Like many others, I had an event canceled due to the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. It was to be a workshop at a local library on writing, intended for teens involved in the library’s summer reading program. In lieu of an in-person event, I produced a video instead, which the library shared on their Facebook page, and which I’ve embedded below.
Like many other creatives during the age of physical distancing and semi-quarantine, I’ve been dabbling in a smattering of creative hobbies. Among these is music – I have a couple of guitars, but it had been a while since picking up one. Along the way, I also grabbed a book from Kindle Unlimited on music theory (Music Theory: From Absolute Beginner to Expert by Nicolas Carter) . Lo and behold, in between all of the stuff about the chromatic scale, extended cords, and diatonic modes was an unexpected connection to storytelling:
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.
After a long writing process, a full nine months after the original release date, I’m proud to announce that the sequel to Finding Sage, A Gray Crusade, is finally available for pre-order!
The book will be released on March 16. I will have paperbacks available, although as of now, only the e-book is available for pre-order. To pre-order on Amazon, click this link.
Drawing my sword, I looked upon the monster, feeling the raging heat from his nostrils burning my face. I stood my ground, digging my heels into the earth beneath my feet even as the smoldering ruins of the once great castle crumbled around me. I looked the fearsome red beast in the eye, trying in vain to hide my quivering spirit.
But even as I looked it in the eye and twirled my sword, ready to meet my demise with bravery and virtue, I recognized that writing two thousand words on a Saturday morning was much more difficult than I had imagined it to be.
2014 was an interesting year. I published my first book, did my first book signing, won NaNoWriMo, met a couple of really cool authors in my area, and, of course, read some absolutely incredible books. It’s been a crazy year outside of writing as well. I had an internship in the state government. I got married. My sister-in-law broke her leg. I was run off the Interstate by a semi and totaled my car. I went from one niece to nine nieces and nephews (seven of those by marrying into my wife’s family), and my wife and I discovered a couple months ago that we’re expecting a little munchkin of our own in July.
I expect 2015 to be an equally eventful year. I’ll be graduating from college in May, and will be continuing to write while presumably working a full-time job. Also, since we live in a little Podunk town you’ve never heard of in northwest Indiana, we will likely be moving to go to said job. With such an eventful year, the prospect of being a more productive writer in the midst of all of that seems quite comparable to slaying a dragon, without the ring of power, even. But as the tumultuous month of November reminded me, setting concrete goals can help push you, even in a busy life, to goals you thought far too lofty to possibly still be within Earth’s atmosphere.
New Year’s Resolution #1: Write and publish three books. I wanted to publish four last year and only published one. That was partially because of extenuating circumstances, but it was also partially due to a lack of self-motivation and discipline. That’s where I want to improve this year. Four is a bit too lofty of a goal with a full-time job and baby coming around the same time, but three, I believe, is realistic. I already have two of those at least partially done (one is the sequel to Finding Sage, currently around 40k words, and the other my NaNoWriMo project, which is slightly above 50k words), and have a couple ideas for a third. I have the ideas, it’s just a matter of “butt in chair.”
New Year’s Resolution #2: Read fiction and non-fiction every day. Clearly in the 365 days that will encompass 2015 there will be a time when I won’t be able to do this, but I would like it to be a regular habit. Any writer who doesn’t read is doing it wrong, and really any literate person with the appropriate resources (read: a local library) who isn’t reading regularly is doing it wrong. Science backs up the claim that it makes you smarter, but that’s not really my point. I’ve always been a reader at heart and I really enjoy it, I just haven’t always made time for it. And if I’m going to be creating and asking people to read my writing, I should be willing to read other people’s writings as well.
New Year’s Resolution #3: Separate work and leisure time. As I’m currently writing this, writing is a hobby for me. I do make some money off of my writing, but for the most part it goes right back into my writing as a fund for editing or formatting my next book or paying for an ad or something similar. It’s something of a self-supporting hobby; I don’t really make a supplemental income with it yet, although it that fund has occasionally been used to temporarily pay for unforeseen expenses (read: when a semi runs you off the Interstate and you have to pay for a tow truck). But even though it’s something of a hobby, it is hard work to write books. And it takes serious dedication. So it’s kind of like a job I enjoy that doesn’t exactly pay me yet. But because of that, I want to do a better job of separating work time from time doing other things. No more drafting while watching a movie with my wife. No more bringing the computer with me on the holidays “just in case” I get a story idea. I want to spend the time writing, and then be free to spend time with family completely dedicated to family.
