Monday, April 28, 2014

Reading Outside Your Genre

Stephen King, Clive Barker, and every other writer worth his ink has said that, in order to write, one must read.  Read the masters of your craft, read the people who inspire you to be better, read until your eyeballs bleed, then read some more.  Reading is your textbook.  The authors are your professors.  And you hope one day to take over the classroom for some other youngster, who thinks of you as a master of your craft.  It makes sense that you need to read as much as possible in your genre to understand the tropes, the nuances, the little things that are specific to your line of thought.  But I'm here to posit the opinion that it is just as important to read outside your genre as well.

My genre is horror.  I cut my teeth on Lovecraft, Poe, Matheson, Barker, Blackwood, and King.  I obsessively devour books by Braunbeck and Waggoner and adore anything that goes bump in the night.  But that's not all I read.  Reading only those things in my genre, believe it or not, stagnate the writer in my opinion.  Think about this:  Your life doesn't just hit one note, does it?  In any given day, you have moments of horror, comedy, history, passion, even sci-fi and fantasy.  So why should you limit yourself to just one genre?  Sure, you may treasure the moments of passion most in your day (or not… I don't really know you…), but if there is nothing but that, it soon becomes boring, doesn't it?  Variety is the spice of life, and of reading.

Pictured:  My reading shelf.  Also, epic sneeze in 3…2…1...

So here's my challenge to you.  Take a good long look at whatever your genre is.  Horror?  Sci-Fi?  Whatever.  Just take a look at it, then head over to your local mom-and-pop bookseller and pick up two novels that are not in that genre.  It helps if at least one of them is what you consider to be the polar opposite of your genre.  For example, if you prefer horror, pick up something in the YA field.  If you prefer Sci-Fi, pick up something of the old west or alt history.  If you write nothing but bunnies and rainbows, pick up something pretty gruesome and try to fight your way through it.

Why would I make that suggestion?  Because it will make you a better writer.  Everything you read influences you in some way, right?  You take pieces from everything around you and create your fantasy worlds from those patches of your experience.  Just like your life, just like every other thing in the world, nothing hits one note forever.  We are not a single ringing chord, but a symphony of experience.  We are a pentatonic scale of notes that crescendos and wanes.  And unless we want our sonata to be a symphony of one note, we must embrace the other instruments at our disposal.  To that end, below, I'm listing a few of my favorite novels that are not horror.  Leave a comment with some of your favorites below!

  • The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (Sci-Fi, Comedy)
  • Storm Front:  Book One of the Dresden Files - Jim Butcher (Dark Urban Fantasy)
  • Dune - Frank Herbert (Sci-Fi)
  • The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien (Fantasy)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl (Childrens)
  • Rot and Ruin - Jonathan Mayberry (YA Horror)
  • Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich - Adam Rex (Childrens)
  • Dragonflight - Anne McCaffery (Fantasy)
  • Harpo Speaks - Harpo Marx (Biography)
And yes, I've read all of these.  That's the point.  You can't go through your writing career reading just one thing over and over.  I mean, you can, but it doesn't allow for much growth.  Different genres are there to tantalize you.  Don't pigeon-hole yourself.  Write your story and let it find its own audience.  Why limit yourself to just one genre, when there are whole worlds out there for you to discover?

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Piano Player and the Writer

There's an old story that floats around, one that rings true to me and to every artist, about what it takes to succeed.  I'll tell it the best I can.

A professional concert pianist sat in a hotel lobby behind the keys of a grande piano, and began to play from memory.  He played classical music by Motzart, then moved to jazz, then to boogie-woogie, then back to classical.  He ended his near-hour-long impromptu set with a melancholy piece that moved some to tears.  When he was done, a man approached him.  "I'd give anything to be able to play like that," said the man.  "I have," said the pianist.

What does that mean to me, the writer?  What does that mean to any artist?  It means that what we do is no matter of wishing, no fluke of nature, no whim or hobby.  It is serious.  Our art, whatever it is, is our lives.  Think about that for a moment.  Think of the time you spend watching television, or becoming addicted to another mini-series.  Think of the time you spend on video games or other endeavors.  Think of the things you do to occupy your time.

Now imagine them all gone, replaced with a single overriding thought.  A drive.  A passion.

That is what it means to be a writer.

What the pianist meant by "I have" was, instead of doing other things, his drive was to practice.  His drive was to drill.  His passion for music stole him away from other endeavors.  Not that there was anything wrong with the other activities, they just weren't his passion.  They weren't his muse.  They didn't fill him up the way music did.

