May 27, 2024

May Newsletter

<<Just a quick reminder that you could subscribe to the newsletter and get all these brilliant thoughts delivered to you a good two weeks before they show up here. Just sayin’…>>

Sorry this is running a bit late. A bunch of things happening. Which I’ll get to in just a bit.

But first… a ramble.

A while back I made a BlueSky post about not being able to buy something on eBay. Not that I couldn’t find it or afford it. It was right there in front of me. It was the Ogre Mawtribe from Games Workshop. My gaming group and I are pretty much just playing OPR these days, but I’m still using GW models for most of it. I’d seen these particular ones back when they were first announced and thought they’d fit nicely into my existing Ogre army.

(if all that is meaningless to you, congratulations on getting so much vitamin D)

But I just couldn’t pull the trigger for some reason. I’d get ready again and again but just kept hesitating. And I didn’t know why. I stared at the set for maybe a week, and finally bought it but I was left wondering about all that unease. Why’d I been so hesitant? What’d been holding me back?

Right after the last newsletter it finally hit me that, on some level, I knew this was probably the last time I was going to buy a Games Workshop set. I’d played 40K & Fantasy for years (many, many years), but I’d lost interest in the game (twice) and I’d been losing interest in their models for a while. They were making some beautiful things, in a general sense, but they were becoming less and less useful as actual game pieces (also harder to store, less customizable, harder to paint, etc).

And this was a scary realization. Warhammer had been my main hobby for over two decades, crushing out other things I was interested in because it needed so much time and money. And even knowing that, it was a little unnerving to realize… wow, I guess this is it. I’m not done with tabletop wargames, but… yeah, done with that aspect of it.

It can be scary to admit that something you’ve sunk a lot of time and effort and, yeah, money into just isn’t bringing you joy anymore. That it’s not doing what you need it to do. Especially when there’s a big sense of community around said things (and yeah, sometimes a percentage of that “community” is very much a marketing strategy). But it’s also good not to have your life fall into some weird sunk-cost fallacy, where you keep spending money on something that doesn’t make you happy just because you spent money on it when it did make you happy.

We’ve all only got so much time. Don’t waste it on things that just frustrate you. Or, to quote world’s most famous declutterer, things that don’t bring joy.

So there’s your not-so-deep life thought for the month.

Anyway… let me give you some updates.

Speaking of being done with things and bringing joy, the first draft of TOS is complete. It’s on the larger side (just past 130K). Messy in some places, goddamn art in others (if I may say so myself). But it’s a first draft and that’s what first drafts are. I’ve also got about five pages of notes to myself for the next draft—things I need to add, things I ultimately realized I can just lose, a few details and tweaks here and there. I’m hoping to have this in front of a couple readers by mid-July, maybe? Let’s say early August.

Also speaking of things being done… I think we have a deal forming for GJD. It went out to a lot of publishers two weeks ago. Some showed interest. Some didn’t (for a variety of reasons). That’s just the way it goes. But it looks like something might be kinda-sorta in place and that’s a big part of the reason I was holding off writing the newsletter—so I’d have cool news. But hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more next time.

And I think that’s all the big stuff…

Oh, eleven days from now <<four now>> is StokerCon here in San Diego. I’m not officially attending, but I’m probably stopping by once or twice to say hi to friends. If you see some guy in the bar who looks like they might be me… well, it might be me.

What else have I got for you…?

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Watching
Finished Fallout and just… damn, that show seems a little fun on the surface but it is ruthless on so many levels. Also watched Parasyte: The Grey and it was a very nice take on the original books/shows. Dead Boy Detectives was wonderful, creepy fun. Also Doctor Who is back and is simply fantastic.

Cool Stuff I’ve Been Reading
Alas, with all the writing these past weeks I got very little reading done. I’m almost done with The Deep by Alma Katsu and it’s so beautifully creepy. Then I’m diving into California Bear by Duane Swierczynski.

Cool New Toys
Alas, its my birthday month, so I’m not supposed to get myself anything. But I was (through a legal technicality) allowed to get my first in-hand Animal Warrior of the Kingdom, a Horrid Scavenger. He’s very nice and makes me feel even better about that Kickstarter I was shoving in all your faces for a month or so. I’ve also been building a massive Gaiking robot my friends 3D printed for me.

And I think that’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for your interest.

