Friday, December 8, 2017

Creating Memorable Villains

I’ve been thinking this week about villains and about what Clive Barker—author behind the Hellraiser stories—once said, that stories are only as good as their villains. As I think back on some of the villains I remember most, I think Clive might have been on to something. The villains who really stick out in my mind include some real classics: The Joker (Batman), Brady Hartsfield (Mr. Mercedes), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Annie Wilkes (Misery), Norman Bates (Psycho), Voldemort (Harry Potter), Scar (The Lion King), Saruman (Lord of the Rings), Khan (Star Trek), and President Snow (The Hunger Games).
The most fascinating characters for me are the ones who demonstrate genuine motivation for the things they do. Think for a moment about your own life. Don’t you truly believe that the personal issues you have to deal with are the most important problems in your world? And you’re absolutely right for thinking that way because, for you, they are. Now take a step back, and understand that everybody feels that way, that their problems are the most important issues going on in the world.
Now carry that same idea over to your story world and the characters inside it. Whether you’re dealing with the hero or the villain or the sidekick or the love interest or the comedy relief or just a temporary walk-on, every character should believe that his issues are the most important ones, and that he’s the true hero of the story. This is especially true for your villain, who believes with all his heart that his needs are the most important needs in the story, and that everything he does to satisfy those needs is the absolute right thing to do. In fact, in the villain’s mind, it’s the hero who is the evil one, the one who must be stopped, because the hero is standing in the way of the villain reaching his goal. And when it comes to reaching our goals or meeting our needs, doesn’t it just infuriate us when someone purposely stands in our way? Doesn’t it always feel like the old geezer in the car ahead of you is driving that slow on purpose, just to piss you off? How dare he! Doesn’t he understand people have places to go and more important things to do with their lives?
To further clarify this idea, let’s look at an example. I’m a total Star Wars geek, have been ever since that Saturday morning in 1977 when I first saw The Millenium Falcon flying across my television screen. So let’s use Darth Vader. Vader didn’t start out as the bad guy. He didn’t wake up one morning and put on his helmet and say to himself, “Let’s go hack down a bunch of little kids today.” In those early days, he was just innocent little pod racing Anakin Skywalker, remember? Then he grew up and fell in love with Padme. And what could be more natural or noble than love? So then Anakin and Padme get married, and then they get pregnant. The only problem is that personal attachments are forbidden under the Jedi code. The Jedi are expected to sacrifice the one to serve the needs of the many. So Anakin has to keep his relationship with Padme a secret, lest the Jedi Council find out and give him the boot.
One night Anakin has a dream, and in this dream he sees Padme die while giving birth to their baby. He believes it’s a vision of the future, and so he goes to speak with Yoda about it. Yoda tells Anakin that death is a natural part of life, and it’s not the Jedi way to disrupt the natural order of the universe. But Anakin loves Padme! He doesn’t want to lose her! If he listens to Yoda, his wife will die, and that’s just not an option. This isn’t the advice he was hoping for, so he goes off to find another way. He speaks with Chancellor Palpatine, who tells Anakin that it is possible to save Padme’s life, but only through the powers of the Dark Side.
Anakin is motivated by good intentions: he loves his wife and wants to save her from dying. It’s a noble cause, one worth fighting for. And he does. Driven by his fear of losing his wife, Anakin does whatever it takes to try and save her. Unfortunately, his actions are contrary to the ways of the Jedi because now he’s sacrificing the needs of the many to accommodate the needs of the one. (Apologies to all you Star Trek fans, but a universe axom is a universal axom!) Why does he do this? Because in Anakin’s mind, his own personal needs are the greatest needs in the whole galaxy. Instead of acting selflessly like a Jedi, he acts selfishly, then rationalizes his behavior because it’s serving his greatest needs. He tried doing the right thing in the beginning—he went to the Jedi first—but they refused to help him. So now he feels he has no other choice. Any other course of action will lead to Padme’s death, and that’s just not going to happen.
We may not agree with everything Anakin does as a result, but we can at least understand why he does it. Maybe we even pity him a little. In my opinion, that’s what makes Darth Vader such an excellent villain, because we can empathize with him. Despite the other questionably goofy characters Lucas created in the prequels, he nailed Vader’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force and created one of the most memorable and convincing villains of all time.
You may be saying to yourself, “But if everyone thinks he’s doing the right thing, how is the hero any better than the villain?” A fair enough question, and here’s the answer: given any set of circumstances and options, the hero will always choose to do what’s right, while the villain will always chooses to do what’s necessary. Heroes understand they always have a choice, and they also understand that every choice has a consequence. They carefully weigh their options and think about the consequences of their actions before deciding what to do next. Villains, on the other hand, are victims who feel like they no longer have a choice. They tried doing things the “sociably acceptable” way before, and it just never worked out for them. The only option they have now is doing whatever it takes to reach their goals, regardless of the consequences that follow.
Your villain’s history and background is a vital component in determining how he will act and why. As you develop your characters, carefully consider what is driving their motivations and goals. Remember that every character feels like he’s doing the right thing based on his own needs and circumstances; every character is the hero of his own story. Keeping this in mind will help you create much stronger and more memorable characters—especially villains.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Books Read in 2017

