December 28, 2017 / 6 Comments

A Year of Writing

            And just like that, 2017 is almost done.
            Well, okay.  Not really “just like that.”  For a lot of folks (me included), this has been a very long, stressful year.  Maybe for you, too, although I hope you managed to dodge some of it.
            It can be tough to write under these conditions.  When you feel like the world’s crumbling around you and you’re lunging to grab your favorite parts before they hit the floor… suddenly getting 1500 words written doesn’t feel like the best use of the day.  It can even make you feel worse.  Things may be collapsing, people are scared, but I’m going to go write this funny dialogue bit in a zombies on the moon story…
            Anyway… deep breath. 
            And if the deep breath doesn’t calm you, maybe a stiff drink.
            Okay.  Let’s talk about what we did get done this year.
            Why?  Well, I like laying this out because I’ve somehow stumbled into the position of being a “pro,”  and I think there’s a lot of bad information out there about what being a pro entails.  Some people think it means writing four hours a day and getting paid very well for it.  Other people think it means typing twelve hours a day, every day, and making about the same as a retail worker.  And still other people honestly think it means living in some gigantic New York penthouse apartment (and wintering in your Los Angeles one), where you barely ever write but still constantly make the NYT bestseller list and have enough free time to help solve about twenty-two murders a year.
            True fact.  I’m still living in the same apartment I lived in ten years ago when I was a terrified, starving writer.  Was driving the same car up until this March (when it finally wouldn’t pass inspection anymore).
            Anyway.  Getting off track. Too much eggnog with too much rum in it…
            As I have in the past, I wanted to go over everything I’ve written this year.  Partly for me. Partly for you.  Let’s get a sense of what a (supposed) pro does…
            I spent the first three months of the year finishing up work on Paradox Bound. As I’ve mentioned in other places, it was very tough writing a story about America and the American Dream right now.  There were many rewrites for tone and message that continued right up until the very last minute. And even then I look back at it and see things that slipped past me, things I wish I could’ve tweaked a little more.  But many of you have enjoyed it, and I’m very glad.
            During this time I was also working on a rough outline for Ex-Tension, what was going to be book six of the Ex-Heroes series.  I even started some of the heavy lifting when Paradox Bound wasn’t sitting in front of me.  But I was maybe a month or so into it when my editor, agent, and I had some talks and, well… it’s been set aside for now.  More on that later. 
            But it actually meant I could launch into Timestamp.  It’s been tickling my mind for a while now.  I wrote about 15,000 words of it and, on request, wrote out a huge exhaustive outline.  I was a little worried, because it’s one of those complex, character-heavy stories that comes across as a bit simplistic if it gets broken down past a certain point.  But after another six or seven weeks… this got set aside as well.  And, in retrospect, I’m okay with that.  My editor and I got to sit down one night at SDCC and talk about it over whiskey and apple pie, and he made some really good observations about the story (as he always does).
            Of course, at this point the year was more that half done and I hadn’t really gotten momentum on anything. Every time I started to prick up speed, my legs got kicked out from under me.  So I made the decision that I was going to write… well, a zombies on the moon story.  Something fun that I was excited about.  Because I needed to write something before the year drove me even crazier. 
            And I just finished up a first draft of that.
            Plus, my agent and I focused on a few ideas and I wrote up three other super-detailed outlines earlier this month.  Well, two “super-detailed” and one “fairly solid” outlines.  And I’m really excited about these and thinking they’re going to end up being most of next year for me.
            I also did a lot of promo stuff for Paradox Bound.  A few mini-articles, maybe a dozen written interviews.  Maybe a solid week of writing if you added all that up.
            And there was this blog. A record breaking seventy-six posts this year but… let’s be honest.  At least a dozen of those were just Tom Gauld cartoons or memes, and maybe another dozen were random promo posts for Paradox Bound or the Dead Men Can’t Complain collection.  Still, that means these were around fifty rants on one topic or another.  I think I could call this year a tie with 2009, previously the most successful year of the ranty blog.
            There were also nine or ten posts on my little geeky blog, and I came to the realization just last night that I’m probably going to end that one.  It requires a lot more of a time investment than I can give these days, between the hobby side of it and the instructional/ writing side. I love those projects, but I can’t work on them and document to the extent they deserve.  I may try to find a happy medium somewhere…
            Anyway… that’s what I got done this year. 
            How about you?
            At the end of it all, we have to keep writing.  It’s what separates us from the non-writers. And the great apes.  We keep pulling stories out of our head and scribbling them out for other people to read.  This is the only definition of being a writer—writing.  People can make any argument or excuse they like, but if I’m not doing that one basic part of the job…  well…
            Anyway, I hope the holiday season is going fantastic for all of you.  See you all next year.

            And if you get a chance… maybe write a bit.

