Monday, August 30, 2010

Embrace the Dark Side -- Gently

As a writer, I try to encourage and enjoy a person's more positive qualities: their creativity, their ability to reason, to problem-solve, and appreciate the contribution that these qualities they make our culture and society. These qualities allow us to maintain and develop our civilization. Conversely, I'm not a big fan of the darker side of human nature, the side that seeks to destroy and tear down things. It likes strife, and hatred, and war, and violence, and anger.

And yet, in one of those supreme twists of irony, without strife and conflict, my career path of choice -- writing fiction -- is not possible. I need people to have a dark side or I have nothing to write about. It reminds me of -- of all things -- a Star Trek episode, where Captain Kirk is split in two and learns that without his dark half he cannot command his starship. And to that point, I, as a writer, need my positive qualities and my darker side to create fiction, hone it, and temper it like a blacksmith making a fine sword.

That doesn't mean I'm a big fan of humanity's darker nature, just that I've learned to accept it and work with it. This was no always so. I spent many years hating my darker side or denying its existence. Doing so was pointless and self-inhibiting; I realize that now. But at the time I thought it was possible for people to rise above their more base and debauched nature. Silly me. If that were possible we'd have done it already.

Then I thought it serves no purpose in stories and wrote adolescent tripe about characters with lots of internal conflicts but not much plot or action. Very juvenile. Once I matured I realized just how bad those drafts were and never looked at them again.

About the same time I realized that good stories need conflict, they need a hero, and they need a villain. And if I was going to write good fiction I'd need to embrace humanity's darker side, my darker side. The problem I had with that was, as I've said, I really didn't care for the darker side of human nature. In a story, it's one thing; it helps more the story along, and if I'm lucky helps to reveal a hidden truth about people. But in the real world it means someone is suffering for whatever reason, whether through circumstance or not. 'Life is pain' says the Man in Black to Princess Buttercup. He's right, of course, and that's a sad thought.

Of course that's the way the world works. Someone is always suffering and my pragmatic side stepped in at that point and reminded me that unless I was God (which I'm not) someone in the world will probably be always be suffering. I can try to help and contribute and entertain folks with my stories but I can't end the suffering. I don't think any one person can.

Many publishers will accept some level of violence too but, according to the submission guidelines I've read, don't want it to be excessive or glorified. Enough for the story but not so much as to sicken the reader. I agree with that. But that raises the question how much is too much? When do you cross the line? More importantly will all my readers, especially the younger ones, the teen set, be able to distinguish between the violence I include in a story (or work of art) and the violence they see in the world around them? I've certainly read reports of psychological studies that point out children having difficulties distinguishing between real world violence (from the nightly news, let's say) and violence from a cartoon or movie.

This is where the ratings for movies and TV comes in and is partially the reason publisher want violence used more like a spice to the dish and not make it the whole entree. So I needn't describe the gruesome details of how the villain dies went his own magic dagger is turned against him and his withers away as his soul is eaten by said dagger. I envision it much the way the Nazi turn to dust at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But rather than give that much detail, which I think is excessive, I merely say, he aged quickly and turned to dust. I leave the rest for the imagination.

And I think that's the point. We, as writers, need to write with a bit of vagueness, I think, particularly when it comes to violence. Being a little vague or implicit is a spice and it leaves the reader room to use his or her imagination in a way that being explicit destroys.

So embrace your dark side but do it carefully, responsibly, and respectfully. Do it to become a better person and a better writer, not to go off half crazed and become the next mass-murderer or manipulative cult leader. Do it to lift up our culture and our society. That is our role as writers and artists. Any thing else is a disservice to our readers and, more importantly, ourselves.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Don't Just Sit There -- Network!

Over the course of my life, my father, while he was alive, tried to give me advice about certain things. Most of it made no sense to me; however, one thing he told me about looking for work that has stuck with me was, "You've got to sell yourself."

At the time I had an immediate reaction of "Blah! That sounds awful." I didn't say that to him but I thought it and spent many years giving very bad interviews because I ignored that advice.