The same holds true for writers.  How many times have you, the writers who are reading this, been told by someone (friend, co-worker, demon from hell who is intent on you never writing another word) "oh you have to watch this new series…" or "I'm sending you a link to this on Netflix…It's only got three seasons."  How many times have you heard "but you haven't come out of your writing room/hole/cave/hovel/insert-derogatory-term-here in hours/days/weeks/who the hell are you?"  How many times have your friends not understood your need for isolation?  If you're not a writer, and you're reading this, how many times have you wondered "is something wrong with…" because he often disappears into his or her office and closes the door?  Do you honestly think we don't know?  Do you honestly think we don't care?

The perfect television.

We do.  But that's just it.  We care.  We care enough about our art to sacrifice things like television shows that we don't need, video game time when we should be writing, internet porn when our characters call to us.  It's not that we're too good for television, but we have other priorities.  Or, and this is often the case, they just don't interest us.  I know it's almost blasphemous to say in the modern age, but for some of us, we just aren't interested in the latest sitcom, TV drama, or reality program.  It makes it hard for us to meet people, difficult for us to socialize.  Deep down, wherever we are, we'd rather be writing.  We'd rather be torturing your characters with tense situations and embarrassing moments.  When the laugh-track comes from inside our own heads, it's so much better.

Every now and again, someone comes up to me and says "I'd give anything to have as many books published as you" or "I'd give anything to write a novel."

I have.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

And Now, a Bit of Practical Advice...

Everyone who has one of these "blog" thingies (that's a technical term) likes to dole out advice on deepening the character and how to avoid mistakes in the craft.  I'm as guilty of the next guy of wafting my own brand of sage-like wisdom your direction.  But this week, I feel the need to talk about something much more important than any of that.  Well, maybe not more important, but at least as important.  We'll start with a story. 

Once upon a time, there was a writer.  This guy (we'll call him Scott) lived in an area where a large storm hit.  The wind howled, thunder boomed, and his cable modem crapped out.  Big deal, you say?  Well it was to him.  See, Scott was a hundred pages into his new novel, which was coming along nicely, but he saved his work to a network cloud drive.  So when his cable modem crapped out, he could no longer access his work.  After a quick and desperate search, Scott realized, to his horror, that he'd neglected to back up his work in another file.  
Pictured:  Scott without internet access.

The story has a good ending… Scott's cable company replaced the modem the next day, and he was back in business, but there is a moral to this story:


Look, I make my trade in telling stories that terrify.  But the one thing that scares me more than (almost) anything is the thought of losing my work.  That's months I'll never get back again.  Weeks of oreos and alcohol that will need to be replicated.  That is also what we writers know by two names:  First is "The Big Suck."  The second is "Your Own Damned Fault."  

Back in the days before computers and printers (I'm not that old, but I do know people who are old enough to remember these days…), a type written thesis or book was treated like gold.  Hard copy was something treasured, and to protect it,  the "backup" method was to wrap it in plastic wrap (or butcher paper) and place a copy in the freezer.  This way, if the house burned down, there was still a chance it would be safe.  I wish I were making that part up, but it's true.  

So here's my suggestion to you.  Three copies (or more) of everything.  Here's my current storage solution:

  1. Working file on the cloud drive - I use "Dropbox" because it's free, and because it allows me to access the same file over multiple devices.  iPad, laptop, desktop, work desktop (shhhhhh!), it doesn't matter.  I can get to my file wherever I need to.  
  2. Working File on the desktop - My home desktop has a file on it that is title "WIP" for Works In Progress.  That's the file I typically open when I'm working on a project (hence the whole "working file" thing).  When I'm done working for the night, I put a copy of it into the cloud drive. 
  3. Backup File on USB - Yeah, I'm one of those writers who often carries his entire catalogue of work around with him on a USB drive.  They're cheap, they are almost incorruptible (my brother dropped one in a baby bottle full of formula and didn't lose any information), and they're small.  When I'm done writing for, say, a week or if I'm traveling, I'll use this file.  Let's say, for example, I'm in some jackass hotel that doesn't have wi-fi or wants to charge extra for it.  No worries.  I have my jump drive. I'll save a copy of what's on my USB drive onto whatever computer I happen to be using, and I'm back in business.  The file on the USB is not changed until I'm damned sure I'm done with it for the evening. 
    It's a transformer!
    Thumb drive.  Whamp whamp whaaaaaaamp!
  4. E-Mail - Yeah, it's a little paranoid and old-school, but I've also been known to save finished copies of complete manuscripts by e-mailing a copy to myself.  I set up a smart folder of where everything funnels in my system.
  5. The Dark Archive - No, it's not a basement dungeon filled with little goblins who obsessively file my paperwork (I wish!).  It's actually a two-part system.  One is a second USB drive that only contains finished copies of my work.  The second is a burned CD with only the finished copy of my work.  
    Pictured:  The Dark Archive
So that's it.  That's my backup scheme.  It's a little obsessive, I know, but it's saved my bacon several times.  Here's the other thing:  You must remain dedicated to it.  A backup plan only works if you stick to it.  make it part of your daily writing routine.  
Pictured:  Smug invulnerability.

