Lots of people are posting Coronavirus thought pieces. This is not that. Far from being a post on politics and infectious diseases, I felt motivated to write about the wonderful things you can do with the extra time we have during self-isolation – even if the reasons for it suck.
It is a sad truth that 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail by March. So in the spirit of being contrary I am here to sprinkle some fairy dust on my resolutions, assign them the rather blase moniker “goals” and commence in defiance of statistics. I never liked that statistics class in college anyway.
Goal #1: Finish Four Projects in Limbo
I aim to finish four projects this year that are in various stages. The first, a new science fiction project, is about halfway through its third draft, but was first written in 2015. Another is the long-awaited sequel to A Gray Crusade. Others I am choosing to keep hidden for now, but all four of these I hope to have “editor-ready” by the end of the year. This does not mean that all of these will be published this year, of course, but it *does* mean that they will be ready as soon as the resources and appropriate plans are in place.
Goal #2: Read 52 Books
This is, by my estimation, a rather modest reading goal. 50 books is a pretty comfortable annual reading goal for me, but I’m sad to say that I didn’t hit it in 2019. There are a few reasons for this, one being that my work life was much busier than I’ve been accustomed to. But after some adjustments in my schedule, I think that a book a week is perfectly reasonable, especially considering the fact that I’ve had a head start in finishing three “currently reading” books in the first three days of January. I’ve always said that avid writers are also avid readers, and it’s time to put my time where my mouth is – often a more challenging and important prospect than mere dollars and cents.
Goal #3: Launch a Kickstarter Campaign for Captain Liam
The aforementioned first project that I intend to finish this year is tentatively titled “Captian Liam and the Three-Eyed Space Pirate.” This was originally a NaNoWriMo project, and has gone through a heavy editing phase since November, which I hope to put a bow on by the end of February. At that point, I hope to try something I have not yet tried – Kickstarter – which could help me to gain the resources needed to put a real marketing plan behind the book. And while, yes, I did just say that time is often more important than dollars and cents, Facebook and Google sadly do not allow bartering as a method of payment (but if you’re a cover artist who will design for eggs, then let me know and I’ll pick up some chickens and a coop-building book). Because I want to do this properly, there are a few pieces that still need to be in place before I can truly launch a crowdfunding campaign the right way. But I’m putting this here as a goal because this is always something I’ve said is a good idea, and even said I should do, but never have actually gotten done. 2020 is the year.
Goal #4: Appear at Three In-Person Events
Local author events were at one time one of my favorite parts of being an author. In the past couple of years, I have sought out less of those opportunities. The reasons for this are myriad, but a lot of it has to do with time and becoming more plugged in to my day job. This is not something I regret in itself, but I do regret that I allowed an outgrowth of that to be a reduction in these in-person author events. So in 2020, I want to carve out the time to become more involved in the local author community in Greater Lafayette, Indiana, and to discover more opportunities to partner with local bookstores, coffee shops, and the like. Who knows, maybe I’ll even migrate out of Tippecanoe County.
And that’s that! If you’d like to follow along as I tackle these goals, you can join my newsletter (and get a free ebook while you’re at it). Have a good year!
Todd Phillips’ Joker film is exactly what genre critics say these films never can be. It’s a character-focused drama that sinks its teeth into meaty themes like mental illness, abuse, isolation, and the relation of all of those to violence. It certainly evokes Scorcese (who was once speculated to direct, and even made some visits to the set), and is perhaps not as original as I’m apt to give it credit for. But that said, it still exhibits something I think is really important: Phillips has used a character from a big-budget popcorn franchise to ask serious questions about how people become violent. And I think he’s right on the money.
Continue Reading →
I don’t have a particular philosophy for how I pick my reading list. I start with the very vaguest of plans, and frequently indulge in impulses. And yet, at times, certain patterns emerge anyway.
