Four Years Later

Four years ago, I self-published Alpha, and if I’m perfectly honest, it was an admission of defeat.

I wanted to publish through one of the Big Six. I wanted an agent who would book interviews with Craig Ferguson and shop movie rights to Wes Anderson. I wanted the book to be a smash hit that turned me into a celebrity author, and why not? If you’re going to dream, dream big.

Of course, things didn’t turn out that way.

I barely even got a nibble on that story. I got plenty of form rejections and non-responses, and I can count on one hand the number of agents who expressed even the remotest interest in my work. I’d been sending multiple query letters a day for six months straight when I finally came to a realization: As much as I wanted to reach Celebrity Author Status, what I really wanted was much easier to attain. What I really wanted was for people to read my book and to enjoy it. I believed in what I’d written, even if none of the usual gatekeepers did.

And so I self-published. It felt a bit like defeat, but at least my work was out there for people to read.

Looking back, all those literary agents were right about Alpha. It’s not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a weird tonal blend of goofy rom-com and over-the-top action, the pacing is clumsy, and the ending is a little forced. If I were in those agents’ shoes, I’d probably pass on it as well.

But I was also right about Alpha. For all its imperfections, there are some cool moments in there. And people who aren’t even related to me have read it and enjoyed it.

I’ve grown a lot since writing Alpha. If I went back and did it again, I’d end up with a much better product. For that reason, I’ve debated making it a freebie or even unpublishing it altogether. I just can’t bring myself to do it, though. If I went around deleting all the old projects that I could do better, I wouldn’t have many books to offer.

And that’s good news, right? I’m still growing. I haven’t peaked.

I was surprised to learn it’s only been four years since I published Alpha. It seems like it’s been much longer. I’ve written three books and two short stories since then, and I really believe each was better than the last. Four years from now, I might look back on all those books and stories with the same cringing nostalgia I have for Alpha. To be perfectly honest, I kind of hope I do. That would mean I’ve gotten even better.

That’s an encouraging thought to me. I’ve been a little down on my writing recently. I started work on an ambitious project, only to realize it’s outside my abilities as they are now. So I’ve gone back to the drawing board to come up with a story I’m capable of executing, and the exact thing I needed was a reminder of where I was four years ago. The exact thing I needed was the hope that four years from now, I’ll be even further along.

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In Which I Pretend to Know Literary Criticism Terms

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this or not, but [a book or movie] came out [sometime recently], and there’s all kinds of controversy within the Church because of [theological issues].

I’m being as generic as possible here, because if we wait another month or so, this post will be applicable to something completely different. There’s always some piece of entertainment being deemed deeply flawed or dangerous. Numerous blogs and articles pick the piece apart, showing just how heretical it is, and just as many blogs and articles beg people to give the piece a chance and think about what they can learn from it.

It’s interesting hearing arguments (or reading them, if you make the mistake of going to the comment section) about the controversial thing du jour. They go a little like this:

“I can’t believe Christians are eating this up. It’s clearly endorsing [insert heresy here].”

“What? That’s not what it’s saying at all!”

“Well, [insert list of plot points, direct quotes, and the Bible verses they contradict].”

“That’s not what I took away. I got [insert theologically sound point, often the complete opposite of the proposed heresy].”

I’m fascinated by people’s takeaways from entertainment. You can have two people experience exactly the same piece, in exactly the same culture, at exactly the same time, and they can come away with radically different interpretations.

In cases like this, I think the disagreement boils down to how people in the Church read stories. When a piece of fiction divides people so sharply, the camps are strongly defined by whether they interpret the story allegorically or metaphorically.

Side note – I just pulled those terms out of the air. There may be an actual literary criticism term for this stuff, but my education is in how to talk to microphones. Forgive me.

It’s usually the allegorical interpreters who have theological problems with whatever the controversial thing is. To them, every detail represents something. The characters, the plot points, the way things are phrased…all of it says something.

Your metaphorical interpreters tend to be a little more forgiving. To them, there may be some things meant to symbolize concepts and themes, but there are others that are only there to serve the story. To them, if you want to figure out The Point, you need to zoom out and look at the piece as a whole.

Just reading each of those, you can probably see the strengths and weaknesses of each.

