Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inspiration or Intimidation

All writers are supposed to read. That's one way we're suppose to learn about the craft. I feel like I've read many books in my day. Not as many as some, but more than most. So I feel I have a good amount of source material to draw upon. But now that I've started writing seriously, I find it harder to read. But perhaps more important that I do so.
 (Aside: Just started a new great book by my favorite author Tad Williams: The Dirty Streets of Heaven)

Now when I read I study the writing. It's not just about the story anymore. I can't just get lost in the ideas and characters and forget the rest of my world. That's what I used to like about books. Now I can't help but notice the syntax, ponder the chosen point of view, analyze the description vs. dialogue ration. For most books this is fine, I'm getting what I need out of them. I'm advancing myself as a writer.

But for the books I really love, I just want to be a reader. I want to turn off my writer's brain and just enjoy them for the beautiful creatures they are. But even that comes with its price.
(Second aside: just picked up the electronic version of one of my past favorites, Neil Gaiman's American Gods)

Reading a great book is inspiring. It makes me want to create something as wonderful. It puts ideas in my head that I can grow and morph into something that's my own. It creates characters that I want to know and shows me how to give my own people more depth and reality. Great books are what we all aspire to, even if we don't achieve it.

But great books can also intimidate. When I read a normal book, one I'm studying to learn from, I often feel like I can do that. I can make something as good as that. But when I read great books I'm not so confident. I don't think I'll ever match Crime & Punishment, the complexity of the Otherland series is mind boggling. It's simply beyond me.

How do I deal with this disincentive? I remember that I'm still learning. I'm still improving. I don't know how much better I'll get, and I'll probably never match the work of those I most admire, but it's possible. I hang onto that hope. And I realize that I don't have to achieve immortal fame and great wealth to be a success. I look back to the merely good books and trust that I can do that. I have faith that I can write a decent book, worthy of publishing and something that will be enjoyed by many.

It's a corny expression but it holds true: if you aim for the stars you might only reach the moon. But how cool would it be to walk on the moon!

Monday, September 24, 2012

What's so funny?

Crying LaughterI'm on vacation for a couple weeks, but I have some posts scheduled to keep you company in the mean time. Starting with today's:

Humor is a very tricky subject for authors. Writing something funny is a lot harder than being funny. So much of humor depends on tone, facial expression, timing and body language. Just coming up with funny words is not enough, somehow you have to capture the whole scene without actually describing all the details (that would grind everything to a halt).

And you still have to have the funny words. You have to be able to sit down and actually write jokes. New ones. It's hard. Too hard for me.

There is another option. Instead of being funny, you can be clever. Cleverness actually comes across much easier in writing. It's not as dependent on the physicality of the joke. It often gets interpreted as funny. At least, it makes people laugh inside, which is the next best thing to real laughter. It lightens the mood and brings enjoyment, which is often the goal of a joke.

But you still have to come up with the words. You still have to be clever. That's a skill in its own right.

Whichever way you go, it's essential that you get an outside opinion on your results. You can never judge your own funniness, or cleverness, or any-ness. So do your best, but get some feedback before you walk up on stage and make a fool of yourself.

Having said that, I'll throw caution to the wind and share some of my own work. Is it funny? Clever? Or nothing?

Games People Play

"Oh, Come on! You cannot be serious!"
"What? What's wrong with my plan?"
"You can't be so open and direct like that. It'll never work. She'll crush you."
"This is who I am. It's worked for me in the past. She's not so different."
"Worked when? Back in high school? On the country bumpkins? Well, you're in the big city now. This is a whole new ballgame. People are devious and tricky here. You have to hide what you want in order to get it."
"That's just not my style. I think I'm better off staying true to myself."
"You have no style. That's what we've got to work on."
"Looks who's talking"
"Hey, I have plenty of style. I can be as devious as anyone. But I'm not the one playing this game. I'm just here to help - and you would serve yourself well by listening to my advice."
"OK, I do appreciate the help. I'm just not sure I can do what you're talking about."
"Sure you can. You just have to be more reserved; take your time and feel her out before making a move."
"Patience isn't one of my virtues. I'd rather jump ahead to see how it's going to end."
"Everyone wants to jump ahead but that's missing the fun of the game. You have to learn to enjoy the courtship, when all the possibilities are still open. You jump ahead and you end up disappointed."
"OK, I'll give it a try. But if I get embarrassed I'm going to kick your ass."
"Come on, let’s reset the pieces and start over. Begin with the Knight's Pawn gambit and hold your queen back until at least a bishop is committed. We'll get you through this tournament somehow."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Booking Through Thursday: Watcha Reading

It's Thursday again, and this week's Booking Through Thursday question is:

Quick–what are you reading right now? Would you recommend it? What’s it about? (check out the link to the left for the home blog and you'll find lots of great answers to the question.)