There are other “soft” resolutions that I haven’t included simply because they’re more personal in nature and not really related to my writing. I want to read my Bible and pray more, as well as improving in my patience and some other character traits generally. But hopefully this list will inspire you to do what you do even better. While this list applies to me in some specific ways, we could all use a little more discipline.
November means a lot of things. It means we’re a month into my favorite season, that my birthday is just around the corner, and that my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, is coming up on us soon. But it also means something far, far more ambitious: NaNoWriMo.
But, in all, honesty, this is a terrible year for me to be doing NaNoWriMo. It’s my senior year in college, I’m taking 18 credit hours, I’m in 2 student organizations, and I have a part-time job, not to mention I got married earlier this year and I now have a house to keep up with. Every previous year I’ve shied away from doing it because I’ve been too busy. But this is without a doubt the busiest I’ve ever been, and I’m taking the plunge. As a matter of fact, my draft is already started. Why would I do this to myself? Because only doing NaNoWriMo when you have a bunch of time really ruins the purpose of the event to begin with.
NaNoWriMo is about writing. That’s obvious. But it’s about more than just writing. It’s about writing under pressure, which takes an all-elusive virtue: discipline. If you don’t have anything else to do, then writing 50,000 words in a month may seem pretty feasible. But when you have a job, classes, and other commitments to tend to, then it’s an enormous challenge. And that’s exactly why I’m doing it.
I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. I published my first book in March of this year. I can say without a shred of doubt in my mind that the most difficult part of writing for me has absolutely nothing to do with writer’s block, editing, or word choice. It’s discipline. I can daydream about a story all-day, but it’s difficult to sit down and take the necessary time to write a complete draft of a novel. I love writing and it’s still difficult! Like many writers, I’m a bit ADHD. And, ironically, that’s why I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. To set a firm and difficult deadline. To force me to be disciplined and dedicated. To break me in the hard way.
So if you were considering doing NaNoWriMo, but think you’re too busy, that’s exactly the reason you should do it.
I remember asking that question a lot as a kid, wondering what my favorite authors did every day. Did they write every day? Or did they spend more time doing appearances? Or was it spent doing marketing things?
From one perspective, I’m kind of a bad example of what the life of a writer is like because I still have a day job, and I’m still in college. However, I’m currently in between day jobs (I’m starting another one next Monday) and classes don’t start for two weeks, so for this week I’m a full-time writer, and I have for a while been using my days off as “Full-Time Writer Days.”
One thing to realize is that when I say being a writer, I don’t only mean being an author. In addition to writing books and stories, I also write for a few entertainment blogs, and one Christian apologetics blog, where I write about Christianity and pop culture/entertainment. So this is what my day today looks like, and it’s very similar to my other writing days.
9:30 – Share blog post (which had been, ideally, written and scheduled the night before), post on social media pages, check blog stats and book sales, add any book sales data to Excel doc.
10 – Write any needed blog posts. This will vary depending on what blogs I need to write for. Today I’m allowing until 11.
11 – Short story writing. I have a short story I’m expanding and will be publishing as a Kindle Single.
12 – Lunch
1 – Edit/Make changes based on suggestions from beta reader
2 – Drafting
3 – Watch/listen to/read for entertainment review on blog, comment on other blogs
4 – Drafting
This is a loose schedule, and I often break slightly from my plan, but this is a rough outline. The drafting periods aren’t always set for a particular project. I have two projects that I’m planning on drafting today. I like to split up the heavy writing periods, and I recommend that unless you’re purposefully speed writing, which some people do, and I’ve done periods of myself. If I’m hitting writer’s block, then I will usually plan my writing periods for later, because I get most of my ideas at night. Some of the best writing I’ve done has been at around midnight. But right now, I’m lacking more on writing diligence than ideas to flesh out.