Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Writing Life

I find myself this morning, once again, at Starbucks. Rather than dithering on about characters and such, I've decided to talk about what keeps bringing me back to my favorite big, red chair across from the bar.

Alice knows why.

If other aspiring writers are anything like me, they have trouble finding time to write. Besides writing, I have things like college, work, and significant others competing for my time. Not surprisingly, writing does not always sit highest on my list of priorities, and as a result, I don't always get much writing done. This cannot always be blamed on my other commitments, however. Sometimes, I find myself sitting in front of the computer at home with a blank open office document, (yes, I use OpenOffice, don't hate.) unable or unwilling to write anything clever or coherent.

A cheapskate's best friend.

I came to the conclusion that writing at home wasn't for me. I just couldn't get in the write mindset [har har, I know, I'm a wriot (ha, did it again!)] Therefore, I decided to try out "working at the office." Maybe getting out of the home would be just the kick in the pants my muse needed. So, unwilling to resist a good cliche, I drove to the Starbucks nearest my house. It's also nice that my significant other happens to work here. See, never say I can't kill multiple birds with single stones ;).

In short, my coffeehouse writing experiment was an unparalleled success. In all my time at home, I managed to complete one short story. Conversely, during my short time working at Starbucks, I've completed one full short story and made significant progress on two others. Plus, I've outlined the beginning half of my first novel -- and, as you've likely gathered, I do most of my blogging here as well. You might think all of the motion and noise common at Starbucks would distract me from my work, but, quite contrarily, the constant hubbub caused me to focus even harder, upping my efficiency. Starbucks, it turns out, is the perfect place for this particular aspiring writer. I guess all cliches start somewhere.

More than meets the eye. Or is that Transformers?

Not all writers are like me. There are countless approaches to the writing life, only one of them being working away from home. Many writers, including several that I admire, prefer the big red chair in front of their fireplace versus the one in the coffeehouse with the chaos and commotion. But hey, it works for me.

So, I know many of you have dreams and extracurricular pursuits outside of your day jobs. I would love to hear about your secret projects and the strategies you use to work on them in the comments below. Also, I'm looking for a free, outside html-based music player program to embed in this blog. If you have any ideas or information, feel free to shoot me an email at Until next time...

Happy writing,  rhyming, and reminiscing,


Monday, August 22, 2011

How to Spot a Narcissist

So the only requests I've gotten in response to my informal topic drive is questions about myself to answer, which I will happily do. Just remember, I warned you.

I told you not to let me talk about myself.

Ok, so these first questions came to me from the wonderful Gayle Swift, over at  thatmatters2me:

When did you realize you were a writer?

Well, simply put, I realized I was a writer when I...realized I was a writer. In all seriousness, though, it hit me during my last year at the University of Florida. One night, I was crashing on the couch listening to one of the Harry Potter audiobooks, and I remember thinking that I wanted to know more about J.K. Rowlings world; the deeper backstory and history that she only alludes to in her novels. Instead of turning down the "fanfic" path like many aspiring writers, I decided to create my own world. It bounced around in my head for a few weeks before I realized I wanted to write novels about my world. And from that point on, I was hooked.

Who mentored you?

The first thing I did after deciding I wanted to write for a living was pick up a copy of Stephen King's "On Writing." That book was my first "mentor" in creative writing. Following that, I discovered a great podcast put out by 3 guys; a fantasy author, a horror author, and a scifi cartoonist. It's called Writing Excuses and I worked my way through their archives over about a year and a half. They have (and still are) taught/teaching me almost everything I know about fiction writing. The rest I learned from reading. I estimate that I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-100 books that first year.

What writer have influenced you the most?

This is a tough question, as I read so much after deciding to become a writer, and all of them influenced me in some way. If I had to choose a few, I would have to pick Oscar Wilde, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Brandon Sanderson (one of the authors on Writing Excuses), Robert Jordon, George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, and perhaps Alfred Lord Tennyson.

What would you like your writing to accomplish?