When you read allegorically, you’re going to pick out all kinds of great details. Artists agonize over tiny details, and when you really pick them apart, you can find a lot more richness in a story. However, the more you allegorize something, the more you find things that don’t line up properly. The more detailed the analogy, the more fragile it becomes.

When you read metaphorically, you’re less likely to get bogged down in trivial details. You’re able to get the big picture, and you can acknowledge when the main character’s shirt is black just because it had to be some color. But the more you zoom out, the more you run the risk of imposing your own interpretation on a story.

I don’t want to say one of these is right and one of them is wrong. Like I said, there are strengths and weaknesses with each. I will note, though, that I tend to get a lot more allegorical if I want to have theological problems with something, and I’m more metaphorical when I want to give something a chance.

Art is tricky business as it is, and when you add religion to the mix, it only gets trickier. So much of art depends on the subjective reaction of an artist’s audience, and Christianity – for all its mystic, mysterious wonder – is based on the objective truth of the Artist himself.

I don’t get to choose what’s true about my faith. I can, however, choose what I take away from a piece of art. Even if the meaning I find was unintended, it could change the way I live my life, for better or for worse.

So if you really get down to it, the “danger level” of a piece of entertainment has less to do with the piece itself than it does with the people consuming it.

Deciding What’s True

I recently published a story called The Box Is Protection, Not Prison, and the idea for it started with a simple question my friend asked a few months back:

How do you decide what’s true?

My first thought was to tell him we don’t get to decide what’s true. Reality isn’t up to us.

But then Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth the word of the year. Then fake news came to mean not just stories from websites that invented facts to prank or deceive, but also stories from biased publications, or even stories the hearer didn’t like.

Then I realized just how much we all decide what’s true.

I’m not saying truth is relative. I still believe we only get one, so we need to treat it right. But the great irony of the Information Age is the more informed we’ve gotten, the hazier truth has become.

Before I got on Facebook, before I started paying attention to the news, my circle of truth was pretty cut and dry. I knew Tyler cut in line because I saw it with my own two eyes. I was pretty sure Tommy dumped Aly because Sarah told me, and she’s never lied to me.

But now I can get on Google and look up stories written by people I don’t know about people I’ll never meet. I’ll never be able to verify the vast majority of things I read online, but unless I find something totally outrageous, I will decide it’s true.

There was a story a few years ago about a girl who told her friends and family she was on vacation. She posted pictures on Facebook of herself swimming, visiting exotic landmarks, and generally having a great time. But it was all faked. She was in her apartment, Photoshopping everything the whole time.

I guarantee most people who saw those pictures decided they were true.

I think we can all agree that the truth is important, but the tricky part is no one can agree on what it is. When I was younger, I used to marvel at how two different news outlets could look at the same facts and come up with such different interpretations. Now it seems like they aren’t even looking at the same facts.

So that’s why I wrote The Box Is Protection, Not Prison. It’s a story about the nature of truth and the value of good journalism. It’s about the way we shape our realities and the way our realities shape us. Mostly, though, it’s about a society that’s lived inside a box for centuries, and the one man who believes the creatures outside don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart.

If any of that sounds good to you, I hope you’ll check it out.

the-box

Exploding Robots and Instructive Feelings

A close friend and I recently had a heated argument about Iron Man.

I know. Bear with me.

Personally, I love that egocentric, wisecracking billionaire. Flawed heroes are my jam.

My friend? Not so much. She likes her good guys good and her bad guys bad. If you ask her, heroes should be heroic.

The crux of our disagreement was over the ending of Iron Man 3, when, in a show of devotion to Pepper Potts, Tony Stark destroys his Iron Man suits. For me, that was a touching moment. Tony takes the source of his ego, something that’s become an unhealthy source of identity, and casts it aside for the woman he loves. It’s a beautiful sacrifice. It could even signal the beginning of positive personal growth.

That exact same scene makes my friend angry.

When she sees Tony destroy those Iron Man suits, she sees a man shirking responsibility. Those suits can save millions of lives, but Tony doesn’t care. He’d rather have a girlfriend. To my friend, this grand romantic gesture is a step backward. He continues to think only of himself and his own relationships.

We only made it a few minutes into our argument before stepping back and laughing at ourselves. We assured each other we still care for and respect each other, even if we have differing opinions on a cyborg crime fighter.

