The Joy Of Writing With Others

As you may know, I’m teaching a creative writing course this semester and I’m enjoying it more than I ever expected.  My students are amazing–a dream come true.  They are creative, have excellent attitudes, and don’t hesitate to get right to work on their writing.  I can’t imagine a better group to initiate this new chapter of my career.

Today we started on our first “official” genre–Realistic Fiction.  We’ve done a few warm-up activities, but this is the first story we plan to read to each other.  When it comes to reading and writing, I believe in sitting down and doing it with the students.  Luckily, I happen to love both of those things.

So, as my students started their first short story, I started one as well.  I fully intend to partake in each genre, to read my work to them just as they must read their work aloud to the group, and to basically experience the victories and frustrations as an active participant, not just an objective observer.

I’ve been writing regularly for a long, long time now, and virtually all of it has been by myself–mostly in a basement of some sort or another with the lights off and music playing.

Today I wrote in a classroom full of teenagers.  Some of them were sketching characters, some of them were developing plot in their journals, some were typing away.  I’ve always listened to music as I write, so I allow them to listen with their earbuds as well.  I would intermittently look up to see my students lost in their own creative endeavor.  I heard the tap-tap-tap of their keyboards.  I saw the words appearing on their screens, the characters taking shape in their journals, or the pencil gliding across their notebook paper.  I took all of this in and it brought me great happiness.

At the end of class I mentioned to them how fun it is to write with others.  I explained that writing can be such an isolated, lonely activity–to sit in a room and write with others … it felt so … nice!  (Excellent writing there, huh?)

Guiding these young people though the first steps of what I hope will be a lifelong writing journey has not only invigorated me as a teacher, but it’s also already provided a sense of community in regards to writing that I didn’t even realize I craved.

You Better Know the Score

I once read that Stephen King loves to listen to rock music while he writes.  Unfortunately, I can’t do that.  I get too distracted by lyrics and, well, words.

However, I do actually love to listen to music while I work.  For me, scores work well.

When I say “score,” I’m talking about movie music.  Not the soundtrack, those tend to have songs with words. I’m actually talking about the music you hear during the movie.  I guess you could call it the background music.

Oftentimes the score of a movie is filled with emotion and can really help with my pacing of a story.  The natural cadence of the film score correlates well with my own sense of rising and falling action.  Sometimes I’ll save an especially resonate song for an important scene, a scene that needs me in a heightened emotional state.

My scores of choice?  I currently adore the Cloud Atlas score.  It is fantastic.  I’m also a big fan of Last of the Mohicans, Tron: Legacy, Thor, The Fountain, any Doctor Who from 2008 on, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the last three seasons of Sherlock.

Scores allow me to remain engaged but not distracted, which is perfect for my writing style.

Even if you’re not a writer, do you have a favorite score?  Please do share!


We Can Be Writers (Just For One Day?)

We live in amazing era in that we can all be writers.  If you want to write, the only thing stopping you is you.  Seriously.

I get asked quite often how one goes about getting published.  There are so many different avenues to getting published, it’s always difficult to answer the question succinctly.

The first thing you need to determine is your end goal.  If you seek traditional publishing, you really do need to go about things differently.  If you want only an audience for your writing and don’t necessarily care how you acquire one, the field is wide open.

Let’s talk about the traditional publishing world first.

Before I do, though, know that there is an exception to every rule.  I’m speaking in generalities.

Typically, in order to break into the traditional publishing world you do one of two things.  You research publishers who may want your work, you send a cover letter or query letter, you wait to hear back, and at that point they may reject you or ask for the actual work.  From that moment on, you may have an editor assigned to you, you make changes requested by the editor, and you negotiate terms.  That’s a simplified version, of course.

The second option is that you send a cover or query letter to a literary agent and wait to hear back.  They may reject you, or they may want to see more.  If they take you on, you negotiate terms and then they sell your book on your behalf.  Of course, they take a percentage of the sale.  Again, this is a very simplistic explanation, but basically the core of the matter.

There are several different kinds of terms you need to negotiate, but chief among them are copyright issues.  Do you still retain the right to your work, or are you selling the rights?  If you sell the rights outright, the work is no longer yours.  You may receive royalties, but you no longer have any claim to the work from a business standpoint.  What are your film option rights?  Is there an expectation for future books?