I would like people to enjoy my writing. I'm not after the Nobel Prize or a walrus' bucket full of money.  I enjoy writing my stories, and I want others to enjoy reading them - while still being intellectually stimulated. I envision people sticking my novel in their bag to take to park and the bookish college student putting it in his or her laptop bag to read during a boring lecture. Nothing big. It would be nice if my writing supported me financially, though. :)

This last question is from the amazing Candice Coghill, over at  Thus Sprake the Hermudgeon

Do you think the book (as opposed to the blog, the film, the whatever media you might name today) is as important to "your generation" as it is to mine?

I grew up in a household where books were very important. From young age, I was highly encouraged to read. After my parents seperated, I stopped reading as much and became more enamored with things like TV. It wasn't until my later school years that reading became important to me again. To answer your question, Candice, I do believe "the book" is just as important as "new media." To quote my literature professor, "...we learn about other cultures and the past by reading great works. In this way, we can be looking over the shoulder of history, and seeing it through their eyes." I am a historian as well as a writer, and I believe that having a broad understanding of the past is important, as it provides us with insights we might otherwise miss. Plus, as a modern media, movies and TV shows just can't provide the depth of a great novel.

Again, thank you so much Gayle and Candice for your questions. Have a great week, people. I always love reading your comments.



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Casting Call

I honestly have no idea what to write about this week. Currently, I'm finishing and polishing my stable of short stories before I start making a concerted effort at my novel, and therefore starting my "first-novel-documentary" experiment.

So, I don't want to randomly start pontificating again about random subjects related to writing. So instead, I'm going to ask you fine folks what I should randomly pontificate about. Or would it no longer be random, then?

Anyway, please please please comment and let me know what y'all want me to talk about. New poll question, btw. Weigh in.

"This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope."


May the Force be with you,


Friday, August 12, 2011

In Living Color

So, Star Trek wins this week? Good. Mr. Spock approves.


I'm sitting here at Starbucks trying to decide what I want to say this week. I know, I can hear what y'all are thinking:  

Really guy, you're writing at Starbucks? Could you get any more hackneyed?

Well, that's not exactly what I thought, but hey, don't judge. Being in public is good pressure to write, plus there's this pretty girl who works here that I'm kinda crushing on, so in the name of coffeehouse stalkers everywhere, I'm darn well gonna be a walking (or perhaps sitting) cliche.

Like these guys

So where was I?  Right, Starbucks. People-watching is one of my favorite activities since I've started writing creatively, as it allows me to passively observe the human animal in it's natural, over-caffeinated environment. A busy chain cafe like this one, it turns out, is a great place to learn about writing characters.

Whether we realize it or not, when we observe the people around us, we from personal constructs; which my old communications textbook defines as "a mental yardstick by which we make initial judgments about eachother." Many of these constructs conform to societal stereotypes. For example, one might look at the guy standing at the register right now wearing track pants and a tank top and think "fitness nut." Therefore, he will order soy milk in his latte. Most new writers, again whether or not they realize it, use personal constructs when they create their characters. This is especially true for speculative fiction writers like myself.

Like members of the non-literary population, we form our personal constructs from what we observe around us; what we perceive as norms. Unlike everyone else though, we form most of our constructs from the media we consume, or what we see, hear and read. For fantasy writers, these tends to be greats like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and (nowadays) J.K. Rowling. I know my first fantasy world formed around a bunch of characters loosely a bit too closely molded after Rowling's heroes and heroines. More traditionally, Fantasy writers fall into modeling their characters after Tolkien's characters, creating eternal archetypes (or, if you prefer, cliches): The wise wizard (Gandalf), the jaded warrior/lost heir (Aragorn), the stubborn dwarf (Gimli), the unlikely hero and the trustworthy friend (Frodo and Sam).

"The Unlikely Hero," Tolkien's one archetype that has survived mostly intact into modern fantasy.

New writers, it's time to take notice! What is your favorite book, movie, or TV show? Now take a look at your fledgling novel and look closely at your characters. You'll notice it too. I did. But take heart, there is hope.

A good way to learn to write believable characters is to first examine your own. Not your main character in your novel: yourself, your mind, you. After all, most define characters as simulations of real people, so how better to learn how to write good characters than to examine the real person you hopefully know best? Look deep down at yourself, and notice all the things you do or think. You may see yourself as a writer, but hopefully you are so much more. Maybe you like to run, or play an instrument. Are you married, or maybe you feel you are unlucky in love? While you may define yourself as a writer or academic, your personality shows shades of many different and changing things, like a living watercolor painting. Your characters should be the same way.