But as trivial as that disagreement was, it’s stuck with me.

To think one scene could invoke such differing responses is fascinating. As I continued turning the argument over in my head, I realized how instructive our emotional responses were. When I asked myself why I felt the way I did, I realized how important relationships are to me. I realized how much I care about maintaining a healthy sense of identity.

But I didn’t finish that scene and say, “Aha! This scene speaks to my value for personal relationships and my desire to only find value in the right things! Time to feel happy!”

I just felt.

That was it.

And I’m sure my friend didn’t roll through her list of values, decide which were applicable, and then choose an appropriate emotion. I’m sure she just felt, too.

When stories make us feel things, even in response to exploding robots, we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

So the next time you’re watching a movie and you feel joy or sorrow or relief or fear, ask yourself why. The answer may only be that the story is emotionally manipulative, but I’d encourage you to save that answer for a last resort. If you sit with those feelings for long enough and examine them, you might learn something about yourself.

And who knows? What you find may surprise you.

Creator’s Guilt and Geeky Resolutions

This year, I got geeky with my New Year’s Resolution.

I decided to set a hard, fast goal for the number of words I wanted to get written in 2017, but more importantly, I decided to create a spreadsheet to track my progress.

Oh, yes. A spreadsheet. Complete with a graph to track my monthly productivity, cells with pre-programmed formulas to calculate my average words per day, and even percentage trackers to see how my monthly and overall progress is going.

To be honest, there are days when I’m more proud of this spreadsheet than I am of some of the scenes in my latest book.

The good news is this spreadsheet has produced the desired effect – for the whole eight days that we’ve had of 2017, I’ve written every single day but one, and I skipped that one because I’d already written an extra day’s worth of words. So thanks to a handful of hours spent Googling things like “how to make a graph in Excel” and “what is an absolute cell reference” and “education level required to understand Excel,” I’m writing more words and more often than I have in a long time.

But that’s not the only benefit.

I’m also relaxing more.

Before, my afternoon routine would be to get home from work, take care of whatever needed to be done around the house, and – hopefully – spend some time with my wife. Whatever extra moments I had were spent in front of the computer, either writing or telling myself I should be writing. It was hard to step away to read a book, or watch TV, or play a video game, because any free time I had was time I could be writing. It didn’t matter if I’d written 100 words or 1,000. An empty moment was a moment when I could add to the total.

Creator’s guilt is a real thing. I’ve talked to other artists who feel that same crush: I should be writing. I should be practicing. I should be doing something to make myself a better, more accomplished artist.

But, at least for now, my geeky little spreadsheet is helping with that.

My goal for the year is to write 175,000 words. That’s enough to finish a draft of the horror-drama I’m writing, plus one more small project and a handful of blogs.

But this little spreadsheet is reminding me I don’t have to write 175,000 words in an afternoon. I can knock out 500 in a night and be ahead of schedule. I can knock out 550 a few days in a row and be so ahead that I can spend a whole evening hanging out with my wife. I don’t have to feel guilty, because I know if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll end 2017 exactly where I want to end it, and possibly ahead.

I don’t know what kind of guilt you’re dealing with today. Creator’s guilt, study guilt, exercise guilt…fill in the blank with whatever it is you don’t think you’re doing enough of. Maybe your solution is to show yourself just how small your daily steps need to be.

Maybe your solution is a spreadsheet.

Writer’s Block and the Good Hard Thing

I was certain I had writer’s block.

I had a spare hour and a half before I had to be somewhere. The good writer who hangs out on one of my shoulders told me this was the perfect time to make some progress on my new project.

But that wasn’t the only writer talking. There was a bad writer on my other shoulder. He told me I had writer’s block. There would be more time to write in the afternoon. I’d just had a big writing day the day before, so I needed some recharge time. I hadn’t gotten to play video games in a little while, anyway. Any words I managed to force out in this period of creative blockage would get cut on the editing floor, anyway. Nothing good ever comes from forced words.

The bad writer always has so many more arguments.

For whatever reason, I listened to the good writer this particular morning. I forced myself to sit in front of the computer, put on some music, and start typing. Thirty minutes later, I had a brand new scene on my hands.

good scene.

On a day when I had writer’s block.