In the world of writing and publishing this advice is even more true. You've got to sell yourself and your work or you go nowhere. There are many ways to do that, but one of the most effective is to network with other writers and the people who can publish your work.

These days networking is easier than at any time in the past. Social sites, such as Facebook, make it easy to connect to thousands of people. You, as a writer, should get in the habit of connecting to some number of people in a given week. How many is enough? Hard to say and, since some sites put up blocks if you try to connect with too many people too quickly to guard against sexual predators and others with less than honorable intentions, you probably want to start small and connect with two to three new people a week. Look at their online profiles, see what they post. Respond to the post, get to know them.

To some this will seem like an invasion of privacy to the person you are connecting to. But they can reject the connection so it isn't really. Others may say, 'I'm prepared to network once I have something to sell.' Let me suggest that a good network is as important (or in some ways more important) than the stories you are writing. 

If that thought strikes you as odd, think about it for a minute. What is the function of your network? Answer: it is there to support you, just as you support the people in your network. The support comes in several ways. For example, it may come when you hit an issue in your writing or it may give you some leads for new markets that open. Often it will spark interesting discussion points about writing. But primarily if they are there to support you when you sell something, they will buy your book, or electronic magazine with your story in it, just as you should to the same when they sell something.

I'm sure some people don't like that idea because it means the only reason I am connecting with people is so I can sell them something. That's not entirely true. As I said, you want to get to know them personally. You want to get to know the people you connect with and support them in lots of ways that don't involve selling anything to anyone. You want to make them friends. Once you've done that, then the rest should happen naturally. I fully expect that whenever my books go on sale that my friends, my real friends, will go out and buy a copy. Some may read it, some may not. But they will buy a copy and that's the important part. Will I ask my network to buy my books? Sure, of course, I'd be stupid not to, but I will ask only once and then as politely as possible because I know what an enormous favor they are doing for me.

Of course, that's the theory of how it should work. Some people won't want to make friends with you; they just want to connect to you so they can sell to you. So be it. That's their choice. Others will try to get whatever they can from you and ignore your selling efforts to them. That's their choice too. But I think these people forget about human nature. I'm far more likely to help and support people who help and support me. It's like the song says: 'Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could'. 

That may sound hard and cruel but in my opinion, that's the way it is. So if you've been content to sit and write and let the world go by, get up and get out there. Network!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Preparing to Sell Your Work

It seems I've reached stage two of the journey toward publication. Stage one is the initial part all about writing. You know this part, where you have an idea for a novel or story and you write it. You work hard for weeks or months to complete your writing project, polishing it so that it is ready to go out into the world.

Stage two is all about selling your work. The selling process changes a few things. For example, during the writing phasing I kept the draft of my book in a single file.  Now, however, I need to give out pieces to editors and publishers so that approach isn't the best. What I need is a way to write individual chapters so I can send them out when needed and still create a single complete copy for anyone who want to see the whole thing.

I also need to single-source the novel so I don't have multiple copies of the novel floating around. Microsoft Word won't do for this, which is unfortunate because the distribution format still needs to be .doc or .rtf since that's what most places want.

InDesign would good except it doesn't export to .doc or .rtf. I need something else.

Enter Scrivener. On a whim I decided to check out this software. It meets all my requirements beautifully. The only problem it is not cross-platform. It is only available for Mac OS X. (Now there's a switch). For me, that's not an issue. My Macintosh box is my primary writing machine. For others, it will be. However, Windows users can use FrameMaker which can support this same workflow once you add an extension to export to RTF. One caution: FrameMaker requires a lot of time to learn to use it properly so if you can't do that, look for another authoring tool. FrameMaker is also pricy. Scrivener is only $40.

Another change, as least for me, is patience. I hate waiting and it seems to me that in the submission process that's all I do. I suppose, that gives me more time for other things since simultaneous submissions is generally frowned on. 

And then of course there's the promotion aspect. I need to promote what I have, my blog, my ideas, my skills and experience. That means surfing the web looking for places and ways to sound the trumpet and let people know I'm here. That's a huge time-sink. Guess, I know what I'm doing between sending out submissions.

However, before I do that I need to get all my house in order. The blog just got a small makeover. I added a menu bar at the top, and added some images to a few older posts.

