Travel!

My apologies for the lack of blog post lately – life has been happening.

This post is short, and all about what I’m doing later this week, for those that haven’t heard me talk about it on Twitter or Facebook.

Kate and I are attending the ALA (American Library Association) Annual Meeting in Anaheim (I swear they tried to be alliterative, but couldn’t find an a-word for library), and that means I get to spend today doing laundry and last minute things (like go to the bank, print receipts, etc) so that I can pack tomorrow and head off.

Now, I’ve never been to anything like this before, and the videos on youtube make this look somewhere between GenCon for librarians and the old Atlantic City teacher conventions I heard my high school teachers opine for during the school year. So, for updates, follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Of course, while I’m there I’m bringing work with me —

The DexCon $1,000 Night’s Black Agents Tournament (run by Ken Hite and myself) is really switching into high gear. In fact while I’m doing laundry today, I’ll be creating and printing the character sheets, which is way more fun than you’d imagine.

And I’ve got Kestrel to work on, and some other odds and ends to do.

While all that is nice lovely crunchy detail, I just want to take a minute to say I’m really excited for this trip. I’ve been on trips before that were as exciting, but they had with them a stressful veneer of anxiety and tension. All that’s gone now, and I get to look forward to the really super swank hotel and the day in Disneyland as well as anything/everything this convention has to offer.

This is going to be awesome.

Kicking Fear In The Teeth

Note – Yes I know it’s Thursday, but I’m in Washington DC until early Monday, so I’m putting this up for the weekend. 

Before we start today’s post, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to right now, wherever you are, to do something that puts a smile on your face. Look out the window, think about smacking your officemate with a stapler, have a glass of water….just do something to make yourself smile. Then come back.

Ready? I asked you to do that because I wanted to start this message on an “up” note – since today we’re going to wade into the morass of our work and talk about what scares us. Then I’m going to show you how you can beat back that fear in three steps. I can’t promise fear’s permanent defeat, since that’s on you and your vigilance, but I can promise to arm you better against it.

I know my fears. I talk about them. I have spotted them coming at me in the distance and have let them run me down as I stay paralyzed by them. I have also fought back against them, and at times make great strides forward and other times fall back….and I can’t always tell the difference.

But I’m getting better.

I used to think that the whole “trick” to this was just in spotting the fear and calling it out – saying that “hey there’s a bear coming to eat my innards” would somehow dissuade the bear from snacking on my inside parts. It didn’t, but I took false confidence from my ability to tell you that I was afraid. I wasn’t really making a lot of headway against the fear, I just sort of put my fear on display and let it keep me from the success that everyone thought I should have had.

Nope. That’s not the point. You don’t “win” just by pointing out the fear, you still have to do the things that scare you, still have to make it through those moments where fear puts cold sweat on you and your stomach somersaults. And you don’t get to hide from it. I mean, you can hide from it, but you then get the additional pang of guilt or shame or frustration that you chickened out and didn’t do what you set out to do.

My fears are all about completing things. I draw such a rush from new things, from that excitement and adrenalin of new tasks that I burn myself out on projects when we reach the middle stages. Forget end stages, you sometimes have to drag me kicking and screaming to the finish line. It got so bad for me that at one point I organized my life so that I would be forced, often catastrophically to finish things. Totally stupid. Totally my own doing. All because I was afraid.

What does that translate into for writing? Well, it turns into not-writing. It generates a lot of thinking, but not a lot of fingers-tapping-keys. Thinking, you say? Yes, thinking about writing, which turns into analyzing the pros-and-cons of that writing, which turns into choosing not to write because the ideas were more con than pro. So….to sum up, I talked myself out of writing because I was afraid of finishing and/or that what I was writing wasn’t going to be “good” (that is, enjoyed by others)

Does that happen every day? Thankfully no. Has it happened lately? No, not really. I’ve hit a good stride (it comes from doing things I love and pacing myself) and am made happy every day by having good people around me and by looking forward to good things ahead (like my summer workshops and my fall classes).

So what tools can I offer you to kick your own fear and stop the scary bear from eating your guts? Here are three, although admittedly, I stole the first one.

i. “Say to yourself: These are just thoughts, they aren’t truth.” (credit to Brian Engard, a writer who really should be writing more things). This recently came up in his Jennisodes interview, and he’s said it me at least four dozen times since I’ve known him. It’s good advice. Just because you think it doesn’t make it so. You can prove this by thinking yourself the owner of the world’s largest chocolate bar or the person who in about to walk out of their room and onto the surface of Jupiter….thoughts aren’t truth, they’re just ideas that some part of us wants/hopes/dreads/desires/fears turning into truth. They’re not the boss of you.

