Trying Not To Try

Planning a book is such a different experience from every other part of the process. At least, for me it is.

Everything that comes after that completed outline is so much easier, because every other part boils down to trying really hard. And, not to pat myself on the back too hard, but I’m good at trying really hard. I enjoy the discipline and ritual of sitting in front of the computer, knowing what I have to do next, and then forcing myself to do it.

Writing a rough draft? I have an outline. I know what scene needs to come next. All that’s left is to sit and type until one day the next words up are “The End.”

Try really hard.

Revising the plot? It doesn’t take many read-throughs before I can pick out the scenes and plot points that don’t work. Chances are, I even know why they don’t work. So I sit and I chip away at each issue until things feel right.

Try really hard.

Time to edit? I know which sentences are awkward and which lines of dialog don’t fit. My editing software can point out redundant words and meandering paragraphs. I just need to keep fixing problems until the prose sings.

Try really hard.

But now I’m staring down a blank Scrivener document, trying to put together an outline for a brand-new story, and things are different. I’m coming up with ideas now, and trying really hard won’t get me anywhere.

You can’t just try really hard to get an idea. You can start with a seven-point plot structure or the Hero’s Journey or another basic framework, but that’s just bones. You can’t will into existence the muscles and flesh and skin and clothes and personality. There’s no creativity fruit that – when squeezed long enough and hard enough – releases some sort of idea juice.

Ideas have a way of coming to you when you aren’t expecting them. The trick isn’t so much in finding them as in recognizing them when they find you.

Ideas don’t come from effort. Ideas come from attention.

So as I’m planning this new book, I’m not trying really hard. If anything, I’m trying really hard not to try. Because, while I haven’t found a sure-fire way to coax an idea out of hiding, I know for a fact that trying really hard will scare it away in a hurry.

This phase has me doing a lot of staring. Staring at a half-written sentence in a half-empty Scrivener document. Staring out the window on a hot Saturday morning. Staring at nothing in particular so I can better see an idea when it sneaks around the corners of my eyes.

I’m letting my mind play. I’m loosening my grip on the reins and allowing the detours to happen in hopes they’ll take me somewhere interesting. I’m re-defining how a productive day looks. And, little by little, I’m seeing the outline of a new story come into existence.

All without trying.

Advertisements

The Weirdest Phase

The more I think about it, the more I think I might in the weirdest phase of my writing cycle.

I go through these phases over and over, usually over the course of twelve to eighteen months, and every time I get to this point, I find myself more than a little off-balance. Without breaking down the whole stinkin’ cycle, I’ll tell you I’m at the phase just after I finish the rough draft of a project.

Oh. By the way, I finished the rough draft of a new book. More on that later.

At this point, the next thing that needs to happen to my book is some serious editing, because the key word in “rough draft” is “rough.” But it’s incredibly difficult to edit a book right after you finish writing it, because it’s still so fresh. You can’t be objective, no matter how hard you try. You’re unnecessarily kind to the scenes you had a blast writing, and unfairly critical of the scenes where you weren’t sure if you were writing or pulling teeth.

So there’s a phase I’ve inserted into my writing cycle between “finish rough draft” and “begin editing rough draft.” It’s called “start planning a new project.”

I’ve found if I spend a couple weeks doing this, I’m able to take all my emotional attachments to Book A and, slowly but surely, place them onto Book B. So when I come back to Book A, I’ve achieved a little more distance.

But like I said, it’s been weird. Every single time I’ve gotten here, it’s been weird.

You’ve just finished spending countless hours on one project. You’ve stacked words on top of words on top of scenes on top of chapters. And then, all of a sudden, you go to this new project, all you have is a white page and a word count of zero. Maybe there’s a title, if you’re lucky.

More than anything, a new project feels fragile. You have this little idea that sparked your imagination, and you think maybe there’s a story there. You start building more ideas around that first idea, but you don’t know where any of them fit, if at all. You could spend countless hours developing a plot thread or a character, only to realize it will never fit the project you’re working on.

Or, horror of horrors, you may end up discarding that original idea altogether. You may have to start fresh with something completely different.

It’s exciting and overwhelming all at once. Because on one hand, anything is possible. But on the other hand…anything is possible.