Of course, I'm reading several things at once. Mostly what I've been reading the past few days is my Work in Progress as I edit it. I highly recommend it but you can't find it anywhere. It's about lots of cool stuff.

The other main book I've been reading I've actually been re-reading. I picked up an electronic version of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I love that book, and as I re-read it I appreciate why even more.

It's about America and Americana. And Gods and gods. Real places and imaginary people (who are more real than the places). Neil describes it himself as meandering, in the best possible way. It won major awards for fantasy, science fiction, and horror (so it may be hard to classify). It's a contemporary story with lots of great folklore and history. I cannot recommend it highly enough - it's one of those books that I recommend to everyone regardless of what type of book you normally like. This one has it all: action, intrigue, murders, romance, family quarrels, supernatural beings, philosophical ponderings. And if you don't want any of that it's just a really fun read. The tenth anniversary version is out and it's got a few extra words over the original.

So what's everyone else reading?

Monday, September 17, 2012

I'm sorry, did I offend you?

Sometimes we over think things. We're so worried about what others might think, how they might interpret our words, that we hesitate to say what we want. In writing, that's often referred to as self censorship and it can be a bad thing.

Good stories should contain ideas. Even plot-driven thrillers and casual romance novels need to have something more to them than action. The idea doesn't have to be the focus, but action has to have some meaning or it will not engage the reader. There does not need to be an argument for or against anything, there is no need to preach or educate or inform. But some concept of humanity needs to be present, and anything dealing with people will have multiple interpretations.

With multiple sides comes disagreement. So rest assured, if you write something down someone will disagree with you. Even if you don't take a side intentionally, others will subscribe it for you. Even if you try to present all sides, you will miss some. Or misrepresent them. Or just be plain wrong. Always. So accept it and move on. Don't let that stop you from writing it.

 But that doesn't mean you should just ignore it. It's important to be aware of what you are saying and be comfortable with it. Even when you don't agree with your own position. One of the joys of being a writer is the ability to play out philosophical ideas in our own laboratory ; a laboratory that we control.

But when we disparage others without thought, when we reinforce negative ideas without intending to, when we feed the ignorance and hatred that already exists in the world we do ourselves a disservice. We are no longer creating but merely mimicking. It's lazy and does not bring value to our work. You don't need to build a perfect world when you write, but you need to know what you are creating and what power it has. And use that power purposefully.

It's okay to have a stereotypical character - those people do exist. It's okay to have someone do something bad and get away with it - that happens in real life. It's okay to explore ideas that are unsavory and destructive. But if that's all you've got, you don't got much. Exploring ideas will give your story more depth and make it more compelling. Adding complexity will garner you more fans - people will find something they can like in the mix (or at least it will get them to think about what they like in contrast).

So if your men are not manly enough, your women are too manly, your villain is a racist, your hero is flawed, your society is bigoted and your universe is unfair - well done; you've created a realistic world. Just remember that men are also strong, women are intelligent, heroes charge through that door and virtue is sometimes rewarded. It's a beautiful, ugly world out there. We should aim to inspire, encourage, challenge, horrify, reassure, anger, and sometimes even offend. We should move people, and move ourselves in the process. Just be conscious of what direction you are heading.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Absolute Write blog chain: Se7en

Another stop on the blog chain with the fun folks at Absolute Write. This month is brought to you by the number seven.

The first thing I think of when I hear the number seven is the movie Se7en. Which is odd, because I barely remember it and wasn't a big fan. Honestly, what sticks in my head is how they spelled se7en, using the number instead of a 'v'. It reminds me of a little bit of research that has conveniently been turned into a meme.

I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

Every time I see that I wonder why I have to work so hard to make my manuscript free from errors before I submit it. I mean, it's clear that spelling doesn't really matter. It's the ideas that count. Can't the editors just cut me some slack?

It also proves why it's so hard to edit your own work. If your brain knows what you're trying to say it will automatically correct most simple mistakes. It goes beyond just spelling as well - if we know the thought behind the sentence our brains will make up for missing or incorrect words. We read the idea and not the details.

What I like about this is that it shows the power of the mind and the importance of ideas. So as a writer, I want to make sure my ideas are good, that my readers can pick them up and follow them. After all, isn't that what we're trying to do with communication: transmit ideas. Words are just tools (but tools to be used with craft and care).

Though I will still leave my spell-checker on for the sake of those who find that upper paragraph a complete mess.