As the title suggests, I’ve been thinking a lot about community. There are reasons for this in my private life, but in terms of my media consumption, it starts with Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant. I had little context for Grant himself, other than knowing his prestige as a general, and I’ve been quite surprised. It turns out he wasn’t always confident and self-assured. In fact, prior to the civil war, he was frequently assailed by bouts of loneliness and depression. Mostly bereft of close friends other than his wife, Grant’s struggles with alcohol were much pronounced when lonely, something I suspect many (though not all) of those with the same struggle would identify with.
Next came a new release by Senator Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, which I picked up impulsively from a display at my local library. In it, Sasse argues that we’re so angry because we’re so disconnected from a sense of shared community, especially locally, and people who disagree with me become an avatar on a screen instead of Jake from PTA meetings. “In the midst of extraordinary prosperity,” he says, “we’re also living through a crisis. Our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before.”
Then most unexpectedly, when reading the science fiction graphic novel Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan (mostly well known as the writer of Saga), I came across this theme again, although it’s admittedly not the foremost theme of the story. Amidst some crazy timey-wimey scifi stuff (because, you know, spoilers), a character says her only regret is being too afraid of the “coolness” of other girls to form friendships with them. Loneliness, it turns out, is the behind some regrets, as well as depression and alcohol addiction.
I don’t necessarily have a “so what,” except to say that loneliness and the need for community are experiences central to being human, which is why we find them across genres. Biography, quasi-politica nonfiction, and sci-fi graphic novel casts quite the spread. But good stories speak to the human experience, even if the genre window-dressing varies.
Other stuff I’m consuming:
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (excellent!), Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesteron (quite good), and of course, the return of the Attack on Titan anime.
I’m proud to announce that my most recent novel, An Exalted Depravity (2016, but hey, more recent than my other books) is now available on Kindle Unlimited! So if you’re a subscriber to KU, go ahead and download it now! It’s probably the project I’m most passionate about, a sort of YA take on A Brave New World that asks what the cost of living an openly chaste life in a depraved society looks like. Grab it now, and be sure to leave an honest review with your thoughts afterward!
I bet you thought authors only existed in Stephen King’s mansion and the basements of parents, right? Well, that would be wrong! I’m venturing out into the public eye for a couple of upcoming events.
Local Author Fair
Tippecanoe County Public Library | 4/14/2018
For the third year running, I will appear at the Tippecanoe County Public Library’s Local Author Fair in Lafayette, IN. I’ll have discounted (and signed!) paperbacks available for purchase, and I’ll also be giving a presentation entitled, “Why Do We Love Superheroes?” This is an event I look forward to every year, and this year is no exception. I hope to see you there!
Orleans Public Library | 6/8/2018 (tentative)
It turns out that more people from my hometown than just my grandma want to meet me. I’ll be returning to the Orleans Public Library in Orleans, IN to do a writing workshop (primarily aimed at teens). Join us to hear some of my favorite writing tips and tricks to help you finish that ever-elusive first draft.
I may add more events here in the future, so be sure to check back.
Editor’s Note: Yes, I know this is ridiculously late. But I finished writing the wretched thing so I’m posting it, cool? Cool.
People are infamously flaky about New Year’s Resolutions. If your gym membership card is already gathering dust, then you know what I mean. Here’s to a fat and ice cream-filled year, eh?
But because I’m apparently a masochist who anticipates disappointment with bated breath, I made New Year’s Resolutions anyway. I have based my instruments of torture off of the “SMART” goals formula, which I hear was penned by the angel Gabriel before his promotion:
At first, I thought it might be best to give my characters resolutions, and then celebrate when they met their goals in imagined scenarios. But Eli has a nasty stink-eye, so here are my real-life authorly resolutions for 2018:
1. Read 50 Books
This one always eludes me. 2018 is the third consecutive year I have set this goal, and I’ve yet to get closer than 36. But because I’m not insane, I’m slightly changing my approach, and aiming for a book a week, which allows me to plan out how many pages I need to get through each day. This has already made a big difference – I read five books in January. And already, the habit of reading so much more is teaching me a lot about story – which will hopefully produce a slew of blog material.