It’s jarring coming from a project where everything has felt pretty solid for a while. But the more I work on this new project, the more I remember how much fun this phase can be.

This is the playing phase. It’s the phase where I get to dream my wildest dreams, chase improbable plot threads, explore ridiculous characters, brainstorm convoluted endings. Nothing is settled yet. My only job is to think up a handful of things that are really, really exciting to me and then build a story around them.

And all the while, that completed rough draft (you know, the one that I just finished and was super excited about at the start of this phase) will be waiting for me. When I come back to it, I’ll edit it, I’ll publish it, and then I’ll start a whole new rough draft using the notes and outlines I’m dreaming up now.

And then I’ll finish that rough draft and come right back to this weird, thrilling phase.

Little Steps and Big Deals

When I’m writing a book, getting those first 10,000 words under my belt is a Big Deal. Capital B. Capital D. It’s the first time I feel like I’m working with something substantial instead of a hapless collection of paragraphs.

The next Big Deal is 50,000 words. At that point, the story starts to crystallize and I have feel for what exactly I’m working with.

After that comes 100,000 words.

And 100,000 words? That’s a Biggest Deal.

For the uninitiated, 100,000 is the standard number thrown out as the neighborhood where a full-length novel should live. And since I have not yet mastered the art of the doorstop novel with a sprawling, epic plot, 100,000 words is a sign that I’m either done or every close to it.

And in this case, I’m so very close to finishing the first draft of a new book.

I hit 100,000 words today, and as I look at my plotting notes, I’m down to the last two or three sequences before I can type “The End” (or maybe Teh End, because this is a rough draft, after all). I might even get there before the month is over, and that’s crazy exciting.

But it’s also just plain crazy.

100,000 words sounds massive to me, especially considering 60,000 of that came in 2018, and the year is barely three months old.

What’s even crazier is I don’t spend that much time writing. I enjoy it for sure, and I take it fairly seriously, but I also have a full-time job, responsibilities around the house, and this woman I’m in love with who I want to hang out with whenever I can.

But I in the grand scheme of things, the time I spend writing is just a sliver out of my day. In fact, I think I spend more time procrastinating writing than I do actually writing.

And yet here I am with 100,000 words in a Scrivener file.

It’s easy to look at a number like that and think the only way to get there is by writing for hours on end, churning out massive word counts day in and day out. But when I look through my daily word counts (because I’m a nerd and record stuff like that in an Excel spreadsheet) I realize I got here by writing 500-750 words a day. The most I’ve written in a day all year has been just shy of 1,600 words, which is still only a fraction of 100,000.

But the thing that got me through was recognizing that I didn’t have to finish the book in one sitting. All I had to do was plant myself in front of the laptop every day and get myself a little closer. And if every day I got a little closer, then one day I’d get there.

Because here’s the deal. Do you know how many words I started with today?

99,346.

I got to 100,000 by writing 654 words. It was easy.

That’s the way it is with big projects, isn’t it? If you look at all the work ahead of you required to get that degree, lose that weight, or fix up that kitchen, it can be overwhelming. But you don’t have to do it all at once. Just do what you have to do today, and you’ll be closer than you were yesterday.

So keep celebrating those little milestones. Keep taking those little steps. If you string enough together, then one day a little step will take you to a big milestone.

The Hard Hobby

2017 was the year I considered finding a new hobby.

It started when I hit the Writer’s Block Perfect Storm. Halfway through the rough draft of a new book, I realized the story was fundamentally broken, and would need some major changes to be workable. On top of that, I took on new responsibilities at work, making my days longer and more draining. And on top of that, my wife and I bought a house.

The discouragement and busyness all came to a head shortly before we closed on the house, and I came to a point where I just. Stopped. Writing. I wasn’t chipping away at a novel. I wasn’t blogging. I wasn’t writing monthly newsletters. I was frozen.

That was when I started asking myself if writing was still the hobby for me.

I’d had a nice run. I’d written some books I was proud of and had a lot of fun along the way, but there was nothing keeping me at the writing desk. I love my day job. There’s nothing I’m trying to escape with a full-time writing income. I just like telling stories and knowing others are enjoying those stories.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the harder it was to imagine myself uninstalling Scrivener and never creating another character or engineering another plot. As far as hobbies go, writing can be pretty demanding, but in that time of doubt, I realized it was a hobby I couldn’t not do.

