Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding Your Passions

So much in our world leads to misery and drudgery.  We spend our days in a 9-to-5 job (if we're lucky) and try so hard to make ends meet, and for what?  To wake up in the morning and do the same thing over and over again.  Our lives become the instructions on a shampoo bottle:  Lather, rinse, repeat.  And the sad part is, few of us know how to escape the monotony.  It becomes far too easy to fall into a rut, which leads to stagnation, which leads to depression, which leads to doing stupid things when you feel you've hit your "mid-life crisis."

A very wise person (Confucius) is credited with saying "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."  A wonderful sentiment, and not one that I entirely agree with (later in the post, I'll explain), but a concept I do hold dear.  He was talking about finding your passions.  

A passion isn't just a hobby.  It's not something you do when you're bored.  It's not something you do when you have nothing else to do.  It's something that gets you fired up.  Something that turns you on.  Something that you consider doing on your lunch break because it makes you feel good.  Passions are the things that drive us.  They define us, make us who we are, make us better people.  

But, I hear you say, what does this have to do with writing?

Easy.  Writing is, for me, a passion.  It's a job, sure, but it's also something that I steal moments to do.  It's something that shakes me to my core, grabs my heart, and pushes me to be better than I thought I could be.  Writing is not just fun, it's exhilarating.  

According to an article in Forbes, the overwhelming majority of people don't have a passion, and that's just sad.  To have a passion about something, anything, is to define what it means to be human.  People without passion are, to my mind, dead inside.  They're just taking up space until their body catches up to their soul.  Look out your window and see if you can tell who does and who doesn't have a passion or two in their lives.  The ones that don't?  Zombies.  Glassy-eyed, just going through the motions, don't give a damn if they live or die, zombies. 

Now, that doesn't mean you can only have one.  Unless you are a cripplingly simple person, it's normal to have several passions.  I have quite a few.  Writing, obviously, is top of the list, but it's far from my only obsession.  I'm passionate about music.  Ever go through life with a soundtrack running in your head?  Would the loss of your iPod not be so tragic because you have every song in it memorized and you can still hear them, even when you don't have earbuds in?  Can you not walk past a musical instrument without touching it?  Congratulations.  That's me too.  Cooking, to me, is also a passion.  I have a strange philosophy about cooking… It's the ultimate way of saying "I love you."  See, your body needs food to survive, so by cooking for you, I'm saying "Hey, I want you to continue to live!"  I'm also developing passions for other types of art and for riding my motorcycle.  I'm also quite passionate about teaching.  But there is one passion that rules them all:  My kids.  I'm truly crazy about my daughters. 

Now, I'm not saying to quit your job and only follow what you love to do.  The vast majority of us (myself included) can't make a living at our favorite things.  Especially not at first.  This is where Confucius and I differ.  I'm of the opinion that the daytime 9-to-5er serves a purpose.  It allows us to feed our families, for one.  But those jobs do not define us.  The things we do after our doors have closed for the day that makes us who we are.  

So how do we find them?  Simple:  By trying new things.  Go to a craft store and pick up a block of Sculpy (it's really cheap) and see if you enjoy it.  Read a recipe and try your hand at cooking.  See if you can figure out how to micro-brew the greatest beer in the world (and then call me).  Open your eyes and see what drives you.  Chances are, there are others just like you with similar passions.  

And, since this is my writing blog, you may be wondering how this relates to writing.  Simple.  If it's not something you're passionate about, maybe it's not for you.  This is a hard career choice.  It's brutal.  it's painful.  The respect you get from it can be measured in the palm of a child's hand.  But if it's something you are passionate about, if it brings you joy, if it is a genuine fun experience, stick to it.  If you thrill with every rejection letter, if you celebrate your friends' publishing victories while secretly harboring jealousy, if you giggle at the thought of putting words on a page, if you catch yourself stealing moments from your day to scribble notes about a plot line that hasn't happened yet, or staying up late to get "just one more line" out on paper, then congratulations.  You've found your passion. 

You know my passions.  Leave yours in the comments. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

POV - Deeper! Deeper! Deeper!

A big problem I see with beginning (as well as accomplished) writers is the lack of depth of characters.  For some, depth of character means putting in every tedious little detail about their lives or giving us the full Freudian analysis over the course of several chapters.  But there's a much easier way to deepen your character, and it's by using a very deep point of view (POV).

