Thursday, August 30, 2018

If I’m Being Honest With Myself...

            Okay, look... there’s a good chance this post will piss you off.
            Two things I ask you to keep in mind, going in.
            First is that this comes from a place of kindness.  If you’re reading this, I want you to succeed.  All of you.  Well, okay, not him, but the rest of you, absolutely.  So I’m saying these things because... well, they need to be said.  And you need to hear them.
            Some of you really need to hear them.
            Second is that everything I’m going to be talking about is something I’ve personally experienced.  Not that I’ve seen another writer doing it—I’ve done it.  I’ve believed it.  I’ve been the person needing that smack in the face.
            And I learned from it.  And got better because of it.
            Writing’s tough.  It’s hard work.  I know this, because I’ve been doing it for a living for over a decade now.  When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out...
            Well, look.  There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun.  It was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously.
            My writing ability started making huge leaps when I was finally able to admit a few things to myself.  I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
            That being said...

My first attempts at writing will suck—This sounds harsh, yeah, but... well...  Too often when we’re starting out, we just can’t get past the idea that something we wrote isn’t good.  I know I couldn’t.  My work was typed.  It was a full page long!  My mom liked it!  Of course it deserved to sell.  It deserved awards!  International awards!
            Seriously, there was soooooo much writing before my “first novel.”  There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two different versions).  A trope-filled sci-fi novel.  Some Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan fic.  A fantasy novel  fuelled by a sudden influx of hormones during my teen years (enough said about that).  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth.
            And then... Ex-Heroes. 
            It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time.  Why would I write something I couldn’t sell?  Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
            The problem here is the learning curve.  None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts.  Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics... and writers.  Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it.  And we can’t improve until we accept that we need improvement.

My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I’d fret over my first draft.  I’d spend hours laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph.  I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things.  It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
            The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck.  Always.  And that’s okay.  Everyone’s first draft sucks.  Everybody has to go back and rework stuff.  It’s the nature of the beast. 
            With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft.  And a third draft.  And maybe even a sale.
            No, needing another draft doesn’t make me a lesser writer in any way.  Every single professional writer I know (and I know a lot of them at this point) does a second draft.  And usually a third and fourth.

My writing needs editing.  Lots of editing—As I mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while.  Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes?  I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?
            Alas, no.  Like I just said, my first draft is going to need work.  We all make the easy first choice now and then.  Things slip past us.  We misjudge how some things are going to be read. I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.
            As I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms.  I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft. 
            Which, as I mentioned above, sucks.

My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect.  It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut.  When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everything needed to be there.  It was all part of the story.  Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the clever references and in-jokes.
            The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things needed to be cut.  I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as I can admit it in later drafts.  I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex.  It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book.  It had to be done.  Heck, I just cut a whole subplot from the book I’m editing right now.  About 2500 words gone, snip-snip, in about five minutes.
            And the book it better for it.

My writing is going to be rejected –Know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have?  Rejection letters.  Paper letters that were mailed to me by editors.  I’ve got dozens of them.  Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone.  And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines...
            But when that first rejection from Marvel came... I was crushed.  Devastated.  How could they not like my story?  It was a full page!  I included a colored pencil rendering of what the cover should look like.  Did I mention it was typed?!
            It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then they shot that one down, too.
            Granted, I was eleven, and those stories were awful.  I mean... really awful.
            Rejection is part of the process.  I still get rejections today.  I expect I’ll be getting then for the foreseeable future.
            Which is a good time to mention...

Rejection does not automatically mean my writing is bad—Getting that email is tough, like a punch to the gut.  It’s easy to let it get under the skin and fester.  Self-doubt feeds on rejections, so it’s important to think of it as “still looking for the right home.”
            Like I said, I’m still getting rejections today, even with the fairly solid list of credits and accolades after my name.  Editors and publishers are people too, and nothing is going to appeal to everyone.  Getting rejected became a lot easier for me when I realized it didn’t show up on my permanent record and it wasn’t a personal attack  It was just a person who didn’t connect with that particular story for some reason.
            Now, there’s a flipside worth mentioning here...