At the same time, I couldn’t keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them. I’ve been realizing there are a lot of things I’ve been doing that made writing feel like a job. They’re all things the self-publishing podcasts and blogs agree you should do if you’re serious about selling lots of books. And of course I want to sell lots of books.

So I did as many of those things as I could. For a while, I even enjoyed them. There are a lot of fun and useful tools out there for indie authors. But as I added tool after tool to my toolbox, I started spending almost as much time working with those tools as I was writing.

I’d given my hobby administrative work.

So now I’m working on finding some balance with this hobby. Just because writing is a hobby doesn’t mean I don’t want to tell the best stories I can, or that I don’t want to sell as many books as possible. It doesn’t mean I won’t force myself to sit down and hit a daily word quota, or that I’m going to rush through my edits because all I want to do is publish and have another trophy on my Amazon author page.

But it does mean I’m going to shed a lot of the things that make my hobby feel like a job.

That’s going to be the adventure of 2018. Finding that balance is going to be a challenge, because the fact of the matter is writing can be a hard hobby. If I dumped everything that was hard, I’d never publish another book. So there’s a line out there, somewhere. I’m not sure exactly where it is, but I know in which direction it needs to move.

So here’s to better balance in 2018. It’s been working well so far, as I’m almost 50,000 words into a new book that I’m really excited about. It’s going to be an interesting year, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of making this hard hobby a little less difficult.

New Year’s News Dump

2017 was a weird year of writing and publishing for me. I did manage to pump out a short story, but other than that, I felt like I spent a lot of the year on pause. I’m hoping 2018 will be a different story – and I have a lot of reasons to believe that’ll be the case – so here’s a little bit of what’s on tap for the year so far.

Alpha on Audiobook

This happened completely by accident. The original plan was just to create audiobooks for each entry in the Marian Trilogy. Chris Goodwin, my program director from the Power FM days (and now the mastermind behind The X), is getting into audiobook production, and I was more than willing to team up with him to bring the series to life this way.

But since I was already setting up the Marian trilogy with Amazon’s audiobook production program, I went ahead and made all of my stuff available to narrators, and, out of the blue, I got an audition for Alpha. And it was good. Like, grinning-ear-to-ear-the-whole-time-I-listened good. So I gave the gig to this guy named Steve Siegel, and now you can get the Alpha ebook on Audible!

It was a lot of fun hearing this book I wrote four years ago come to life through Steve’s narration, and it’s been the same experience with the snippets I’ve heard from Chris’s work on The Marian. If you’re an audiobook fan, stay tuned for more, because it’s been surprisingly easy to get this done. For me, at least. Chris and Steve have been doing all the work, and I’ve just been sitting back and saying, “Good job!”

Free Books

Speaking of the Marian Trilogy, you’re about to be able to get the whole thing for free on ebook. I’ll be offering The Marian, The Hunted, and The Cloud for free on Kindle from Thursday, January 11 to Friday, January 13.

There’s literally no strategic reason behind this. There will be a longer blog post about this later, but I want 2018 to be less about best marketing practices, growing a newsletter, and grinding away at what all the podcasts say I need to do to sell more books…and more about doing what makes me happy. And letting people read my work makes me happy.

New Book

There will also be more about this in a future blog, but I was on track to have a new book out by now. Then 2017 hit me like a ton of bricks, and I ended up putting that project on an indefinite hold.

Now I’ve started a new project that I feel much better about, and it’s one that looks like it won’t get disrupted by the things that disrupted the last one. If I keep on schedule, and if it doesn’t require any major re-working in the editing phase, I could have this puppy out by the end of the year. That’s my big goal for 2018. My achievable goal is to have the rough draft done by the summer.

I’m keeping details about this one to myself, but I will say it’s another genre-blender, with a little post-apocalyptic science fiction, a little fantasy, and a little supernatural thriller. I like the picture I have of it in my mind. The trick is making the finished product match that picture.

