With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Book is Like a Boat and a Baby

Jack Poww and GO-Girl

While I was writing my second book (Jack Poww and GO-Girl), I sincerely believed I was doing it mainly for the project itself. I can write, I want to write because I enjoy writing, so I did write a book, regardless of what would become of it. I would create a book, release it into the world, and see what happens.

I was able to have this attitude because of the success of my first book, Napism (for people who take their naps “religiously”.) It sold and continues to sell, but, frankly, not nearly as much as I thought it would. Do a quick Google / Instagram / Facebook search on #nap, napping, etc., and you will find many thousands of nap-related memes, jokes, serious biomedical research, and so on, so I figured if I could get a sale for every one-hundredth or even one-thousandth of one percent of all those nap mentions, I’d do quite well. Despite good (international!) reviews of my book, the sales have not been the torrent I thought they might be. The reasons for this are, for the point I’m making here, irrelevant. What my experience with my first book did for me was to make real the idea that writing a book is one thing and its commercial success is quite another. For me, it is no longer a concept or theory: it is an internalized fact.

So, as I wrote Jack Poww and GO-Girl’s first adventure, although I certainly kept in mind to make it readable for others, I truly did write it for me. I had fun with it. I took it through several drafts and beta reads, and finally I pronounced it finished. I knew that if I let it sit for a few months and looked at it again, I would surely change a few words or scenes, but I pronounced it finished. I didn’t do this because I was tired of it: I did it because I happen to be a sailor, and I thoroughly know that if you don’t take your boat out until absolutely everything on it is in perfect condition, you will never get out on the water. So, just like my “good ol’ boat”, I felt the book was ready to be enjoyable out there flying in the wind.

Very soon after I clicked the final release button, I switched from thinking of the book as a boat to thinking of it as a baby. Why? Because when men and women are expecting a baby, mostly they’re thinking some version of “I just hope the baby’s okay. I just hope the baby’s generally healthy. I just hope the child will be reasonably happy.” But then, very soon after the baby’s born, the parents start wishing things like “I can’t wait until she laughs. I want to see her walk, and run, and dance. I want her to have lots of friends! I want her to have a great life!”

It’s the same with giving birth to a book. It goes quickly from “I’m creating this just because I can and it is what I want for me” to “Great God Almighty! I want a ba-zillion people to read it and like it!” Of course it would be a very good thing if the book earns even half a ba-zillion pennies, but that truly is totally separate from having strangers (with no reason to try to make you feel good about your work) let you know that your book is enjoyable. It is very much like when you have a child: for his own sake, you want him to do well and have many friends.

In Defense of Vampires, Ghosts, Dragons, and Other Things That Go Slash in the Night

Yondu Udonta, Guardians of the Galaxy

Yondu Udonta, Guardians of the Galaxy

A surprising percentage of people all over the world don’t know this, but the thing about vampires, ghosts, visiting aliens, and all kinds of other so-called imaginary beings, is that if you look at them directly, you cannot see them. It has something to do with the human eye and how the brain interprets the biochemical visual signals: it’s partly why sailors know to look just a tad to the left and right of a target far off on the water to prevent it from “disappearing.”

Some of the time – actually most of the time – if you want to show somebody something that will scare him, it works well if you use the sailor’s trick and show him something a little to the left or right of the reality you want him to see. People so easily accept something they almost see out of the corner of their eye (“What was that?”), much more so than something they don’t want to see, even when it is right there in front of them (“Um, ya, uhh, ya, okay, I love you, now c’mon over here . . .”)

Here’s a great example from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, y’know, the movie with the man from Earth boppin’ around the galaxy with a talking raccoon warrior, a walking, one-sentence-talking tree, a green-skinned woman assassin, and . . . well, go watch the movie! Here’s the dialogue from the scene that is a great example of the usefulness of stories of spacemen, vampires, ghosts, dragons, wizards, and the like:

Yondu Udonta: When I picked you up as a kid, these boys wanted to eat you. They ain’t never tasted Terran before. I saved your life!

Peter Quill: Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you’ve been throwing that in my face, like it’s some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don’t even think about eating someone else! Much less that person having to be grateful for it!

It wouldn’t have been very interesting at all, and it probably would have made many in the audience lose interest in the bigger story, if instead the “step-father” figure had said, instead of “I didn’t let them eat you,”, just “I put a roof over your head and fed you!” The not-letting-them-eat-you un-reality deftly carries the larger reality of the following line, “Normal people don’t even think about . . . (fill in the blank with your own family / relationship issue.)

Sometimes to see, or show, the forest through the trees . . . well, sometimes you gotta go left to get right.

Want a much more powerful example? Well, remember the gods of Greek and Roman mythology? Or all the parables of the Christian Bible? (I’m not attacking Christianity here; I’m just saying that as a story it certainly has many elements that can be considered fantastic, magical, metaphysical, and the like.) Millions, no, billions of people have read the Bible (religion in story format), but how many of them have read or can even name just one treatise on religious dogma (in academic, informational, or theological format?) No doubt about it, stories rule.

Sometimes the more fantastic, the more unbelievable a story is on the surface, the more human truth it holds, and the more powerful it is. So, if you don’t already have respect for ghosts, vampires, dragons, wizards, demons, aliens, and the like, just remember, sometimes you gotta go east to get West.

