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Writing stuff

My latest myth

The Story of the Salt God

In the days of creation, when the first life was granted unto the land, oceans, and sky the Gods were petty and argued over little things. When the Gods first gathered to witness and discuss all the things they had created and what those creations had spawned, the Land and Ocean God looked upon the Salt God with disdain. The Salt God had created a mineral so valuable that all the little creatures of the land fought over it. Also, the Land and Ocean God’s youngest sibling, the Rain God, looked very fondly on the Salt God. The two went everywhere together and it was only the rains of the Rain God that managed to wash away the white mineral created by the Salt God. Soon the Land and Ocean God became wroth and wished to punish the Salt God for shining so bright and being so powerful. The Land and Ocean God convinced the other gods to help them trick the Rain God. Several gods told the Rain God that the Salt God secretly wished to poison rain with the salt of the land, to take away the power of the Rain God to pour water over the land and ocean and instead pour salt across the world. This infuriated the Rain God who stormed away to the south and thus rains left the lands and from that day only shower upon the ocean. When the Salt God discovered the absence of the Rain God sadness consumed them. When the treachery of the Land and Ocean God was discovered, the Salt God raged against the ocean and pulled all of the salt from the land and poured it into the ocean, poisoning the waters. The Salt God disappeared to never be seen again.

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Treat it Like a Job

One of the hardest things about the writer’s life is sitting down and writing. Some authors enjoy it more than anything and most authors agree that it is hard work. All the editing and planning and outlining and submitting …

I love to write, to disappear into another world. the editing and submitting suck a bit, but they are worth it for the chance to create. I love reading stories by other people and it helps me become better. Even going to conventions for self-promotion is kinda fun even with my social anxiety. The only part of writing I don’t actually like is the figuring out when I can write.

Life is such a hectic and unpredictable thing. The day job takes up so much time. The chores at home take up so much time. Family takes up so much time. There seems to not be enough hours in the day to fit it all as it is. Then again, one of the things they press on me at my day job where I make my own hours is to “treat it like a job”. Working out in the field last week trying to keep myself working and not slack off, it suddenly hit me. This is just like the writing life. I can cut off work when I want to. I can put in as many or as few hours as I want to. And what that means is I am in charge of my input, thus also my output.

Lately, my writing output has taken a back seat to adjusting my life to fit more in tune around the new job. My commitments have stretched my time so thin that I’m not inputting any energy to my writing. The end result is no writing output.

When they tell us to “treat it like a job” what they mean is to act like I am punching a time clock even though I don’t. If we don’t hold to the same requirements that someone standing on an assembly line or behind a counter. Just like the day job where if I don’t put any hours into the field I sell nothing and get no paycheck, if I don’t put any hours into writing I don’t get better or create any stories to sell.  It only makes sense.

So, in order to increase production and to enjoy more of the writing life is to not treat it like a hobby, but to treat it like a job. I’ve had several jobs all at once before and balanced it. So that is what I need to do with writing now. I need to schedule a part of my day and week to “work” on my writing. If I have to punch in and produce, then I’ll actually get something done more than dreaming about it.


Learning to Stretch

One of the assignments for my writers group was to write a story in a way that was outside of our comfort zone. For the historical fantasy writer that meant writing a story about glittery vampires. Our southern Gothic writer chose to delve into the fantasy genre, penning a story containing an old Greek character in modern times. For myself, it was hard to decide what was outside of my comfort zone, after all I already tend to write cross genre. After much consideration the obvious answer hit me. Our assignment had a 700 word limit and the more I considered that humongous limiter, the more I realized that it was that very limiter which was outside of my comfort zone.

Much of my work tends to be verbose and contain many ten-dollar words. H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe are my favorite authors to read if that tells you anything of the way I enjoy manipulating vocabulary. This style pushes most of my stories past the 5,000 word mark. So, to keep a cohesive story under 700 words is not only outside of my comfort zone it is also a great exercise in brevity.

Today, I managed to create a story from beginning to end with a complete plot arch and everything, all under 700 words. During the entire process I had to remind myself of the word count limit. This prevented me from going off on purple prose or extravagant description. All dead weight had to be cut and many of the flourishes that I tend to include though they don’t always strengthen the story, were also trimmed off.

The end result was a much tighter story than I am used to writing. I learned about my weaknesses in the creation of prose and also some of my strengths. From now on I will take what I’ve learned and apply it to my future writings. As all exercises should, this one has made me a better writer and it is because of that I plan on doing this again.