2017 Favorites Part 3 – Books

Here’s the deal: I’m a slow reader. Unlike my music and movies lists, the entries on this post will not all be from 2017. Forgive me if you’re a year-end-list-purist. But I read these this year, so that counts in my book.

Here are my favorite books of 2017:

 The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp

My jeans remain unsoiled. My heebies are jeebie-less. There are no willies up me.

I listened to this one on audiobook during a road trip from Iowa to Texas. The audiobook was long enough that I still hadn’t finished it when we arrived in Texas, and it was good enough that a part of me was almost excited to drive back up to Iowa, just so I could find out what happened next.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks is the literary equivalent of a found-footage horror movie. The bulk of the narrative is told in the form of an unfinished book by a fictional author named Jack Sparks, but we also get email transcipts, notes from Jack’s editor, newspaper articles, and transcripts from Jack’s own tape recorder. The best part is the facts of each piece of the narrative don’t always line up, so you’re not always sure what’s real.

Jason Arnopp expertly straddles the line between laugh-out-loud humor, legitimately chilling scares, and some truly profound character moments. I think this may be a love-it-or-hate-it ending, but I loved it and thought it was the perfect payoff to the whole wild ride.

 Borne – Jeff VanderMeer

We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.

2017 was the year I was introduced to The New Weird, starting with one of the biggest names in the genre, Jeff VanderMeer. I read more of his books in 2017 than anyone else’s, and Borne was far and away my favorite.

Borne opens in a way that lets you know exactly what you’re dealing with: a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic nameless city harvests a blob of something off of Mord, the giant flying bear who has become the city’s de facto god.

Yeah, it’s weird. But it works.

As Borne becomes more intelligent and develops a personality, the main character is confronted more and more with what it means to be human, which is always a theme I enjoy in science fiction. I couldn’t read this one fast enough. It’s beautifully written and incredibly compelling. There’s a deep mythology to Borne, though VanderMeer never goes into great detail. You just get a little snippet here and a little snippet there, so a great sense of mystery hangs over the whole story, which moves along nicely, even though I’d consider it more character-driven than plot-driven.

The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath – Mark Buchanan

In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness is laziness, rest is sloth. But without rest, we miss the rest of God: the rest he invites us to enter more fully so that we might know him more deeply.

This was a busy year. As I took on new responsibilities at my day job and my wife and I bought a new house, I found myself running more and more ragged. I found it harder and harder to find time to rest, and those times that I did relax, I either felt guilty or never emerged on the other side any more refreshed.

A good friend recommended Mark Buchanan’s book on the Sabbath to me, and it was exactly the book I needed. With every chapter, I felt something in my soul un-clench just a little more. This is going to be one that I’ll need to come back to periodically, because there’s just so much to be digested in here. Unlike many nonfiction books, The Rest of God doesn’t simply make its case in three chapters and then find new and creative ways to repeat the same point over and over until the book is long enough to be marketable. Every single chapter has useful information in it, and on top of all that, Mark Buchanan’s writing is so eloquent that even the way his sentences are constructed is soothing – at least to this writing geek.

The Fisherman – John Langan

Have you ever been so scared of something you move toward it, try to touch it, that kind of thing?

I don’t even know how to start talking about The Fisherman except to say it’s a story within a story within a story (within another story? I can’t remember how deep it goes). Apparently, it took a while to find a publishing home because it was too literary for the horror genre, but too weird and Lovecraftian for the literary genre.

I’m sure its audience will be limited, but I fit squarely in the camp of people who have been looking for a book like this. It’s a masterfully told slow-burner about grief and storytelling with just enough legitimately scary moments. I need more horror like this in my life.

Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

I have danced with the spider. I have cut a caper with the dancing mad god.

Jeff VanderMeer was the New Weird author I read the most in 2017, but Perdido Street Station was the New Weird book I loved the most. It was the book I didn’t even know I wanted to read for a long time.

Perdido Street Station is a total mishmash of genres. A little steampunk here, a little fantasy there, a touch of horror, a dash of science fiction, and a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t fit neatly inside any ready-made genre lines. I don’t want to talk too much about what you’ll find in this book, but I will say there’s enough weird stuff that by the time you’re halfway through, it’ll be normal by comparison that the main character’s girlfriend has a beetle for a head, that there’s an entire race of humanoid cacti, and that criminals are punished by having limbs and other body parts replaced by machinery or grafted with animal parts.

