based podcast called Full of Sith. Our third episode just went live and I couldn't be more proud of how the show is turning out. I hope you'll check it out.

But I didn't want this to stagnate, so here we are with another installment of this writer's rules series.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 herePart 10 here, and Part 11 here.

These next four parts are each in a drastically different direction. I assure you, though, they're all important, even if they all veer off in different directions.

37) Fairy tales and kids stories should have frightening things in them.

I believe it was Guillermo Del Toro who said that and I think it's true. If you're writing a kids story, it does everyone a disservice if there is nothing for the children to overcome. All of the best children's stories and movies I read and watched as a child had frightening elements that I had to get past.

Though it was frightening in the near term, it gave me something to feel good about when all was said and done. The more evil and tortured the event in the story, the more of an impact good overcoming will have.

Take, for example, The Empire Strikes Back. That film is nothing if not a dark and frightening fairy tale. And it has the most awful things happen to the young hero. As a child watching the film for the first time, it was crushing. But it was a lesson that carried on and helped make that saga one of the most formative of my youth. That was the story that got me thinking about all the other horrible things that happen to characters.

When you think about it, it's all the stories with the most frightening things happening to the protagonists that are the most popular. What do Ender's Game, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Star Wars all have in common?

The protagonists all have horrible and unfair things happen to them that were frightening to an audience. It forces us to empathize. With Luke, we're shown the murdered remains of his aunt and uncle. With Ender Wiggin, we're shown the bullying he endures, not just at school, but from his brother, and even in the training center that's supposed to turn him into a hero. Katniss Everdeen lives in a society where she literally has to fight to the death in gladiatorial combat for the amusement of a corrupt government to provide food for her family. Harry Potter is so discarded as a boy, his parents are dead and he's forced to live under a staircase, and when he finally escapes from that, he's tormented by schoolmates and Professor Snape.

All of these are possibly frightening to kids. And in every case these books and stories have turned into the best of what they have.

Vonnegut said (at the beginning of this list, too), "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of." I think this holds doubly true for stories for or about kids.

How much do you think you'd have cared about Harry Potter if everyone were nice to him? Admit it. You hated Delores Umbridge more than Lord Voldemort. Not because Voldemort wasn't evil or terrifying, but because it was more uncomfortable to watch someone that was supposed to be a teacher and a nurturer be so mean and unfair to the hero.

But what about actual frightening images and scenes? If you can get their blood boiling, they'll be dying to get through it, just to make sure everything is going to turn out all right.

So the takeaway is to do awful things that are unfair to your characters. Don't be nice to them and have them face off against the horrifying. It'll make people like them and you'll have a better story that more people will want to read.
38) The ego is the enemy of the writer. Listen to what others have to say about your material, even if you don't agree with them. Don't assume you know better than they do.

The only time you're allowed to have an ego about your writing is when your door is closed and you're working on a first draft. If that's what you need to allow yourself to put down on paper the first draft of a work, that's what you need to give yourself. But as soon as you open that door and rejoin the real world, full of people and other writers and editors and the like, that ego needs to go away.

Nothing is more obnoxious than dealing with a fellow writer (or anyone for that matter) with a sense of entitlement and an ego the size of Gibraltar. It's worse when they try to rationalize why they don't have an ego, claiming the're some sort of Human Vulcan, relying only on logic and wisdom. It doesn't exist. There is no good reason for arrogance and your readers and your peers will be turned off by it.

As a writer, you're presumably going to be in situations where people disagree with how you've crafted your work. Here's a secret I'll let you in on: Their opinion is valid and they're probably right.

You don't have to like that assessment. But it's probably true. There are still going to be a lot of people who like your story and there will be some who don't like it. We don't write to please everyone. We write to please ourselves and one audience member. If our one audience member likes it, we're a success and the rest is icing on the cake.

If you approach the opinions of others with anything less than gratitude, though, how long do you think people will care enough to read your work to give you an opinion?

Not very long.