2. Spend No More than 30 Minutes/Day on Social Media
Aside from the fact that I don’t want a cyborg Arnie to hunt down everyone named “John” in my friends list, there are many reasons to cut down on social media time. For one, some of that time (like, theoretically speaking, when one is on the John) can be spent reading ebooks. But also, there’s a point of diminishing returns with social media, where instead of engaging with friends and groups in meaningful ways, I’m mindlessly scrolling. Kind of like that five-year-old addicted to the iPad on the poster of every media alarmist documentary ever.
3. Finish Two Novel First Drafts
Before you ask, yes, one of these will be the third book in the Rogue series. The second project I have planned is an epic fantasy novel about Draconians (sometimes called “dragonborn,” not in the Skyrim sense, but in the Dungeons & Dragons sense). I’ve written enough books to know that my first drafts tend to be around 50k – 60k words, so this allows me to plan ahead what I need to get done each month.
4. From a Twice Weekly Exercise Habit (by March)
Speaking of flaky and torturous resolutions, here’s our obligatory exercise goal! But in all seriousness, writing is a sedimentary lifestyle. Even though I’m not yet a full-time author, my day job has me strapped to a desk as well. And as a bonus, exercise allows me to get more reading time in via audiobooks, and the happy hormones it releases helps motivate me to get things done. Things like writing.
5. Watch 10 Foreign Films & 10 Silent Films
I can just image in the foamy-mouthed “MOVIES ARE EVIL BOOKS ARE ANGELIC” responses being lobbed at saliva-splattered screens. But film, like literature, is a story-telling medium. It has something to teachw riters about the mechanics of story, especially foreign and silent films, which will force me out of my 21st century blockbuster box. This is the same reason writers should read classics, but different artforms can spread a storyteller’s wingspan as well.
And just like that, I have been sentenced. What say you? Do you have story- or writing-related resolutions?
Yesterday I blogged about Will Mize’s 10 Commandments of Self-Publishing. One of the things I didn’t draw out as much in that post was something he said that really stuck with me: your first priority, even if science fiction and fantasy, should be your characters, not world building.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Show me a wildly successful fantasy book and I’ll show you well-developed characters. Whether it’s the well-developed home life of Frodo Baggins or the child abuse victim psyche of Harry Potter, these stories are successful because we care about the characters. Character sketches are an extremely important part of the writing process.
But how do you write character sketches? That’s not something that’s talked about a lot. It seems that book marketing, newsletters, social media, and cover design prices take up more of the Internet space on indie writing than anything else. There’s a time and a place for those things, but I keep going back to the writing itself. That is the number one priority. And in that number one priority, having good characters is paramount. So how do you go about it? There’s no one right way, which is the great thing about creative writing, but here are six elements that will give you a solid start.
#1: A Back Story
It doesn’t have to be a tragic back story or even a terribly interesting one. But there has to be some measure of influence to tell you why the character is the way that they are. It’s that way with people. If I was to explain to you some of why I am the way that I am, I would probably begin by telling you that I grew up in a miniscule town in southern Indiana, which I always wanted to get out of. I might tell you that this desire nurtured in me a sense of adventure, and that’s why I so often went to books. I might also tell you that I had a secure home life, which has caused me to be more emotionally secure than some of my peers that didn’t have that privilege.
It’s the same thing with characters; after all, characters are people. There are some personality traits that can be granted as natural or things that are just part of their personality, but other things need explained. Those explanations can also keep you from firing off things that wind up being inconsistent, which can save a lot of time during the first one or two rounds of editing.
#2: What the Character Wants
According to many writing blogs, this is the most important part of the character sketch. The thing that moves your story along will be what your main character wants, and how the antagonist’s wants get in the way of that.