ii. The task itself is probably not that difficult. Let’s look at what writing is. You sit in a chair, you press your fingertips against a keyboard in specific repeated patterns as to convey a story. There’s no mention of marketing or queries or agents or returns on investments because that’s not what writing is…that’s what writing has included with it when you zoom out to the larger picture. But writing is just the act of story expression. And that’s not difficult, because you sit and do that often. When you strip away the layers and look at just the barest essentials of the activity, you’re also stripping away the fear-empowering expectations and the stress. (It gets very Zen, but don’t be a dick about that, just know that you can focus on the act and enjoy it.)

iii. Do it for one minute. Then another. Then two minutes. Then for two more. As I’ve talked about before, the people who trained me to write and edit were old perverts. They were brilliant, but they were well aware that lifetimes of smoking and drinking were catching up to them and the fastest way to reach a young man’s mind is through sexual metaphor. So when I was feeling disputatious and angsty one day, I got told “Just do it for a minute” and those sixty seconds flew by. In very small increments, you can accomplish a lot. Forget about, just dismiss the idea that “if you go at this pace you’ll be doing it forever” because nobody’s asking you to go at this speed forever, just for right now. Do you have sixty seconds to spare?

Practice these. Familiarize yourself with their wonderment.

Now go kick more ass.

Happy writing.

Pretty But Hollow

“Pretty but hollow” was my summary of the new Snow White and Huntsman movie, which I went into with something of an expectation that it would be actiony or gripping or would move me in some way other than to squirm in my seat and ask “This is still going on? How long have we been here, six hours?”

Ultimately the movie starring Mrs Twilight and Thor looked pretty. It was colorful, striking and visually engaging – more for the color palette than the pretty people. And the score was rich and added great atmosphere, but on the whole, there just wasn’t anything going on – I mean, yes, I know the story, but still, there wasn’t anything to take away from Mrs Twilight’s “acting” (looking like she’s constantly going to say, “Umm” and then staring off-camera like she’s trying to remember why she’s walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge) or from Thor being Thor in a fantasy setting. (Okay, I’m sorry: for being a 3rd or 4th level Ranger, and doing the bulk of the heavy fight scenes.) He can sort of convey emotions, I’ve seen him do it, but he can only be as good as the template in place by the script, and the script, well, I think it was practically criminal how they took good actors (Hoskins, McShane, I’ll even throw in Theron) and reduced them to colorful imitations of a cartoon.

And all this got me to thinking about what it takes for a manuscript or book to dazzle me and how many of them can be called “Pretty but hollow”. Let’s talk about that today.

Now before I get into this any further, let me point out that I’m not saying all books need to be original, but…all books need to be original. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to demonstrate how you’re differently interpreting the wheel when you compare your creation to the benchmarks of your genre or concept.

You no doubt know what the ‘other guys’ are doing in your respective fields. It pays to know your competition when you’re creating something, and no one wants to have the idea that one thing clones or copies another tossed around. The problem with that is you only have so many basic templates (Man v Nature, Man v Man, Hero’s Journey, Lost Love, etc), so you can easily be sort of a dick about writing and say that everything copies something else – but I find that attitude doesn’t encourage people to do anything other than to panic and not write. Also, it’s silly to waste your time thinking about who copied whom. This is no longer the elementary school playground, and you’re totally able to do whatever you want (so long as you understand the consequences of your choices).

On the outermost layer of the story, whatever the genre or ideas, your work may look like generic or typical, but there have to be hooks that pull the reader in deeper and there has to be substance underneath that veneer of “this is what I’m used to” so that people can see what you’ve done differently.

And by “differently” I mean “done what demonstrates your talent and your abilities, rather than your desires just to do something to earn a fast buck or create a profit stream. Because this is an art above all else, if you wanted to get fast money, there are other more suit-and-tie ways to get it (although I suppose there can be an art to bank robbery and the burdening of the middle class by corrupt corporate dickwagons).

There’s a formula I want to pass on to you here, that will help you find the meat beneath the surface.

It is Y, but then what?

Y is the genre or type of story you’re writing. The answer to the question though is what you’re doing to distinguish yourself and draw the literary-talent Excalibur from the stone and proclaim yourself the once and future king/queen of your awesome writing kingdom.

So your question might look like one of these:

It’s a memoir, but then what? But I’m telling this story that emphasizes the heart of one character, told through a drunken lens of bad Thanksgivings.


It’s a detective story, but then what? The main character only eats waffles.


It’s a non-fiction instructional to help people train their cats to speak, but then what? Dude…it trains cats to talk.

Am I expecting you to know what makes your story interesting? Yes. It’s not that much to ask really. If I’m holding your book in one hand, and anything else (let’s say you’re trying to get me to read your book and not play Ticket to Ride), what would you say in order to convince me that I don’t have to go be a train baron of the 19th century?