It's even more important to strangle your ego when you're listening to feedback from other writer's about your work in its rough form. You want to defend every choice you've made, but you can't. You need to take their feedback and simply craft something better. Defending your work isn't a valid use of time. That's your ego stealing time from you that is better spent writing or revising.

And really, it all comes down to Wil Wheaton's Prime Directive: Don't be a dick.

39) Have fun.

If you're not having fun, what's the point?

Writing hurts. I get that. Hemingway said, "There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

And it's true. But understand that we're all sadists. We get off on the pain of that hard work and find the fun in it. If we didn't find fun in it we wouldn't spend so much of our waking hours doing it. Lawrence Kasdan, one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, said, "Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life."

And that's true, too.

But we're that extra-studious kid who is thrilled by the act of learning.

One of the things I've learned if I catch myself not having fun with my writing is to write something else for a little while. I'm usually in the middle of a couple of different writing projects. That way I'm always working on something. But sometimes, when you're in that slog of your novel, writing some of those horrifying things you're putting your character through, you need to take a break and write something fun. This is what I love using short stories for. It allows me to put a different flavor in my mouth and have some fun writing again.

By the time I've finished the short story, my mind is itching to get back to the manuscript proper. And by then, I've given myself enough of a breather that I've worked out what's going to happen next and am excited to write it. But it's important to constantly find ways to reinvigorate that fun you felt when you initially decided to write the story. Even if the story itself isn't fun, the act of writing it should be, even though it's hard.

I know it's a confusing balance, and sometimes the cognitive dissonance of it is too much, but there it is.

Have fun.

If you're not having fun, you're wasting everyone's time.

40) Wait a while before you think you're finished with something. After a time away from the material you'll see problems you hadn't seen before.

My mind is blown every time I hear of someone who doesn't adhere to this rule. When you've just completed a manuscript for the first time, be it a novel, a short story, or a screenplay, you're still in the warrior mentality for the project. You think it's the greatest thing ever, and you're supposed to.

Optimally, you need to forget as much of it as you can so you can attack it in the next revision with a clean pair of eyes that are objective and willing to make the hard decisions. The closer you are to the first run through, the less you're likely to fix in revisions.

It is never a good idea to race a book out immediately. Give yourself time away from it, then come back after you've learned a thing or two.

In fact, for my process, I'm usually at least a book or two ahead of what I'm publishing. So far, in my writing career as a novelist, I'll write a book, then write another one before coming back to revise the first. In the meantime, I'll have been workshopping the second book in its rough state and learning things from other writers. I'll be reading books well above my level and learning tricks from there. I'll be studying writing and learning more about storytelling. And then, usually after about a year, I'll come back to it. After that much time, I'll have learned so much more about writing that I'll see mistakes I simply wouldn't have known existed if I'd've revised it immediately after finishing the first draft.

This is why you always cringe at work you've published earlier. I love Lost at the Con. I love the experience it's given me. I love how much email I get from people who loved it and I love how much attention its received. But when I go back and look at it, I cringe at things that I should have done differently. Not because the book is bad, but because I had more to learn as a writer when it was published. Everyone should be going through this. If you don't suffer from this, something is wrong and you're not learning.

Giving yourself that buffer between drafts allows you to minimize that effect. For example, the book I'm revising now, The Serpent's Head, is a book I drafted in late 2011 and I'm just now getting back to it. There are things I simply didn't know when I started it that I know now that I'm able to incorporate into the new drafts. It wouldn't be as good of a book if I would have started revising in early 2012. And the book I've been drafting now will benefit greatly with some time and experience between me and the next draft. But since it's being written at the cutting edge of my ability and skill, I'm not going to find room to improve it for a good, long while.

So, my advice is to not rush what you're working on. Give yourself some time to grow, then come back. You can attack your work with objectivity and do what's best for it, not what's best for your publishing schedule.

And what better incentive is there to get the next book done if you don't let yourself go back and revise the last one until it's drafted?

It's a brilliant scheme, really.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10, and Part 11If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 Convention Schedule

I'm trying to cut down on the amount of conventions I'm doing, but nothing seems to work. I keep getting invited to cons. That's a good thing and I won't complain.