December 21, 2017 / 3 Comments

The Happy Ending

            Oh, get your mind out of the gutter…
           Well, it’s been a brutal week on a couple levels. And it’s the holiday season, I think we can all use a little cheering up, don’t you?  So let’s talk about some good stuff.
            And I’ll start by talking about what happens in the grim, dark future…
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice here, I’m a bit of a geek.  One of my biggest geekery hobbies by far is Warhammer 40K.  If you’re not familiar with the game, it takes place in the distant future (around the year 40,000—surprise!) where mankind has risen, fallen, risen, fallen again, risen one last time… and is now pretty much on the way out.  Not immediately. Not in our lifetime.  But the glory days are gone and the Empire of Man is well past middle aged and fighting to hang on to its driver’s license, if you get my drift.
            When my lovely lady and I first started hanging out, she expressed interest in this silly toy soldiers game, and—being a geek—I immediately started telling her about the different armies and the massive back story and setting of the game.  And after a few hours of listening to stories of the waning Imperium, she finally laughed and said, “Why would anyone want to live in this world?  I’d just kill myself.”
            Which is a fair point.  To be honest, I hadn’t been fond of some of the earlier stories myself.  They were just bleak as hell. You may have heard the term “grimdark” used for some fiction.  It actually comes from this game.  That phrase I used up above, “in the grim, dark future”—that’s part of Warhammer 40K’s tagline.
            Of course, it’s not just the little toy soldiers.  The grimdark label ends up on a lot of things these days.  Urban fantasy stories.  Post-apocalypse stories.  Superhero stories.  And this isn’t just about genre books.  People try to do “serious” books all the time that are nothing but sadness, misery, and death.  There’s a common belief that making things gritty and dark, and edgy automatically makes them more “mature.”   I’ve mentioned once or thrice before how some writers think having bleak, depressing endings is artistic because it’s more “real.”
            I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this.
            The catch is, this gritifying of stories rarely works.  Usually making something grim and dark just makes it… well, grim and dark.  That’s it.  Seriously, check out bestselling books or big box-office movies.  The popular stuff almost always leans toward lighter and fun.  A lot of it has (gasp) happy endings.
            As another famous sci-fi icon once said, it’s not enough to live.  You have to have something to live for.
            Again, why would anyone want to live in my fictional world?  Seriously.  Take a moment and think about it.
            What saved the world of Warhammer 40K for me was the writing of folks like Dan Abnettand Sandy Mitchell.  They added a human element.  They told stories that involved jokes and drinking buddies and love and people just enjoying their lives.  Heck, Abnett had a whole subplot in one book about a toymaker saving his business by building wind-up robots.
            I’ve gotten a lot of praise for my Ex-Heroes series.  It’s a series that’s lasted through five book so far, and across six years. Long after when many people said zombies were… well, dead.  And I believe a lot of that praise and success comes from one simple thing.
            It’s a post-apocalyptic story, but it’s a hopeful one.  Yeah, things are overall awful, but the characters are actively trying to make life better.  They choose to move forward rather than do nothing or wallow in the past.  They laugh.  They love.  They play games.  They flirt.  They celebrate.  They have fun.  A lot of their life is stressful and difficult, but it’s not every-minute-every-hour-every-day stressful and difficult.
            And it’s important to see these other moments because now we know why the characters are going on.  We know what they’re living for.  Deadpool is a story about hopelessness and terminal diseases and bloody revenge, but it’s also a story where Wade and Vanessa pretty much screw each other silly for an entire year before he proposes with a Voltron ring
            Resist the urge to have nothing but grim darkness.  Don’t be scared about having a good thing or three happen in your story.  Don’t think you can’t have any light-hearted moments. 
            Believe in the happy ending!
            On which note, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and (if it’s your holiday) a very Happy Christmas.
            Try and get a little writing in before then.
December 20, 2017 / 4 Comments

