Back to my Roots

When I was growing up I loved to read.  I’d read anything and I’d tear through a thousand page book in a week.  It would go everywhere with me until it was finished.  As much as I enjoyed reading, it wasn’t until I was thirteen that I discovered how much I loved to write.

When I was a Freshman in High School my friends and I used to have an hour long bus-ride home from school.  We were all avid horror and fantasy readers, one day we decided to use that time to write a short story on whatever topic we wanted, at the end of the ride we’d vote on who’s was best.

I wrote a short horror story about the four of us, my three friends and I.  We went camping, told scary stories around the fire, and one by one started to disappear.  We figured that one of the urban legends from the stories was actually real… but in the end found out that one of us was a werewolf (before they were trendy) and had invited everyone out to make meals of us.

It was scary, the descriptions were gory, like the horror flicks we loved, blood everywhere.

I won the little contest and discovered the joy I got from their reactions as we traded pages.  It was a blast to write something like all those stories that I enjoyed and have other people get a kick out of reading it.  Those little story contests became a regular part of our rides from then on.

Fast forward two decades.

This week I’m working on a new project.  As I was writing I realized I had a little hole in my plot, the characters were going to have to spend the night out in this hazardous place.  That wasn’t supposed to happen originally but it was just the way it worked out.  Thinking about that scene I figured I could just gloss over it, “they found an abandoned cabin to stay the night and nothing happened”…  but that’s not what I ended up happening

Instead, I spent the last two days writing over a dozen pages about the characters being haunted all night by creepy visions and monsters.  It just kind of evolved on the page into this huge, scary situation that I had so much fun creating.

In thinking about the project and the last two days it all kind of reminded me of writing those stories on the bus.  Those creepy, gruesome, edge-of-the-seat tales were what got me started writing to begin with because they were so much fun.  Even as a little kid, those R.L. Stein books were my favorites.  As I got older I transitioned into Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as a plethora of fantasy writers like Robert Jordan (RIP).

So I’m taking some time today to enjoy the process and remember what makes writing and reading enjoyable for me.  My last few projects have been pretty tame on the scare-o-meter, maybe my next one (or this one) will end up a few marks higher.  And if you find yourself hitting a slump, maybe thinking back to what you first loved about reading and writing will help get those juices flowing again.

Does it feel right?

Done with Camp NaNo, a couple days early even!  Woo hoo!  Now that I’ve found myself with a bit more spare time I thought it might be a good time to write about an interesting little experience I had during this project.

The first week of April I was on a trip overseas.  I knew that it’d be hard to keep my word count up but I had almost two days of flying involved so I figured that’d give me a chance do some writing, even if I didn’t get much done the rest of the week.

On my return flight, the story was feeling a little slow so I write this really intense action sequence.  It was fast paced, lots of back and forth, it was awesome.  Probably the best action scene I’ve ever written.  I ripped out six or seven pages in no time.  Word count, smerd count, I’m the man.

But about an hour later, something was bugging me.  I wasn’t sure what it was, I just knew that there was something off about the scene.  I kept tweaking it, trying to make it feel better, but there was some underlying problem that unsettled me.

One of the things that I have learned as a writer is to pay attention to those gut feelings.  Often the subconscious will pick up on something before the conscious mind does.  So I paused the story while I tried to understand out what was going on.

It took me a while to figure it out but when I kind of stepped back and looked at it, it was obvious. I had wanted to write a certain type of scene so bad that I forced the characters into it.  My main character was way too savvy to get sucked into that situation, it should never have happened.

It didn’t fit, I’d forced it.  No amount of tweaking was going to change that.  So, with reluctance, I chopped the entire seven pages.  Seven pages!

This was so frustrating because that’s one of those holes that writers are often advised to avoid.  If you’re true to your characters than the plot flows along, if a character makes some decision that doesn’t make sense that’s probably a sign that the writer is forcing the characters to fit into a specific plot point.  I’d always thought that wasn’t a problem for me since I’m more of a pantser, but now I know better.

My word count suffered, it felt like all that work went down the drain, I had to rewrite pages and pages, but in the end the story was so much better for it.  I’m glad I listened to my gut, figured out what was wrong and fixed it.

(Side note: I saved the pages in another file and was later able to salvage some of it in a more appropriate place in the story.)

