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More of an Artistic Mind

Danny Kaye

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Working in my cognitive therapy book I came across a “form of twisted thinking” that reminded me of something I read in a Danny Kaye biography. To paraphrase, Kaye said that an artist is always scared because they come by what they do so naturally that they can’t believe the adulation given to them. That they actually wait in fear of being discovered for the fraud they really are. The form of “twisted thinking” I came across is called Discounting the Positive. That is when you reject positive experiences by insisting they don’t count. For example, if you do a good job, you tell yourself that it wasn’t good enough or that anyone could have done as well. Discounting the Positive takes joy out of life and makes one feel inadequate or unrewarded.

Discounting the Positive made me think of the Danny Kaye quote because in many ways that is how an artist feels. I know I come by my ability to write so naturally that it amazes me to hear others tell me they can’t do it. Now I know I’m no Pulitzer prize novelist, but I can still sling a series of words together to make a cohesive if not entertaining read. That is something I’ve always thought everyone could do and the only reason everyone wasn’t a novelist was out of choice and lack of desire. After all, not everyone likes to read, so why would everyone enjoy writing.

It wasn’t until I ventured into the world of writers and began sharing my work with others that I realized not everyone can do what I do, and many others can do it so much better than me. I have a lot to learn as an author, about my craft and myself in the face of my art. Still, there remains my motivation and the things which hamper my production. All of these affect my art in some way, yet none are as detrimental as my inability to accept that I can do what it is I set out to in words. If I don’t believe in myself, if I don’t feel that what I do is special and intrinsically mine, then I risk walking away from my dream.

 I know this cognitive therapy can help me overcome my fears of inadequacy and failure in everyday life. But I also believe that it will help me quell the beast that has eaten so many artists in the past. As much as it would be great to attain the ranks of Poe and Hemingway, I do not want to be slayed by the same beast that took them before they were too old to write.

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Post Penguicon

Starfleet Tux visits the ConSuite at Penguicon...

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Three days after getting back from Penguicon and I’m still processing a lot of the information I learned. It amazes me, that as long as I’ve been writing that there is so much I can still learn. Also, that no matter how much some professional authors know, they can still be humble enough to learn something and share in the conversation with both questions and answers.

The basics are called the basics because that is where the foundation of storytelling begins. Sometimes we forget to work on the basics and to keep them fresh in our heads. One of the most enlightening panels I went to was about such basics. “Turning off the Inner Editor” opened my eyes to some of the things I’ve been doing to hinder my writing. The basic premise of ‘write what you know’ and ‘just get it on the page’ are old mantras I try to stick to. But that inner perfectionist often has other ideas. Why, I remember taking one year just to get through four chapters of one book. At that pace, I ended up wasting a lot of time perfecting prose that later had to be cut in order to preserve the overall story arc. Not time well spent. NYT best-selling author Brandon Sanderson recommends writing from beginning to end with little time spent looking back until the piece is finished. Even Jim C. Hines agreed that it was very important to push on to the end of the story before trying to fix the beginning, since often the beginning is normally cut or changed to work with the ending. To me this was a revelation. All these years, as stated earlier, I’ve perfected each chapter as I’ve went re-working and re-drafting as I moved forward. And now I see why my last book took me ten years to complete.

The importance of critique groups was another wonderful panel me and many others from my writer’s group attended. We all found it informative enough we gleaned some ideas on how to make our group better. We also had many laughs at the expense of our roughest cut member who conveniently missed the part of the panel where they discussed how to be nice when critiquing.

The comradely amongst fans and authors amazed me. As I’ve stated on here before, writing is a very solitary profession and I’m very reclusive by nature. To be surrounded by so many people who are so accepting and supportive allowed me to walk amongst a group of people with little tension or negative thoughts from my social anxiety disorder. Brandon Sanderson was kind enough to watch my things while I ran up to my room–no judgement or harsh statements did he make. Something I would never have expected in any other environment or around other people.

If you ever get the chance to attend a Sci-Fi convention then I hope you do. There is so much to learn and even more to see.  The variety and quality of costumes surpass anything I’ve seen in a nonprofessional environment. And as stated before, the friendliness amongst those who share the same passion about genre is unsurpassed.

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.

It Finally Happened

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703373404576147922340434998.html

Borders has finally admitted their failures and filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

It is sad to think of yet another book store going under, but it is equally nice to think that a market is re-opening for an independent bookstore. Almost everything is sold through some form of a “big box store” now a days. The one of a kind stores that share a personality with their owners seem virtually gone and hard to find. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love going into a Borders or Barnes & Noble store just to walk around for hours, perusing the books until I find just the one I can’t leave without.  Still, the lack of individuality these stores have compared to the very few privately owned stores I’m able to venture in, is staggering.  After a while, some of the employees at the big stores do get to recognize you and offer a little bit of personalized service if you’re consistently nice to them, but the stores themselves are sterile and too identical.  They often remind me of the mis-happened love child between a grocery store and a library. 