There are many ways to circumnavigate this process.  For example, some authors submit to small magazines and anthologies and eventually get noticed by a literary agent or publishing house and are wooed.  This is rare, but even if it doesn’t result in a  book deal, it’s also a great way to build an audience and build credibility in the publishing world.

The Writer’s Market is a fantastic way to figure out what publishers or literary agents may want your work.  Be aware though, that everyone uses this book, and so the houses and agents listed are probably overrun with material.

If you’re thinking to yourself that this all sounds incredibly time consuming, you’re absolutely right.  A single book or short story can take years to sell.  Many have given up due to impatience alone.  For the dedicated, though, that eventual approval from the traditional publishing world can be incredibly gratifying.

In the old days, this was about your only option.  Some self-published – Walt Whitman is a famous example, but this wasn’t necessarily an easy avenue to pursue, either.

But here we are, 2014, and if you want to share your writing, you can do so right now.  Seriously, like right now.  As in before the end of the day.

Let’s run through your possibilities.

If you want to self-publish, there are many companies to help you do just that.  Though similar to a vanity press, it’s not exactly the same.  Self-publishing companies are often print-on-demand and will take as much or as little money as you’re willing to pay.  For a hefty amount, you can get all kinds of services, the same services you get from a traditional publisher.  However, if you’re on a budget, you’ll get very basic services that are still quite nice, but leave a lot of room for error on the author’s part.  For example, editing cost extra.  If you’re confident you don’t need an editor, you don’t need to pay for the service, but let me tell you, everyone needs an editor.  Find one.

Most companies will provide a cover artist, a bar code, typesetting, and listing with all the major online retailers.  You should retain all rights to your work, and you can often buy your own book at a 40% (or better) discount.  The print-on-demand feature means that the book is published on an individual basis with each order.  This eliminates warehousing costs.  The print-on-demand self-publishing company will often pay royalties as well.  But here’s the thing – unless you pay exorbitant amounts of money, the advertising, the promotion, the book tour, etc. all falls squarely on your own shoulders.  You may have this beautifully written book, but if you don’t seek an audience, you will be a writer for only one day.  The topic of promotion is an entirely different conversation, and one I’m happy to have, but not in this post.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that traditional publishers often want first-time publishing rights.  This means that if your book has appeared anywhere in the market in any format, you’ve eliminated your chances with the traditional market.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, especially if a traditional publisher thinks there is money to be made, but more often than not it’s a deal-breaker.

Also, realize that there are many, many publishers out there posing as traditional publishing houses that subcontract your book through a print-on-demand company.  Do your research.  Don’t get caught off guard.  Protect yourself.

Let’s say you don’t want to pay any money at all – you just want to share your work.  Well, this is easier than ever before.

Both the Nook and the Kindle allow for digital self-publishing.  You typically get around twenty-five cents on the dollar, and, once more, you do all the editing, etc, but if you feel confident with this platform, it can be tremendously effective.  Be aware, though, that they will require a bank account and social security number.  This is purely for royalty purposes and I’ve never heard of any nefarious practices, but some aren’t comfortable with sharing this kind of information.  You can always open a separate checking account if you’re worried.

Another option are blogs.  Blogs allow you to publish for free online.  For example, my website is a blog.  I pay for a domain name (which costs less than $20 a year), but I don’t even have to do that.  I use WordPress.  Blogs are capable of doing more and more with each passing year.  I’m amazed at all the functions WordPress utilizes.  You could absolutely publish your story chapter by chapter or as a whole on a blog, and it would cost you nothing.  However, the editing, the promotion, etc. all falls on you.  Plus, once your work is out there for free, it’s out there.  Think long and hard before you publish online.

Maybe you don’t even want to go to that much trouble.  If you have a Facebook page, there is an option for “notes,” which is basically a blog feature.  It functions much the same and, because you can secure it, only your contacts can view it.

Finally, don’t discount your good old word processor.  Software provides you some amazing format and font choices, so you could create your book, print it, run copies, and hand it out by hand.  You could even email it as an attachment.  Worried about people stealing it if you send it electronically?  You probably don’t need to concern yourself with that, but some word processor programs such as Microsoft Word allows you to publish your document as a PDF, and this can restrict any sort of electronic edits (such as changing the author’s name).

There are so many more possibilities, but these are some of the major choices.  Just be aware, and I can’t emphasize it enough, once your work is out there, it’s out there, and when this happens the first-time publishing rights are exhausted.  If there is any part of you that thinks you want to seek traditional publishing, be patient, put in the time, and play the waiting game.  Traditional publishers want to maximize their profit, and that’s very hard to do if the work is already out there for free.