Next, I need write about my fantasy world to show it's depth and breath. I started a web site for this information last year but abandoned it in favor of completing the first book in my fantasy series. Now I think I need to reverse that a little and give it some attention while I complete book 2.

What else do I need to do to prepare for selling my work? I don't know,  but I'm sure I'll think of other things. For now this is enough. After all, I still working in stage one too creating new stories and working on new ideas and I don't won't to overload myself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Don't be Jealous

Are you stuck in the mud unable to get your writing the visibility you'd like? Do others around you seem to be have more success or even some success?

Well, don't be jealous. We are all working hard to write and create stories we will enjoy reading. If writer A succeeds while writer B does not, there are a few things to remember:

  • What is and is not published is completely subjective. If your work is going nowhere this is part of the reason. To change this you need to know how to sell your work.
  • Competition is fierce. I submit a story and it is rejected. Part of the reason for this is the magazine I submitted to is flooded with other work as good or better. This does not mean my story is bad, just that the other stories a better fit for that magazine. So I move on.
  • Luck is factor. Some people just show up at the right place and the right time and some people don't. I usually don't. If you are not lucky then you'll need to rely on talent, skill, and persistence.
  • Some people are more talented than you. And some are not. This does not mean you can't write. It does mean you need to write your best at all times. If you are going to market with a B-story and not an A-story you will only have heartache after heartache.
  • Publishers do not take risks. If your story is risky to them and they feel it won't sell, you are rejected. That doesn't mean they are right, only that you may need to self-publish to have the story go out to the world.
I say these things not to discourage anyone; rather I am trying to be honest so that you understand the forces working against you. Frankly I'm surprised anything ever gets published given all this. But I also say this to remember myself why I find myself in this boat. The longer I go down this path, the harder it is for me to continue because I seem to be going nowhere. It is easy to forget what I'm up against because I don't see anything obvious working against me. But they are there nonetheless.

For me, this does not stop twinges of jealousy from flaring up. Yes, I get jealous of others. I am only human after all. That doesn't mean I wish these people ill. On the contrary, I wish them all the succeed they can earn. I just wish I was there with them going on the same journey, instead being stuck on the shore waiting for a boat to have room for me.

It also doesn't make me a bad person, flawed perhaps (and who isn't?) but not bad. Luckily I am not consumed by jealousy. That would do me no good. I have to remember to stay focused. I determine my own success or failure. Me. Not the writers who are succeeding. Not the publishers who are rejecting me. After all, if I wrote a story than was a perfect fit for a magazine or small press they'd take it in a shot. They'd be stupid not to. But my work isn't a perfect fit so I need to sell my work the best I can, self-publish, or give up.

For now, I'm trying to sell my work. Well talk about doing that next time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Give me What I Want but You'll Have to Guess as to the Details

The current publishing process astounds me. In order to get something published, I have to guess what my target publication wants without so much as a hint from me. Or I have to write what I like is good and hope someone else agree.

In all the years I've been in the job market I've never seen anything like that except the publishing world. For most jobs, I have see an explicit job description and determine if I fit. More often than not, that works well.

But in publishing, you see a publisher wants a fantasy story so you write one and send it to them. And they reject it because by fantasy they mean a romantic fantasy or a dark urban fantasy and you wrote a story in the swords and sorcery vein.

I know that I'm suppose to read samples of what a publisher has published but that doesn't help because each story is different. If I suppose if all the stories in a magazine are dark fantasy, I have a story of heroic fantasy then I need not bother to apply. But if a small press hasn't published any epic tales doesn't that mean they won't or that they haven't received any to publish?

Seems to me there has to be a better way of submitting stories and novels. I've seen a few places use a database to be manage the content. That seems like a good way to go. But let me propose another.

Why not use the restaurant method? Get your name on a list and have the editor/publisher work through it. When they reach you, they can ask you for what they are looking for. If you've got something you sent it. If not, then they will check with you the next time through the list.

I have no idea if that approach is even workable but it might let writers and publishers develop a rapport which is sorely lacking from the current process.