May 23, 2024

Don’t Skip Leg Day

I’ve got a big birthday coming up—a double number birthday—so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about health and exercise. We’ve turned about half our garage into an exercise area, and I try to get out there at least three times a week (preferably four, but at least three) to stretch and do weights for 30 or 40 minutes. I’m also trying to be better about doing at least an hour on the treadmill. And if that fails, we also live right on a canyon, so there’s always a good hike right there.

Seems like a lot for an old guy, right? Well, part of this is my ongoing desire to see the 22nd century, but that’s a whole other story. A lot of it, though is just a general desire to exercise, well… everything. If you’ve been following me for a while, you may remember me talking about working with a physical trainer named Jerzy. He was really big on balance with his workouts. Some days were more reps, others were more about weight. Some days favored arms and shoulders, others favored legs and core.

He was big on working the body as a whole, because focusing too much usually meant getting kind of out of proportion. You’ve seen guys like that, right? The ones who over-work their arms and shoulders and usually end up, well, skipping leg day.

And a lot of time, this sort of partial exercise actually interferes with their actual goals. They want to look good, but they twist up their posture. They try to build stamina, but they actually end up weaker and slower because they’ve only worked out one or two parts of the bigger, overall system.

So what does all this exercise stuff have to do with writing?

I’ve met some people who do nothing but write. Write, write, write, write. I’ve seen pro writers brag about never taking vacations or even just a day off. Hell, years back I had one aspiring writer excuse their lack of familiarity with a popular book series by saying “real writers don’t have time to read.”

And I can’t help but notice that a lot of the time these folks… aren’t actually producing that much. For all their non-stop work, their output is… kind of average. In frequency and, well, quality.

Now, this is just my personal opinion, but I think in a lot of ways the brain works a lot like the rest of my body. I can exercise it and train it. Repetition can build good habits and reflexes.

But I can’t over-focus on just one aspect of it. Because that’s when things get off balance and grow… well, distorted. The exercise doesn’t help as much as it could because I’ve overworked that one element without working anything else.

You know what most of the other successful, prolific writers I know have in common? They’ve got other interests. I know writers who are into painting and photography and drawing. I know some who run, do martial arts, play basketball, box, and fence. A few of them are musicians. A bunch of them cook—like serious prep time, multiple-burners cook. And sooo many of them play games– video, tabletop, and miniature.

Me? I make a point to take at least one day off every week. A day to do something different. Something that lets me. I make my brain solve completely different types of problems than the ones it gets during the week. I tend to start the day with lawn and garden work, and then I build model robots and LEGO sets and paint little toy soldiers. I focus on shape and color and spatial relations

Plus, during lockdown, I got really into cooking. Italian food. Korean food. Pizza. I like making dinner for my beloved. I like that it requires actual prep and usually more than one pan. That happens several times during the week.

And yeah, I’m trying to squeeze in some exercise, too.

Take a moment. Take a breath. Try doing something else—anything else—and exercise a few different mental muscles. It’ll help your writing in the long run. Honest. And maybe try some actual exercise, too. Increasing blood flow is never a bad thing. That’ll help your writing, too.

Next time… well, like I said, I’ve got a birthday coming up, so I’ll probably bore you with some deep thoughts of some kind.

Oh! And StokerCon is a week from today. I’m not actually attending, but it’s right here in my city, barely ten minutes away. So I may lurk at the bar and say hi to some folks. Maybe you’ll be one of them.

Until then… go write.

May 16, 2024 / 2 Comments

The Second Time Around

Look, a self-referential title!

Okay, this one’s more of a ramble about my writing philosophy. Maybe with a couple tips tossed in. I don’t know. I’m rambling.

I like stories. Surprise! Books. Movies. Comics. Television. I love seeing how narratives unfold. I love getting caught off guard by a phenomenal twist. Stories are great, and reading them is a fantastic experience.

And I like revisiting stories, too. When I was a kid there were comic stories I’d read again and again. I have favorite movies that I like rewatching, books I’ve picked up for a fourth or fifth time.

In fact, I’m a big believer that people should be able to enjoy a story a second time. I’d go so far as to say I think that’s a sign of a great story. People should be able to read a story twice and enjoy it both times.

They won’t enjoy it the same way, mind you. There’s a literary term for reading something the first time, experiencing it without foreknowledge aaaaannnnnd I can never remember what it is. A professor told it to me years ago and I’ve never been able to remember it. Point is, we only get one chance to enjoy something for the first time. One. That’s it. So when we read something for the second time, we’re getting a different experience. Seeing things through a new lens, so to speak.