This is why I think writer’s block is only a legend. Not in the sense that it isn’t real, though. Writer’s block really does happen.

Writer’s block is a legend in the sense that – at least for me – it gets exaggerated. I blow it up huge and give it authority over my writing that it doesn’t have. I twist the way it works and and put the root of its power in a completely different place.

In its simplest form, writer’s block tells me I don’t know what to write. I used to think this just meant I didn’t know what came next in my story, but then I started outlining my books scene-by-scene, making sure I knew everything that would happen before I wrote my very first sentence, and you know what happened?

I still got writer’s block. 

That’s what happened this particular morning. I knew what came next, but somehow, I still didn’t know what to write.

Now I’ve learned to stop saying “I can’t think of what to write.” I’ve learned to start asking “Why can’t I force the words out right now?”

Believe it or not, once I started asking that question, I got some helpful answers.

Answer #1: This Scene Is Boring

Seriously, it happens. Maybe I have a bit of exposition to get through, or some slower character-revealing dialog. It isn’t the wild and crazy stuff I dreamed about when planning this story, but it’s still necessary. I can’t get away from it.

The best way for me to fix this problem is to remember that I’m the one writing this stupid thing. If I’m bored, I can find a way to make this scene interesting. In fact, I probably should.

The only problem is that it’s hard. It’s easy to write fights, chase scenes, and character deaths. You just kind of let it happen. It’s harder to lay the groundwork that makes those things emotionally impactful. You really have to work at it.

Answer #2: This Scene Doesn’t Make Sense

Sometimes I’m chugging along, and all of a sudden, I realize I made a mistake in my early planning. My protagonist is supposed to do something that’s completely out of character. My setting isn’t fleshed out enough. Or, worst of all, I stumble over a big, gaping plot hole.

The good news, and the thing I always have to remind myself of, is that I discovered these problems while writing a rough draft, not after publication.

The bad news is that fixing those things is hard. Sometimes you have to rework older scenes, or even cut something you really love. A story can feel like a house of cards sometimes, and realizing you’ve built a foundation that’s only going to fail you is a hard pill to swallow.

Answer #3: I’d Rather Do Something Else

If I’m really honest, this is the biggest reason for my writer’s block. I love writing, but what I like even more is having written. It’s fun to get done with a writing session and see a nice, juicy word count. It’s fun to finish a project and get that first proof copy of the paperback in the mail.

But actually sitting down and forcing yourself to hammer out a scene that you’re going to have to hack and slash before it deserves to see the light of day, when there’s Facebook to be checked and Madden to be played and listicles to be read and Facebook to be checked and Facebook to be checked?

That’s hard.

Maybe you’re picking up on a theme here. I’m not saying this is true for everyone, but for me, when I get writer’s block, it’s always because, one way or another, I don’t want to do the hard thing.

But hard things can be good. Not always, but a lot of the time that’s the case. If writing a book were easy, it wouldn’t feel so good when you finally finish one.

Maybe you’re not writing a book right now, but I’m willing to bet you’re staring down a hard thing. And not just any hard thing. A good hard thing. Go do it. You’ll be better for it, because the good hard things are almost always better than the good easy things.

NaNoWriMo Wrap Up

Quick background: My goal for NaNoWriMo this year was to write, edit, and publish a novella in 30 days. The last three blogs tell a little more about that process if you want to learn more.

Well, I did it. In 30 days, I went from a little note on my phone with a bare-bones plot outline to a completed novella about workout plans, buff zombies, and eight-foot-tall babies wearing fake mustaches. This book could absolutely be better, but that’s the point of the Crimson Ace books. They’re not supposed to be perfect. They’re supposed to be fun. And this was definitely fun. If you want to read it, it’s 99 cents on Amazon…or free if you have Kindle Unlimited. You may want to read the first book in the series if you don’t want to be completely lost, but it’s going to be a weird read either way. Just click this ridiculous cover to find it.

cover

So now we come to an important question: Was it really worth it to do this? Or did I just waste 30 days I could’ve been spending on this horror/drama serial I’ve been cooking up? Believe me, there were times when I wondered, especially the times when I was Googling names of different 90’s boy bands, or how to draw monocles.

But I maintain this was absolutely not a waste of a writing month. Here are a few of the things I got out of this time.