At this point, here is my schedule:


This list is subject to change at any time, but I think I can say with certainty that I'll be at these conventions. It's less than I did last year, but I'm still hoping a couple of other conventions invite me to come out. (Like GMX, hint-hint.)

And there are other conventions that have very low chances of me coming to, like San Diego Comic-Con. Unless I have more than a couple of panels and a table, I just can't see myself going.

At most of these I'll be doing panels about writing, books, media, journalism, or Star Wars.

I will also be premiering a new book in time for Origins. I hope to have it ready by CONduit, but you never know. Especially since I'm spending 3 weeks in Paris to write just prior to that.

I hope to see you all at these events. And if there's a convention close to you that you'd like to see me at, let them know. Let me know, too, so when they call I know people want me there.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Writer's Rules Revisited #11

I've taken some time off of this series. I'll be honest: I was using this column to procrastinate on a difficult stretch of my novel. I'm still doing it, but whenever I write one of these I turn around and put another significant dent into it. I'm almost done with it and  a couple more short stories. And I've begun revising the novel I'm going to be putting out next.

Things are getting busier for me, but that's always a good thing.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 here, and Part 10 here.

34) It's helpful to write scenes to music of a similar tone. It will give your scene a beat and pace you don't have to think about.

This is a rule that certainly helps me out on occasion. Sometimes, when you get stuck you need to evaluate what's going on around you. Sometimes just changing the tools you're using or the tone of the music you're playing in the background is enough to help you get past a difficult moment.

Music is something incredibly subjective, though. I could give you an idea of the sorts of music I listen to to help me get into scenes, but your mileage may vary because of your own musical tastes. Really, the point of the music is to help set your mood so you can set the mood in your story.

It's remarkable how much that can work. If you need to write a scene that's morose, you find music that makes you feel that way and soak it in.

That sounds like a really basic thing that should be common sense, but I marvel at how many people haven't made the connection. Since you're reading this, I'll assume you've probably already put this one together.

But I can't tell you how many times I'll get stuck writing and know exactly what needs to come next but the words simply won't come. If you change something, just one thing, your brain is thinking from a completely different spot and you can move on. Change the music you're listening to. Put on some movie soundtracks. Anything by John Williams or Bernard Herrman is always a good bet. Howard Shore can be useful to get you into a fantasy mindset. Need something a little fun and possibly romantic and silly? Henry Mancini is your man. If movie scores don't do it for you, don't hesitate to fall back on the heavy hitters: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach.

It's amazing how much that can free your brain.

If that doesn't work, change something else, too. I'm a big believer of shutting off the computer and working in longhand or on a typewriter. It's amazing how much your word count can suffer with just your computer on and your email going on in the background.

35) Qui-Gon Jinn said, "There's always a bigger fish." You will never be the best writer. There's always someone better. Learn from them.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Qui-Gon Jinn gave great advice to everyone except Obi-Wan Kenobi, vis a vis, training Anakin.

"There's always a bigger fish," he stated matter-of-factly. And the same is true of writing. You're not the best. There is no such thing as "the best." Even if I were the best at some aspect of writing (and I'm not), there would be someone else who could beat the pants off of me at another aspect. We all have weaknesses and there are people out there who have strengths in those same areas.

I've seen too many writers convinced they were at the top of their game and too choked up on their own egos to recognize the qualities they could learn from a peer. Your ego is your enemy when it comes to writing. You're not better than anybody and there's something to be learned from everyone, even if it's what not to do.

Everyone can be your teacher if you can approach them willing to learn. No one is your teacher if you're closed off from that because of an over-inflated ego.

And I understand the desire to have an ego in this game. There is nothing that makes you more vulnerable than bleeding tears onto a page and showing the words to someone else. An ego can be the armour you put on to prevent all the heartache involved in every other aspect of the writing. But it's not going to help you be a better writer.

Writer's feel. We take those feelings and translate them into words in the vain hope that we'll communicate them to others and give them an understanding and the illusion of emotions they aren't physically experiencing, but the experience is no less real. If we wall ourselves off with ego and don't feel emotions, then we're not going to be good writers. Feel everything.

