Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing as a Writer

At each Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA residency I attend, opening night is punctuated with a question that is designed to foster discussion throughout the week. We're supposed to use these questions if we finish our critique sessions and discover that we have time left over. It happens. The question at this residency was especially poignant, so I figured I'd discuss it here too. Quite simply:

How do you continue to grow as a writer?

The question, while directed at the students, is appropriate for every writer. The question actually was "How do you continue to grow as a writer once you no longer have grad school breathing down your neck," but it is appropriate for anyone who fancies themselves a writer. And there were lots of good suggestions. Form a writing group. Attend conferences. Write every day. Everything that was stated was geared toward the writing life and the output for which we all strive. But there was something that I felt wasn't mentioned. Something so simple, most people don't think of it.

Live.

"I'm going on an adventure!" -Bilbo Baggins


Let me explain.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a big proponent of primary research, which is a fancy term which means "experiencing the things you write about." It's different from the old chestnut of "write what you know" in that you go and research things. "Know what you write," if you will. It's well-documented that I've done some interesting (silly, weird) things in the name of primary research.  How does this relate to my advice? Simple.

Every experience you have makes you grow as a person.

Think about that phrase for a moment. Every. Experience. Things you love, things you hate, pain, pleasure, fear, exhilaration... They all do one thing: They add to the tapestry that is your life. They give you experiences upon which to draw. They change your perspective, micron by micron. They make your life experience richer, and allow you to know things that others might not know. In short, they help you develop into a more well-rounded person.

Those experiences also make you grow as a writer. They allow you to draw upon the emotions you felt, the revulsion, the joy, the fear... All of it. And they allow you to write with more authenticity. They allow you to reach into your own personal history of experience and distill it down for the world to experience.

So that's my advice to you. Live. Live fully. Live out loud. Live boldly. Have those experiences. Try these on for size:

  • See something on a menu you've never had?  Try it. If you hate it, use the experience. 
  • Make a point to visit a new restaurant every month. One with cuisine you've not tried. 
  • Go camping. 
  • Walk around the city about which you're writing. 
  • Go to a concert for a band you've never heard of. 
  • Take up a sport.
  • Learn to shoot.
  • Learn to ride.
  • Find out what it's really like to walk around in armor.
  • Find out how long you can actually swing a sword. 
Take the back road to your next destination. Stop along the way. Love with all your heart and let it get broken. Talk to people who know about your novel's subject. Here's an example:  Two students this past term (whose names I won't divulge here because I've already bragged on them in public enough) followed this path long before I suggested it. One of them went camping, alone, in the UP of Michigan. Did I mention she went BY HERSELF? Because she did. She said it was the most scared she'd ever been, and now she has an amazing point of view to write about. The other one wanted to know about suspension piercing. While she didn't go to that extreme, she did contact a local BDSM group and had them tie her up and suspend her from the ceiling. She now knows what that's like. How many of you out there know? I'm betting the number is small (though probably larger than I expect). 

So that's it. Live. Live boldly. Explore your tastes, your passions, your emotions. Build your tapestry of experiences, and live without boundaries. And then use those experiences in your fiction. Go out and dare yourself to be amazing. 
I AM AMAAAAZING!!!!


SAJ

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Branching Out

There are times in our lives when we all do things, whether on purpose or not, that limit us. "I only eat" this or "I only wear" that brand, that type of thing. When we label ourselves, we limit ourselves. And, in doing so, we don't grow as human beings, or as artists. Imagine, if you can, being handed the variety pack of breakfast cereals and being told that, whichever one you choose, it's the only one you can have for the rest of your life. Bummer.

This past weekend at StokerCon (in Long Beach California), I met with my agent who did what she is supposed to do... She told me a harsh truth. The markets for horror are flooded. My work, she says, is good, but people just aren't buying it at this time. Horror's not dead, but it is in a state of overexposure. There are seasoned pros out there who haven't sold a book in a long time (me being one of those) because, well, people just aren't buying. I didn't want to admit it, but it's true.  And so the time has come.

See, for the longest time, a horror writer was all I was and all I wanted to be. I've only been good at a few things, and scaring the shit out of people is one of them, so I embraced it and ran with it. Hell, my website URL was AmericanHorrorWriter (both .com and .net because reasons). But back in the day, I had an inkling this might happen. So I registered a new domain name:  http://www.creepylittlebastard.com. It still sounds like horror, but there's now wiggle room as to what I actually write. Which brings me to the point of this blog:  What do I write?

Horror is still my first love, and I'm never stepping away from it. That's a fact. I will write horror until the day I'm dead, and probably even after that because that would be really creepy and awesome. But now, I'm branching out into four categories. The first two should surprise no one: Science Fiction and Dark Urban Fantasy.  The Stanley Cooper Chronicles, as you may know, is not straight horror. I've always billed it as "Dark Urban Noir Fantasy," so that's no real big stretch. Science Fiction has long time been a love of mine ever since I picked up the works of Phillip K Dick and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was a kid. So those really aren't the ones that are scaring the hell out of me right now.