#1: I’m a faster writer than I give myself credit for

I’ve preached and preached to anyone who would listen how the key to writing fast is simply letting go of the need to slap perfection on a blank page. First drafts are, by nature, bad. The good stuff doesn’t come until you’ve edited and rewritten over and over and over.

And yet, I’ve found myself getting more and more frozen as I write.

I’ve been doing the very thing I’ve told everyone else to stay away from. I’ve been worrying if my rough draft is good enough. And so I’ve been writing slower and slower, allowing my fear of failure to paralyze me.

So then I started working on The Crimson Ace.  On day one, I had one of the biggest writing nights of my life, because I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. I just had to have it done, and I had to have a completed book by the end of the month.

And yeah, it wasn’t great. But there was stuff I could work with. There was stuff I was even a little proud of after I hacked away at some of the fat around it.

So as I come back to a project that I desperately want to be even better than The Marian Trilogy, I’m going to remind myself that the first step to writing a great book is writing a terrible rough draft.

#2: I had a chance to let my main project rest

I’d been totally submerged in the world of this horror/drama before starting The Crimson Ace. Taking a month to intensively write something completely different in pacing, genre, and tone was a great way to flush my mind of all the insecurities, preconceived notions, and baggage that was starting to pile up with this project. Now, as I come back, I’ve seen why some scenes have felt stale. I have some ideas to push the story in better and more interesting ways. I’m remembering what got me excited about this story in the first place.

#3: I reminded myself that writing is fun

This was the biggest one for me. It’s easy when I’m in the middle of a project, writing a scene that I’m not as excited about as the others, to forget that the whole reason I’m doing this is that I love to write. I love to tell stories. And I love this story. Blazing through The Crimson Ace was a reminder of how cool it is to see a story take shape right underneath your fingertips. Pulling off a scene that gripped me, even though I knew what was coming, gave me a little extra juice to come back to this goofy little hobby with new vigor.

So there we go. I’ve finished my goofy superhero novella, and now it’s back to a horror/drama novel that’s going to be even better, thanks to my detour writing about clingy cyborg girlfriends.

Fellow NaNo-ers: What did you learn this past month?

NaNoWriMo Week 3 Update

If you’re just jumping in and need background, I wrote a post here about why I’m going to write, edit, and publish a novella in the month of November.

Last Tuesday, I finished the rough draft for a brand new novella. That put me right at two weeks of writing, which is perfect, because it left me with a little over two weeks to edit. With the way my schedule has been these past three weeks, I couldn’t have asked for much better.

But even with sixteen days to edit, format, and publish, I know I’m going to end up with a flawed manuscript.

I’ve known since Day One I wasn’t going to churn out something perfect, and that’s been okay. For me, this whole exercise hasn’t been about literary excellence. It’s been about letting loose, breaking mental blocks, and generally having fun.

But still, there’s that nagging question that I still ask myself every now and then: If I know this book isn’t going to be perfect, why publish it in the first place? I can have fun, let go of my vice grip on perfection, and teach myself just how much I’m capable of writing in a short amount of time without publishing an imperfect story. Why would I share it with other people?

The answer I keep coming back to is that publication changes the way you think about a project. When you know someone else is going to see what you’ve written, you work a little harder on it. When you tell someone you’re going to post something for everyone to see, you can’t back out when it gets too hard. You’re in it.

I didn’t want to take this book too seriously, but I also didn’t want to take it too lightly. It would be really easy to vomit 20,000 words onto a page then lock it away in some drawer for no one to see. But here’s the problem – If my only goal was to write those words, all I’ve done is improve my typing skills. By publishing this book, I’m forcing myself to think – if only minimally – about the details of my story that make it compelling…or boring, if that’s the case.

So even though I’m slapping a different name on this book, even though I’m explaining on this blog the challenges I’ve placed on myself, it’s still going to be out there for people to read, and that’s going to make me work just a little harder on it.

And in just a week and a half, you’ll be able to see how that worked out.

Words Written
Crimson Ace: 20,647
Newsletter: 378
Past blogs: 969
This blog: 444
Total: 23,438

NaNoWriMo Week 2 Update

If you’re just jumping in and need background, I wrote a post here about why I’m going to write, edit, and publish a novella in the month of November.