Take that on as a personal challenge for yourself. Find a writer whose work you despise, whom you're convinced you're better than, and find something appealing about what they do that is better than your own craft. Then, only then, will you be open to learning from them.

36) George Lucas told Irvin Kershner, "Don't expect things to work." That hold true of writing and filmmaking in every aspect, starting with the first words you put down on the page.

This rule is incredibly important for the sorts of writers who find that everything needs to be perfect by the first draft. Don't expect things to work though.

If you don't expect them to work right off the bat, you won't be put off by the toil of making it work later in the revision process. If you're convinced that it's perfect from the get go, that endless process of refinement will wear you out and you won't have the stamina to get the final product where it needs to be.

Bearing in mind that things might not work from the beginning is also permission to experiment. If you have what could be a brilliant idea, but you're not sure, it doesn't matter if you do it wrong the first time. Don't expect it to work. If it does, score. If it doesn't, you didn't expect it to work in the first place and you're not disappointed.

So much of writing is coming up with ways to tell yourself to write whatever you think of without censoring yourself. Censoring yourself in the first draft is, in my view, some sort of enemy to creativity. You need to give yourself all the license you need to ensure that you put down what your first instincts were. Then in the first round of revisions you'll over-intellectualize them and force craft and form on them. Then in the second round of revisions, you'll take the more clinical version you made in the first round and do your best to marry your first instincts to the more proper structure and form.

It's always a possibility that things won't work. You need to be ready for that eventuality.

If you can admit it to yourself from the get-go that it's an experiment and doesn't have to be permanent, it's easier to fix it when it's wrong and it's a sweeter victory when it turns out to be right.

The last bit of rule thirty six, that it starts with the first words you put down on the page, might be the most important. The first words of any text might be the most important. They draw the reader in. And what are the right first words? Or last words for that matter. The correct answer, for a first draft anyway, are any words that get you writing to the second sentence, then the third, and so on. If you expect those words to be wrong, you can always find the exact right words later.

More than anything, this is permission to keep going without fear of screwing up. 

And sometimes that's just the push you need.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, and Part 10If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Triumph Over Tragedy - Available Now


Triumph Over Tragedy, an anthology for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, is officially out now. Not only does it have a new, original science fiction written by me, it also has stories by Michael Stackpole, Robert Silverberg, Michael J. Sullivan, Jean Rabe, Maxwell A. Drake, Timothy Zahn, Elizabeth Bear, Marion Zimmber Bradley, and dozens of others. 40 authors had donations accepted into this collection and I'm quite proud of the piece I contributed.

R.T. Kaelin put the whole thing together and contributed a story of his own. He's a class act.

For those of you who didn't pick it up on Indiegogo when they had the donation page up, you can get it on Amazon now.

I implore you to check it out. It's only $6.99 and contains 40 sci-fi and fantasy stories. There isn't much better you can do with bang for your buck, and all the proceeds are still going to the American Red Cross to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Though it's available for Amazon, it will be on the Nook soon. Buy it. Read my story. Read the other stories. Leave a review.

My story is called "No Good Deed" and revolves around a starship captain named Arianna and her Dracadian first mate named Bolt who find a mining outpost smashed by asteroids. They're carrying a hold full of illicit cargo for a crime lord on a deadline, should they even bother to stop and help?

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Fantasy Author R.T. Kaelin (check out his books, you'll like them) got tagged (by Michael J. Sullivan, no less) and he, in turn, tagged me.

What does all of that mean? What is "The Next Big Thing?" I'm glad you asked that. It's a sort of meme (explained quite eloquently by Mr. Sullivan and rather comically by Mr.Kaelin) where an author answers 10 questions about his next book and asks five other authors to do the same. It's a way for people to link to me and tell their audience to check me out and find out about my new book. It's also a way for my faithful readers to discover at least a few more projects that might be of interest to them.

So, without further ado, here are the questions:

1) What is the working title of your next book? 

