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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.

FRIDAY:

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.

SATURDAY:

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.

SUNDAY:

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.

MONDAY:

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. 
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