When we (meaning writers, English majors, stuck up pretentious assholes, etc.) talk about POV, we're usually talking about narration. Either third-person limited (he, she, or it did something, but usually with the narrator attached to one person's psyche at a time) or third person omniscient (he, she, or it did something, but with the narrator privy to everyone's inner-most secrets), first person (I did something), or, in rare cases, second person (you did something).  For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to concentrate on my favorite POV, third person limited, but the same things apply to every POV.

In third person limited POV(3PLPOV), many times, narrators attempt to give us, the readers, the full sensory experience.  Sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations, and tastes are the order of the day.  So let's take an example of a typical line in a story:

"He could see boats floating in the harbor."

Nothing particularly wrong with that, per se.  It does tell us what the character sees, and helps to set the scene.  But it does one thing with which I take issue:  It keeps the reader at arm's length.  How?  By using "he could see," a perceptive filter, it reminds us that we're the observer watching the story unfold, as if we were sitting on the couch watching television.  Think of it in terms of a video game.  The way this is phrased, we see the main character.  But consider the alternative:

"Boats floated in the harbor."

Now, instead of us watching the character watching the boats, we are in the action.  We are seeing the boats.  Instead of watching the main character, it becomes a first-person shooter and we are in the action.


See, in the shallow instance, we're stuck following the character around, and to be honest, there's nothing really wrong with that.  But in the deep instance, we are the character.  We see the world through his or her eyes, and that's what we're after.  So how do we accomplish this?  By avoiding filters, for one thing. 

Filters are the enemy.  We use them often when we speak, and many writers employ them, but that doesn't make them necessarily good.  Perception filters leave us in that "World-of-Warcraft" state in which we don't get to experience anything, but have to be told about it later.  Here are some common perception filter phrases (using the generic "he" to save typing time):
  • he saw/smelled/tasted/felt/heard
  • he could see/smell/taste/feel
  • he knew
  • he thought
So I already mentioned how to fix the first two:  State the stimulus as fact.  But what about the last two?  "He knew" and "he thought" can't be so easy a fix, can they?  Yes, actually, they are.  Again, in narration, state what he knew or what he thought as fact, so it becomes a stream-of-conciousness narration.  For example:

"He knew demons hated holy water."

Again, nothing wrong with it.  But consider the alternative:

"Demons hated holy water."

Boom.  Fact.  He knew it, now the reader knows it too.  The reader will go along with it because you stated it in a way that didn't give the reader much of an alternative.  This is how it is.  Demons hate holy water.  


"I can't jump over that, he thought."

As opposed to:

"The jump was impossible."

In one instance, the reader stands behind the character.  In the other, the reader gets to stand in for the character and live his adventure.  

As always, these are just general guidelines.  There really is only one hard and fast rule to writing, and that's this:  If it's right for the story, if it's right for the character, then it is good.  Everything else is just opinion and conjecture.  

Write on!

Friday, January 17, 2014

January, 2014, SHU Residency

And what did you learn?

I had the honor, the distinctive privilege, of going to Greensburg PA, as I do every six months, to teach at Seton Hill University in their Master's of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program.  Translated, that means I got to go hang out with a group of writers who are learning their craft.  Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance, Fantasy…You name it, we work it.  And why do we focus on such genres?  Because they are the ones that speak to us.  And we can.

As with any residency, we had to say good-bye to our graduating seniors.  This group was special in a lot of ways, magical, if you will.  We had such an amazing group of talent in this group that the ones will have a hard time living up to their promise.

Hear that, ones?  I'm glaring at you.

Of the group of graduating seniors, I had the honor of working with three of them directly.  While I worked with all of them in some form or another, the three I mention had me as their mentor.  Stephanie Wytovich, "Pope" Joe Borelli, and Gina Greenway leave some very large shoes to fill.  Know that you will be the stick by which I measure my future students.

And I must also state that, while I'm adjunct faculty and am there to teach, I also learn quite a bit when I am there.  It's part of the reason I love the program, that sense of collaboration.  So what did I learn this time around?