An Observation

It’s been about a year since I started writing seriously.  I’ve ‘finished’ five big first drafts in that time but have hesitated to publish anything.  One of the reason is that I haven’t had the time or money to put into getting good edits done but the biggest reason is that every draft is a learning experience.  Writing so much, then reading and revising, has taught me so much about the craft.  Every time I look back at one of my early drafts I realize how far I’ve come.  As I want my first published work to be the highest quality I’ve been focused on learning rather than publishing.

An excellent example is my Camp NaNo project.  I hesitate to call it a ‘throw away’ novel but it didn’t have a lot of promise going into it.  Whenever I get involved with NaNo I pick out one of my ideas that light, easy to write, and doesn’t have a lot of depth.  The idea being that it should be easier to keep up the high word count daily.  If it sucks, no big deal, it’s just for fun (I’m even posting it on Wattpad as it gets written).  However, even with the not-so-serious premise and some edits I know I need to make, I can still see how far I’ve come in the last year.  Even writing something I’m not that invested in, the quality of the writing has improved dramatically.

While I still consider myself a student of the craft, it’s awesome to see the difference.

If you’re curious, it’s available on Wattpad (and getting closer to completion every day).  Feel free to leave comments or critiques, I’m always looking for feedback.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/35668423-geeks-greens-and-guns

It’s all been written…

The new project I’ve been working on involves zombies.  I know, I know, the genre is saturated right now but I write to entertain myself, not to make money (for now), and I’ve been a fan of zombie stories forever.

I wasn’t sure how well my story would be received, it’s a little weird, so I was thinking about putting it up on Wattpad.  It seemed like a good idea, little did I know the can of worms I was about to open.

As I got ready to upload the story I ran into my first problem, the title.  When I’m writing I usually just slap a quick name on it and come up with something better later.  The problem here was that the story isn’t quite done yet and no titles had jumped out at me.

Well, I’m a writer, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a couple words, right?

The can of worms:

I came up with about 15 different titles that I thought were fantastic and creative.  To make sure they hadn’t already been used, or associated with an adult site, I googled them.  Guess what happened?  Every single one of them had already been in print or the movies.  One of my favorites was a band name.  If they were any good I might have considered using it anyway.  Nope, moving on.

Every single one.  That amazed me.  Even the ones that weren’t that great had already been used.  Either great minds think alike or I’m not nearly as creative as I think (quite likely).

Trying to come up with more ideas, I googled every one and had the same results.  I’ve been at this for over an hour now.  Wow.  Just… Wow.

Back to square one.  Again.

Why I’ll probably never be an indie success

If you’ve been following for a while you’ve probably realized how infrequently I post.  There’s a reason for that and it’s the same reason that I’ll probably never be a “successful” indie author:

If writing feels like work I don’t do it.

It’s just that simple, if writing feels like a chore than I stop.  I’m sure there are some very talented, smart people rolling their eyes at that but give me a chance to explain.

I’ve loved writing for almost as long as I can remember.  I loved it because it was such an amazing way to escape the daily grind, to explore new worlds in new ways.  But the biggest reason that I loved to write was because it was FUN.  Creating characters, coming up with back stories, coming up with a creative twist is just so much fun.

Over the last year that I’ve been seriously writing, putting time and energy into finishing projects, there are so many things that I’ve learned.  One of the biggest lessons is that you can’t fake it.  And really, you shouldn’t even try.  If you’re writing to make money or fans, or if you’re not into the project or scene, it shows.  I could force myself to write a blog post every week but then it would be work, it wouldn’t be fun, the posts would be uninspired, and I don’t delude myself into thinking that readers aren’t smart enough to realize that.

What this also tells me is that I’m probably never going to be an indie success story.  I don’t like social media, I don’t like marketing, I don’t like putting myself out there, branding myself sounds painful, and half of the tips for success would be a lot of work.  I could do all of that, I could do all the “right” things, I could form myself into the shape of the box, but that would turn this thing that I love into a job.  I already have a job, I write because I love it.  And I’m certain that even if I did those things the writing wouldn’t be the same, the lack of fun would come across in anything I published.  I want more than that and readers certainly deserve better.

So, I’m not going to fight it, I’m going to write what I want, when I want, and continue to enjoy myself.  And if I end up making any money, or gather millions of fans, that’ll just be a bonus.  If enjoying what I do means that I’ll never be a big “success”, well, I suppose that really depends on your definition of the word.

Bad words in fiction

On a recent bout with WriteClubFightClub a comment was left about how a good story doesn’t need profanity.  My story used two swear words, the s-word (once) and the f-word (twice), probably the reason why someone chose “neither” instead of voting for a story.