It might be the single most imaginative book I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to read more from this guy.

 

And that’s all I’ve got for my books this year. What were your favorites?

2017 Favorites Part 2 – Movies

I’m wrapping up 2017 with a few of my favorite things from the year. Yesterday, it was albums. Today, it’s movies.

Forget any preamble. Let’s do this.

The Shape of Water

If I told you about her, the princess without voice, what would I say?

Full disclosure: I just saw this a couple days ago, so it may fall out of my top five in a few months, but right now I can’t get over what a great movie this latest offering from Guillermo del Toro is. Take the charm of Amelie, add the visuals and historical-fantasy setting of Pan’s Labyrinth, and you’ve got something close to The Shape of Water. del Toro’s use of color is incredible (just LOOK at that still) and he masterfully weaves themes of loneliness and connection throughout the film. Add in fantastic performances from the entire cast, and you’ve got an absolute delight of a movie.

 Get Out

I want your eyes, man. I want those things you see through.

Take a little bit of dark humor, a little bit of weird creepiness, and a decent amount of social commentary, throw them all in a blender, and out comes Get Out. This is one that sticks with you. The whole thing was incredibly fresh and unique, with such a slow burn that it didn’t really feel like much of a horror movie until the very end, when you learn everything that’s been going on. Absolutely riveting.

Thor: Ragnarok

I don’t hang with the Avengers anymore. It all got too corporate.

This is the Thor movie I’ve been waiting for ever since the first one left me feeling relatively underwhelmed. I know there are people who really enjoyed it, and that’s great, but I’d always hoped for an experience more like this one. The colors are bright, the action is fun, and the weirdness is on full display. I’m not saying all the other Avengers are just regular Joes, but when your superhero is the god of thunder from an alternate dimension, it’s best to lean into the weird and have a lot of fun.

Baby Driver

The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.

Plain and simple: Baby Driver is an expertly crafted action movie with some great performances. There isn’t a second of wasted narrative; the plot moves along nearly as fast as its main character. The use of music throughout just makes the whole thing a blast to watch, too. The soundtrack is its own character, and it does its job magnificently. If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World meets The Fast and the Furious sounds like fun to you, you need to see this movie.

It

When you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.

Let me preface this by saying Stephen King’s It is my favorite book of all time. I wanted so badly to like this movie. Then again, I also wanted so badly to like The Dark Tower, and you’ll notice that isn’t on this list.

To me, this new incarnation of It worked so well because it leaned into what made the book so great to me. It is not a story about a scary killer clown. Not really. The beating heart of the book was a coming-of-age story about friendship and fear, and how strongly the two can shape your identity. Granted, the thing that forced these kids to come of age was a creature that occasionally took the form of a scary killer clown, and while that certainly makes the book a lot more interesting, the whole experience isn’t nearly as powerful without that deeper human element.

This adaptation absolutely nails this human element with some great performances and a welcome dash of humor. To say I have high hopes for the sequel would be a massive understatement.

And that’s all I’ve got for you. What were your favorites this year?

I’ll be back one last time tomorrow with some books.

2017 Favorites Part 1 – Music

2017 was my first year away from JesusWired. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave, because I truly enjoyed the column I wrote there, but as the year progressed, I knew more and more I’d done the right thing. Besides freeing up space in an overpacked schedule, shedding that obligation allowed me to get back to listening to music for the pure joy of it. I wasn’t listening to twenty to thirty albums every month, but I was truly enjoying and spending time with the stuff I did find.

All that to say this: I didn’t listen to nearly the volume of music in 2017 that I have in the past, so there’s a good chance I’ve missed some really great stuff. But that’s not to say the albums I’m about to share with you are only in my top five because I didn’t have time to find anything better. These are all solid albums that I have listened to on repeat for much of the year.

Enjoy.

Army of Bones – Army of Bones

You will find my weakness / You will take me down / You will leave my sin there / So I can rise again

Army of Bones is a new project from Martin Smith of Delirious? fame. They’d been teasing a full-length album for nearly a year when their self-titled debut finally released, and boy was it worth the wait. Army of Bones is a Brit-rock tour de force, equal parts U2 and The Cure. The songs range from noisy, raucous fist-pumpers to moody, synth-drenched anthems, and there isn’t a bad song in the bunch.