As I've previously done in the past for anyone interested in seeing what I read myself in my spare time, below are the titles of the books I've read so far this year. With only two months left in 2017, I probably won't get a chance to read any more. Writers of the Future and work are keeping me pretty busy. As usual, I won't say anything about which were good and which were bad; those opinions are always highly subjective -- one man's trash and all that. Looking forward to reading more after the holidays. Have any good stories you'd recommend?

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child – White Fire (audiobook)
Robert Ludlum – The Sigma Protocol (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Deeply Odd (audiobook)
Richard Matheson – I Am Legend (audiobook)
Lincoln Child – The Forgotten Room (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Odd Thomas (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Breathless (audiobook)
Stephen King – Delores Claiborne (audiobook)
Clive Cussler and Thomas Perry – The Tombs (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Forever Odd (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Saint Odd (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Odd Interlude (audiobook)
Stephen King – The Dark Tower Book I The Gunslinger (audiobook)
Stephen King – The Dark Tower Book III The Waste Lands (audiobook)
Stephen King – The Dark Tower Book IV Wizard and Glass (audiobook)
Michael Finkle – The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (audiobook)
Stephen King – The Dark Tower Book V Wolves of the Calla (audiobook)
Stephen King – The Dark Tower Book VI Song of Susannah (book)
Stephen King – End of Watch (audiobook)
Dan Brown – The Lost Symbol (audiobook)
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child – Crimson Shore (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – What the Night Knows (audiobook)
Dean Koontz – Brother Odd (audiobook)
David Baldacci – The Hit (audiobook)
Orson Scott Card – Xenocide (audiobook)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Progress in 2017

Every once in a while it helps (me, at least) to take a step back and reflect on what I‘ve accomplished so far. It’s nearly the end of another year and I still haven’t published anything in the pro (or even semi-pro, for that matter) markets. 2017 marks my fifth year as a serious writer, which I define as someone who is serious about his writing and is making every effort to break into the professionally published markets. Yes, it’s possible I could have written and published something in a lower market, or perhaps even self-published at least one story by now. But that’s not really what I’m going for. When I finish writing my stories, I send them first to my top pro markets, then to every other pro market I can find. Once they’ve made their way through the pros, I route them through the semi-pro markets. I’m not even considering the vanity press markets; as far as I’m concerned, if my work isn’t good enough for the pros, then it’s not yet at a publishable level. I do have to admit that one of my non-fiction essays titled “Why I Write” was picked up in July at 1888.Center, a literary arts center based in Orange County, California. I didn't get paid for the publication, and it wasn't a fiction story, so I can’t really include it as a credit when I submit to magazines. But it is officially my first published work and that makes me feel pretty good. You can read the essay at

So when I look back on 2017, what exactly have I accomplished this year? Aside from publishing my essay with 1888.Center, I’ve read another 25 novels. Since 2012, when I first started tracking what I read, I’ve gone through 170 novels—that’s about 28 novels each year. Most of these I’ve listened to during my morning and evening commutes to and from the office. But I also read at night in bed or on flights when I have to travel for work. Several I’ve read more than once just because they were that good.

To date, I’ve written only fifteen complete stories which, when I look at it, is actually kind of pathetic. I’ve been writing for five years now, so that averages to just three new stories per year. Of course, that total doesn't include any of my daily scribblings or my infrequent blog posts or any of the partially completed stories or ideas I’ve jotted down, which would add another twenty or so potential stories to the count. That’s a terrible track record. And of those fifteen stories I’ve actually finished, five were written just this year. What the heck was I doing the previous four years? Lots of learning and workshops and conventions and practicing, I guess, because it doesn’t seem like I’ve churned out very much content.