Another week down, and I’m still on track. I’m almost done with the rough draft for The Crimson Ace – in fact, I’m expecting to finish it this week, which would be nice. That would give me two weeks to go back and do some editing, and this one will definitely need some editing. I mentioned at the start that I don’t want to agonize over comma placement and word choice, but at the same time, there’s a level of quality I’d like to hit, even in such a restricted timeframe.

One of the biggest things NaNoWriMo is reminding me of is just how much and how quickly I’m capable of writing. Adding in the self-imposed quota of 1,667 words per day has been a great motivator. I’ve stolen a pocket of time before bed and it the goal count. I’ve grabbed a moment between getting home from work and heading out for a date to make up lost time. It’s amazing how many words you can fit in ten minutes.

The Central Iowa NaNoWriMo group gets a lot of credit for that lesson. This is my second year doing NaNo, but my first to really plug in with a local group, and it’s been a great decision. One of the more frustrating ways people over-romanticize the writing life is by creating this narrative that writing is something that’s meant to be a solitary struggle. You lock yourself in your room, you suffer, and finally you churn out this piece of art that hasn’t been tainted by the outside world.

It sounds great, but that hasn’t been how it works for me.

Granted, I like to do most of my writing by myself, but there’s something about sitting in a room of people that occasionally chat about naming characters and adding interest to a dull stretch of plot, but mostly just write. You look around, and you see a ton of people who aren’t wasting time on Facebook, and it’s exactly the kick in the pants you need.

My biggest writing days of NaNoWriMo have been the days I went to write with others in this community, and that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. In every other aspect of my creative life, I’ve gotten better as I’ve created in community. I made huge strides in skill and creativity when I went from drumming along to Beatles CDs to drumming with worship bands. I learned how to hone my communication and tell jokes better when I started doing radio with more than just me in the studio.

And now, I’m learning how to write better and faster after I’ve started writing with other people.

So this is my week two update, but it’s also my encouragement to you: If you’re a creative person, find a way to create in community this week.

Words Written
Crimson Ace: 17,536
Newsletter: 378
Past blogs: 460
This blog: 509
Total: 18,891

NaNoWriMo 2016 Week 1 Update

Last week, I wrote a blog about my goal for National Novel Writing month: Write, edit, and publish a novella in November. I’m writing the next installment in my series about a pizza delivery guy who accidentally absorbs the essence of the god of pride and is forced to become a superhero, and five days into the process, book two is proving to be just as fun to write as the first was.

When the month kicked off, I was seriously worried that I might struggle to get everything done in time, but I’m finding, once again, that having a big-picture outline for my story is really helping to keep things moving at a good clip.

Some people can just sit down and start writing a story without knowing where it’s going. They have a real feel for story, and so they can mostly listen to their instincts in the first draft, and then clean up the rough edges when it comes time to edit. That’s never been me, though. When I’m in the thick of a draft, it’s hard for me to judge whether I need to spend a little more time in one phase of the story or another. I like to know what’s coming up next. Having that outline has always given me the confidence I need that, if I just sit down and flesh out what’s on the next bullet point, things will be going in the right direction.

All of my books actually follow the same basic outline, more or less. Whether it’s the romantic action story Alpha, the head-hopping chase thriller The Hunted, or the quest-horror The Cloud, there are a few basic plot points I try to hit throughout every book. Some people think of outlines like this as formulaic or restrictive, but to me, they work as really useful guides. They help me balance the pacing of my story.

And, once I’ve got an outline in place, it helps me write faster.

If I know what comes next, all I have to do is write that thing. It’s one less note of uncertainty to deal with.

The only work I did on this book before NaNoWriMo kicked off was to lay out a seven-point outline. Now I just sit down and turn each sentence of that outline into 2,000 to 3,000 words. So far, I’m right on pace. We’ll see if that keeps up.

Okay, back to The Crimson Ace. The goal for NaNoWriMo is 50,000, and since the project I’m working on will probably finish out at around 20,000 words, I’m counting these update blogs, newsletters I send out to subscribers, and anything else related to a book I’m working on. Here’s how I’m doing so far:

Words Written
Crimson Ace: 7,805
Newsletter: 378
This blog: 460
Total: 8,643