Share your backup plan in the comments!

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Writing Process

Every time someone learns what I do, I get the question of "but how?" along with bewildered looks.  I also get the inevitable string of "I have a great idea…" or "I keep thinking I'm going to write a book someday…"  But the question of "how" is always the one that seems simple to answer, but really isn't.

The simple answer is "put ass in chair and fingers to keyboard and get to it."  But there's actually a lot more to the writing process than that.  So I thought I'd take this opportunity (it being my blog and all) to describe the process I go through to write a story (Book-length, novella, short… It doesn't matter.  The process is the same.) in hopes that maybe it'll help some aspiring writer, or that others might realize that their own process isn't that bizarre.  Keep in mind, this is just my process, and there is no "correct" way to do this.  This is what works for me.

Step One: The Idea - Ideas come from anywhere.  Things I see, things I hear, something I ate just before I went to bed, some random bit of disturbing flotsam that comes up in a conversation… There's no telling where they come from.  I seem to live in a different world than most people, as writers do.  Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to see the things we do and write what we do.  So, for example, while walking across campus, I see a large grouping of squirrels.  Fluffy-tailed rats on meth, that's what I call them.  And as I walk by, one lifts his fuzzy head and glares at me.  Big deal, right?  But… What if they all did it.  In unison.  And they they stared as I walked past?  How creepy would that be?  Why would they do that?  What could control a bunch of crack-addled rats with such a hive mind?  Holy shit, why are they staring at me?  What do they want?  

Pictured:  Pure Unadulterated EVIL

Once that sense of dread has taken a good firm root in my psyche and I obsess over it for a few days, I move on to step two.

Step Two:  Brainstorming - Also known as daydreaming or mucking about while you get your head around the story idea.  See, the fuzzy bastards that stood up and stared… why would they do that?  Well, now's the point where I come up with my story.  Having a group of squirrels stand up and stare at you is creepy, but there's not really a story there, is there?  Why they stared…Ah, now there's the story. It's usually during this point that I'll start researching squirrels, mind control, magic, demons, and any other thing that possibly jumps into my head when I think of squirrels.  It's also about this time that I'll start driving my friends insane with weird questions about "have you ever seen a squirrel?" and "don't they creep you out?" and "what if..?" and "would you rather fight one horse-sized squirrel or a hundred squirrel-sized horses?"  and other things that insure they'll become uncomfortable and leave me alone for a few weeks until this new obsession wears off.  It is also this stage that insures that, while I don't have many friends, the ones I do are incredibly resilient and often live in the same cockamamy fantasy world that I do.  Or at least they don't mind visiting from time to time.

Step Three:  The Draft - This is the point where I'll actually put butt to chair and fingers to keys and bask in the cold pale glow of my computer as I begin to type out my opus.  I will spend hours and many late nights working on this singular idea until I'm sick of it (more on that later), often neglecting my own sleep habits and health to do so.  One thing I never do is neglect my family.  My daughter comes first, always.  So she has this annoying habit of wanting to eat or something, so I first feed her.  Then I make sure her day is complete with everything she needs.  Homework?  Check.  Parental interaction?  Check.  Dinner?  Checkity-check.  Then she goes for her nightly shower, and that's when Dad can become the writer.  I set my goal (1000 words) and stick to it.  This is where the late nights and sleep deprivation begins.