Practice, Practice, Practice

The brain is like any other muscle and the more you use it the better it works. The act of writing is similar to exercise, in that it works your muscle and tones it. This then draws one to the conclusion that if they practice writing then their brain will be in better shape, thus enabling them to complete the task with less effort.

Think of it like cross training. You run five miles a day to tone your legs and lungs. Then you work on machines to pinpoint other groups of muscles and increase stamina. All of this to train for a marathon or some other physical event. So why not cross train your mind?

By this I mean, instead of writing in your style and in your vain all of the time–only running the five miles–one should also incorporate other exercises into their routine. Try writing in other genres. Do a nonfiction piece on occasion, such as a blog or technical writing. My writer’s group has begun to incorporate such thinking into our bi-weekly meetings. We now have voluntary assignments we can perform prior to each meeting. These assignments are decided upon by the group and help push us as writers. Our first assignment was to write something in seven hundred words or less that was outside of our comfort zone. For example, the historical fantasy writer chose to author a story about glittery vampires. Our next assignment was to pick an everyday form such as an obituary, recipe, ad-copy etc … etc … etc… and write a story in that form. Now how is that for straining your creative muscle?

All writers, whether in a committed group or not, should consider such practices. Working the muscle in different ways can only improve one’s ability to use it. So why not try something different, break from the routine, and write outside of your box?


The Critic

Last night was another wonderful Writer’s Group. We critiqued some well written stories and laughed at each other. Sadly, I missed the comment that turned Stephen’s face red and had his breath crippled with laughter. Still, watching Stewart’s reaction to the whole thing was worth it.

The camaraderie that comes with a Writer’s Group is essential to a craft that wiles away in the silence of isolation. It is also a needed tool for one to see the forest in the trees when it comes to the stories they are too close to for self-editing. The real benefit though is how it helps one better see those small things that add up to so much. I don’t catch everything the other authors can do to improve their story. Hearing the other writers in the group point out the mistakes or possible alternative routes in stories really opens my eyes to possibilities in my own.

Another aspect which we as a group are just beginning to breach upon, is the prospect of group assignments. Now I’m sure the genesis of such an idea comes partly from having a teacher amongst our ranks, but it is still interesting. For our next meeting all who choose to participate are going to write a 500-700 word story outside of their comfort zone–in  a genre or style that is not their own. A few weeks back it was suggested to me in particular and also as a good idea for others to practice writing scenes by composing a three page scene without narrative. These are wonderful exercises and something I would fare to guess many writers never try. It’s as if once we are out of school we feel there are no more practices, no more lessons, and no more learning except directly on the job. Well, in art as in many other things, if you do not continue to grow then you die.

I’m sure we all share that fantasy about the great published author who never writes anything bad and hardly needs to edit what they do. Everything the published author creates is wonderful and a best seller. Well, from my limited experience with meeting New York Times bestselling authors, I’ve discovered they still write crap, they still have to practice the basics, and they are still learning. That is what the exercises will do, they will help us aspiring writers to practice the basics.

More and more, it just makes me happy I finally came out of my rock and joined a group.


Self-Editing

Much harder than avoiding to put your foot in your mouth during a precarious conversation, the ability to impartially look at ones work and honestly critique it is hard to come by. As the writer, we the author often know the world and characters to the extent that we forget to clue others in. We can even be guilty of writing the “Cliff’s Notes” version of a story, because the rest is so deeply ingrained in our heads that we can read between the sparse lines we write. “What do you mean you didn’t get that the protagonist’s brother was really his father, I vaguely hinted at it on page three in the fourth paragraph.” To properly self-edit we need to read as a stranger and try to forget everything we learned from that detailed outline we spent months creating before embarking on this journey of storyline.

Another aspect of editing is the ability to be brutally honest. Some fellow Writer’s Group members take the act of being honest to others to an art form level and can even deliver compliments with a poisoned tip spear. When self-editing one must assail to similar honesty with themselves. If the sentence is weak or the idea muddled then you have to admit it.  Just because rewriting that one sentence will change the entire structure of the paragraph and break the tension you were attempting to affect, in no way excuses you from fixing the sentence. That one line may be the thing that confuses the reader, takes the reader out of the story, interrupts pacing, or makes them put the story down. Seriously, if you have enough weak points, then the story as a whole will fall on its face. The bad sentences can also add up to enough  to make the reader walk away from the work.