  • What it feels like to be employed by a major circus.
  • That peanut butter on a hamburger is not nearly as gross as it sounds.
  • That if an ex buys your childhood home, it gives off a serial-killer-rapey vibe.
  • That religion, ritual, and magic are tools to be used, and not ridiculed. 
  • That mentor meetings don't take very long, once you and your mentee have a good working relationship.
  • That there is a Harley Davidson dealer in the Pittsburgh airport.  
  • That you never have to throw a punch to stop a fight.
  • That some of the worst people (I'm looking at you, CAH people) are also some of the funniest.
But there were also things that I already knew that were confirmed for me, and I cherish those lessons revisited. 
  • This program is more than a "school."
  • I have some of the best friends in the world. 
  • I can embarrass people with little more than an eyebrow twitch.
  • Some people just need a hug. 
  • Sometimes, it's okay to not be the bad guy. 
  • Sometimes, it's great to be the bad guy. 
So that's the roundup.  It was my great pleasure to see my friends Nikki and Ward again, as well as their wonderful sons Wes and Jake, and the ever-energetic Corgis.  If you'd like to see what real talent looks like, by the way, you should check out Nikki Hopeman's new release, Habeas Corpse, which just came out from Blood Bound Books. You won't regret it. 

So leave a comment.  Tell us (the entire cyber-universe and inter webs) what you learned at the res, if you went.  And if you didn't, tell us what you'd like to learn.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to write.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Getting Back on Schedule

Every writer in the world has moments of doubt, moments of "but I don't wanna," moments where life interferes.  It's often very easy to slip back into the lethargic comfort of the couch-and-television world and bury the head in a never-ending deluge of Chuck Lorre and laugh tracks.  The trouble is, once  you do it, it gets harder and harder to detach the butt from the couch and return it to where it belongs:  The writing chair.

Believe me, I know.  It's been almost two years since I've written a word.  Imagine that for a moment.  From someone who had thirteen books published in ten years to not a single word written in almost two.  You can imagine the hell of trying to get back on track.

If you don't know, 2012 and 2013 were the worst years of my life.  In 2012, my wife was diagnosed with cancer, and I just quit writing because I couldn't concentrate.  I was so concerned with caring for her that the creative muse just wouldn't come.  Actually, my wife was my muse, so there's that.  Then in 2013, my wife's father died, then my uncle dropped dead of a heart attack, then my wife passed.  Less than four months later, my mother passed unexpectedly.  You could say I took a beating.  But that's not the point of this post.  

A wise man said:  "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." (E.B. White)

To me, writing is an exercise of the soul, a big part of the definition of who I am.  To deny that is to deny myself.  So it's time to get back to work. Which brings me to the point of this post:

You need a routine.  You need to set a goal.  You need to reach that goal, come Hell or high water.  If this is a real passion for you, and not just some hobby, you need to make this a priority.  Here's what my schedule is:  When I'm working on a project, I write 1000 words a day.  When I'm not working on a project, I dedicate at least an hour a day to coming up with ideas and writing them down.  The key there is that I'm writing them down.  Anyone can sit in front of a television (hereafter called the "Great Enemy") or the X-Box (hereafter called the "Great Time-Suck") and claim to be coming up with ideas. But the act of writing them down is important.  Putting fingers to keys, putting butts in writing chairs, gluing eyes to the page, these are things that every writer must do daily.  

Think of it in terms of an athlete.  To do the things they do, athletes must train.  They must give their muscle memory.  They must stretch and build and develop a routine to make them stronger, faster, and tougher.  Repetitive strikes.  Repetitive running.  Work a technique until it becomes second nature.  In MMA, we drill ground defenses until they become instinct.  We drill combinations until they become reflex.  If you slack off in your training, your muscles atrophy.  Your abilities slow. 

In terms of writing, your imagination, your typing skills, are just like any other muscle.  You must use it, feed it, exercise it every day or it will atrophy.  At my peak, I could type 92 words a minute.  Now, I'm down to about 75.  Why?  Because I let two years go by.  Do I regret them?  No.  I spent the time doing exactly what I needed to do.  But now it's time to get back in the gym and pound my mind back into shape. 

But, I can hear you say, fighters and athletes take breaks, right?

