Sunday, March 29, 2015

Story Notes: Dream Inspiration

One of the greatest joys in being a writer, and one of the most valuable skills to have, is the ability to take inspiration from almost any situation, whether you're the one experiencing it or not. It doesn't have to be in the moment, and it doesn't have to be a postive thing, but writers should cultivate the art of absorbing the richness of life to later be regurgitated out - quite likely in a very different form - onto the page. It makes living a little bit more fun and interesting.

One of my favorite ways to get inspired is to dream. It's not something I plan, or something I control, and it often comes out in odd ways, but I've found it to be quite fruitful. In many respects, my dreams share similarities with my writing: some are in first person, some in third; some are about me, some are not; some are about feeling, some all action. While I don't try to write what I dream, there are elements of story that come to me in my sleep and I try to recapture it with words on the paper. It can be a productive exercise.

Recently I had a dream that covered many bases. It began with me on a spaceship, stowing away in the rear of vehicle that resembled a giant train while a group of people searched for me. I pulled a couple of ideas out of this that could work in a story. First, a train in space makes me think of a futuristic Murder on the Orient Express. That could be cool. The other aspect was the first person claustrophobic feeling I had in the dream, of being trapped in a place with no escape and trying to find someplace even smaller in which to hide. I try to hold onto that feeling and use it when writing a scene that connects, even if it's just someone trapped in a situation. Those gut-level responses, the kind you feel when you wake from a dream, are great insights into a situation you might have never experienced while awake.

Then the ship crashed - or at least it seemed to. In the dream-fuzziness, I found a hiding spot and the next thing I knew the ship was on the ground and no one was moving. I quickly took the opportunity to sneak outside where the steel hull of the craft lay in a garden, neatly built around it. That image stays with me - a futuristic relic settled into the landscape, no longer used for its original purpose but made to serve other needs. Lots of story potential there.

But then the dream shifted, no longer about me but about some character newly arrived on an alien world. I became the watcher, a detached third party seeing the action play out. The person walked away from the garden and across a strange landscape, only to run into a pair of humans who wore funny clothes and spoke an alien language. My main character tried to communicate, to ask for help, but was greeted with anger and violence. A struggle ensued and my hero fought them off, killing the strangers in the process. It made me wonder why they had been so violent. It made me think about what it must feel like to have to kill to defend yourself, especially when you don't know why. No answers, but plenty of good questions.

Finally, as the two bodies lay on the ground and my protagonist stood in a daze, the real aliens showed up. Ten feet tall with legs like a preying mantis and all in crimson uniforms. I awoke after that, but what a great visual. It reminded me of classic science fiction covers and something that could be developed into an homage to the genre.

The dream itself was interesting, but it didn't actually make a good story. It's the elements within, the creative endeavors of a sleeping mind, that offer real gems we can use upon waking. Writing is about creating something new and different, about adapting our experiences and folding them into something that others can relate to. Stories are built from the stuff of dreams, sometimes quite literally.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writing Priorities

It's actually pretty easy to be a writer - you just write. To be an author, to have your books published, whether by yourself or a third party publisher, that takes a lot more, and it can be hard to figure out how to use your limited time wisely. The classic advice is that you should write every day. Write what you know and keep writing, that's what makes you a better writer. It's true, and writing is the most important thing in becoming an author, but you have to fit a lot of other things in there as well.

First, you have to edit. Some people count that as writing, but it's really different. It's fun to create something new, to turn a blank page into a story and to watch the magic that happens, never quite knowing where your characters will lead you, even if you are a planner. But if you want to improve you need to go back and fix all the mistakes that you made the first time through. You need to re-examine your grammar, your story structure, your pacing, your choice of voice and setting, your side stories, your conclusion, everything.

Once you've made a story the best you can, you then get feedback, take a little time off, and come up with ways to make it even better. A lot of this work should also benefit you when you start the next shiny new project, making your first drafts better and your final drafts better still. It takes a lot of time to edit, even more to edit and improve, but that's what's necessary to become an author - you need to make the writing the best it can be.

But your manuscript is only one part of publishing these days. If you want a big publishing contract (or even a smallish one), you'll need an agent. That takes time: researching agents, researching agencies, following agents on twitter, studying the market, writing a query, revising the query, entering pitch contests, submitting queries, waiting for replies, doing revisions and resubmitting. All these things take time and effort, but aren't nearly as fun or freeing as writing.

These days you also need to build a platform. Okay, maybe you don't have to. You can still get an agent and get published without a website or social media campaign, but it seems like it's getting harder. Agents and publishers definitely check out your presence before making offers. And if your goal is to sell books, at some point you're going to need that platform. That means either time or money - probably both. Building a website, interacting on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, writing a blog or a Tumblr, reviewing books on Goodreads (which brings up another time-suck: you have to be reading voraciously to know your market and observe the trends).