Recommended Listening: River, Dead in the Water, Love Song for a City

John Mark McMillan – Mercury & Lightning

I built my life around someone that I thought that I was / But it turns out / All the things I do to feel young / They only make me old

Apparently, John Mark McMillan set out to write a traditional worship album for his latest project, but after growing frustrated with the commercialization of the industry, he ended up with this instead. That tension and frustration is definitely there in these lyrics. In the title track – the very first song on the album – McMillan wails “I need a new religion, or I need a new life,” and that line hasn’t stopped hitting me yet. Over and over, he asks tough questions about what it really means to follow God, and how the things we chase lead us away from Him.

To be perfectly honest, this one took a while to grow on me. The music is just a step left of center, and the lyrics are challenging, lacking simplistic answers wrapped in tidy bows. But the more I listen, the more it gets under my skin, and the less I can resist it.

Recommended Listening: Mercury & Lightning, Death in Reverse, Gods of American Success

Bleachers – Gone Now

She touched me, said “I know you’re not to blame” / What a weight to live under / What a lie that’s been covered / I’m talking about rolling thunder

Heads up: This is the only album on this list that cannot be categorized in any way as “Christian music.” If you’re not a fan of strong language in your music (which I know is the case for many who read this blog), move on to the next entry.

Gone Now is a raw album, dealing with themes of grief, specifically over the loss of lead singer Jack Antonoff’s sister to cancer when he was 18. That rawness is part of what makes Gone Now so great. You can hear the emotion in every line of every song, not just in Antonoff’s voice, but in the construction of the melodies and the choices of instrumentation. This album oozes emotion, and – at least for me – it’s impossible to listen to it without feeling.

Gone Now is an indie rock Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, complete with horn sections, playful song structures, and recurring themes. It’s simultaneously fresh and nostalgic, which works perfectly in support of the thematic content.

Recommended Listening: Goodmorning, Don’t Take the Money, I Miss Those Days

The Brilliance – All Is Not Lost

Headline breaks / We start to hate again / Calling them names again / We give our peace away

There is something incredibly healing in listening to this album. If Gone Now addressed themes of grief so effectively that I can’t help but feel every time I listen to it, then All Is Not Lost does the same with hope. It’s a fabulously beautiful album that addresses the brokenness in our world without flinching, but it also never loses hope that everything will be made right.

I don’t have a quippy description of this album’s sound, no matter how hard I try. There’s no this-band-meets-that-band-and-adds-this-flavor comparison I can think of, which is kind of how it’s always been with The Brilliance. Which is odd, because they don’t sound weird. They just don’t fit neatly into any popular musical categories. You’ll hear pianos, orchestration, synths, falsettos, and more. And it’ll all work.

Recommended Listening: See the Love, Turning Over Tables, Gravity of Love

Brady Toops – Tried & True

Without love I’m half a man / Without love I’m more machine / And it gets so hard to balance / When you’re caught out in between / It’s the work that keeps you living / But a heart that makes you bleed

Man, Brady Toops is just so dang listenable. His self-titled debut was a fantastic blend of singer-songwriter and gospel, and Tried & True builds and improves on that foundation. Brady’s arrangements are beautiful and evocative, and his vocals are deep and smooth. Every time I come back to this album, I’m sucked back in immediately.

Recommended Listening: Walk in Love, Everything Reminds Me, Carolina

Honorable Mention

Lael – Phoenix Hyper-melodic pop from former Number One Gun lead singer Jeff Schneeweis
At the Wayside – The Breakdown and the Fall Pure pop punk perfection
’68 – Two Parts Viper Imagine if The White Stripes were noisier and weirder
Colony House – Only the Lonely : Stephen Curtis Chapman’s sons tackle loneliness and relationships with a timeless rock ‘n’ roll sound
Joshua Micah – 20XX : A fresh pop sound from a new voice. I dare you to listen without grooving.

All right, that’s all I’ve got for music. What ended up on your list?

Stick around tomorrow for more of the same, but with movies.

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.

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.