Sure they do.  After the big fight or post season, they're entitled to take a break.  MMA fighter Chris Leiben trained for six months for a fight, watched his diet, won his fight, and then ordered a large pizza and binge-watched his favorite shows that he missed.  There's nothing wrong with that.  For you, the writer, the time to take that post-season break is after the novel is done.  After it's been proofed.  After it's been shipped off to the agent.  After it is out of your hands.  And, believe me, you'll need a break.  But don't let yourself go for more than a month before sitting down at your writing desk and starting again.  Ask anyone who has let themselves get out of shape.  Getting back into shape is hell. 

So that's it.   Set a goal.  Build a routine.  Flex the mental muscles.  I've told you mine.  

What's yours?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Wisest Words Ever Spoken...

It's been a while.

We (folks with blogs, that is) typically use these things for lots of different purposes.  Some use them to motivate, others to demonstrate.  Some to pontificate, others to illustrate.  Some to sanctify, others to decry.  I use this blog to throw out little nuggets of advice to aspiring writers (of which, even after thirteen books, I still am one).  Said nuggets usually come from my experience or from classes I've taught at Seton Hill University. But today, I'd like to expand on one of the greatest lines ever spoken.

"Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right."

Regardless of what you think of the man who said those words (Henry Ford, by the way), wiser words were never spoken.  Allow me to explain.

Writers are, by nature, an insecure lot.  We spend our lives being told that a career in the arts isn't a "real" career path, and that expressive people and creative people are "weird" or "flighty."  We spend an amazing amount of time on a craft at which, let's face it, few manage to make a living.  We're told by everyone to have a "fall-back" career and are the butt of thousands of jokes about people writing the great insert-country-of-origin-here novel.  We write things that are dear to our hearts and lay our emotions and souls bare on the table and invite strangers to stab it with forks.  So it's no wonder that we, as a species, are insecure.  It's no wonder that most of us develop substance abuse problems (look it up… Alcoholic writers.  It's a thing.) and spend large amounts of time wallowing in self-loathing.  Hours, days, months we spend closeted away in our writing spaces until we emerge, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Gollum, with our freshly finished "precious" in our hands, only to have the poor thing honestly critiqued (if we're lucky) by someone who may or may not "get it."

It is no mystery, therefore, that in a program like SHU, we get lots of folks who appear to be lost.  "I don't know if I'm cut out for this" they'll say, or "this residency thing scares me."

Good.  Fear is healthy.  Fear lets you know you're alive.  It's whether or not you decide to let your fears hold dominion over you that makes the difference.

What?  You were expecting me to give a rah-rah pep talk?  That's not my job.  My job is to make you better.  My job is to weed out the weak.  My job is hold up the coldest mirror and light and make you realize that you're not as good as you think you are.

You're also not nearly as bad.

Self-doubt and fear can do one of two things:  It can either push you beyond what you thought was possible, or it can push you further into your closet where you will continue to hide.  Which one it does is entirely up to you.

If you think you can, you're right.  Don't give in to the self-doubt.  Don't give in to the fear.  Get up, dust off your butt from the latest round of ass-kickings, and get back in the ring.  Fight.  Because there is no other possible outcome.  Fight.  Because you know you can win.  Fight.  Because a knockout is one breath away.  Fight.  Fight.  Fight.

If you think you can't, you're right.  Give up now.  Don't go through the pain and torture of watching your creations shrivel and die under the harsh light of day.  All the nay-sayers are right.  Lay down.  There's no point in taking another beating.  Lay down.  Because you know you can't win.  Lay down.  Because the odds are ridiculously against you.  Lay down.  Lay down.  Stay down.

Me?  I will fight.  I fight every day.  My mentality is one of stubbornness.  Fueled by passion, rage, love, anger…  I strive every day and pour everything that I am into my passions.  You will never see me lay down.  You will see me knocked down plenty of times.  But I get back up every time.

If you talk to my students, their opinion of me varies in direct relation to how long they've worked with me.  First-term students typically think I'm a cold bastard who drinks the tears of children and gobbles up stories for a snack.  Graduating students typically understand what I was doing, and most of them think of me as a slightly unhinged, slightly sadistic, friend.  I can stay this… The vast majority of my former students have gone on to publish their novels.  And I contend that had little, if anything, to do with me.  It was them.  They thought they could.  And they were right.