The same way we, the writers, might not get into some of the really clever stuff until the second draft, I think the second read (or viewing, if you want to talk movies) is when the audience really gets to enjoy how I (the writer) put things together. They can still enjoy the story, yeah, but they can enjoy a lot of elements on a different level. Now that they know how things end, they get to see the clever set-ups for what they really were. They’ll realize where I nudged them to think X instead of Y. They’ll also be able to move at their own pace, really appreciate that clever bit of description, notice the little one-two-three parallel. Maybe some scenes will take on a whole new spin, maybe have a very different type of thrill, once we know from the start who Yakko really is.

So we can’t recapture that first time experience, but hopefully the second time is—in its own way—just as enjoyable.

I try very hard to write for the second read. I want you to read my stories and enjoy them, sure. But I want you to enjoy them the second time, too. I want you to see that everything lines up. How I pulled the wool over your eyes here and here. What this character was really saying there. And that holy crap, no, I never cheated on this—it always worked that way.

In fact, the second time through can be kind of a test. If I go through again and now it’s really clear things don’t line up or motivations don’t make a lot of sense… that might be a warning sign. It’s probably telling me I’ve got a problem with my structure or my characterization or maybe just… my plot. And I might want to take another look at that. Because I want this to be as good as it can be, right?

Now… bear with me for a moment.

As some of you know, I am very anti-spoiler. I’ve gone on long rants about it on different social media platforms. Chewed people out about them. Had a few folks block me when I pointed out their spoiler “tips” basically amounted to putting the blame on people who don’t want things spoiled for them.

There are some folks out there who say spoilers don’t matter. Some people don’t mind learning spoilers and other people who… well, there’s some folks seem to almost take a malicious glee in blasting out spoilers on social media or in articles or even in headlines. I mean, so what if you found out that Wakko dies before you saw the movie, or somebody told you Dot was actually Phoebe’s sister? If the story’s not any good without that big reveal, then it’s probably not a good story, is it?

But there’s a big misunderstanding going on here.

If I get a bunch of spoilers before I get to read the book (or see the movie), and the story’s still good, this just means the writer planned on a second read, like we’ve been talking about. It’s still a good story, yeah, but the spoilers have robbed you of the original story. That version I’d intended to be your first, going-in-cold experience. Because you only had one chance at that version and, whooosh, its gone. It’s gone without you even getting to actually read it. The second-read story’s good, too, yeah, but that’s just it—I’d intended it to be your second read. You missed out on half the experience. Payoffs are great, but so are the setups.

And if the story isn’t any good without those reveals and twists… well, yeah. It’s probably not a great story. We already talked about it. But now there’s no chance of enjoying it, because it was structured around the idea of someone just reading it once and, well, the spoilers killed that.

Plus, just because there’s something bad doesn’t excuse behaving the same way for everything. Just because spoilers don’t change anything for a bad story doesn’t mean they’re justified for a good one. Yeah, I had a bad burrito once, but that doesn’t mean I should say all Mexican food is awful.

Y’see, Timmy, we all inherently write for our stories to be read cold that first time. We expect people to consume the narrative in the order we planned out. To learn things when we want them to learn them. But if I’m doing this right, my readers should be able to enjoy my story a second time as well. Not in the same way, but still in a way that’ll hold their attention and give them a different little set of thrills.

So, try to plan on giving your audience a great second read.

And maybe let people enjoy the first one, while you’re at it.

Next time… wow, the end of the month’s coming up quick. And with it, another one of those milestone birthdays for me. So this is probably a good time to talk about regular exercise.

Until then, go write.

May 9, 2024 / 3 Comments

Art Dies Tonight

If you’ve been reading the ranty writing blog for a while, you may have picked up that I’m not a big fan of focusing on ART. And I’m even less of a fan of people who start to talk about ART in very lofty terms. Especially when they get dismissive of people who aren’t trying to make ART.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about art. Writing is an art, yeah, and I’m a big believer in that. I’m referring to those folks who go on and on about the ART of writing. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those people who really believe in the ART over all things.