Or maybe we should reverse the model. Let writers publish online somewhere private then let the editors and publishers link to us.

Or maybe I've had too much Diet Coke today. Whatever it is, there's got to be a better way.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Staying Motivated

Situation: You submit a novel and two stories for consideration. Weeks pass without a word.  How do you stay motivated?

For me, this is a motivation killer.  I find it hard to stay motivated when I have no sense if I'm making progress and in that situation I often feel adrift. How do I stay motivated when this happens to me?

Answer: Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I use the time as a break. A time to rest, recover, and recharge. And other times I push myself because my stories don't write themselves.

Sometimes I need someone else to do the prodding. This can come from anywhere, a book, an email, a blog post or any other source.

Basically it is a mind game with myself. We meet on the battlefield of my emotions. On the procrastination side are all the reasons why it is pointless to pursue a career in writing, all the obstacles in my way. I'm not a big fan working toward something if there's no reward or no hope of reward. It is easy to give up; it is much harder to keep going.

On the other side, the side of reason, are all the reasons why I started writing in the first place. The desire to entertain and share my ideas, my stories, my characters. This side is looking pretty ragged these days because they are getting blasted on the beachhead from an industry that has no interest in accepting or welcoming me as one of its own.

Not that I need anyone's approval. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm looking for an editor or publisher's approval to accept my work. One just one person to say, yes, your work is good enough. Otherwise, I get the gnawing sense that I'm deluding myself. Not a big fan of that either.

Of course, I may never find this person. God knows it took me years to find a woman to love and care about me. Likewise, it may be that the publisher who will take my work to heart does not yet exist and may not exist in my lifetime. Or if they do exist, they operate in such arena, some place I'd never think of looking, that I'll never find them.

This is an old struggle for me and one which has no resolution except to publish or perish. However, more recently I've been thinking I should use the webspace I have to post my work. Setting up a way for people to buy my stories and say "To Hell" to the publishing industry.

The only reason I don't do that is who will ever find my work that way sitting on a lone web site that no one has ever heard of or will think to look for? My goal is to share my work so unless I win the Amazing Race or Survivor or America You've Got Talent, putting my work on a personal web site is as good as flushing them down the toilet.

No, I'd need a different place, like lulu, or createspace, or smashwords to help me distribute my work. But I've not done that because I don't think self-publishing is the answer. Self-publishing says you could go the distance and get a real company to publish you.  You aren't good enough.

So I holdout for someone to come along. But until they do, doubt lingers, grows, festers.

Yes, doubt is the enemy here. If anyone reading this has a way to keep doubt away or a trick to stay motivated, let me know. I'd love to hear it. Thanks.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Name's the Thing

One of the tasks I find hard and onerous when writing is naming minor characters. Major characters are planned, crafted, and developed almost as carefully as the story. Minor characters, however, are usually created as needed, quickly without thought. Ideally, I shouldn't do that. Ideally, each character should be as complete as every other. But who has time to do that? I don't.

So to make my job easily I sometimes use a name generator. There are many available these days. One is available at  Many more are available at If you search for "name generator" with Google, you'll find several more.

For the record, I've used and usually have to click a few times to get a name I like. In other cases, I only want a first or last name because I already have the other piece I need. The other generators I've not used because they look promising. But I can't promise anything.

I have others too. Some of for my old Palm PDA; others run on my iPhone.  Most of these aren't very good and are for naming places or swords or if they generator a person's name, the options for select it are poor. For example, on iPhone apps is called npc namer. It lets you create fantasy names or names for a dwarf, roc, gnome, or elf.  Using the fantasy name option gives you names like: claa or doisaa. I have no idea if these are first names or last name. The names for the other races are equally bad. For example, elven names include sai and nnevan; dwarven names include brkra and vrukt.

The best way I've found to generate a name is to a desktop application called the GURPS Character Sheet. The purpose of the app is to let people playing GURPS (an RPG) handle all the stats of their character. As it happens, the app also lets you randomly create names for these characters. It is pretty good actually.  It is available from Check it out.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Keep Your Life in Balance

Feedback on my post regarding managing your time was to get more concrete examples. I thought I did that but I'll hit the nail on the head this time and discuss my approaches to keeping my life in balance, my writing moving forward, and how I handle those curves in the road that life likes to throw at us to make sure we've not gone to sleep in the middle of the movie. (Was that a mixed metaphor? Shame on me.)