There's a couple that are "next" and a couple further out than that. For the purposes of this question (and most questions) I'll stick to the two closest to publication, though. The working title of my two next books are:

A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination 

and

The Serpent's Head

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The history book was an idea my daughter inspired in me. At my writing workshop two years ago I was able to visit the museum at Ford's theatre. I came home with so many stories to tell from the place and my then 8 year old daughter was thirsty for as much information as I could find about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that was age appropriate. I was doing some research and found that there wasn't quite a book that fit the bill. After researching other attempts on the lives of President's and discovering that Davy Crockett helped foil the first attempt, I knew there was enough material to present a good book that would be fascinating for adults and kids alike. Then I brought on Erin Kubinek as the artist and she's been working on the illustrations for the last 6 months. I assure you, they're gorgeous.

The Serpent's Head is an altogether different beast. It's a sci-fi western that sprung out of my love of pulpy westerns and science fiction. A few years back I wrote it as a screenplay and the screenplay sat languishing, so I thought I'd adapt it into a book of my own. It was a little bit more challenging than I would have expected, but the reward will be well worth it.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Well, clearly the first is a history book, the second is a science-fiction western.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? 

The history book speaks for itself, but for the sci-fi, I can pick dead actors, right? Maybe I'll mix and match.

The Stranger - Clive Owen, channeling Clint Eastwood. He's a nameless bounty hunter sort on a planet on the frontier of the galaxy. 

Guerrero, The Serpent's Head -- Ron Perlman, channeling Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef. He's what we'd call the heavy.

There are four kids of varying ages in the book and more than a couple of them would be too young to pick known actors for, but for the oldest girl I'd probably pick Chloe Moretz or Elle Fanning.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Serpent's Head is about a nameless gunslinger who takes in three kids after a massacre killed their families and helps them exact revenge against the men who did it.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

At this point, it seems like The Serpent's Head will be at the same imprint, Silence at the Library, that Operation: Montauk was put through. If not, I'll probably be putting it out myself. 

I'm sending out proposals to publishers for the history book, though I expect little to come from it. The plan at this point is to set up a kickstarter to put out a very lovely hardcover edition of the book, as well as a softcover and digital copy. The art is so gorgeous, though, we're going to be doing plenty with that.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The history book took about 3 months and it was mainly research and boiling down the essence of each president's life up to the point of the assassination (or assassination attempt.) I wanted to make sure to keep the most interesting things and keep it relatable to as wide an audience as possible in hopes that parents and kids (and history buffs) would all find some enjoyment out of the book.<

For The Serpent's Head the first draft clocked in at about 60,000 words and it took me about 6 weeks. 

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I look back to Heinlein's work. His sci-fi seemed to come from a different direction every time. But also Louis L'amour. I remembered reading his Sackett books in high school and they filled me with all kinds of joy and helped me fall in love with the entire western genre. I know Firefly is a sci-fi western, but this book is a little bit more Sergio Leone than Joss Whedon.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The history book was singularly inspired by my daughter, Scout.

The Serpent's Head was inspired by everyone from Sergio Leone and Robert Heinlein to Joss Whedon and Louis L'amour. But I find inspiration an ill-fitting word. I'm not inspired to write, per se, writing is forced on me as a need. I just had to write. When I sat down to write this in 2011, this is what came out. It's what I wrote immediately following the first draft of the Operation: Montauk manuscript. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

For the history book, put this in your pipe and smoke it: The first would-be presidential assassin misfired his gun twice, was beat down with his cane by the president, and subdued by Davy Crockett. And can you imagine the redoubtable Erin Kubinek illustrating it?

For The Serpent's Head, I want people to see a different side of me and my writing with each new book, and I hope this one doesn't disappoint. It's funny, it's heartfelt, it's action-packed, and it's set in a science-fiction world that a lot of thought and tender, loving care was put into. My ardent hope is that you enjoy it all.

My tags:

I've been in contact with five authors about following up with their own "Next Big Thing" post, but only two-and-a-half have got back to me so far. I'll put their links below and add others as they agree. Please, go check out their websites and consider buying their books.