Grammar is important, but can actually fall to the background if the story is told well enough the reader forgets about it. Now I’m not saying to ignore the rules of grammar because your ability is obviously so wonderful that no one would mind. Not everyone can be as lucky as Timothy Dexter. What I am saying, is to pay heed to rhythm and pacing and story and character and mood. Remember your fundamentals. Follow your tropes if you’re in genre. Be true to your characters and don’t have them do or say things that they wouldn’t. Make sure the scene is believable for your story–research the things you don’t already know and apply that knowledge to the story. Then once you are confident all of these things are working, make sure your story is not grammatically indigestible. Besides, following some grammatical rules can often help you write stronger sentences.

Once you are through writing a piece, it is also very important that you decide upon your theme if you haven’t already. During the re-read, keep your eye on how the theme affects the story and how you tell it. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the theme when you first embarked on this storyline. In that instance, you may find many references or sentences that betray that theme. If so, then fix them. Often on larger works, writers discover that the first 20,000 words they write merely help them solidify their idea of the theme and thus they are forced to throw many of those words away in  rewrite. Never be afraid to throw away your words. Remember, no matter how beautiful the prose, if it weakens or betrays the story as a greater whole then it must be culled.

And finally, remember that no great work was ever written in the first draft. The stories and books that stand the test of time are the one which the authors chose to work hard on during the rewrite process. So read your work honestly and don’t be lazy when you see the problem in your fiction, fix it.  

“The first draft of anything is shit” —Ernest Hemingway


Elements of Style

In my opinion, one of the biggest determinations of one’s style evolves around the very genre they wish to place their piece of work. For example, if you are writing a romance story you will lean towards airy language that promotes passion or stirs feelings of love. If you are writing a suspense story, then you will have an abundance of short sentences and try to create as much tension throughout the piece as possible. If you attempt literary fiction, then you will use as many multi-syllable words as possible and evoke as much emotion into every single sentence as you can.

Once you have picked your genre, then you will have to look at the tropes necessary for that genre. These tropes, as mentioned above, will have an effect on one’s style. Lovecraft’s style is known for the archaic words and palpable words he used, which would never have fit into anything but the very genre of dark fantasy he chose to place his work. Tropes are considered to be the technique and even sometimes the cliché of the work. For example, a red shirt dying on the away mission was a trope of the original Star Trek, the teenagers who get naked die in Friday the 13th, and the reluctant hero will accept his fate and lead others to victory in fantasy.

Now that you have your genre selected and are aware of the given techniques available for you to spin your yarn, you must do so in your voice. This is the most difficult part of style. For you must remain clear of voice, in the background allowing the reader to experience the story without you the writer on their mind or in their face, while at the same time telling the story in a way that only you can. One way of learning how to do this is to find the successful writers who write most nearly the way you wish to and read them ravenously. They will teach you the cadence and tempo of voice, the rhythm and movement of voice, and how to tell a good story. Then broaden your appetite by reading others in your chosen genre, so that you may learn how other writer’s voices effect the techniques of good story telling.

Now comes the hardest part of style. You must write, over and over and over again. Keep pumping out the stories in the genre you choose. At first try to imitate those masters you read. Then as you become more comfortable tooling words and sentences, then break away from imitation and allow the sentences to shape in a way that is comfortable for you to say them. Allow yourself to come through on the words.

Like an actor, when your character is a punk, then you think like a punk. When your character is a hero, then you think like a hero. The whole time you are still you though, and your voice will pour out on the page. As long as you obey the confines of your genre and the rules of good writing then your voice will imbue a style that becomes wholly your own. This style will allow others to pick up your writing and instantly recognize it as something only you could have done. This is your voice.

 


The Writer’s Group

As I continue my foray into the social side of writing, I am pleasantly surprised. You see, years ago I attempted to join a local writer’s group, but it was comprised of non-professional hobbiest writers. None came from any writing background or possessed any qualified training. Being that my only training was in the aspects of Technical writing during highschool, it didn’t  bother me at the time. Needless to say, I derived no benefit from the group.

Now, the group I am with contains published authors, some of who actually studied writing in college, and two editors. Most members of the group provide very good impute when critiquing someone’s story. I for one have a uproarious time conversing with my peers. We send jabs back and forth, compliment and insult one another’s work, and learn from each other our chosen craft.

During our last meeting, I learned that I am a far better editor of other’s work than of my own. This is a somewhat common thing. To overcome this, I now need to read through my work as I do other people’s. You see, currently I edit as I go when I do a re-read, making changes as I work my way through a piece; while in contrast, I make notes and mark weak areas in someone else’s story so they can go back and decide on the proper change. That is obviously what I need to do for myself, read the whole piece, making notes as I go, and then after I’ve considered the theme and weak points go through and make changes.