Step Four:  The Loathing - There comes a point where all us writers look at what we're writing and think "this is the dumbest thing ever."  We'll want to throw it away, trash the file, and forget we ever had such a goof-ball idea as a bunch of mind-controlled crack-rats.  But, because I've already come so far, I push on to the end, which leads to the next type of loathing.  Type one is "Loathing of the Material" or "Matloathing," if you will.  Type two is "Self-Loathing," in which all writers think "the idea is great, but I'm not good enough to write it."  It is not uncommon for writers to be found under their respective desks with a plate of Oreos or/and a bottle of rum to comfort them at this stage.

Pictured:  Actual Thoughts

Step Five:  Determined Resignation - The cookies are gone, the rum is drunk, and there it sits… The cursor on the screen.  It blinks.  It mocks.  It taunts.  The writer's temper flairs as he climbs out from under his desk and say "GODDAMMIT, THIS IS MY STORY!"  In his mind, trumpets blare and lightning crashes as he plants his butt back in his chair and attacks his keyboard.  Every stroke is hit with such force that the keyboard might explode beneath its power.  Every word is carefully considered with determination.  Every negative thought is met with hatred and spite.  He may smile during this phase.  He may cackle maniacally.  He might even shout at the screen.  But he continues on, maimed but not crippled.  Hurt but not beaten.  He works with manic abandon until, at long last, he types the words "the end."

Step Six:  Masochism - Also known as "peer review."  There is no more humbling an act that that of throwing something you've written out into the wild to have others (whose opinions you trust and respect) rip it to shreds.  Your brilliant opus then turns into a page that drips with ink-blood and lays coughing on your desk.  Do you have the faith, the fortitude to try to save it, or do you just let it die and lament its passing?  This is also where Oreos and Rum come back into play.

Step Seven:  Rewrites - Of course you're going to try to save it.  Why wouldn't you?  So you repeat steps three-through-six.  Sometimes multiple times until you get to…

Step Eight:  Submission - Your opus is perfect, beautiful in every way, and now it's time to throw it out into the wild to let the world know how brilliant you are.  You choose your venues carefully (often with a dart and a page from "Writers Market") and begin to send.  Then you wait.  As you wait, doubt creeps into your head and prompts you for more Oreos and Rum.  What if no one likes it?  What if you really are just a hack?

Pictured:  Writer in her natural habitat

Step Nine:  Rejection - Any writer will tell you that rejection is part of our way of life.  It's true.  It's also why a very large percentage of us suffer from depression and deep psychological disorders.  And yet, we keep doing it.  We keep throwing ourselves out there screaming "love me!" at the top of our lungs, and a cold world whispers back "no."

Step Ten:  Acceptance - The step that makes all of the preceding nine worth every moment.  The moment when the magic envelope (or e-mail) arrives that says, yes, we are good enough.  We are loved.


And that's my process.  What's yours?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Happy Birthday Zoe!

 I'm taking a break from the writing advice and such for this post because today is an important day.  It's one of the most important days of my life.  I can count those days on the fingers of one hand, but this one?  This one is in the top three.  Fourteen years ago, on this day, my youngest daughter was born.

When she was born, I cried.  I held her in my arms for the first time and, no kidding, she snuggled up to me.  It was the greatest feeling I've ever had.  Also the most terrifying.  I mean, what if I messed up?  What if I didn't teach her well?  What if she grew up to not like me?  What if I'd never have that feeling again?  But I took her home, held her in my arms, and sat back in my easy chair with my little girl on my chest.  There's a picture of that moment floating around somewhere.

I've watched her grow from a goofy kid into a goofy young woman, and all my fears are laid to rest daily.

Pictured:  Goofy Young Woman

You know those parents who unashamedly think their children do no wrong?  Who dote over their kids?  Who truly believe their kid is the most talented, wonderful, intelligent, beautiful, etc. etc. etc?


If I could've gone to the "kid factory" and chosen the specific features and characteristics of the kid I would have, those custom bits would've combined to the child I have today.  Seriously.  I mean, she has my sense of humor, she's whip-smart, she sings, writes, has a morbid fascination with horror movies, and loves to be driven around on the motorcycle by her dad (that's me!).  People who don't like children love Zoe for some reason, and I know what it is.  She gets it from her mother.  The old saying "To know her is to love her?"  Yeah, Tabby had that.  And Zoe inherited it.

For the rest of my life, no matter how many books I publish, what rank I achieve in Kajukenbo, how many bizarre skills I master, what awards I win, there is at least one constant:  All of them pale in comparison to my Zoe.

Happy Birthday, sweetie.  I love you so much.

Pictured:  Best Kid in Existence