Think about your unmotivated cousin living in his mom’s basement (if you don’t have one of those, then just bear with me for a moment). How exciting is it to hear about his life? Does it make you want to hear more? On the contrary, it’s probably rather depressing. That’s the way your character is if he doesn’t want anything, or if he’s just kind of there and stuff just kind of happens to him. Your character, whether a good guy, bad guy, or antihero, needs to want something.
This can also be expanded to include little details that will make your character stand out. Consider not only what their biggest desire is that moves the story forward, but also their hobbies, likes and dislikes, and what they want out of each relationship.
#3: Well-Defined Personality Traits
It seems pretty obvious, but you need to know what your character’s personality is going to be like. These don’t have to be remarkably original or unique, but they need to be well-defined. This can be especially helpful if you have a team of characters, because you can create a good balance between them. The show Leverage is an especially good example of this kind of balance. Hartisan is funny, Parker is sly, Elliott is tough, and Sophia is smooth. If you’re crafting a team of characters, they need to be able to stand apart.
Knowing ahead of time what your characters are going to be like also helps you identify potential problems in developing these characters. For example, if you have two sulking characters with tragic back stories, then you know something is needed to set them apart. And like the element before it, having well-defined personality traits helps enormously with consistency. If you already know what the character is like and how they react to certain things, then their behavior will be consistent. I’d even recommend taking something like the Meyers-Briggs personality test as each of your characters, and use the descriptions to help you craft your characters.
#4: Physical Description
I put this towards the end for a reason. It’s not as important as the character’s personality, desires, and back story, but it is still important. Differences in physique can bring with it dynamics of intimidation or protectiveness. Attractiveness can bring sexual tension. Even moving beyond relationships between characters, physical descriptions can make your characters stand out, with things such as an abnormally short height or a unique tattoo.
#5: The Way They Talk
I remember a friend of mine describing why she loved Charles Dickens so much. He was paid by the word, and sometimes it shows, as my sister-in-law likes to say, but the thing this friend of mine loved so much about him was that all of his characters sounded different. No two people, especially when you include differing backgrounds, talk exactly the same. Different people use different expressions. Some have an aggressive conflict style, others are passive-aggressive. Some use a lot of slang, others try to sound more educated. If all of your characters sound the same . . . well, it’ll read like most modern YA fiction. But if you pay more attention to how your character’s talk, the words that they use, the different expressions they like, then your story will be that much better. You don’t want just as good as everyone else is doing; you want better.
#6: How They Change
Character development is probably the number one thing that you see criticized in book reviews, as well as movie reviews. There’s a reason for that. We expect to experience change along with the characters when we go into a story. Even if that’s not what you look for as a reader, you expect just from the standpoint of realism. If exciting things are happening in the book, as they should be in any good story, then you can’t reasonably expect that the character wouldn’t change! So as you’re crafting your characters for your story, you need to be thinking about what changes are going to take place, and then from there look at how they will go through those changes. As Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
For the next week, I’ll be blogging about various kinds of story and character development. This, I believe, is the most important part, so it’s quite fitting that it came first. If there are any other elements of character sketches that you believe are also important, feel free to leave a comment.
For our anniversary last weekend, my wife and I went to the Indiana Comic Con. Yeah. We’re nerds. We saw awesome LEGO superhero costumes, got pictures with Jason Momoa and Jenna Coleman, and also heard a really good presentation on self-publishing.
The presentation was by Bill Mize, who is a self-published mystery author in addition to a self-help author. He’s consistently in the top ten new releases for mystery fiction, and was self-publishing before it was cool. That means he has a lot of credibility for what works and what doesn’t, so I’m sharing his “ten commandments” here, as well as linking to his blog and books at the end. Some of these have been editing for language, but all of the ideas are his. The links are books or products he recommends, but the affiliate links are mine.
#1: Thou shalt not write crap.
One of Mize’s best points was that Amazon has almost made publishing too easy. You can throw up a horribly formatted first draft that has seen no criticism whatsoever. I’ve started reading a couple of those. Bad books have always been around, even in traditional publishing (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?), but the first rule is the most obvious: don’t write one of them.