Critical Hit

            Okay, first of two posts this week, as promised…
            So a while back at the LA Writers Coffeehouse we were going to talk about criticism.  All the directions it can come from.  What it’s like from either end. How to put it out there.  How to receive it.  We never got around to it there, so I thought I’d talk about it here.
            Just to be different, though, let’s approach this from the tougher angle, in my opinion.  Giving criticism.
            I know that’s hard to believe—that giving criticism can be the hard part.  I mean, just check out any social media site.  Over the past week or so there’ve been tons of people offering critiques of… y’know, different stories.  Often for free. Usually unasked for.
            And, most of the time, not very good.
            Criticism—actual, constructive criticism—is a bit more than ranting online.  It’s being able to state quantifiable, true, relevant facts about a work.  There are a lot of folks who consider themselves critics who really just… spout their opinions a lot.
            I saw one of these recently.  Directed at me.  Someone had read one of my books, loved the first two thirds, but then it had an “action-packed, nonsense finale” that the reader didn’t like.  Which was a shame, because the rest of the book had been pretty good.
            I’ve talked a bit about this before, one of the first things to learn about giving criticism..  Me liking or not liking something isn’t really criticism.  It’s irrelevant.  That’s just a subjective opinion.
            This can be a tough thing to figure out sometimes.  It took me years to be able to separate my opinions from actual facts and observations about the story I was reading.  There are a lot of books and movies I didn’t like, but I can also acknowledge that doesn’t make them bad.  It just means they’re not for me. 
            So that’s lesson one in offering good criticism. Separating my opinion from actual facts.  Anyone can say “this sucks.”  If I’m trying to offer valid criticism, I need to be the person  who can explain whyit sucks.
            And remember—“I didn’t like it” isn’t a reason.
            This should bring us to the second point about giving criticism.  It should be constructive, not destructive.  The goal isn’t to rip something apart, it’s to explain why and how it can be better.  Yes, sometimes this might mean a couple blunt, harsh truths will need to come out.  But even these don’t need to be designed to make the writer cry for weeks.  If that’s why I offered to critique someone’s work, well… I’m doing this for all the wrong reasons.
            Here’s a good rule of thumb.  I shouldn’t point out problems if I can’t offer some kind of actual solution.  This is also a good way to figure out if this is an opinion-vs.-criticism issue.  It’s tough to change opinions, but if something’s actually wrong, it shouldn’t be hard for me to figure out some way to fix it.
            Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to be a good solution.  My editor—a very high ranking editor at Random House—freely admits he’s great at spotting problems, awful at coming up with solutions.  But he’ll always have an answer whenever I ask about something.
            And I shouldn’t offer these solutions unless the writer specifically asks for them—it’d be rude of me to start explaining how someone else should be writing their story.  I mentioned helping a friend with her travel book a while back, and twice or thrice in the notes I’d point out an issue and say “I have an idea that might help with this—let me know if you’re interested.”
            Which is a great lead in to my third point.  If I’m going to offer criticism, I should know what I’m talking about.  This is a tricky one, because it means a lot more than “I read a book every week” or “I’ve seen every Best Picture winner.”  It especially means more than “I just want to read it early.”
            Being able to offer a good critical analysis means being able to juggle a lot of hats.  I need some actual knowledge and understanding of different structure forms and grammar.  I need to have read more than two or three “how to write a bestseller” books.  It wouldn’t hurt if I’ve sat and thought about this knowledge and absorbed it a bit.

            And just book-learning isn’t going to cut it.  I also need a lot of practical experience.  Lots and lots of reading.  Not just the classics. Not just the NYT bestsellers.  Not just the “good” stuff.  I need a broad-yet-solid background in the subject matter—no one should be asking me to read their hospital-based romance, and if they do I should be clear up front this isn’t quite my area of expertise.

            There’s also an empathy issue here, too.  I’ve mentioned a few times that writers have to have a good sense of empathy—if I can’t put myself in other people’s shoes, I’m going to have a tough time as a storyteller. Same goes for critiquing a story.  I need to be able to see what effect the writer’s going for andbe able to predict how people are going to react to it.  If I can’t do this, my whole critique is going to collapse.
            And that brings us to the fourthand final point.  This one’s going to sound obvious.  If someone’s going to trust me with their work, if I’m going to tell them I’ll critique it… I should.  They’re asking for feedback and I should make an honest effort to give it to them.  There’s few things more frustrating for a writer than waiting weeks for feedback and getting a one line email that says “Yeah, I liked it.  It was fun.”
            You may laugh but…  I’ve had beta-readers do that.  Which is why they’re not beta-reading for me anymore.
            Likewise, comments that are too vague to help… don’t really help.  I shouldn’t be writing things like “I saw a couple typos—you’ll probably catch them next time through.”  Again, if I’m doing a critique, I should be noting all this stuff.  Getting caught up in it isn’t an excuse—I’m not supposed to be reading this for fun.  I should take my time and do it right.  As the man says (paraphrased), treat them the way you’d want to be treated.
            Now, with all that said… here’s two positive things about giving criticism.
            Oneis that it doesn’t need to be stiff. Unless I’ve been hired as a professional, I’m reading/critiquing for somebody I know.  Possibly someone I even consider a friend.  I can have fun with this.  It can be conversational.  It can be funny/snarky/flirty whatever.  I don’t need to change my relationship with someone to offer them criticism.  They want it from me, not from Professor Huffy von Formalnotes.
            Twois that… well, I don’t have to read it all.  No, I don’t.  Really. I’m not getting paid, I’m not doing this as part of a formal submission… I don’t need to read all 815 pages. 
            At least three or four times I’ve read books for friends who wanted feedback and forty or fifty pages in it was clear there were… inherent issues.  Things that weren’t going to change.  Things that were going to kill the book’s chances if an editor or agent read those first fifty pages. So I stopped there.  I gave them all the notes I’d made up to that point, and then explained the bigger problems I was seeing.  And that was it. My time is valuable—and so’s theirs.  They don’t need to read twenty pages of notes from me repeating the same things over and over and over again.
            And again.
            There you have it.  Some tips to giving better criticism.  Maybe even a few tips about dealing with it if you read around the edges a bit (and follow some of the links).
            Next time… well, we’re closing in on the holidays, and after all this criticism we could probably talk about some good stuff, yes?
            Until then, go write.