So for better or worse, we can be writers. Whether it’s just for one day is entirely up to you.

The Story That Is Life

I’m a story teller at heart.  I can’t help it.  I’m surprised people still ask me personal questions, because the reply is often long winded, detailed, and superfluous.  It’s just who I am.

But honestly, I think we are, as a species, story tellers.  More importantly, we are also story listeners.  Who doesn’t love a good story?  Our capacity to both create and enjoy a good story is part of what makes us transcendent.  Some of us tell our stories through the written word, through music, through humor, through art, through dance, through social media, or even simply standing by the water cooler.

And really, isn’t life just a story?  We all have our beginning, our middle, and our end.  We all have conflict, a climax, supporting characters, and various settings.  We recognize a plot twist, sometimes beforehand, but often after the fact.  We may be the hero, we may be the villain, but we’re probably a little bit of both as any well rounded character should be.

People often ask me where I get my ideas.  For me, the ideas simply happen.  Anything can trigger them, but it’s usually something from life itself.  Once the idea happens, it unfolds in my mind, it plays itself out, and all I have to do is watch it and write down what I see.  There is life within those ideas, life within life, and I firmly believe my characters take on a life of their own as a result.

So I hope you enjoy telling a good story, or listening to a good story, because to do so is to enjoy life.

The Biggest Secret To Being a Writer Is To …

I’ve got a book signing coming up soon (more on that later), and there’s a strong chance I’m going to speak to many people looking for writing advice.

Of course, there are many, many things I recommend you do should you desire to write, but perhaps the biggest piece of advice I have for any prospective or current writers is to read.

Yes, it’s that simple.


A lot.

Chances are, if you want to write you already are an avid reader, but even so, do not underestimate the power of reading.  Reading voraciously exposes you to other authors’ style, vocabulary, pacing, characterization, plot structure, etc.  You’ll find some styles more inspiring than others, and you may even strive to emulate those authors.

Notice that I did not say “copy.”

For example, if you read my work, you realize that I tend to write about fairly realistic science fiction or fantasy.  Meaning, my stories seem very much set in the real world except for an occasional demon or robot going about his daily business.

Interestingly enough, the authors I most enjoy reading include Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx.  For the most part, these authors do not specialize in fantasy or science fiction.  However, I love Auster’s brilliantly compact writing.  Chabon is a master at description.  McCarthy builds tension like no one else.  Proulx never fails to capture the essence of emotion.  Though we rarely operate in the same realms, I never fail to learn something about craft when I read these authors.  Best of all, they write kick ass books.

There isn’t much I won’t read, and I think I’m a better writer for it.

So that’s my biggest piece of advice.  Start reading more.  Read as often as you can.  Be warned, however, when reading through the lens of “author,” you’ll become far more critical and may actually realize you hate your favorite author’s bad habits.  I can’t stand the words “was” or “had,” so every time I see an author use either of them, I cringe.

Enjoy your reading!


The Big Picture

I’m at a stage in my life now when I don’t get any one thing done at any one time.  I have to “chunk” everything – especially my writing.  Because of my “finish it bit by bit” approach, it can sometimes take weeks to finish even a relatively short story.  Amidst my family, my professional obligations, my Master’s work, and anything else that happens to arise, I’ve got a lot going on almost always.  To start a story, then find that I can’t get back to it until a day or two later, can prove disastrous when it comes to “flow.”

To combat this, I do something very important that I believe all writers of any genre should do – I outline.  I hear you groaning, but outlining is an instrumental tool in the prewriting stage for a variety of reasons.  It helps you flesh out characters, establish pacing and/or beats, and allows the opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t before you’ve even touched a keyboard (unless you outline on a keyboard, of course).  Most importantly, it gives you a view of the big picture.  Sometimes I’ve known the exact way a story ends thanks to my outline, and sometimes I’ve only known a vague idea of how the story ends thanks to my outline, but I’ve always had some idea of the ending, and that’s essential. 

Knowing the ending before a writer starts actually writing the story provides a far better experience for both the writer and the reader.  It saves the writer a lot of time, and it can’t help but result in a tighter, more deliberate story for the reader to digest.