Rejection also doesn’t automatically mean my writing is good—There’s a lot of memes and recurring stories and a few general mindsets that push the idea that if my work gets rejected by an agent or editor it must be good, because all those people are idiots.  And it can be a comforting thought.
            It's also kinda close to conspiracy-theory reasoning, if you think about it.
            Going right back to the beginning of this little rant, there’s a decent chance my work just isn’t good.  No big deal.  Like I said, I had dozens and dozens of rejections before I started to get some sales.
            But if I refuse to back away from the idea that it might be me—if I take dozens of rejections as proof the system is stupid rather than admit the possibility my manuscript wasn’t ready to go out—then I’m never going to improve.
            If I can admit these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer.  It’s not a flaw or a weakness.  In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but none of that applies to me...” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
            And that’s not going to help me get anywhere.
            Speaking of getting anywhere, if you’re in the Atlanta area I’m at Dragon Con this weekend.  Come find me and we can talk about books and writing and is Clark Gregg coming back to Agents of SHIELD or what?
            Next time, I’d like to put a few things in context.
            Until then, go write.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Dragon Con Schedule

              Hey, you know what’s happening this week?  I’ll give you a couple hints.  Atlanta.  Tons of fun.  Non-stop geekery!
            That’s right... 
            I’m flying in Thursday night and—starting Friday—I’ve got stuff every day.  Panels.  Signings.  Readings

Apocalyptic Throwdown: Aliens vs. Zombies
7:00 pm 
Chastain F-G in the Westin
            An in-depth, highly scientific debate regarding the survival of the fittest in various climates and scenarios.
            (it’ll be fun)

Fightin' 'n' Writin'
10:00 pm 
Embassy CD in the Hyatt
            Me and a few other folks are going to talk about writing.  Specifically, about writing action scenes.  Hand to hand, tooth and claw, swordfights, gunfights-- we're going to share our thoughts and suggestions on all of them.

5:30 pm 
Vinings in the Hyatt
            This is just me and you as I read some older stuff you may not have heard and maybe some newer stuff you might find interesting...
            (green cockroaches may be involved)

Autograph Session:
11:30 am 
International Hall South 4-5 in the Marriott
            My official Dragon Con signing session.  Bring books, kindle covers, scraps of paper, t-shirts, plush animals, other people’s books, or whatever it is you might like me to sign.

Signing at the Missing Volume
5:00 pm
1201,1203,1300,1302 on the first floor of the Americasmart Building 2
            If you missed the last one, here’s another chance to get things scribbled in or on. Please keep in mind, though, this one’s being hosted by the Missing Volume, so the classy thing is to buy at least one of my books from them.

Keep on Rotting in the Free World
11:30 am 
Peachtree 1-2  in the Westin
            Some more discussion about zombies, specifically zombie books.  I’ve written a few of these.  I may talk about the brand new one I’ve got coming out...

            And there you have it! 
            Hopefully I’ll be seeing some of you there.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Slow Motion