All masterpieces begin with a single color.

The good news is that most writers start with archetypes, and build on them with details and quirks to make them feel alive. This is fairly simple, and is a practice that improves with time. For example, let's take another look at the soy milk fitness nut.

So, there is a fitness nut at the counter. The uncreative writer might make him look impatiently at his watch as he waits for his soy latte. You could look at this another way, however. Maybe he's impatient because he's getting whole milk in his latte, due to the fact that his newlywed fitness nut wife won't let him have it at home. Perhaps he pulled ahead of her to get to the cafe first, so he could secretly enjoy his indulgence before she arrives. Maybe he's wearing track pants in the summer because he is the rare male anorexic, who despite working out constantly feels that his legs are too unsightly for running shorts. You get the idea. :)

There is another, surefire way to write great, real characters. Become them. That's right, I'm not crazy or delusional. Whenever you write a character, try to feel their motivations. Feel their pain and triumphs. Use the basic empathy you have for other humans, and put yourself in your character's shoes. I promise your writing will be more passionate and your characters will feel that much more real because of it. Great actors do the same thing with the characters they play. Here is a link to one of my all time favorite videos, Sir Ian McKellen describing how to do just that.

Well, this has been an extremely lengthy post. Sorry if I took up too much of you all's time, but hopefully y'all learned a bit. Remember, you want characters, not caricatures or cliches.



Sunday, August 7, 2011

From Mindscape to Word Processor

As this is my first "content-based" blog post, I want to get a basic, common sense disclaimer out of the way: I am going to talk a lot about writing in this blog. I am in no way an expert (at least not yet), nor do I represent the views of any other author or organization. This includes any agent, editor, or publisher I might have some day. In other words, any advice or opinions stated on this here blog belong solely to myself unless otherwise stated. Now, onto the fun stuff.

  For this first post, I want to explore what actually starting to write in my "built universe" felt like. It's something a lot of new authors (like myself) struggle with. I think it's important to talk about, because for many aspiring writers, the point where your universe becomes "real" is a huge barrier. Hopefully, reading about my experience will help some of those so afflicted take that first step into literary reality.

"...begins with a single step."

Alrighty, so at this point in my writing career, I am currently at the stage of the writing process (of my novel) where I am just beginning to draft my first chapters. Before I arrived at this stage, I spent upwards of a year researching and working through the process known to super-insiders as world-building; using stream of thought, outlines, etc, to build the setting in which your story takes place. Some people also lump "plotting" and "character development" in with world-building. It was the first thing I did when I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Personally, I spent months building the history, places, and characters for my world. The result was an incredibly detailed and well-fleshed out secondary world setting. Spending a long time world-building is common among new fantasy writers, including myself. Yet most of us never get past that stage. Why?

For me, it was fear. I fought writing my novel for the longest time. Mostly, it was because I was afraid to put my world and characters down onto the page; to make them tangible. I feared that if I wrote them down, they wouldn't be nearly as good on paper as I had envisioned them. I cared for my world, my characters, and my history, and I didn't want them to be revealed as less than I thought of them. And so I continued to let them stew in my head. As I've said before, many new writers find themselves in similar dilemmas. So how do you escape? How do you start writing?

I finally convinced myself by taking the equivalent of baby steps. I wrote short stories. Many of these take place within the world of my novel, giving me a place to explore my world and characters in a somewhat low-risk medium. It was still scary as hell, but I was able to overcome my literary cowardice, and I am eternally grateful I was able to do so. Once I started to write things down, I noticed that things started to come alive. Characters started taking on lives of their own, and the places I had only before imagined became organic. They were so much better than I had thought, and through critique an consideration, I learned I could revise them and make my babies even better.

Before I wrote that short story, I was only considering becoming a writer. Afterward, I knew what it was I wanted to do for a living. Now, several of these stories are nearly ready for submission, and one of them is already out there. I have also finally started my first novel.

Like many things worth doing in the world, writing is about overcoming fear. No matter how you do it, you have to eventually take that first step. If not, than you should go ahead and give up. Continuing to layer your world isn't doing any good past a certain point. But seriously, don't. There are few things more satisfying to me than the act of creating a new story. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised. It'll be OK. :) As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.