A Great Opening Line

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

This was written by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars (36,000 reviews on Amazon, and made in to a movie, too. Ya, it’s pretty good.) This is not the book’s opening line, but it could have been. It would function well for any of several genres: romance, coming of age, even vampires or a murder mystery! Regardless of your favorite genre, from this line alone, don’t you want to read more of the author’s writing?

I came across this line, this quote, somewhere on the internet – Pinterest, Instagram,   Facebook, wherever – and I made a note of it because it did its job: it pulled me in gently but firmly. It is credible, relatable, has a touch of poetic vision, and implicitly carries the promise of a story that matters, a story that is important, maybe even pivotal, even if only to the fictional characters and the author. All of this, contained in just 15 words . . . oh ya, this book has got to be worth reading!

An opening that is at least good is essential; a good opening line makes what follows all the more inviting; a great opening line is irresistible.

The Best Writing Exercise EVER

On writing websites and author forums I sometimes come across lists of writing prompts and other exercises for practicing writing skills, and though they might be helpful (especially in a classroom setting), above them all there is one thing, one project any writer can do to improve his writing. The King Daddy or Queen Mama of all writing exercises is simply this: write your life story.

It’s your life, so you know the story. You know the drama, the comedy, the sub-plots, the character development, and the major and minor characters. You know many of the characters’ back-stories, you know their deep desires and motivations and fears and heartaches and regrets, you know their various levels of emotional and social skills. You even have slivers of their dialogue burnt into your heart! You already have the parts of a great story, so why not use them for something?

Now, don’t just describe a chronological list of events: doing that will bore even yourself!   Write your life story as if it were a novel. (It’s your story, so you get to be the hero!) Write your life story for your great-grandchildren to read: make it so they will get to know you and your world and so they can get more from it than just the facts of family history. Make it so they can use your story to live their lives more fully and happily. In other words, write a good book.

(By the way, if you believe your life doesn’t provide enough material for a good story, you might want to (a) adjust your attitude or (b) get away from the keyboard for awhile and go get busy.)

Even if you never get to pass it on to a great-grandchild, there are many practical benefits to writing your life story. Here are the most obvious; I’ll let you discover the more subtle.

First, it allows you to work on expressing your experience, on your writing itself, instead of being distracted, hampered, and even bogged down with imagining plot twists and life-like characters. You can focus on the how and not waste many brain cells on the what.   That’s the biggie.

Second, when you look back on your life so far, and when you try to show what is needed for a reader to make sense of it all and understand your life as well as you do, you have to portray all the people fairly. This will do amazing things for giving your future fictional characters a multi-dimensional reality, and it will force you to practice shifting from one point of view to another. (Incidentally, it will also help you more deeply understand and accept your family, friends, and other players in your real life!)

Third, it will get you to write about a million words. Somewhere I read, perhaps from a famous author, that a writer doesn’t really get comfortable with his writing and settle into his “voice” until he’s written about a million words. (By the way, I’ve tried copying and pasting big blocks of words, but this shortcut is proving rather fruitless . . .) The actual number doesn’t matter, but the sentiment sure seems to ring true. The more you write, the better at it you become . . . (And if you’re no good at all after a million words, uhmm, maybe you should try something else . . . )

Fourth, you can use this to get un-stuck on your “real” projects. Writer’s block? Bullshit.   Just put your work to the side, open a file from your life story, and just start writing. It’s like getting out of bed in the morning: you don’t always want to do it at all, and when you start you’re a bit stiff and maybe even sore, but if you just start moving you loosen up and you get your heart pumping and before you know it, you’re being some kind of productive and you’re enjoying yourself again. So, since for your life story there is always something new to add or old to refine, just open the file and resume writing. Then, once you’re loosened up, you close your life story file and re-open your work file . . .

You can do it. If you truly are a writer, you can do it.   You’ll want to revise and refine and re-do and revise some more, and every year you’ll want to add another chapter or two, or add a more mature perspective to earlier chapters . . . and you’ll always have material to work with.

Do you want to know at what point people who don’t know you will want to read your work? Well, imagine standing in the sand at the edge of a lake, a lake big enough to make you be serious if you’re contemplating swimming across it. Imagine thinking, It’s going to take work, but I can do this. I can swim well enough to make it. I can’t do it all freestyle, I can’t do it like an Olympic champion, but I can do this. Now imagine that the middle of the lake is way, way over the swimmer’s head, so he knows that he can not afford to overestimate his ability to make it across.   It’s going to take work, but I can do this. Imagine the swimmer strongly wading into and through the shallows, then at waist-depth diving in and striking out for the far-away other side of the lake. It’s going to take work, but I can do this. When you can approach writing a book with the same well-found confidence of that swimmer, you’ll produce something that strangers will want to read.

So, go ahead and look for tips on how to choose the right kind of names for your characters, and how to make dialogue feel real, and all kinds of other techniques, but for a sandbox to play with all these tools? You have it already: your life story. Just wade right in . . . and start knocking out those million words!

PS – Hey, under the right circumstances, at the right time, your written life story might come in handy when dating. DO NOT attach it to your first online-dating-service email!!!! DON’T do it; don’t even think of doing it! Bad, embarrassing things will likely happen. But if you’re several months into a solid dating relationship, you’ve already been sharing your life story in bits and pieces through conversation, so why not share it as a whole? Or even just the most important chapters . . . The other person’s reaction to your reaction to life (in your most accurately-chosen written words) will either make you two closer or clear the playing field: one way or the other, in the long run, you’ll win.

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