            Wanted to take a few minutes and talk a little bit about a way that writing and publishing overlap.  It's not my usual sort of thing but I figured... ehhh, it's been a while since I talked about this.
            There’s a lot of pressure to be as fast as possible with writing these days.  More than a few would-be gurus—and even some small publishers—push  a business model of quantity over quality.  Why take the time on one book if I can rush through half a dozen or so and get the same result?  Selling a hundred copies of ten books is the same as selling a thousand copies of one, right?
            On top of that, the ease of electronic distribution has pushed the idea that moving slow is clunky and antiquated.  Any person or publisher that moves at such a pace gets compared to... well, dinosaurs.  
            This need for speed creates an awful sense that time’s being wasted if I write something that doesn’t sell.  That spending time on editing or revisions is wrong.  And with the raw amount of stuff being e-published, I think all of us have a lurking fear that if we don’t get our idea out there now, someone else is going to beat us to it and have it out there tomorrow.
            I know there are folks (some of whom I know and like a lot) who advocate publishing everything.  Trunk novel?  Throw that up on Amazon.  First draft no agent or editor would accept?  Kindle format for a buck-ninety-nine.  Get it out there because somebody might love it, and at the worst you make fifteen or twenty bucks off it rather than nothing.  You’d pick up twenty bucks if you found it laying in the street, right?
            And I get that this is a really appealing idea.  We want to get paid.  We should get paid.  I’m a big fan of artists (of all types) getting compensated for their work.
            We also need to acknowledge there’s a learning curve. 
            It shouldn’t be too much of a shock that the first thing I put down isn’t going to be that great.  Or the second thing.  Maybe even the third. 
            Sure, there’s always a chance that my first book is pure gold on the first pass.  Scientifically speaking, there’s some chance almost anything could happen.  I mean, I wouldn’t put money on any of those things but, hey... there’s a chance.
            Because of this—he said, bracing for angry comments—I often find myself really doubtful when people say they wrote a book in four or five weeks.  I completely believe a draft can be written in that amount of time.  I wrote the first draft of 14 in about six weeks, and that was around 150,000 words.  But a finished book manuscript?  Something ready to hand off to an editor?  Or put up for sale?
            I just don’t buy it.  Sorry.
            Writing takes time.  It can take a lot of time.  It takes time to learn how to do it right and then it takes time to do it right.  I can’t expect the first thing I write to compare to something written by someone with years of experience.  I can’t rush through one edit draft in a day and expect to get the same results as someone who spends weeks going over their whole manuscript line by line. 
            Simple truth is, the majority of us aren’t ever going to put out material that doesn’t need work.  Not later in our careers.  Definitely not at the start of our careers.
            Yeah, our careers.  This holds for me, too. I wrote a lot of stuff that never got published and probably never will.  Why?  Because it’s bad!  It’s that first attempt at making chocolate chip waffles or trying to grill Ahi tuna.  It may be edible—barely—but no one should be asked to pay for it.
            I’ve mentioned The Suffering Map here a few times.  Okay, a bunch of times.  Consider this... when you pare away all the time where I worked on other projects, it’s probably fair to say I spent two, maybe two and a half years on that book.  My first 100% completed novel.
            Any d'you know what I’ve done with it?
            Oh, sure, I submitted it a lot at the time.  It got some interest.  But everyone passed on it, and (lucky for me) most of them offered a few suggestions of where it needed work.  And they were right.  It did need work.  It had some real problems, and I’m glad it’s not out there hanging on my career like some kind of literary albatross on a cursed mariner or something like that.
            Or consider the book I just turned in.  That took seven months, start to finish. And that’s considering I’d plotted out a good chunk of it years ago  It went through four drafts before I even turned it in to my editor, because there were lots of things that needed tweaks and adjustments to make the book as good as it could be.  Believable characters.  Sharp dialogue.  Solid pacing. 
            And that’s okay.  Really.  The important thing is for me to write something good.  Churning out 8000 words every day or 400 pages for NaNoWriMo is an achievement, yeah, absolutely.  But in the end it’s always better for me to have 1000 good words or 100 polished pages.
            Now, going slow isn’t an ironclad rule.  Sometimes everything just lines up and my third or fourth draft only takes a few days.  No two projects are the same and no two writers are the same. 
            But if every draft of every project I work on goes fast... maybe I should take an effort to slow down for a while and see how it affects my writing.
            Because the goal for all of us is to be great.  To write the best thing we can.  Not to rush toward “okay” and stop when we get there. 
            Even if it makes us fifteen or twenty bucks.
            Next time I’d like to come clean about a couple more things.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Last-To-Be Chosen Ones