So what's most important? Where do you spend your time? Writing, editing, reading, marketing, researching, or even just building up life experiences to draw from? I've been struggling with this lately as I've been very busy with a full time job, a new house, a new marriage, a plan for the future, and trying to be a good friend and enjoy my life a little bit. Writing comes first for me, but I always have new ideas that are waiting to be written. I have to discipline myself to follow a project through to completion.

For me, editing takes longer than the first draft. I budget more time for it than anything else, and I think it's where my writing improves the most, not only for the current project but for all future ones. I'm in this for the long haul so the future is where I aim my efforts. I do blog, but not as much as I once did. I blog when I have something to say and it helps me get words out and focus my mind on my actions (like this post is doing right now). I take the agenting process slowly. While I'd love to find an agent, I don't have the time to devote myself to it and it feels like an amorphous goal so I do it piecemeal and trust that over time it will work out.

I've cut back on the social side of platform building, but I haven't abandoned it. I keep my toes wet, keep my website live and stop in to twitter or some forums on occasion. I'd like to spend more time and I know it could pay off, but it can also eat up all your social time. I like to save a big chunk of that for real life people, for doing things in the physical world. I know I need that to be healthy and happy, and that's as important to me as becoming a successful author.

I don't write everyday, but most days I do some work towards my goal. What that is depends on where I am in a project, so I let my time and intensity vary with the other demands of life. The more my time is crunched, the more I try to keep editing, since it's the most valuable to me, and the less I spend on social media and agent hunting. When I feel overwhelmed or unmotivated, that's when I turn back to writing something new, even if it's just a flash story, to inspire me.

I will never stop writing, and I do put in a lot of time towards the publishing goal in addition to the fun tasks. But I am more than a writer and I always want to be so. Maybe my lack of single-minded determination, my unwillingness to make myself miserable and sacrifice the other aspects of my life will slow down (or stop) my goal of being an author. But I'm making that choice deliberately and I'm happy with it. I'm still a writer and always will be.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book vs. Movie: The Lord of the Rings

When I was a small child I lived to play. Outside in the summer, normally hanging out at the local pool, or inside during the cold winters, down in the basement. Much of the play involved physical activities - I was a bundle of energy and couldn't sit still for anything - but even that involved stories. We didn't just play cops and robbers, we played international jewel thiefs who had smuggled the crown jewels out of the tower of London and were being chased by Scotland Yard's best detectives, Reginald and Percy. When I wasn't creating stories, I was watching them, glued in front of the TV or watching Star Wars a dozen times in the theatre. I loved the world of make believe and the more fantastic the better. But I had no patience for books.

My older brother, on the other hand, was an avid reader, with a bookshelf full of science fiction and fantasy classics. I can't remember exactly what it was that made me first raid his stash, maybe I was sick and stuck inside on a nice sunny day, but somehow I ended up with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in my hands when I was about twelve. Those books transformed me, and within a year I had gone through everything on my brother's shelves and burned for more (and shortly after that needed glasses, fwiw).

So I have very fond memories of the Tolkien books, and I did return to read them again a few times over the years. I even watched the animated version and loved it, though I was at an in-between age where cartoons seemed childish and I hadn't realized how adult they could be. When I first heard the Peter Jackson movies were being made it had been some years since I had given the books much thought and I planned to open them up once again before the movies came out. Nice plan, but it never happened, time already racing past too quickly.

I hit the theater on opening day and The Fellowship of the Ring was everything I wanted in a movie - it's still my favorite of the trilogy. Not re-reading the books worked out better since I knew the story and characters just fine but wasn't focused on where the movie version diverged from the written word and simply enjoyed the book come to life as I watched it. I held on to that pleasure and waited patiently for each installment, re-watching the previous film(s) before each new premiere, but never venturing back into the books. I knew there were some differences, and I definitely missed the scene of the hobbits returning to Hobbiton and facing down Sarumen that felt like a perfect ending in the books (but I can see how it wouldn't have worked in the movie).

Seems perfect, right? Fond memories of the books that hooked me on reading, fine enjoyment of the movie adaptation. No need to spoil either medium. But as a writer I couldn't let it lie. My writing has greatly changed how I read, and it's taken me years of reading for study to learn how to get back to reading for pleasure. I wanted to return to my first love and see how it held up. What would I think of the books now, both as a much older person and a much, much more critical reader?

I recently finished off both the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, powering my way through the hundreds of pages knowing I had no time to spare for such an indulgence when there was so much writing to do and new books to be read. But I greatly enjoyed my own history lesson and I learned a fair bit in the process.