See, I'm of the belief that we should always do things that frighten us. We grow that we, gain new skills and confidence, and we experience new and amazing things. So I'm doing just that. I'm going to be writing a novel in a genre that scares the ever-loving hell out of me under a pen-name.

YA.

You read that correctly. Young Adult. I will be writing a YA-horror-dark-urban-fantasy very soon under the name William Strange. Go ahead. Get your giggles out now, but I'm going to do it.

"But wait," I hear you saying. "You said four genres. That's only three. What's the fourth?"

You really want to know? Okay.

Poetry. I'm coming for you, Wytovich.

I'll keep you informed of the latest.

Until next time...

SAJ

Monday, April 10, 2017

Side Missions

Okay, hotshot, here's the situation: You've finished your manuscript. You've done the mandatory edit, revise, edit, cry, rage, edit, revise and revise again dance, and now it is finished. Finally. Truly. Finished. All that's left now for your newly birthed child is for your agent (or you) to sell it for a suitcase full of cash and promises of questionable moral behavior. So what do you do now?

Conventional wisdom says to do exactly what I'm pretty sure you're thinking right now: Start the next novel. But then you sit down at your keyboard and nothing comes. The pressure mounts as the damned cursor blinks at you from the screen, and every idea you have seems trite, seems stupid, seems worse than the book you just finished. It's frustrating. It's maddening. And you start to have those same negative creeping thoughts that burrow into your skull.

"What if I'm out of ideas?" "What if this is it?" "What if I'll never have another novel to write?" "The world is meaningless!" "I'm a hack!" "I may as well just gorge myself on Oreos and pizza and turn into a swollen toad and die!"
"Fuckoff... I'm stuffed...."

First off, calm down.

Second, there's something you can do. Instead of screaming and crying and throwing yourself on the couch in a fit of self-loathing, go on a side mission.

But Scott, I hear you say, what the hell are you talking about? So glad you asked.

Your imagination, according to the late, great, Ray Bradbury, is like any other muscle. You either use it or it atrophies and dies. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The less, the weaker. So you, as a writer, need that particular muscle to ply your trade. Think of it in terms of a professional athlete. A pro fighter goes into a training camp for each fight. It's an intensive workout designed to make him the best he can be. But what does he do after that fight's over? Does he stop working out? Does he quit fighting completely?  Not bloody likely. No, they do light workouts. They do maintenance workouts. They keep the muscle memory fresh, keep the joints moving, keep the timing up. Why? Because they want to be ready when the next contract comes in.
Massive power poop in 3...2...1...
Just like you.

Once the big fight (your novel) is over, you want to keep that momentum going, but you don't necessarily want to climb back into he ring for the next fight (you're new novel). So you go on side missions.

A side mission is a short project. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's just a few paragraphs a day to keep the creative juices flowing. Maybe it's fodder for your idea folder. Side missions can be things you never see again, or things that unexpectedly blossom into full-fledged novels. The point is, they're things that keep you sharp, but don't necessarily have the emotional attachment of a full-fledged novel. They're things that are fun, because, let's face it, if you're not having fun, you're doing this thing called writing wrong. And if you never pick them up again, so what? You had fun writing them. And if they develop into something more, cool, but no pressure, right?
It's casual.
So how does one go on a side mission? First, place butt in chair. Second, place fingers on keyboard. Third, start typing. Pretty much, it's that simple. I mean, sure you want to give yourself a writing prompt. I have shelves in my writing room that are full of curios and oddities that are all story fodder. I pick one (or two or whatever) and think about a past or a future I could give that item, and just start going. That jump drive? What could be on it that would save the world? That weird brick with all the signatures? Who are they and where did it come from? The suspicious bag hanging from a braid of hair in the bell jar? Where'd it come from and what's it for? Then I start writing and just let it jump out of my fingers and brain like electronic vomit. And when I've reached my daily word-count, I get up and go enjoy the rest of my day. Just like when I write a novel.
Lookit this friggin' guy... enjoying his day...
So lets try a quick experiment, shall we? Quick... Look immediately to your right. What's the first thing you lay your eyes on? In my case, it's big metal coffee thermos (I have a problem... I know... Don't judge me). Now, take into account the two basic plot lines that any fiction follows (A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town) and see how you can place your object into that arena. Got the idea in your head?  Now GO!  Type for your minimum word count! And when you're done, get up, kiss your loved ones, and flex your taut imagination muscles at them like the author you are.
BOOM! BOOM!  FIREPOWER!!!
And the great thing about side missions are this: Y'know that genre thing that you stubbornly adhere to? Yeah, you don't have to cling to it. It's an experiment. You're trying it out. You're just giving yourself some breathing room. You tried weights instead of cardio. No big deal. You wrote sci-fi instead of horror. It's okay. You can diversify.

So yeah. Side missions. Get on it.

Until next time --

-=SAJ=-