            Day late.  Sorry.  Still recovering from the move.  It’s just this sort of ongoing project...
            Anyway, an idea crossed my mind recently and—after batting it around for a bit—I thought it might be worth sharing with all of you.
            A while back I talked a bit about a certain type of character—the chosen one.  That lucky person pretty much preordained for a great destiny.  Sometimes literally preordained.  Ancient scrolls and prophecies aren’t that uncommon, although there are also legendary parents and preternatural skills to take into account.
            The most common beginning for such a story is, after a chapter or two establishing their completely normal and mundane life, somebody shows up to collect said chosen one and whisk them off to that amazing destiny we were just talking about.
            And that’s kinda the bit I want to talk about.
            I think it’s very important to note that our chosen one’s story doesn’t begin because of some overwhelming threat.  It’s almost always for simpler reasons.  They're finally the right age.  They found the hidden room.  They inherited that special book or locket or sword.
            You might be able to find an exception to this rule, sure, but let’s go over a few popular examples...
            Buffy Summers doesn’t receive her Slayer calling because the Master is rising in Sunnydale—the last Slayer died and she inherited the power.  That’s it.
            Harry Potter isn’t brought to Hogwarts to fight Voldemort—he’s only brought cause it’s his birthday and he’s old enough to start classes.
            Katniss doesn’t take her sister’s place to become the symbol of the resistance—she just happens to be successful in the Hunger Games in the right way at the right time.
            Luke doesn’t join the Rebellion to blow up the Death Star.
            Rey didn’t join the resistance to fight Kylo Ren.
            Jay didn’t join the MIB to stop an Arcturian Battle Cruiser.
            I think the reason for this is that if X is this overwhelming threat... all these training montages and bonding moments are going to seem like a horrible waste of time.  “Wow, Phoebe’s the chosen one—the one who was foreseen—who will save us from the murderous threat of the Yakkonator.  Even now it closes in on our city of three million people, ready to drain their blood and harvest their souls. But first... you need to practice your footwork for a few days.  Also, you and Wakko need to figure out how to be better partners—in every sense.  Focus on that for a bit.”
            One of the big tricks to a successful chosen one story is that it’s really two parallel stories.  It’s about Phoebe discovering her destiny/parentage/abilities, yeah, but it’s also about our heroes discovering, oh, crap, it looks like the Yakkonator is waking up now, not in 2021.
            These threads need to stay separate so they can each develop on their own.  Phoebe needs that time to train and grow as a character, because if all we need to do is toss a nineteen year old Banana Republic clerk in front of the Yakkonator—trained or not—to fulfill her destiny, then the Yakkonator isn’t much of a threat, is it? And if she absolutely needs training but the Sacred Order of Antiyakkination waited until the last possible minute to bring her into the fold... seriously, what’s wrong with these guys?  If you’re trying to fit six years of training into six days, maybe you just could’ve started six years ago?  These people just look stupid now.  And if she needs those years of training but pulls it off in days... well, aren’t we back at that first example again?
            So when I’m plotting out a great destiny to for my chosen one, I need to remember not to tie them immediately to that destiny.  Give them space to grow.  Maybe not hit them up with that ultimate evil in the first hour or two.
            Everyone’ll have more fun with it that way.
            Next time, I’d like to encourage you to take a few deep breaths.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Writing Workout