I started this year with a goal of writing one new story every single month. We’re now done with October and I’ve written five...FIVE! Granted, it's better than none. And it’s a lot more than any previous year. But it’s still far short of my goal. I’ve written about 17,000 words this year. If I were writing flash fiction, that’d be 17 new stories. Unfortunately that’s not what I did. Flash Fiction is tough and I have a hard time compressing that much story into such a tight space. Most of my stories this year began as Flash Fiction, but then quickly grew into short stories. I’ll definitely have to do better in 2018.

On a positive note though, four of my five stories this year garnered personal rejections from pro editors or slush readers. A personal rejection means they rejected my story, but liked it enough to pass along a note telling me what they either did or didn’t like about it. When I look at my stories that way, the statistics say that 27% of all the stories I’ve written have received personal feedback from pro editors. That’s actually not so bad. Or looked at another way, editors or slush readers liked 80% of the stories I wrote and submitted this year. Even better. And even though they didn't buy any of them, they like what they saw enough to encourage me to keep sending them more. So the ones who responded positively to my stories are the ones I submit to first whenever I write something new.

Speaking of submissions, I started using The Grinder this year to track all my submissions and responses in the markets. Previously, I just used a spreadsheet to track it all. That quickly became a hassle. The Grinder keeps tabs on lots of other cool data that a spreadsheet never could, like average response times, acceptance rates, activity (acceptances and rejections) of different markets over the last thirty days, plus a really great search tool to help me find just the right market for my stories. In 2017, I had 31 different submissions. That’s seven different stories (my five new ones plus two old ones) to eighteen different markets. So my stories are getting out there and people are reading them and responding to me.

I also submitted my first story to Writers of the Future since 2012. That was a big step for me. Back then, my stories for third and fourth quarter were both rejected. I felt discouraged as a writer and decided that I didn’t want to submit any more after that. I thought I had a lot of “growing up” to do as a writer. So after a five year hiatus, I wrote and submitted another story. I’m curious to see what Dave Farland, the coordinating judge and first reader for the contest, thinks of my writing now. At the same time, I’m also really nervous. What if my writing hasn’t improved at all in five years? What if I’m rejected again? I have a feeling I’ll be devastated, at least for a little while. Probably I’ll be depressed and decide (again) I’m going to quit writing. That’ll probably last a week or so and then I’ll get over myself and think up something new and get right back to it because, really, I just can’t help myself when it comes to writing.

Finally, I’ve made some really great contacts this year in the publishing business. I’ve taken a couple of writing courses and sent some stories to Anna Yeatts over at Flash Fiction Online to be critiqued. I’ve also joined up with other writers (many published, most not) on the Writers of the Future forums. Also, I joined up with Critters, an online critique group, and received lots of useful feedback on my stories that I can use for revisions. I learned all about imaginative story telling from Barbara Baig’s website Where Writers Learn. Barbara also asked if I’d be interested in critiquing a new book she has coming out.

I could make a ton of excuses for why I haven’t written more this year: things are busier at work, I have a lot more responsibilities at church, my wife and I are building a new home ourselves (literally). But I can also think of lots of times when I’ve wasted free moments I could have spent writing. In all though, 2017 was a pretty productive year. Sure, it would have been nice to sell a story in the pro markets. But all things considered, of the last five years since I’ve started this journey, it’s like my progress as a writer really took a major leap forward this year. By far, it’s been my most successful and productive year as a writer and I’m excited to see what 2018 brings, especially if I can set some new goals and get my butt in the chair and fingers on the keyboard and crank out a ton of new stories.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016 Reading List

It was Stephen King who said if you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: write a lot and read a lot. I spend more hours during the day reading than I do writing. But I don't read because I want to be a better writer; I read because I simply enjoy it. I love escaping my mundane cookie-cutter daily routine and going off some place exciting with adventurous people. My primary escape routes are my car during my long work commutes, and my bedroom late at night when I should be sleeping.

Below are the books I read in 2016. Not all were winners and not all were complete losers, but a few turned out to be grand slams. And in the process of reading, yeah, I do learn what good and bad writing looks like so I can either use it or avoid it in my own writing.