Knowing your hooks is critical. Knowing what you’re doing differently (because you have a talent for it) is absolutely positively a must when writing. During those down moments, spend some time hunting down what makes your work special and unique and what you’ve got a talent for….and try to get those ideas into a single sentence or phrase. Practice saying it. Believe it. Know it the way you know that few things in this world are cooler than nachos and good tunes.

Finding out and building those things makes your story NOT hollow. Like good shampoo it gives your story body. It also lets you do something you’re good at, which is awesome for your self-confidence. (What I’m saying is that there’s no downside to figuring out what you’re good at and then doing it)

Also, totally save your money and skip Snow White and the Huntsman. You’d be better off spending the time talking to people you can’t stand while scrubbing your tear ducts with bleach-soaked glass shards. Yeah, it was that bad.

Rock on.

Happy writing, see you guys later in the week.


Oh, post-script: In two weeks I head to California for a week. There likely won’t be a blog post then, but if you want to follow my adventures, find me on Twitter, and Facebook.

Fighting Sag

On this beautiful Friday morning, with the sun streaming into the office and the air nicely not so Dagobah swamp humid, let’s talk about sag.

“Sag” is not just something reserved for lady chests or heavy tree limbs, it’s also what will murder your writing if you let it. And this isn’t just murder mafia-style where it shoots your manuscript once behind the ear. This is murder by asphyxiation. This is not a quick and easy murder. Sag will slowly, painfully and maliciously wrench the last moments of life out of your manuscript, and smile while doing it.

Sag’s full name is “middle of novel sag” or “Second Act Sag”, and today we’re going to talk about what causes it and how to fix it.

As the name implies, sag happens when the momentum and pace of the story slow way down and the urge to turn the page and keep moving (as a reader) shrinks and shrinks until you ultimately start asking why you’re even bothering to do it anymore. It generally happens in the second act, because that’s the part of the story that’s all about expansion: we met the characters and the plot in Act 1, now we get to see them develop and evolve before meeting for the climax and resolution in the third act.

The big problem is that expansion isn’t all that exciting sometimes. While you’re developing characters and making connections between plot points and furthering the story, some of that stuff makes a desert look damp. Yes, near the end of the expansion, there’s some excitement built up as you get towards climax, but that’s a very small segment of the expansion, and that comes AFTER some (often huge) swath of the middle of the book where “you felt penned in” and “couldn’t really do anything too big because you were still in the second act”.

But that’s, frankly, stupid. There’s no rule that says you can’t have an exciting second act. The rules for climax state it just has to be the highest point of tension/action. But you can’t really have a “highest point” without some other reference points for comparison, right?

So the first tool in your toolbox to fight sag is “Second Act High Points“. Don’t start thinking these high points are only physical encounters, they aren’t. These are just moments where you shake up the complacency and status quo of the chapter(s) by putting in a scene or a few beats to make the reader sit up and take notice. Yes, sometimes that’s a fight, but it could also be the discovery of clues in a mystery, a hero’s internal conflict and resolve kicking in, yet another attack by the enemy’s henchmen or something as simple as a phone call from one character to another. The point here is ACTION. Just like shaking up a YooHoo to get the chocolatey goodness off the bottom when it settles, so too does a Second Act High Point shake up and redistribute the interest, excitement, flavor and tension of the manuscript.

You could stop there, and walk away knowing that “Action beats Sag” but if you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve got more to share. Let’s look at another slightly more complicated tool against sag.

Just like making a key from a mold you’ve kept in the back of your eyeshadow compact (I’m looking at you standard-spy-movie-trope), you can get a sense of something based on the impression it leaves in the space/things/clay around it. A more typical expression of this is in a widow, widower or someone who just lost a close loved one — the absence of that person leaves an impact, and who/what that person was leaves an imprint on those left behind.

What we’re dealing with here “Negative Space Impressions” also called “Silhouetting” if you want to use the slightly douchey arthouse term (which by the way is great for annoying college professors). You don’t outright describe what the thing is, you describe the impression the thing leaves on the surroundings.

If I’m describing my house key in this way, I’m not talking about the ridges and angles of the key itself, I’m talking about the way the pins are lifted in the lock when I use it. If I’m describing a dead character, rather than give a lengthy physical description and segue into a totally lame flashback where the character will speak to me but never be as cool as the ghost of Hamlet’s father or Obi Wan Kenobi, I’m talking about how I (the narrator in this case) perceive/remember (imperfectly) the lessons the character wanted to impart. So I’m humanizing myself, talking about a character’s impression and advancing my character growth in one fell swoop.

Is that harder? Yes. Is it worth it in the end? Absolutely. Any situation where you walk away learning more about the character, the relationship(s) between the character and everything else in the world AND advancing character growth is absolutely worth it.

Are there only 2 ways to fight sag? Nope. But those two are a good start. Go forth, don’t let the middle of your book fall into a flat, comatose state.

Happy writing. Enjoy your weekend.