Paul Genesse
Chris "Ruzkin" Hayes-Kossman
Warren Murphy

And don't forget to check out R.T. Kaelin and Michael Sullivan, too.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Finding Time to Write

For the first post of the New Year, with everyone eager to set New Year's resolutions they'll keep, I wanted to chime in on something I hear all too much of. I love seeing people who enjoy writing use that talent just because it feels good. For them and for me. I know far too many people who write because the act of doing so makes them happy, but they don't do enough of it (or let it fall by the wayside entirely) and they're plagued by a hundred different excuses.

If writing makes you happy, you should be writing. Period. And if your writing is good, there's no reason you shouldn't be publishing.

But the biggest stumbling block for people always seems to be, "I don't have time to write."

I'll let you in on a secret: Me neither. I make time.

I wrote and published well over 250,000 words in 2012.

In 2012, I also held a full time job. I had freelance work on top of that. On top of that, I have a family that demands attention. Dates, play dates with the kids, school functions, and on and on and on. I've got a gig hosting a pub quiz every week, and that needs to be written as well. I'm as busy or busier than you or anyone you know. And none of that is going to give in 2013. In fact, I'm going to beat this year's record and publish even more next year.

You're not too busy to write, you're simply not prioritizing it.

Repeat that in your head, because you know it's true: YOU ARE NOT TOO BUSY TO WRITE.

Hell, maybe you should put that on a post it note in plain sight. Write it in your notebook, or wherever else you'll read it. Because it's true. You're not too busy to write.

You want to know how I get so much written? I make sure I write something every day. Seven days a week. Whether it's a review for Big Shiny Robot!, my column for StarWars.Com, my column in City Weekly, or on a novel or a short story, I make sure I'm getting something written. I don't even count the writing I do in this space, or many other spaces. You should see my writing journal, too. I fill a moleskin every couple of months full of ideas and I don't count those words, either. And emails...  Sweet Jesus, if I counted my emails, my annual word count would be in the millions...

To help me get the time I need, I get up early. Very early. Before everyone else is awake. Usually, I hit my favorite coffee shop from 6:00 am to 8:00 am, Monday through Friday. That gives me two solid hours, five days a week, to get some productive writing and editing done. At that early in the morning, no one is emailing me or calling me. The family is asleep, so they don't need anything. Then I head in to work. It's a perfect plan that fits my schedule and gives me regularity and discipline in my writing.

But that's not the only thing I've done to save time for writing.

I read once that Brian K. Vaughn said that Video Games were just another name for writer's block. So I cut video games out of my days and that saved loads of time. Occasionally, perhaps once a year or two, I'll cheat, but the only time I really allow myself a video game is when my kids want to play games with me and I count that as family time.

I've also made some changes to my smart phone. It doesn't ring. It doesn't vibrate. It doesn't buzz. It doesn't check for new emails unless I do it manually. That's not to say I'm difficult to get ahold of, but my writing isn't going to be interrupted by a ringing phone. My writing is more important than anyone needing to get ahold of me instantly by phone. And if anyone knows me well, they know they'll get a speedier, almost instantaneous response, in other ways. Try tweeting me. Or an email. Or all of the above. I'll almost certainly see it sooner than I'll look at my phone unless I'm actively using it.

The other thing I do that seems surprising to most people is to have too many projects going on. There's never a chance of getting writer's block if I have two stories due for publication, my novel that needs work, the serial I'm starting up, and any other number of things that need to be done. Every now and again it can feel overwhelming, but the joy and satisfaction of crossing a story or assignment off the list is easily outweighed by that mild sense of drowning.

There's also another sort of person, who has the time to write, but chooses not to out of fear of rejection or fear that they're not good enough or any of a hundred other excuses they give themselves to stop before they start. Ignore those nagging voices that tell you you can't, because you can. It doesn't have to be perfect the first time out, just make the time, sit down, and let the words flow. Eventually they'll be publishable. I promise.

More than anything, though, what it comes down to is this: Write more and do other stuff less.

You can do it. I know you can. If you say you can't, you're lying.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, and Part 10 of my series of "writer's rules." If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.