Since one man's trash is another man's treasure, I won't tell you which stories were good and which were bad; you'll just have to find that out for yourself. But I will say I never checked anything out from the library that didn't at least look promising.

Admittedly, the list is heavily slanted this year towards Stephen King and David Baldacci. The Baldacci books come from his series of Camel Club adventures and are mostly just fun to read (mostly). And the King books? Well, what can I say -- his escape hatches always swing on well-oiled hinges and the doors are never locked. So without further ado, here are last year's stories in the order I read them:

Hell’s Corner by David Baldacci
The Camel Club by David Baldacci
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Blue Labyrinth by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Stone Cold by David Baldacci
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
The Last Star by Rick Yancey
Horizon Storms by Kevin J Anderson
Gideon's Corpse by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Everything's Eventual Part I by Stephen King
The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis
Dune by Frank Herbert
Under the Dome by Stephen King
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
The Collectors by David Baldacci
On Writing by Stephen King
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Writer

What does a day in the life of a writer actually look like? The answer might surprise you.

I’m a horrible procrastinator. Large swaths of my day go by and I find myself asking, “Isn’t there something more important you should be doing right now with your time?” Then another voice usually chimes in and says something like, “Possibly, but how about you mind your own #$%! business?”

Back and forth dialogues like this go on all the time inside my head. But because I know I’m a procrastinator, usually I can take preemptive actions ahead of time to keep myself from sabotaging an entire day. Some of the most helpful actions include developing habits to help me make the most of the time I have for writing every day.

In addition to being a writer, I also wear the hats of employee, father, husband, son, brother, and community member. I derive an incredible amount of satisfaction from writing, but I also realize it’s not the only aspect of my life that makes me who I am. All the roles I play are equally important, both to me and to the ones who know me.

So what does a typical day for me as a writer look like and, more importantly to you dear reader, how do I actually get my writing done? When I thought about this topic, I discovered I had much more to say than I originally thought.

My day starts very early. Like, o’dark thirty early. Way too early for me in fact. But it’s not by choice and it’s not because I have some amazing internal motivation going on. The truth is that my daughter attends early morning religion classes before school and this year happens to be my turn to drive her. During the school and work week, this means we’re up by 5AM. I get ready for work and grab something for breakfast and we’re out the door by 6AM. I drop her off at 6:30, then I drive to work. Now, when I say “drive to work”, I don’t mean that I head over to the local Starbucks and plop myself down with a cup of gourmet hot chocolate (no coffee for me) and spend my day cranking out thousand of words of prose on my laptop. For me, “driving to work” means commuting to my full-time corporate job, which pays the bills and keeps a roof over our heads and buys medicine when the kids get sick.

I’m usually at work by 7AM and typically don’t get done until 5 or 6PM. After I get home, it’s time to make dinner, visit with the family, help with chores, and try to get in a little reading or game playing before bedtime. By the time the day’s work is done and all the children are in bed, I’m way too exhausted to even think about writing. So when exactly do I get my writing done?

I’m a big believer in a concept called “chunking”. Not sure where I first heard about this technique, but I know it definitely works. For me, chunking means taking advantage of all the small chunks of time that come along during my day, eliminating as many distractions as possible, and making the most of what little time I get.

There are basically three chunks of time I have available during my day and I guard these fiercely. The first two are my morning and evening commutes to and from the office, which take about an hour each. I hate the long hours driving and the wear and tear it puts on my car. But since I don’t have any control over that right now, I’ve learned to make the most of it. My daughter likes to listen to the radio as we drive together in the morning before school. But as soon as I drop her off, I switch the radio off. My commuting times are usually split between listening to audiobooks (I usually get through twenty-five or so novels every year this way) and taking dictation for my current project. I believe it was Stephen King who said if you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot and you have to write a lot. I believe that’s absolutely true. I’ve always loved reading and getting lost inside someone else’s fictional world. And I've also read an awful lot of stories written by people who claim they love to write, but clearly never did much reading. It’s immediately obvious they have no idea what a compelling story is even supposed to look like.

The dictation is a fairly new habit I picked up from Kevin J Anderson. I went out and purchased a decent digital recorder, and during those long hours of commuting, I draft copy while I drive. During the third chunk of my day, I’ll plug in my earphones and copy what I recorded into my laptop. That third chunk, by the way, is my lunch hour at work. I almost always pack my lunch and work while I eat. Then I head over to the library on my lunch hour and write. It’s not always the library. Sometimes I’ll head over to Starbucks and order that hot chocolate if it’s cold outside. Or if I didn’t pack a lunch that day, I’ll head to Panera and sit in front of the fireplace and write over a bowl of soup or a salad. But I always spend my lunch hour writing.