I did enjoy the books. I was able to marvel at the characters and the incredibly rich world that Tolkien created, and even though I knew the twists and turns and eventual outcome, I got caught up in the magnificent story as it rollicked along. But I also noted his style, very dated by modern standards. I skimmed over all the songs and felt that some sections dragged with long lists of names. And couldn't help but notice how many times the Fellowship stopped for several days to rest and recoup. I realized that I liked the movie versions more overall.

I'm not saying that the movies are better, but I think they fit my style a little bit more. Worldbuilding is great, but I don't need so much of the place's history and all the tiny details worked out. I prefer a focus on what's relevant to the here and now and the lives of the characters I'm following. I prefer a faster pace, a little more drama, and even some romance thrown in. It's a different sensibility and the movie mode is what I enjoy - that's how my own writing comes out (I see stories in pictures and translate that to the page).

I know lots of folks out there, writers especially, will call me a heathen for preferring a movie adaptation over a classic of literature. I can understand why and I won't argue - I generally prefer books over movies most of the time. But I'm glad that I have The Lord of the Rings in it's different forms and meanings: the books inspired me at a time when I needed it, and that will never change; I learned how to read from those pages, something still with me to this very day; and I enjoyed the movies as pure pleasure and can do so again and again. In the end, it's not a book versus a movie, but a book and a movie, each adding to the world of stories and the experience of life.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A nip of the ol' Irish - Absolute Write Blog Chain

It's back and it keeps growing - but in a good way. The Absolute Write Blog Chain for March is not surprisingly focused on Ireland. Not much more to say, other than please check out the rest of the links once they go live. Should be some fun stuff this time around.

Irish Eyes


“Come on. Say it.” The stocky man staggered a little in his excitement and the woman behind him stepped clear with a disapproving look. He lifted his mug, his cheeks glowing in the dim light of the pub, and bellowed, “You can never take…our freeeeeedooooom!”

His diminutive companion scowled under his tweed cap, grabbing his own pint to secure it on the round table top when the other mug banged back down. Well, this evening’s gone arseways, Connor thought to himself. “I told ya,” he said. “I’m Irish, not Scottish.”

“What’s the difference?” asked the loud-mouthed fella with a stupid smile on his face.

“Two different countries, ya bloomin’ idiot.” Connor looked for an escape. He’d been looking for half an hour, ever since the large man decided to become his new best friend. “I’m headed for the jacks.” He took one last swig, knowing he was abandoning his pint, and nodded towards the rear of the establishment.

“But y’all sound the same. Y’all celebrate St. Paddy’s Day, right?” He seemed very pleased at himself for not calling it St. Patrick’s Day.

Connor simply walked away, too wrecked to continue arguing.

“Hey, you’ll come back, right? I’ll order us some of that Irish Scotch whiskey.”

“I will yea,” Connor shouted over his shoulder and ducked into the men’s room.

He emptied his bladder and eyed the only window, too small and too high for a dignified exit. Maybe if he was quick he could sneak out while the man ordered. He had no desire for spirits tonight, his one pint enough after several minerals. He hadn’t come to drink but to get lost among those who had.

When he opened the door he saw their table had been taken over by a couple of punks in leather and green hair. These people were all so different and strange. His should have known a tawdry Irish pub would make him miss home more than remind him of it.

He worked his way around the outside, conveniently hidden below even those sitting down. The large bouncer protecting the door didn’t even notice his passing. The night air hit him like a steamy bathroom, another reminder he was far from the emerald isle. He turned the first corner to make his escape complete.

“Hey, you forgot your whiskey.”

Connor stopped dead, the annoying man standing in front of him with two glasses filled with amber goodness. How had he beaten Connor out here? And why?

“That’s all right. I’ma call it a night.”

The man held out one glass and stumbled forward, spilling some of the liquid. “But it’s Jameson’s. Bartender said it’s the best Irish whiskey there is.”

Connor hardly agreed, but at least it was from the mother country and tasted like it did of old. He took the offering and the man wrapped a meaty arm around his shoulder and held his own glass out to the stars as a salute.

“Sl√°inte.”

The correct accent caught Connor by surprise as they both downed their shots. He looked at the man a little harder. The smile was gone and his eyes seemed clear and sharp, glinting dangerously in the darkness. Footsteps echoed on the pavement behind and Connor craned his neck to see two large men walking purposely towards them.

The arm tightened around his shoulder. “Now, me little friend.” The words rolled out with an accent as pure as County Cork. “Let’s talk about the real Eire and the gold you be hidin’ somewhere around here.”

***

And the rest of the links: