Saturday, September 6, 2014

Batman's Reading List

Quickly, to the Bat-Library!
My second novel Old Habits, available in print as a paperback for 10 bucks, or as an e-book for $2.99!  If its good enough to get Batman to take a break and read, its good enough for you!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Care and Feeding of an Author

This blog is about my writing experiences, and for other authors and would-be authors to pick up something I've learned over the years.  However, today I'd like to depart from my usual format and offer something different, for non-writers.

If you have a friend, child, parent, or other loved one that is a writer, I'd like to offer some suggestions based on my life and the support of my family and friends.

The first thing to understand about writers is that we're a fragile, uncertain bunch in all but a very few cases.  We're insecure, uncertain, and nervous about our writing.  Its sort of a mix of major highs and lows, alternating between confidence and joy... and fear and misery for most authors.  Sort of like this:

The author on a good day

The problem is that writing is a very lonely sort of endeavor.   As we work, we have no feedback, no way of knowing whether something works or doesn't and cannot get that feedback without someone reading the work.  But its not ready to read yet, full of errors and in need of editing.  And until we finish a scene, it won't make sense anyway.  And besides, that scene is only understood in context of the previous parts of the book and go away, I'm not done yet.

So we're left uncertain: did this work?  Am I doing something new or boring?  Is this character convincing?  Did the mood carry across properly here?  Will people like this or am I just wasting my time?  But then the author reads back and goes "wow this is a lot better than I hoped, I might be able to do this!"

Pete Townshend wrote a song in the 70s called "Guitar And Pen" that is about songwriting but really does capture this sense very well:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you're kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they're worth keeping, they're not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say

When you sing through the verse and you end in a scream
And you swear and you curse 'cause the rhyming ain't clean
But it suddenly comes after years of delay
You pick up your guitar, you can suddenly play
When your fingers are bleeding and the knuckles are white
Then you can be sure, you can open the door
Get off of the floor tonight
You have something to write

When you want to complain, there's no one can stop you
But when your music proclaims, there's no one can top you

So if the writer you know seems schitzo or manic depressive, there's a reason. They are fighting something inside them and trying to get something out on paper that's new and fresh and powerful, and they aren't sure they can do it.  Please be patient.  If they really are a writer, if they really have the talent, then something wonderful is inside them fighting to get out and onto that page.

Go away, I'm writing
You have to be patient with your writer.  They're struggling with a significant task every time they write a book.  They can only write in their way, which might be very frustrating and even confusing.  Often writers will run off to a cubby hole and write all by themselves, disappearing for hours a day.  

They will tend to be daydreamy, thinking about their characters and setting.  They may pester you with ideas and sections of their book, hoping to get feedback.  They may be very moody, sometimes being very happy and others being curled up weeping and their reasons will make no sense at all to you.  Be patient with them, its a very difficult process, especially with their first book.

Calvin gets distracted
At the same time, you have to hold them accountable.  Its too easy as an author to use writing as an excuse to not do other things, or to be moody and distant.  Being a writer does not somehow give me a license to be unsociable, lazy, or rude.

And further, writers need to be held to the fire.  Because there's no boss, deadline, or pressure to work as a writer, it takes self discipline to keep going and focus on a single project.  Writers are flighty and easily distracted.  They will claim "writer's block" when what they really mean is "I want to be on Facebook because I'm afraid this next section is too hard to write."

They need your help to stay on the job, your encouragement to keep writing, and your support to face each new chapter.  Every writer that means to do this seriously needs to finish their work.  Not work on it a while then do something else, then start a new project, then play Skyrim, then watch a movie for "inspiration."  They need to bear down and get it done.

This doesn't mean working over a keyboard for 15 hours straight without food, but it does mean they need to ignore distractions and keep going on a project to finish it off.  A writer that never finishes a book will never be an author.  They will never have a book to show off and feel accomplishment from.  They will never feel the soaring joy of having someone else read their work, they will never know what it is like to have people take them seriously as a writer.

Each writer has their story to tell, though.  And as much as you might want to help, or contribute, or offer your great ideas... don't.  Unless they point blank, in plain English, specifically ask you for ideas, don't.  Let them do their job, their way.

Tinkerbell doesn't want your help
Its not that you can't have great ideas, I have no doubt you do.  Its that they have to come up with this story and fit everything together like a 150,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and it only fits together with the right pieces.  Your pieces might be brilliant and fun and visionary, but they're for another puzzle.  It almost certainly will not fit in the writer's puzzle.

So try to restrain yourself from offering "brilliant suggestions" to how to make the book better or stuff you want to write about but don't have the talent or drive to do so yourself.  Unless they really want you to help them, please keep it to yourself.  At best it will be distracting and confusing, and usually leaves the writer in a very uncomfortable place of not being sure how to respond without hurting you or sounding rude.

Your writer will probably want you to read and critique their book.  A lot of the time this is a bad idea.  Its difficult to be objective, for one thing (my little boy is a genius!!!!), and when you are objective, sometimes its very difficult to be able to critique honestly and openly.  Sometimes you can be too close and any criticism hurts too much.  Usually, non-writers are not great editors, and your suggestions only lead to problems or confusion.

A good writer is open to criticism and questioning of their work.  An honest writer knows they aren't good enough to be perfect and above any question or critique.  But all writers are human, and some times we don't respond very well, or like we ought.  I try very hard to be open and humble to anyone's suggestions, but sometimes I react poorly.

Other times, people have criticisms that just don't comprehend what I'm trying to do.  So what you see as a problem might actually be a feature.  If you say the book is too sad, maybe that's exactly what they are trying to write.  If you think the plot is contrived, maybe you didn't understand what they were striving for.  Still, a good writer will take feedback and consider it - maybe what they were trying to do wasn't clear enough.

And, sadly, sometimes, people are writing who aren't writers.  They just don't have it in them to craft an interesting, unique book.  They are trying and they have all the right tools, sometimes even the jargon and the technique from endless classes and books.  But they just aren't writers.

In this case, be supportive, but don't buy into their dream.  Don't fund their vanity publishing project, don't pay for that Larry Elmore cover, don't help them advertise their awful book.  They will very likely find something else to do instead.  And when they figure out, finally, that this is not their calling, be loving, comforting, and supportive, not mocking and contemptuous.  But be absolutely certain they are not any good; not just new at it, not just rough and raw, not just a style or genre you dislike, but genuinely without talent or hope.

Because just because you don't like a book, genre, or style, doesn't mean its bad.  And just because someone can't spell or has mangled grammar doesn't make them a bad writer.  Those are skills that can be learned.  Writing is about an ability to communicate and craft stories, even if they're spelled atrociously.  They'll get better.

Writers need love too, maybe more than most folks.  We aren't very good at showing it, most of the time.  But we do.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Best Present an Author Can Receive

There aren't very many authors who are truly egotistical and self-seeking in the way some other professions will often feature.  Authors are no better than anyone else in terms of ethics and personal character, but most are very introverted and often shy.  As a group, we prefer the spotlight not be on us, which makes promoting our own work somewhat challenging.

We all write because we want to be read, and we publish because we want to be read as widely as possible and hopefully make some money at it.  So a purchase of our work is a fine acknowledgment of our craft, it is a compliment we appreciate.  Interviews and publicity, not so much.  Only a few authors really bask in attention and publicity, and I suspect most of us wish we could go live like a hermit and write all day.

Opus was not fond of the work
But I think, personally, even more important and rewarding for an author is a review written for their work.  Because that not only means the book was purchased, but it was read - and not simply read, but read carefully and thoughtfully enough to review.

Its like J.K. Rowling's magic system in the Harry Potter books.  People tear it apart online, making fun of the inconsistencies and randomness in which its presented.  But all those people bought and read all her books carefully and thoroughly to write these critiques.  And that's a very high compliment.

So getting a book review is not just a purchase but a thoughtful response to that purchase and evidence of reading - which is really all an author can ask for.  So if you like an author, or a book, if you'd like to give them some feedback or appreciation, the best things you can do are read their book honestly, talk about it and share it with your friends, and write a review.

It doesn't matter how long or sophisticated the review is; the more honest and real the review is, the more useful it is.  If your review reads like a PR release from the publisher or a college dissertation, buyers will tend to disregard it and it might even hurt sales by making buyers feel manipulated or talked down to.

But a few sentences on what you thought about the book and what it said to you is always very welcome.  And remember: even a bad review helps sales and definitely helps the author.  Look at Amazon.  See that book with 2 reviews and 5 stars each?  Do you trust them at all, or did their mom and dad write a glowing review?  Now look at the book with 17 reviews and 3 1/2 stars.  Now you get a sense of being able to trust the reviews and since so many people are writing about it, it seems more interesting and valid a book, doesn't it?

No one actually believes any of these people really like the product
Buyers respond to that.  They won't even necessarily read all the reviews, so bad ones get buried and become the foundation for a big stack of reviews, which looks impressive.  And as the saying goes: there's no such thing as bad publicity.  What you didn't like might be something someone else really enjoys in a book.

So how do you write a review?

First off, don't feel like you have to be wordy.  Short and to the point is actually pretty welcomed by readers.  If its ten paragraphs long, chances are nobody will read the review anyway.  Get to the point and say it briefly.  Quick and to the point is ideal for online readers, few of whom want to sit and read reviews very long.

Second, format it well.  A review that's one huge paragraph is hard to read online (see how I break up the blog post here?).  A few short paragraphs attracts eyeballs and is easier to read than one huge one. 

Third, be honest.  Say exactly what you think, not what the author wants or what will best help their sales.  Don't write an ad, write your reaction to the book.  "I liked this book because it made me feel comforted and happy."  "I didn't like this character because he reminded me too much of my ex."  Be honest, say what you really think.

Fourth, don't feel like you have to be a professional.  Don't feel like you need to be an author here, even if you are.  Write from the heart, write something easily accessible to others.  Don't feel like you have to understand literary criticism or have all the jargon right; most people have no clue what third person omniscient perspective means or how to properly use the word "trope."

Fifth, write about the story.  Focus on the story and its approach and what it said.  The shipping costs, or delays, or problems with your kindle or what have you are not review material.  That's for another section in Amazon: stick to the topic.

And finally, write what you'd find useful as a reader.  This seems obvious but its easy to miss because people think in terms of writing some literary critique.  That's not what reviews are used for.  Write a review as if you're writing about a blender or a car; write what people are wondering about when they want to purchase the book.  You're not writing for the NYT review column, you're writing a consumer report.

Do this, and like the book or not, you've done the writer a huge favor.  We learn from reviews.  We study them and they can help us get better.  And if you love a author or a book, your review can help others find it an love them too.  Its a wonderful gift you can give that author for all they've done for you - one that the author will directly appreciate and recognize from you.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Birth of an Author

Sometimes someone will ask how I got into writing, and I'll usually mention a quote by Toni Morrison "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."  That really was the thing that pushed me over the edge.

But the real story starts much, much earlier.

Then the dinosaur eats the teacher!
I first learned to read quite early, before I attended any school.  I have no memory of this, but apparently I thought it was neat that my three older brothers could read and wanted some of this for myself.  So according to my parents, I climbed into my father's lap and asked him to teach me to read at age 3.  By the time I finished 1st grade I was reading at a 6th grade level and had written my first little story about a dinosaur.  I don't remember what it was like, just that it included dinosaurs, which fascinated me.

As I went though school I wrote story after story.  The tale of a boy who had a griffin friend.  The story of a man who could turn invisible and was eventually killed by the government.  The story of an alien who came to earth to gather some water and the troubles he faced.  On and on it went through my life.

Eventually I began drawing comics, and focused on that form of storytelling.  I wanted to be a comic book writer and artist like many young people.  I got pretty good at it, and knew people in the industry I could use for a foot in the door.  When Dark Horse Comics first started up, I was in touch with and friendly with some of the people involved in that company.

However, I found that it took so much time and energy writing and drawing comics I could not keep up any remotely productive pace.  I set aside the dream and focused on illustration work.  The idea of writing for a living never occurred to me.

All my life from the earliest I can remember, I have made up stories.  I would make them up as I walked to and from school, as I played outside, as I explored the forests behind the family home, even while being punished and sent to my room, I would sit quietly and make up stories.  Conversations would roll through my head, characters and situations were developed, plots were worked out.

To go to sleep  I have always, even as a little child, created a story and followed it along like a movie serial.  I start the tale up, and go to sleep, then the next night carry on the tale from the last point and advance it.  Weeks go by making up these stories.  I have one that I have gone through several variants of and maybe one day it will see print.

In 1979 my older brother Joel (whose birthday it is today - happy birthday!) introduced me to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  I was 13 at the time, and we both learned at a little game store in town called Stuff and Nonsense.  Every Saturday, the owner of the store would teach people how to create characters then run them through a little bit of a huge dungeon he had designed.  I was hooked.

I ran games almost from the very beginning, inventing scenarios and adventures, dungeons, characters, monsters, settings, maps, and so on.  For decades, I have been creating adventures and running them, playing out the games with other people.  

Like gems to a gamer
For those unfamiliar with how role playing games work, they're very similar to improvisational theater: you create your character and then tell the Game Master (GM) what you do, play out conversations and dialog on the fly, and use rules and dice to resolve challenges and mechanical questions.  The GM plays everyone else in the world, from rats to deities, and he has to come up with the personalities, dialog, schemes, ambitions, and actions of all of them, off the cuff, while all the time trying to move the game along a plot or storyline.

I did this for over 30 years.  Without realizing it, I was practicing storytelling without a net, for a small audience.  And still I kept inventing stories in my head.  People started telling me I should be a writer, that I had a skill for description and storytelling.  I thought that was flattering but I had an image of an author that I didn't care for.

To me the writer was an alcoholic that struggled with their work, then once it was done had to slog through rewrites and editing for month after month of drudgery and misery.  That sounded awful to me; I wanted no part of it.  But the comments of people had planted a seed in my subconscious.

Finally, I saw that Toni Morrison quote and thought "well maybe, why  not?"  In November of 2007, I sat down and determined that I'd do it, just to see if I could get it done.  I wrote every day to get a story told by the end of the month.  I got about half of my upcoming book Life Unworthy written in a rough form, and didn't finish.  But the joy of writing and the idea of being able to do so was born in me.

But I knew my skill as an writer was not up to the task of Life Unworthy, yet.  The concepts and themes I wanted to present, I did not feel skilled enough to tackle, not yet.  So I put it aside and began work on a simpler book based on two ideas: a fantasy version of a Louis L'Amour frontier book, and the image of a man leading enemies away from a caravan to protect it like a mother quail.  And I started writing.

I didn't suffer for each page.  I didn't bleed like the saying goes.  I enjoyed every moment, and when I wasn't writing I looked forward to when I could.  For me, the problem is that I have to restrict the amount of time I write each day or I'll tire myself out and won't be able to keep going. 

And when it came to rewrites, I found that I truly enjoyed the process of re-reading my book.  Instead of being a dreary task, I savored carefully fixing problems, shaping scenes, and crafting a better story each pass through.  It turned out that I really, really like writing.  And you'd think that with my life of writing pretty much constantly, that would have been a really obvious conclusion but sometimes I can be pretty dumb.  Often, perhaps.

So I'm an author.  I have two works of fiction out, several gaming books, and a lot more on the way. I have more ideas and stories scribbled up in thumbnail sketches than I will have productive years to write them in; better than the alternative, I suppose.  C.S. Lewis eventually had no more ideas to write about and stopped after a certain point, which is truly a tragedy.

It took some getting used to, since over my life my plan has been so different.  At first I wanted to be an archaeologist, then a translator, then a comic book writer/artist, then an illustrator.  And all that time I was writing and not paying any attention.  Turns out I'm a author.  Maybe some day I'll be a financially successful author.

Until then, I'll keep telling stories.  Its just who I am.