Those are the three hour-long chunks of time I get during the day to write -- two hours commuting and an hour for lunch. I wish I could sit down for three or five hours at a stretch and write, but that’s simply not an option for me, so I take what I can get.

In addition to the three chunks, there are also lots of other tiny little slivers of time that randomly pop up here and there throughout the day. Inspiration often strikes when we least expect it, so I try and take advantage whenever it comes up. Anyone who writes knows exactly what I’m talking about. I always keep a pen with me and something to write on. I have writing journals on my nightstand, pads of paper in my desk drawer at work and in my day pack, and I always keep blank sheets in the back of my day planner. And of course I always have my handy recorder in my car, along with a fresh set of batteries just in case.

Because I’m constantly taking notes and jotting down thoughts and ideas for whatever story I happen to be working on at the time, I always have something to write about when I sit down at my laptop during my lunch hour. In my opinion, writers block is the result of an unproductive imagination, and I simply don’t have time to be unproductive when it comes to my writing.

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much a typical day for me. Do I get to write three hours every single day? Of course not. Some days it’s only an hour. Some days it’s not at all. Whether I actually get my lunch hour depends really on what’s happening at work. But most days it’s between two and three hours and I usually write between five and six hundred words each day. Sometimes I might feel extra productive in the evenings or on the weekends and get some writing in. But my weekends are usually crammed with things to be done that didn’t get done during the week and there’s not much free time. Would I love to have more time for writing? Sure, who wouldn’t. But I don’t beat myself up about it. The important thing is that I do the best I can and make the most of the time I get without squandering it. I think spending too much time on social media kills more writing careers than it helps. We all play many roles in life and I’ve never known anyone who comes to the end of theirs and says, “Gee, I really wish I would have spent less time with my family and friends.” Stephen King also said writing is a support system for life, not the other way around. So I can only hope I have my priorities straight. I think I do.

One last thing I want to mention is the importance of taking care of yourself physically. As a writer, the most important tool you have is your brain. You can’t write well if your body and your brain simply aren’t in good shape. A sports car isn’t going to win any races if its fuel tank is full of sugar and its tires rest on blocks all week out in the garage. Because I’m always in the office an hour early every day, I also get that extra hour to exercise. We’re fortunate to have a fitness room right down the hall from my office and I usually spend an hour most days running on the treadmill, stretching, and lifting weights. But even if you don’t have access to a gym, get outside and go for a walk. Stephen King and Kevin J Anderson are both avid walkers. My wife and I love to go backpacking. Our family also loves to go camping. Whatever you do, just get out and interact with the world on a frequent basis. Not only will it be good for your mind and your body, but the world is a great place for finding new ideas for future stories.

Less glamorous than you thought? Not as ethereal as you were hoping? Sorry, but that’s the reality for most writers. Even if my writing paid enough to let me do it full time, most people I think are kind of disappointed to learn that writing is really hard work. There’s a reason why so many writers are unpublished, and guess what? It’s not because they have bad luck or because the industry is unfair or because Fate simply has it out for them. If you’re serious about writing a publishable story -- a story that someone is willing to actually pay you for and people are willing to read and recommend to all their friends -- you have to read a lot, you have to write a lot, and you have to spend a disciplined amount of time actually putting words to the page.

Did you enjoy this article? Recommend it to your friends and check out my other articles on life and writing.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

What Is Writing?

I'm sitting in front of my laptop when I hear a knock on my door. Before I can swivel around to see who it is, my wife pushes through and casually steps inside, all smiles and white teeth.
"Hi, honey," she says. "Whatcha doing?"
"I'm writing."
Her smile fades and now I feel kind of bad. We haven't seen each other much all day and I know she probably just misses me. On the other hand, she knows how limited my writing time is in the evenings and understands my tendency towards feeling protective.
She scrunches her face into a grimace as if she's just stepped on a nail, then she mouths an apology. "Sorry..."
There's a long awkward pause and neither of us really knows what to say next. I don't really want to kick her out and, at the same time, I know she doesn't really want to interrupt my writing.
Just as I open my mouth to say something, she leans to one side and glances over my shoulder at the picture of the German Shepherd up on my browser screen.
She raises her eyebrows and looks over at me. Her smile is back up again, but this time it's slanted into a suspicious grin. "Looks more to me like you're just surfing the Internet."

How do you explain to someone who isn't a writer that there's more to creating a story than just banging away on a keyboard? Admittedly, I used to be one of those people. I just figured that authors were some creatively gifted sub-species of the population who sat down at their typewriters (personal computers didn't exist when I was a kid) and cranked out one best seller right after the other. Then they stacked all their printed pages neatly in a bundle and mailed them (no email back then either!) off to their publisher, who promptly mailed them all checks (and no Paypal!) for millions of dollars.

Wouldn't that be so nice?

If one could generalize and divide up the story-writing process into pie pieces, I'd say the actual writing part would get a fairly small slice. Granted, it's probably the most time-consuming slice, but it's definitely not the most important. In fact, it's probably the least important and most tediously boring slice.

From my own experience, the process of "writing" is actually comprised of several different activities. When I tell my family that I'm heading off to "write" for a while, it doesn't always mean that I'll be banging away the next several hours all on my keyboard.

Here are the top ten activities that I would lump into the process of "writing":
  1. Brainstorming 3% - This is where I think about which characters, places, and events I want to include in my story. To minimize the amount of time I have to spend here, I keep a growing collection of story ideas, little notes of stuff I think are interesting. When it's time to write a story, it's like going grocery shopping -- I grab an interesting character from here and a cool location from there and drop in a carton or two of fascinating plots points until my cart is full and I'm ready to check out.
  2. Researching 10% - Writing is all about creating the illusion of participation. In order to make that illusion seem as realistic as possible, you gotta know what you're talking about and you MUST get the details right! So I spend a good amount of time researching, which often includes finding pictures of the people, places, and things in my story (which is why I needed the German Shepherd picture).
  3. World Building 17% - I like to spend lots of time up front fleshing out the worlds and characters I'm writing about. Giving my people and locations rich histories and unusual characteristics makes them feel more alive and memorable. Our histories and experiences have made us who we are and I want my characters to be motivated by strong desires and ambitious goals.
  4. Sketching 10% - At this point I take all of my ideas and begin to assemble a basic plot. If I don't already have an ending in mind, I'll try and develop at least a rough idea of how I want things to be resolved by the time the story is over. I'll also give some thought to character arcs, basic conflicts, and turning points.
  5. Outlining 10% - Using my sketch as a guide, I'll begin drafting scene descriptions. Most of these are usually just one or two short sentences to quickly describe how each scene might begin and end. I might also think of cool dialogue ideas I want to include.
  6. Fleshing 15% - The outline develops further as I fill in missing segments and ensure a smooth transition from scene to scene. I want to make sure my story has a nice flow to it. I begin to think more seriously about pacing and the overall story arc or themes I want to achieve.
  7. Drafting 10% - This is where all of the details get filled in. My outline has been all fleshed out now, so I can take that information and fill in all the cracks and gaps. I often think writing the first draft is like being a stone mason.  All of my different bricks are laid out in neat rows and now they have to be cemented together and built into a great tower.
  8. Revising 20% - This often feels like an endless loop of reading & changing, reading & changing, reading & changing...But it's important to make sure that what you've written matches up with what you intended. I usually find that I can add a lot more depth to my characters and situations during this period because I've been thinking about them nearly constantly for a long time now. This is also where I let my alpha and beta readers review and critique my stories.
  9. Polishing 3% - Cleaning up any last minute changes for grammar, spelling, and final formatting before sending the manuscript off to find a home.
  10. Submitting 2% - I keep a list of SFWA-approved markets and look for the ones I think will be the best match for my story. When one market rejects it, I route it to the next and the next and the next. If it goes through several and no one seems to be interested, I'll sometimes pull the piece and try and figure out what might be wrong with it through another round of revisions.
In addition to all these activities, the process of writing also includes things like reading (both for pleasure and for studying craft), attending conventions and workshops, participating in writing groups, studying up on market and audience trends, people-watching (one of my favorite activities)...the list can be endless.

People are sometimes amazed how much more is involved in the business of writing than simply sitting down and "writing". So don't judge too harshly the next time you see your writer companion engaging in activities that look like goofing off. It's entirely possible that he really is writing. Unless of course his "writing" involves video games or Facebook. Then he probably really is just goofing off.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Being Happy with Rejection

I recently received a rejection letter from a well-respected science fiction magazine. It's a professional magazine and the story was one of many that I've sent out over the last year. 

The unread email from the magazine editor just sat there in my Inbox, waiting for me to click on it. I didn't have to open it, though. The entire message was short enough that it fit inside the narrow preview pane:
"Thank you for offering your story to [us]. We're sorry to tell you that we will not be using it; you are free to submit it elsewhere."
I read the message a few times, each time expecting myself to slip over the edge into some pit of disappointment, where I would sit in darkness for days and wonder why I bother to continue writing. I expected to feel depressed that no one was interested in publishing my stories yet. I didn't feel any of those things though.

I was instead surprised to find myself feeling happy, which didn't make a whole lot of sense to me until after I thought about it for a couple of days. I finally concluded that there were a few good reasons why I  simply couldn't feel upset or disappointed or angry because of the rejection.

First, I had heard back from the magazine much sooner than expected based on what their website listed as their average response time. I took this as an encouraging sign and was able to successfully convince myself it was because they had been so excited to read my story. (Note: If you're a member of the magazine's editing staff and you happen to be reading this, please don't write me to correct my misguided delusion!)

Second, I was grateful for their reminder that I had another chance to try again. "You are free to submit it elsewhere." In fact, my first reaction was to open up the story and try to look at it more objectively, try to see it through the eyes of the editor. Sure enough, there were several changes that I needed to make. I took a day to rewrite sections of the story that didn't quite work the way I had intended, then attached it to another email and sent it off to the next editor on my list.

Third, a rejection to me is still a success. I've worked with writers who simply couldn't handle rejection very well at all (or writing critiques for that matter). They simply took them too personally. Not surprisingly, many of those people are no longer writing. They just became too discouraged and gave up. One easy way to avoid being rejected is to never send your stories out to editors. Of course, that's also a really good way to insure that you never get published. The fact that I've received lots of rejections and that I'm still writing and getting better tells me I must be doing something right.

Anyone who is serious about writing is going to face a lot of rejections. Even after you've "made it", not everyone is going to like every story you write. Not all of your stories will even be publishable. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling still get rejected. Writing is a business filled with taking chances. That's one of the things I love so much about this job. I'm taking chances on myself and my abilities. Of course, that also means I have to accept responsibility for my work and I can't blame anyone else when I fail.

This certainly wasn't my first rejection letter and I know it won't be my last, so what did I do with it? I simply printed it off and added it to my growing collection of rejections that sit in a pile on top of my writing desk. I'm proud of my rejection letters. I collect them like soldiers collect battle scars, small wounds that hurt a lot when I first got them, but which have now toughened over and given me a thicker skin.

So that's probably why I couldn't be upset about the rejection, no matter how hard I tried. Instead of seeing it as a failure, I saw it as an opportunity to get better. I also saw it as a form of success: I had created something special and had the guts to send it out into the world. It's okay that it came back. I'll probably end up making several more changes. Each time I'll send it back out until it eventually flies on its own. And if it never does, that's okay too because there's lots more where that came from and next time will be even better.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dealing with Distractions

Saturday 9:15 AM
“Where are you going, Dad?”
“Downstairs to write for a while.”
“But we were gonna watch a family movie together.”

10:15 AM
“Alright guys...I’ve seen this movie before and I need to get some writing done.”
“Hey honey, before you start writing, will you throw down the laundry from our bathroom and help me sort it real quick?”

10:35 AM
I sit down in front of my laptop and suddenly remember that I haven’t checked my email or Facebook account in two days. I should probably make sure there’s nothing important awaiting my response. I wonder how Tim Tebow’s stats are fairing...

11:45 AM
“Dad, Mom said it’s time for lunch.”

12:25 AM
“Hey honey, where are you going?”
“Downstairs to write.”
“But you’ve been writing all morning!”

Does this sound like the conversations in your home (or in your head) every time you think about sitting down to write? Sure, every writer experiences the occasional supernoval flare up of a new story idea; fingers cramping, struggling to keep pace with the deluge pouring from your neocortex. It’s only when your bladder threatens to drown you that you look down and realize two hours and four thousand words have passed and you really feel this time that you’re well on your way towards the New York Times Best Seller list!

The next day you wake up, full of excitement and energy at the prospect of another one or two thousand words, only to discover you’ve cranked out a meager one or two hundred because the job, the kids, the spouse, the housework, the laundry, the cell phone, the friends, the internet, the TV, the movie, the library, the bills, the errands, the dishes, and the ten thousand other things that compete for your time have robbed you of your goal. You climb into bed at night feeling drained, unfulfilled, and guilty because you failed to write anything substantial that day. You vow that tomorrow will be different. So today becomes tomorrow, tomorrow becomes this weekend, this weekend becomes someday. Why do we give in so often and for so long to those things that keep us from writing? There are lots of reasons. Let me share two big ones I feel encompass all the others.

First, we don’t feel like we should write. Given everything we must accomplish every day, we feel - at least on a sub-conscious level - that we can't make time for such “silliness” as story-telling. After all, it’s our day jobs that put food on the table and maintains the roof overhead. When we’re not working, children and spouses need attention and care. And let’s not forget the importance of maintaining or improving our health. All these priorities consume us and it’s easy to give in to that whispering voice at the end of the day as it beckons our wearied heads toward soft pillows, “Stories are for kids. You’re an adult now. Grow up. Be more responsible. Get a good night’s sleep before the craziness of tomorrow starts all over again.”

Trapped inside every adult is the little kid we used to be, the one who’s imagination fueled the dreams of a million undiscovered worlds. At some point we became adults and bought into a belief that “growing up” meant we had to deny that inner child. As adults, we still dream occasionally (if for no other reason than to reminisce about what dreaming used to feel like). We all long for a chance to escape from time to time. It’s why we’re so easily distracted. Distractions take us away, however briefly, from the mundane adult lives we’re now forced to lead.

Writing doesn’t make us any less of an adult and we shouldn’t feel guilty for giving voice to that inner-child. Just face it; that little kid is never going to shut up and go away! Besides, denying him means denying half of our own existence. Chances are that most of your fondest memories come from childhood. Take time to go back and talk with that kid every day. He can help you remember what things were like before you became so concerned about all the troubles in your life. Let him teach you how to dream again. Give those memories and dreams a voice and let them spill out onto the pages.

Another reason we become so easily distracted is because we don’t feel we can write. Whether you realize it or not, your life has been influenced by at least one book (or perhaps a movie adaptation) that changed how you thought or felt about life. For me, it was Tai Pan by James Clavell. One Saturday afternoon when I was fifteen, my grandmother and I were cleaning her attic when I found Tai Pan sandwiched between dozens of hardbacks inside some musty box. I finished the book in a couple of weeks and knew when I closed the cover that’s how I wanted to live my life. Did my life really turn out that way? Of course not! And although I’ve never read the book a second time, I can still vividly recall the adventure, the politics, and the intrigue that Clavell so exquisitely imprinted on my memory.

As I sit down in my writing sessions, I’m constantly comparing my work to James Clavell, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler (insert your own list of cherished authors here). Then I review what I’ve vomited onto the pages and think to myself, “What bile! No one’s ever going to be influenced by this!”

I’ve accepted that statement to be true insofar as I do nothing to practice my craft and hone my skills any further. Would I honestly expect an editor or agent to accept the first draft of my first story? Heck, I don’t even like it! But what about my sixth revision or my hundredth story or my fifth novel?

It’s only through writing every day that we’ll get any better. It’s only through reading a lot of stories that we learn to distinguish the tripe from the truly inspirational. As I learn what’s good and what’s bad, I incorporate good techniques into my own stories. Eventually I find my own voice and my stories become amazing, if not to anyone else but me. Most importantly, I learn to write for myself.

Distractions are always going to bombard us every single day. When we get into a habit of writing for ourselves, writing because it’s healthy for us, writing because we know we’ll get better, writing to give voice to that imaginative inner child that won’t go away, then writing itself becomes the distraction from all the craziness surrounding us. It’s okay to escape for a while every day. In fact it’s very healthy to do so. Of course, your own personal circumstances will dictate when you can and can’t write. But I guarantee you can find at least an hour every single day to write if you really look for it and you’re serious about writing. Rid yourself of all the other unnecessary distractions in your life and focus on only one distraction--writing--for a little while every day.

Creating Memorable Villains

I’ve been thinking this week about villains and about what Clive Barker—author behind the Hellraiser stories—once said, that stories a...