Let me start by saying I'm not expert. I do know an expert in the field however. Any one interested should pop over to A professor at Boston University owns and runs the site. Check it out if you are interested.

The next thing I should say is you need to be able to prioritize each event or task in your life. High priority items are more important that low priority items. Additionally you should assign a weight to it. A weight is how soon does a task need to be completed or how soon will an event happen. The more weight you give to something the more immediate it is.

With this understanding, let me say that the main thing that I do is group everything into categories. I do this because some things are more important than other things and some things can wait while others must be immediately attended to. What I find is certain categories of tasks has a common priority or weight. Sometimes both. So this is a convenient shorthand. Simple tasks usually get more weight and a higher priority because I can get them done and out of the way, giving me more time for the complex stuff.

One category of mine is: Things that Require Me to Leave the House: for example, food shopping, anything medical in nature, car repairs, and so on. The things that me keep me, my house, or my car going. Simple errands are in this category too. For example, when I need to drop my wife at the hair/nail salon.

Note that other types of shopping can also be in this category. But increasingly I shop online for things so these tasks less time and don't take me out of the house.

In general, these items have topic priority when they occur but there are scheduled and important or there is an immediate need.

A second category is work around the house. This includes do-it-yourself home repairs, yard work, clearing snow (why do I live in the Northeast again?) or other chores. Generally I use these tasks as breaks between writing sessions.

Note that home repairs that requires a professional (like the plumber, the carpenter, the electrician, or the cable guy) are treated more like the first category.

The next category is personal projects; things I want to do in my spare time that are not writing-related. I have many such projects and since I started focusing on writing and working on my first novel, these are regulated to the weekend or when I need to clear my mind. These items have the lowest priority and no weight at all.

I also have a category for fun and social events. These are sometimes scheduled and sometimes not. Events in this category include going to the movies, spending time with my wife, relaxing by reading or listening to music, listening to an audio book, or watching TV. The weight and priority here is not uniform, unlike the other categories.

And, of course, I have a category for my writing projects so I can prioritize and weight them.

My general rule is writing projects take top priority unless another tasks or events needs immediate attention.

This approach works fairly well for me. If you try it, let me know if it works for you.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Writer's Block, Part 2

I've been reading blog posts recently stating that writer's block is a myth. Their premise is that writer's block is a symptom of some other problem. So, they would say, you don't have writer's block you just have a fear of failure or you are burnt out or something else is wrong.

What utter crap! Writer's block is not a myth. It is the inability to write or communicate through the written word. Does it have root causes? Yes, absolutely; they are many and diverse. But relabeling the problem doesn't help anyone, especially the person who is blocked, and shows an utter lack of sympathy for the people who suffer from it. Is that how you would treat someone who is so nauseous they cannot eat? No, you would nurse them back to health in slow steps. Maybe you start them on tea and toast while looking for the cause of the nausea.

Having writer's block is the same thing and you should treat the same way. Start by keeping a journal and free writing daily. Start with a 10-minute session the first week and add five minutes every week thereafter until you are up to an hour. Once you can write for an hour, start reading. Read anything you enjoy. Fiction, philosophy, or anything else that interests you. Get your mind going.

But also look at the root causes. Are you afraid of success? Or is it failure? Maybe you are burnt out? Maybe you don't like yourself very much? Maybe you are making an association with writing that is hard for you to cope with? Maybe your 3rd grade teacher scalded you so badly you feel insecure when you write. Whatever it is, find out the cause and attack it. Knock down your barrier, confront your fears, and deal with the issues you face. The only way out is to face it and go out the other side. Avoidance solves nothing.

If you need help, check the phonebook. There are plenty for professional people you can talk to. Or go to the bookstore, there are plenty of self-help book too. But do something. Something others than relabel the problem and blame yourself. That's just a waste of time and solves nothing.