We’ve all read those books where it seemed as though the story didn’t have any idea where it headed.  That’s fine in some cases, especially if it’s a pure character study or experimental, but I believe every moment of a story or novel should work towards a conclusion.  It may work in a small way, but it must serve a purpose.  Just as life sometimes grants us great happiness or terrible tragedy, we can always trace a chain of events leading to either upon reflection.  A story should be no different.  A path, even if chaotic, should be discernible to a reader after finishing the story.

How should you outline?  Who cares, just do it!  Use the tedious style we teach in school or do it on restaurant napkins, wipe boards, post-it notes, whatever!  I prefer notebooks, personally.  I also believe in sketching characters and settings, so the notebook affords me that opportunity as well, but that’s a topic for another time.

New writers love to just start typing and see where the story takes them, and if you have time for that, then have fun.  For me, though, the way life is at the moment, I have to make every second count, so working through an outline with lots of notes and messy arrows and sketches is exactly how I get myself ready to be the most productive when it comes time to actually write.

The Slash: The Fastest Read Alive

Revision is a laborious process for me.  I know I’m supposed to love it like I love my broccoli, but by the third or fourth revision of a single work, I’m weary.  So weary.  So, so weary.

However, one good thing about the weariness is that I’m far less sentimental about the work, and that’s when something wonderful races into the revision process—The Slash.

Stephen King once said something to the effect that you need to cut out a lot, a whole lot, of your initial draft by the time you reach the final draft.  Now, I’m just like you.  My first thought is, “Well sure, that’s true for most people, but not me.  My stuff is pretty darn perfect from the moment it leaves my fingertips.  I don’t want to say I’m awesome, but, you know, I’m sort of awesome.”

But by the fourth or fifth revision, I start to realize that I’m not that awesome, that I have things in the work that simply don’t need to be there.  Redundancies, unnatural dialogue, clarifications, unnecessary details—I commit every sin possible.  And, because I’m so darn tired of the whole process, I have no qualms rectifying those sins by slashing them right out.  If they are a problem, I no longer fight to keep them in, I just slash them.  The result?  A much faster, streamlined, fluid piece of writing that equates a better experience for the readership.

We all love our words, gang. We do.  But for most of us, it’s not about the words, it’s about the story.  It’s about maintaining a certain pace.  It’s about keeping characters consistent.  It’s about offering the reader an olive branch by only including those things that are relevant.

Go ahead.  Start slashing away.  You’ll take a sort of manic glee in it.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Dialogue Versus Description

Because I much prefer to read dialogue rather than description, it seems only natural that I also use far more dialogue in my writing than I do description.  This can be a tricky thing, though, because too much dialogue can overburden the reader, especially if it’s forced or stiff.

I think I first noticed that I liked terse writing when I discovered both Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy.  I want to make it clear that I am in no way comparing myself to either of those two enormous talents, but their particular styles spoke to me, and their methods couldn’t help but influence my own writing.

Abundant description is, for me, tedious.  Don’t get me wrong, description is where writers such as Michael Chabon truly shine because it is an opportunity for them to display both their fertile imaginations and their mastery of the sentence.  Consequently, while I am not a fan of description, I do appreciate well-constructed writing.  However, I have always been a writer (and reader) far more invested in characters, and I want to digest the story through their thoughts and words with few roadblocks.  As you probably guessed, I correlate ample description with roadblocks.

In all honesty, I don’t consider myself a master of the written sentence.  I don’t pretend to know every rule of grammar in existence, nor, frankly, do I much care.  For me, the characters’ story is the most important thing.  It needs to be rich, exciting, fast-paced, and if there is anything that does not contribute immediately to the progression of the story or the illustration of a character, then it doesn’t belong.

In my mind, the reader can deduce far more from a character’s words than through a narrator’s description, and it means more to the reader because there is no buffer.  I enjoy discovering character through words and action. When I read I like imagining the tone of the dialogue based upon what I know of the character.  Certain characters speak certain ways, use certain words, and even employ certain tones.  The narrator can provide all of that information, but the reader becomes far more invested by earning those nuances through personal mining.

So, the difficulty is in making sure that the dialogue is realistic, pleasurable to read, and serving a purpose.  Too much dialogue is just the narrator executing a sneak attack.  Too little dialogue wastes the reader’s time, as well as the story’s.

It’s a delicate balance, but one I enjoy trying to achieve.

I’d love your opinion on the matter.  Do you prefer dialogue or description?  Be sure to provide an explanation.