I was really tempted to write a response justifying my language but I decided that would be a bad idea.  Everyone has an opinion and that reader was simply mentioning theirs.  I don’t necessarily agree but that’s just my opinion.

I could probably find a list of the classic novels that include some form of profanity but honestly that wouldn’t change anyone’s mind or even necessarily make my point.  To me, swear words are just words, which means there’s a use for them just like any other word.  Also, just like any other word, they can be overused or misused.  I either use them or avoid them depending on the type of writing I’m doing and the potential audience.

In my story, Closing Time, the main character is a nurse who is at the end of a long, arduous, 16-hour day.  I wanted her to come across as worn, annoyed, exhausted, even petty at times.  She’d been in the trenches, probably been covered in blood and other bodily fluids all day, dealing with “emergencies” around every corner, at the end of her proverbial rope when she’s given just one more little job.  To me, the occasional swear word was appropriate for her.  I could have easily left those three swear words out but I thought they were more authentic than softer alternatives and I liked that edge they gave her voice.  They weren’t used that often either, there were three swear words in five pages of text, just enough to add a little spice without being overwhelming.

But, of course, that’s a matter of opinion and everyone is entitled to theirs.

So, speaking of opinions, I would love to get some more on swear words, or specifically on the word choice for Closing Time.  Were the “bad” words overused, misused, do they distract from the story?  Were they acceptable but it could have been better without them?  Good, bad, something in between?  I would really appreciate honest feedback.  Follow the links, let me know what you think, good or bad.

Interesting conversation with my Mom

I haven’t been good at posting over the last two months, as I’m sure happens with everyone life tends to get in the way, especially over the holidays.  Hiccups and roller coasters, it’s life.

Anyway, this morning I got a text from my mother.  It was a picture of her kindle, blown up far enough that I could read the text.

At first I was confused, what was she showing me?  I read the page and was amazed at how poor the writing was.  It was grammatically correct but stylistically a mess.

“He walked to the table.  He picked up the items, a book and two bowls.  He placed them on the counter.  He picked up a rag and wiped off the table top.  He took a yard of butcher paper off the role in the corner and gently placed it on the table.”

At first I thought the author was using this style deliberately but it just kept going.  Almost every sentence on the page started with “He”, it was really difficult to read more than a paragraph.

Then my mom sent a second text.  She explained that this was a book that a friend of hers had just put out and she suspected it was “self published”.  She’d wanted to support him, paid four dollars for her copy and wasn’t very happy with the quality.  I couldn’t blame her.  I’m certainly not an expert writer, or without my own issues, but I felt like I could have done a better editing job than whoever he hired, if he hired anyone.

Now, I could go on about how these kinds of books tend to give self published authors a bad name but we’ve all heard that before and, honestly, whether his book sells doesn’t really matter to me.  He wrote it, he was happy with it, and he published it.  Good for him.

What I can take away from this situation is that I don’t want anything I publish to turn off readers like that.  Is she going to be excited to buy his next book?  I doubt it.  I told my mom that that’s exactly why I’m not rushing to publish anything, I never want someone to pay good money and come away feeling like it wasn’t worth it.

Writing Group Blues

I just got home from one of the writing groups I’ve joined.  A couple are based around getting together and just writing, this is the only one that is based on critiquing.

Now, I take critiquing very seriously.  When I was in school I was very fortunate to have a series of really good english and creative writing teachers.  They really pushed me to become a better writer, and almost more importantly to be better at giving and receiving constructive criticism.  There’s almost an art to being able to read through someone’s writing, good or bad, and providing an opinion and suggestions.

When I’m doing a critique I’m reading really slowly, carefully, making notes along the way.  I always come up with a few good points and a few suggestions.  Even if I really like the piece, I always try to come up with at least a couple suggestions.  Whether the writer uses them or not doesn’t matter, it’s about giving them a different perspective.  We have to push each other if we’re going to improve.

Today, I handed out the first five pages of my NaNo project.  It’s rough, I haven’t even given it a second look since writing it I told them all that as a disclaimer.  I sat back and waited for the list of issues to roll in.

Their response, “It’s good.”

I asked if the descriptions were too heaver or too light.  “No, they’re good.”

I asked if it flowed well.  “Flow is good.”

I asked them for any suggestions.  I got one, the transition from the first chapter to the second could be a little better.