Of the few (due to their location) Independent bookstores I patronize, and though my infrequent visits prevent them from always recognizing me, they still strive to give me the best personalized service every single time I go in.  I’ve even learned of authors and trends that were before unknown to me, because the small shop employee was so much more learned than the college student trying to pay off his student loans at the big store. 

Alas, with Amazon and the internet becoming so much more capable, the limitations that once prevented small stores from getting the merchandise of the big stores is mostly gone.  Even small presses are finding it easier to distribute more widely, thus enabling more and more stores to carry them. This strengthens the possibilities of the Independent Book store.  As much as I don’t like to think about all the people that’ll be put out of work when the grocery store of book sellers goes under, it does warm my heart to know that the struggling Family Owned store now has a better chance to survive as a great place to go for personal service and great books.

Writer’s Groups

I never thought I would say this, but it really helps to belong.  All of my life I’ve done things on my own, with little to no help from anyone.  All of my choices in education and the funding thereof, has been of my choosing and from my pocket.  Most major life decisions have also been solely mine–at least until I got married, but even then I still make most of the decisions and just clear it with my wife prior to execution.  That has always been the way I am.

Part of “not being a team player” is what draws me to writing.  The art and craft is a very isolated experience for the bulk of everything. When working on a story the only one to keep me company, the only one I have to work with are the very characters I create.  The process of spilling them out takes hours upon hours of just me and my keyboard.   

Once, I reached out to a local writer’s group, but they were all poets and mostly stay at home moms with nothing better to do with their time.  Not to discredit their art, but their purpose was different from mine.  I want to do this for a living and not as a way to kill time like needlepoint or puzzles.  Hell, if I don’t do this sometimes it feels like I start to go crazy.  I need to write.

The past 15 years I’ve virtually lived under a rock, honing my skills and teaching myself how to do what I love to do. Once or twice I searched for workshops or literary groups, in order to find a new avenue of learning or to touch base on where I was at. Needless to say, I still did it alone. 

Two years ago, I discovered Genre conventions and the writing workshops that some of them provide.  As is my course, I sought a few out in order to learn a little more, to get a status on my efforts. This allowed me to be introduced to Michigan authors, others who aspire as I do.  These people are very serious about their craft.  I was amazed. 

Christine Purcell and Stewart Sternburg are very passionate (Stewart a bit animated too) about their art. They are also very willing to help anyone else who is passionate about their art.  They recently invited me to join their writer’s group. Normally, I would be hesitant. As I said earlier, my past experiences have not been that positive. But this is definitely the exception. Having been through a writer’s workshop with these two individuals, I knew a little about what to expect. This helped me feel positive about reaching out from under my rock joining something. 

So far, I’m very glad I did. Not only am I learning how to better edit my writing by editing other’s work and seeing how other’s edit, but I’m also learning from the mistakes all of us make and the other writers point out. Last night, Stewart gave a similar speech about characterization to the one he made at ConClave.  Charles Zaglanis of Elder Signs Press made some very good points about word choice and characterization.  Christine brought to the meeting some very interesting tidbits about changes in the industry.  The newer members, whose names I’ve yet to learn, also offered very good input. 

As part of this group, I will continue to learn and hone my craft in greater strides than by myself.  It will also keep me to task working on my craft, as I need to get the critiques done in a timely manner and I also wish to have something of my own to contribute to the melee.  It has been a long time since I’ve felt this positive about my dream.  In of itself, that is enough reason to continue my membership in the group.  As someone who battles depression every day, anything that I can add to my life which brings me joy and hope is a good thing. 

So writers, you should search out a good writer’s group or form a group that is both positive and critical in a constructive manner, so that you may grow your craft, feel camaraderie from your fellow artisans, and grow in your art.

Storm of the Minute

It’s funny for me to think , that when I was a kid I looked toward snow days from school as a chance to play and frolic in a winter wonderland.  Then as an adult, I learned to lament snow days as a lost opportunity to earn money and meet my budget.

Now, as the big storm bears down upon us, schools announce closing before first flake even falls and work talks about the possibility of shutting down.  No longer in shape for frolicking in the snow and having no concern for lost income since I earn commission anyway, I look forward to spending time with my family and more importantly writing.

Yes, if I’m to be buried to my door in snow drifts and ill weather unable to follow my normal routine, then I’m going to make the most of it.  It might not be for the whole day, but at least during parts of the day, I will pluck away at the keyboard.  In the quiet of a blizzard many characters come out to play.

A little over ten years ago, a huge storm snowed me in on New Years Eve.  That night and the following day, I made great headway on the book I was writing.  I think even a short story revealed itself then. Unlike now, I lived alone and had no distractions from my craft. Alas, I cannot allow this opportunity to pass.

Work used to be a good place to pluck away at a story until the environment changed and I’m interrupted far too often to follow a train of thought.  The days of hanging out at the mall food court or in some restaurant hogging a table a plug for my laptop ended when I entered into a relationship.  So chances to write in the day are rare to say the least.

Tomorrow will be  a wonderful and refreshing change to say the least.