            As I mentioned the other day, I just moved.  And, in moving, realized how many LEGO sets I have.  A huge number of them unopened and never assembled.  A few of the huge ones, but also some small, simple ones.
            Plus there were a ton of Gundam models.  Truth be told—I’ve seen maybe ten Gundam episodes ever.  But I’ve loved the models since I was a little kid. They were peak “Japanese robot” to thirteen year-old me.
            And so much Warhammer stuff.  Age of Sigmar and 40K. I got rid of maybe two hundred models before the move and I still have a whole bookshelf filled with armies and scenery and rulebooks.
            Books.  We won’t even talk about all the books.  There’s going to be an actual library in the new place.  Screw having a guest bedroom, that room’s getting floor-to ceiling shelves all the way around.  And we’ll probably fill them.
            Why do I mention this? 
            Aside from further establishing my geek cred, that is....?
            I’ve mentioned before that I worked with a physical trainer years ago, and he stressed the need for balance a lot.  Some days were more reps, others were more weight.  Some days favored arms and shoulders, others favored legs and core.  Losing weight and getting in shape was about working the whole body.
            Because we’ve probably all seen someone who doesn’t balance their workouts.  The almost-hunchbacked guy who works his chest, but never his back.  That person who always skips leg day.  Someone who runs marathons but never hits the gym.  These folks end up getting a bit... distorted.  Out of proportion.  Sometimes it’ll actually change the shape of their bodies.
            More to the point, it starts hindering what they originally set out to do.  The guy overworking his chest ends up drawing attention to his tweaked posture.  The marathoner has a harder time because their arms are weaker and have less stamina.
            Figure out where we’re going with this yet?
            I encounter people sometimes who do nothing but write.  Write, write, write, write.  I’ve seen writers brag about never taking a day off.  I had one guy dismissively tell me once that “real writers don’t have time to read.”
            This is just my personal opinion, but I think the brain works a lot like the rest of my body.  In some aspects.  I can exercise and train it to get better.  But I can’t over-focus on just one part.  That’s when things get off balance and grow... well, distorted.  Deficient. They stop functioning correctly because I’ve overworked that one aspect without working anything else.
            I build little toy soldiers and Gundams and LEGO sets.  It lets my brain focus on shape and color and spatial relations.  I make it solve completely different types of  problems
            I know a lot of other writers who play tabletop and miniature games.  And video games.  I know some who paint or draw.  I also know writers who cook, run, do martial arts, play basketball, garden, refinish furniture—I even know one who fences.  
            And despite doing this other stuff, they’re all very prolific.
            A few years back I was having a serious writing problem.  I’d just signed a new contract with a publisher, but I constantly felt stressed and overwhelmed.  And it had an effect on my writing.  It was so hard to do anything.  To focus.  To hit word counts.
            I solved it by setting a firm rule for myself.  A mandatory day off.  Every Saturday, no matter what—take the day and recharge.  No writing.  I watch movies, build some of those toy soldiers, or maybe go for a long walk.  I have a couple drinks and post funny comments on Twitter.  Maybe all of the above.  I cook dinner for me and the lovely lady—a dinner that requires cutting and peeling and setting timers and all that.
            And it helps.  It really does.
            He said, as he dove into his eleventh (arguably twelfth) novel.
            So take a moment.  Take a breath.  Try doing something else—anything else—and exercise a few different mental muscles for a change
            Next time... a few more thoughts on chosen ones.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


            Holy crap.  So very sorry it’s taken me forever to post.  I just moved and it was kind of a hell move.  Not that anything truly awful happened, just... well, when you’ve been in one place for almost twelve years, it’s not going to be easy getting out of it.  And it wasn’t.  Nor has it been easy getting things set up at the new place.  For example, I just got internet three days ago.
            I wanted to bounce something off you fast, just so we can hit the ground running, so to speak.  This came to me a while back during one of my Saturday geekery tweetstorms.  See—I’m totally worth following on Twitter.
            Plus A. Lee Martinez brought it up the other day.  So I guess he’s totally worth following, too.
            I’ve talked about backstory here once or thrice.  It’s all those fun things that happened to our hero or heroine before my tale of wonder begins.  Their time just off the coast of Madagascar.  That earlier romance with a supporting character.  The mysterious past they avoid talking too much about.
            Here’s the thing I need to remember.  Backstory isn’t character development.  Backstory just gets my character to where they are now.  It gets us to where the story begins.
            Y’see, Timmy, character development should be moving things forward.  It’s progressive, because by its very nature it means my character is progressing in their development.  No forward movement=no progression=no character development.
            My character can have the coolest backstory ever... but readers want to know why they’re interesting now.  What they’re doing now.  How their lives and views are changing now.  I need to be sure I’m not confusing fleshing out all the stuff behind us for all the character growth ahead of us.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about exercise a bit.
            Until then, go write.
            And sorry again for the delay.