Participants and posts:
orion_mk3 - (link to this month's post)
Ralph Pines - (link to this month's post)
bmadsen - (link to this month's post)
writingismypassion - (link to this month's post)
pyrosama - (link to this month's post)
areteus - (link to this month's post)
randi.lee - (link to this month's post)
wonderactivist - (link to this month's post)
BigWords - (link to this month's post)
meowzbark - (link to this month's post)
SuzanneSeese - (link to this month's post)
AFord - (link to this month's post)
Kricket - (link to this month's post)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Booking Through Thursday: School Books

Here's the Question:

We all had to read things in school that we didn’t like … but what about something you read for a class that you ended up liking (or loving)? An author you discovered that you might not have found? A genre you hadn’t thought about?

Here's the answer:

The book that changed my reading was part of an AP English assignment my senior year: Crime and Punishment. I had to read several books for a project and started with C&P. It took over a month to get through the first hundred pages. I hated it. But I forced myself to keep reading and something just clicked. I finished the last seven hundred pages in two days. It's my favorite book and I've read it more times than anything else.

It opened a different world of intellectual books (and the Russian greats in particular). It taught me how to appreciate the psychological aspects of a story. It rewarded me for my perseverance and showed me how complex and complete a novel can be. I don't write anything like it, but Dostoyevsky is still one of the authors I turn to when I want to be inspired. It is the writing I aspire to, even if I am doomed to fall short.

Anyone out there have a similar experience in school?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


The protagonist is who the story is about, but they don't have to be a good guy. Breaking it down in broad strokes, the protagonist can be a hero, antihero, or villain. What's the difference, you ask? Here's how I think about them.

A hero is someone who is trying to do the right thing for the right reason. That doesn't mean they're a goody two shoes. I break heroes down into two flavors: ideal and flawed.

Ideal heroes are doing the right thing for the right reason. They have good morals and they represent what we 'should' be. We all hope that ideal heroes really exist, but most of us haven't met any. Luke Skywalker was an ideal hero.

Flawed heroes tend to do the right thing but not all the time. Their flaws often create conflict; they do the greater good but mess up on the little things (they save the world but kick their dog while drunk). We like them because we know we have flaws but hope we still do the right thing when it really counts.

If someone does the right thing for the wrong reason, they might be an antihero. Antiheroes are not trying to do the right thing; they have ulterior, normally selfish, motives. But they end up on the right side in spite of themselves. Han Solo started as an antihero - he was helping Luke for cold hard cash. But in the end of the first movie he became a flawed hero - overcoming his greed to help Like destroy the death star because it was the right thing to do.

If your main character doesn't do the right thing at all, they're actually a villain. That's okay. To be the protagonist we just have to follow their story; the reader has to know their goal and have a reason to want to see if they accomplish it. There has to be someone/something standing in their way (that's the antagonist). Darth Vader was a villain and antagonist in the first series. Anakin became a villain protagonist in the last couple of movies.

(Darth Vader's not the best example of a villain protagonist since his role switches. My favorite villain protag is Ingen Jegger from Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. He's definitely evil (wants to kill the heroes), but when the story is told from his perspective we understand his motivations (trying to please his evil queen). We don't necessarily want him to succeed, but we root for him as a person because we understand him - and he's bad-ass.)

The key to making any of these a successful protagonist is to give them a motivation the readers can identify with and a conflict standing in their way. If we care about the character, right and wrong can be forgiven.

Monday, September 3, 2012

GUTGAA - Meet and Greet

Gearing up to get an agent is underway. We're starting off with some get to know you questions, so here're my answers:

My (brief) bio:
I have led several lives. I was born in a small farm town in Minnesota. I lived for many years in the metropolis of Los Angeles. I currently reside in Northern California and am most at home out in nature. After many years in school, careers in business, education, and adventure, I am now writing full time.

 -Where do you write? 
I write in my bedroom. A small desk right next to the bed. With a second monitor hooked up to my laptop so I can have one screen of reference material as I type on the MS.

-Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see? 
My bed. Unmade.

-Favorite time to write?
I'm definitely more productive in the morning. I wake up and go through my morning routine, have some breakfast, but I make sure I'm doing something productive before 9am. Just like a real job.

-Drink of choice while writing? 
Just water. It's surprising how dehydrated you can get when just sitting and writing and the time flies by. I have a large water bottle since I hate to have to get up and stop writing just because I'm thirsty.

-When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence? 
Music. But nothing with lyrics - they distract me. So mostly classical or jazz while I'm writing.

-What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it? 
My inspirations are often reactionary - I read something and think that I can do it better (or at least differently). In some ways Twilight inspired me to write a YA novel, but without vampires and with a heroine that ultimately saves the day for everyone else. Very specifically without vampires...

-What's your most valuable writing tip?
Don't just write. Study. Everyone says that writing is key, but if you don't learn from it you won't improve. Writing doesn't equal learning. You have to actually study what makes good writing and review your own work objectively. Without that thought and reflection you'll just keep making the same mistakes. 

Can't wait to meet y'all!