Now, full disclosure, part of this may be a reaction to a writing TA who berated me in front of the class my junior year of college because I wanted to write, well… fun stories. Stories that entertained people. Said TA basically shredded the story I was working on (a sci-fi horror thing about a government teleportation experiment that went wrong) and told me in no uncertain terms, that if I wasn’t trying to CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES with my writing, then I was just WASTING everyone’s time!

Anyway…

As it happens, a year before that fateful class, I’d been studying early American literature and my class discussed Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown, first published in 1798. It’s considered an early American classic, the first noteworthy American novel, and its author died penniless and drunk in a snowbank. Story is, his own mother wouldn’t even buy his books. Seriously. He was pretty much unknown during his lifetime outside of a small circle (which shrank rapidly after his death) and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that he became semi-known and retroactively entered into the canon of literature.

Well, I decided to be bold and asked my professor about this. Why was the book being considered literature now? I mean, it’d failed back then, barely anyone knew about it today, so how does it qualify? If it was actually great, we wouldn’t need to be told that it was great, we’d already know, right? Why should we consider it relevant now when the author’s own mother didn’t even consider it relevant then?

Rather then telling me to shut up or tossing me out of his class, said professor congratulated me for bringing up a good point. What’s considered “great literature” changes all the time. Every time someone publishes a new paper on Brown or Shelly or Lovecraft or Dickinson… the canon changes. A lot of what people refer to as “the classics” now were looked at very differently then. A bunch of them were critical and/or financial failures. A number of them were… well, nowadays some folks would probably call them mass-market tentpole crap. Things written to appeal to the proles. They might’ve made money, yeah, but they weren’t literature.

They definitely weren’t ART.

Now, weirdly enough, at pretty much the same time I questioned my professor about Brown’s book, Robin Williams gave an AP interview and talked a little bit about a theater show he’d done with Steve Martin. “I dread the word ‘art,’” Williams said. “That’s what we used to do every night before we’d go on with Waiting for Godot. We’d go, ‘No art! Art dies tonight!’ We’d try to give it a life, instead of making Godot so serious.”

Williams understood something a lot of folks can’t wrap their heads around. We can’t make art. No matter how much I try or how long I work or how many guidelines I follow, art isn’t up to me. It’s up to everyone else. And how they define art changes all the time. With every new paper or critique or review, what was art suddenly becomes shallow and tired. And the fun, entertaining stuff that stands the test of time? Well, now that’s art. Or maybe not. Seriously, there’s no way to tell.

Y’see, Timmy, art in and of itself doesn’t suck. But I really, truly believe that trying to make art sucks. And usually (not always, but very, very often in my experience), the results of trying to make art suck. I think one of the big reasons why is that if I’m trying to make ART it means I’m trying to make my work fit a bunch of preconceived notions about what art should be. Maybe not even my own notions. Could be someone else’s.

So I end up less concerned with, y’know, creating something and more concerned with following rules and delivering messages. And it feels forced and pretentious. It’s so busy trying to be ART that it doesn’t feel alive.

In the early drafts of GJD, I tried to make art. I tried to convey my message. And I made sure that message got in there. Beat it in there. Hammered it into every little gap so people could see how clever I was. So they could see my beautiful ART.

And—looking back on it, being honest—the early drafts kinda sucked. Weird to think that all the beating didn’t make something great. One character specifically—arguably my protagonist in this ensemble piece—really suffered for it. He was just… well, a jerk. He was obnoxious. Irrationally, unbelievably stubborn. Completely unlikable. To the point that my agent cautiously suggested I might want to do a substantial rewrite.

Which I did. And the book was much, much better for it.

Look, here’s the ugly, simple truth. If I don’t have a good story, ART is irrelevant. Really. Because nobody’s going to know about my ART if nobody reads my story. Nobody walks into a bookstore and says “hey, do you have anything with really powerful symbolism?” If my characters are boring or annoying, it doesn’t matter that I’ve got the most magnificent sentence structure and vocabulary ever committed to paper. Because boring stories and boring characters are… well, they’re boring. And when readers get bored they stop reading. That sounds painfully obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people ignore that in the name of ART.

Last time I ranted about this I mentioned a quote (really a quoted quote) from Star Trek: First Contact. “Don’t try to be a great man—just be a man. Let history make its own judgments.” The same goes for my story. It just has to be a good story. One people want to read. Someone else will decide if it’s art or not.

I just need to focus on writing the best story I can.

Next time, I’d like to talk about reading something for the second time.

Until then, go write.

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