Writer’s group win!


Life is a Busy Proposition

As the days unwind, I find that some goals are harder to keep than others. After seeing how far behind on my writing I’ve fallen, I vowed to work at least an half-hour a night on my writing. This was wonderful for about two or three weeks. Some days, I worked directly on my short stories or the new novel, while other times, I whiled away an hour or so at work on editing for my Writer’s Group.

Needless to say, eventually something happened here and there, so I skip this night, then that night, and now every night of working on my writing. My wife tries to be encouraging and usually urges me to get on the writing as she heads to bed. (I usually stay up at least an hour later than her) At times, she does forget to urge me and I forget to urge myself.

Like most artists, I suffer from lack of urgency and often the lack of inspiration that drives one to the keyboard to write. Sometimes, it’s the self-doubt that what I do is even worth the effort. Lately, I’ve been beating the latter excuse, but still succumbing to the former. Back when I made my vow to write every night my sense of urgency had been re-invigorated by the success  of those around me. For the first time in my life, I rubbed elbows with established and productive writers. Now, I still rub elbows on occasion. And the bi-weekly meetings I have with the group still keeps me inspired. But my own lethargy is still there.

So many things need be taken care of during the day, that at day’s end I often just want to sit and not be responsible for anymore things. I want to sit and vegetate. Sitting there is stagnation though. Stagnation is death. So in essence, if I don’t get my butt in gear and return to working on my book and my stories, then my writing career that I long for is DEAD.

Just the thought disturbs me to my core. My schedule is clearing up soon. Many of the extra responsibilities that have been hampering my efforts and draining me of energy are soon to be completed. The extra time I’ve given these requirements I want to redirect to my writing. The times I’ve had to get a babysitter to do these things, I now think I will get a babysitter so that I can write.

An added goal for me this year, is to sell one or more written works by the end of the year. My craft is honed and being honed more through my Writer’s Group. There are no more excuses for me to not yet be published, except my lack of effort.


As Things Go

One thing I’ve noticed as I continue to work more and more on my craft, is the different things that jump out at me. When I first started writing, I only noticed some of the hooks and tropes that other writers used. Rarely did I find the humor in the venting of an editor; rather I learned from the mistakes they vented about.

Now, I still learn from editors and agents venting, but I also laugh and laugh at the things they say. Sometimes, I see myself in those mistakes and know that I too am guilty. Other times, it just amazes me at how daft, clueless, or egomaniacal writers can be. For example, I don’t care for Ann Rice’s style and choose not to read her. But not in a million years would I tell her editor that I “write ten times better than that overrated hack” and they should print me instead. Nor, would I preach from my soup box about the great conspiracy the large printing houses have against new writers as a way of endearing myself to a small house.

Once, I did address a letter to an agency as if I were sending it to a publishing house and even went as far to say that I looked forward to their acceptance to ‘publish’ my novel. The crass rejection letter I received was well deserved. Several rules were broken that showed my lack of professionalism. One, was the form letter I used to inquire with this agent–form letters should never be used when trying to impress someone. Second, I executed the act so halfheartedly, that I managed to send my publisher form letter to an agent rather than my agent form letter. Third, I didn’t bother to make sure I was even following their specific guidelines and proved I ignored such important detail by using a somewhat obvious form letter.

Some might say, that with the great mass of letters we need to mail and with the great number of form letters we are going to receive in response, that it is just fine to give the agent/editor back what little consideration they give us writers. These things I know to be falsehoods. The agent/editors I’ve been fortunate enough to meet face-to-face prove to me time and time again that they give full consideration to every letter they receive. They want unknown writers to succeed. Every successful writer they find or discover helps them earn money; while every lazy or unprofessional author that blames everyone else for their lack of preparation or professionalism only waists the agent/editor’s time.

I know there is a lot of disappointment out there and I definitely have my share of rejection letters. There is no room for making excuses when it comes to advancing toward  one’s dream and honing one’s art. It does lighten the load when someone on the other side, one who must do all the rejecting, shares their frustrations and aggravations with us. It reminds us that we are all human and we are also all in this together. Yes, you might be tired of getting the form letter that says you’re not good enough yet, but agent/editors are also tired of getting romance queries when they ask for horror or told that the writer is the next Stephen King yet they can see half the words in the letter are misspelled.  

I guess, what I am trying to say is that the deeper I dive into this world that is my craft, the more I see things differently. The more I see things differently, the more I understand that rejection letters are not rejection, but encouragement to get better and show them what the next Stephen King or Ann Rice can really do.