That’s it.

Now, I know I’ve improved as a writer but there’s no way I’m that “good”.  No, I think it says a lot more about the quality of the criticism than about the quality of the writing.  That’s disappointing.

Well rounded characters

One of the things that I struggle with sometimes is creating characters with depth.  It’s really easy to fall into superficial stereotypes, descriptions and reactions.  One of the things that I try and do is figure out what kind of intelligence the character has.

The summer before I started High School, I got enrolled in a mentorship course.  I had zero interest in taking it but my mom told me that my best friend really wanted to but would only go if I went too.  So, after arguing for a while, unsuccessfully, I agreed to go but only to hang out with him.

My best friend at the time was Pablo.  His mother was one of those types that had his entire future planned up until University, which classes, sports, and extras he would take to set him up for success.  She had a ten-year plan for him, made sure he knew it, and always pushed him to achieve perfection in everything.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the class and sat down with Pablo, we realized that our mothers had set us up.  He hadn’t wanted to take the class either but his mom told him that I wanted to.  She’d convinced my mom that the class would look good on our college applications and they tricked us into going.  We spent the next six hours stewing.

The mentor ship class was some kind of new age thing based on pop psychology, it was really weird.  At one point they had us all laying on the floor, eyes closed, imagining that we were walking down a corridor filled with doors.  When you open the first door, what do you see?

While most of the class was fairly ridiculous to a couple of fourteen year-olds, the portion on different types of intelligences was interesting.  According to the teachers there were seven different personality/intelligence types and they were arranged by colors.  I think I was a green, if I remember correctly.  Each type learned in different ways, had different strengths and weaknesses.

Neither Pablo or I signed up for further classes and we both refused to enroll in the follow up program in High School.  When our mother’s came to pick us up, we had some harsh words for them.

As much as I didn’t like the class, the perspective I gained on intelligence/personality types has served me well over the years.  It made me think about how I might be better at sports than another kid but that he was probably better than me at something.  Or the kid who gets straight A’s on tests is probably not as good at something as a popular kid with bad grades.  Each different type has strengths and weaknesses.

That perspective also helps when I’m trying to write full characters.  Maybe I’m writing about a character with a weakness, I don’t want him to be flat so I balance that out by figuring out what he’s good at.  If the guy can’t count to twenty without using all his fingers and toes maybe that’s balanced out when he can paint like Picasso.   Or fix diesel engines like a pro.  Or he’s a shark at the poker tables.  Even if those things never make it into the story, it gives the character more depth in my own mind which helps put more depth on the page.

Pantser Slump

The greatest pleasure I derive from writing is also my greatest curse.

There are two general types of writers; plotters and pantsers.

Plotters are kind of the Type-A personalities of the writing world.  They have an idea, they plan out the characters, and lay out the plot line in great detail.  Then when they write all they have to do is connect the dots.

Pantsers are those who write “by the seat of their pants”.  They start with an interesting idea, a character, and they just write.  It’s a very organic process, they just see where the characters take them.  Planning is usually limited to a couple chapters ahead.

I am an unashamed pantser.  What drives me to write is curiosity.  Usually I start with a hook and I’m genuinely curious where the story is going to go.  How is the manly man going to react when he has to direct his daughter’s play?  I don’t know but I really want to find out.  Every story is a puzzle that I really want to solve.

As much fun as that is, it’s also my biggest hurdle towards becoming a novelist.

You see, as long as I don’t know what’s going to happen I’m hooked by my own story, but there’s always a point (around 80% done) when I figure out how it’s going to end.  I can see how the last little bit plays out.  The puzzle is solved but the draft isn’t finished.  Suddenly, I don’t have any motivation at all to finish the last 20% or so.  It’s work, it’s trudging, it’s painfully boring.

When I get bored, my attention starts to wander toward other story ideas, until I drop the original project and start something new.  The new project gets to about 80%, puzzle solved, and my attention starts to wander again.

Right now, I’ve got two books 80% finished and I’m struggling to maintain my focus on them instead of the flashier, new ideas that have been cropping up.  I really, really want to be a published author but there are so many difficulties that I never anticipated, this being one of many.

So, I desperately need to work on my writing discipline.  Not just in hours/words per day but in finishing what I start.  Even then, I can only imagine how painful it’s going to be to do the multiple cycles of revision to make the story readable.

I keep telling myself, “if it was easy, everyone would do it.”   Pantser or not, I’m working on it.