#2: Thou shalt write every day.
The brain responds to habits. As much as you can, write every day and at the same time and the same place every day. Depending on what kind of day job you have, this may not be possible, but do it to the best of your ability. Mize also recommends getting a low-tech word processor like Alpha Smart. It doesn’t have internet, which limits the number one writing distraction, and it also shows a few sentences at a time, which prevents you from editing as you write (my number two distraction). The way Alpha Smart works, as I assume most others do, is it holds a certain amount of storage, and once you hit that amount, you transfer it to your computer by a USB chord, where you can edit and format it. Mize also recommends screenwriting books as a way of outlining, and recommends the book “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story
#3: Thou shalt write only what you love
A lot of writers can get burnt out just writing whatever the latest fad is. That’s thinking like a consumer, whereas you should be thinking like a creator. If you just write what you love, you won’t be as likely to get burnt out, and you’ll probably be more successful, because people can smell that kind of insincerity from a mile away. And I’ll add to those remarks that fads change so often, and books take so much effort to write, that the fad will probably have changed by the time you get it out anyway.
#4: Thou shalt read every day
Reading is important in general, especially for any author, but Mize recommends to take special attention to writers in your genre. Read the important writers who formed the genre, and read their biographies. He also recommends reading “how to write” books, but be selective with which ones you read. Read them on recommendations from people you trust. And in that vein, pick a writing system and stick to it.
#5: Thou shalt edit
Mize had four primary recommendations for this: read your work aloud, only send your manuscript to people after you’ve hit the third draft, focus on writing style first and do research later, and choose your editors carefully (and focus on people you know read in your genre). He also recommended the book “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
#6: Thou shalt pay for a cover
I would also add to pay for editing, but paying for a cover is a really big deal. The mantra “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has almost no sway in the real world. People do it every day, and if you want people to buy your book, you have to have a good cover. That makes or breaks a book’s marketing. If you’re looking for a cover designer, I’d recommend Cheryl at ccrbookcoverdesign.com. Her design for A Gray Crusade blew my mind.
#7: Thou shalt invest money in your career
There’s a big difference between the indie authors who just publish for free every time and those who pay for professional services. In addition to stuff like editing and book cover design, you should be reading writing books, getting hosting for a website, getting bookmarks and other promotional materials, and maybe even going to conferences and writing seminars. That makes an enormous amount of difference in a writing career.
#8: Thou shalt be a professional
“Take yourself seriously and others will take you seriously.” Where I see the biggest need for this is in paying for professional services like editing, formatting, and book design, but Mize also brought out an area that we as authors need to think about: behavior online. Too many people get drawn into name-calling and other hateful behavior online. I’ve personally unfollowed several accounts on both Facebook and Twitter because of that kind of behavior, and I told people about those groups as well. Word of mouth travels fast, and you don’t want that kind of behavior to be the reputation that preceeds you.
#9: Thou shalt network
I found this one of the most helpful parts of the presentation. When it comes to networking, most people think about making connections so that these people can do things for you, but Mize says it should be just the opposite: “Networking is about asking ‘How can I help you?'” He urged everyone to remember that every person you interact with is a potential reader and a potential marketer, and that if you approach each of those relationships just being about what they can do for you, they’re going to broadcast that. You don’t want everyone knowing that you’re selfish and just want to use people. But if you aim to do what you can for others, that gets around too. Be sincere and be helpful.
#10: Thou shalt not be a jerk
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I want to specifically draw out another especially helpful thing he said: don’t worry about how many followers you have on Twitter. Being obsessed with that kind of thing is a distraction, and getting into all kinds of online debates can propagate the idea of you being a jerk. And that doesn’t mean you can never ever touch anything controversial–I tweet about my opinions on things like education and abortion, largely because it’s part of me being real on those accounts. But take care with how you approach other people.
It’s been a long and eventful year since Finding Sage was released in March of 2014. One year later, the sequel A Gray Crusade is finally out! You can purchase it on Amazon here.