Well, it’s almost the end of 2012 and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what an incredible year it’s been. I may post this early. I will just post it today. Frees up the rest of my year to just read, write and spend time with family. I’ll add any big developments before New Years. There are probably a bunch of things I’m forgetting.
Last summer/fall, when my first novel (Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children) and first novella (Iron Butterflies Rust) came out, was a very surreal time. I had been striving to learn how to write well enough to sell my work for almost a decade. It was a relief to sign the contracts, to get my author copies in the mail and see them, to mail copies to my readers, to dedicate the books, to get some feedback and strive to learn more.
This year has been even better. I had a ton of work come out.
But it’s funny how we can roar but still feel like we aren’t doing enough. When I was talking to my buddy Shaun Ryan, which I do so much you’d think we were married, I remembered that I always feared dying young. Like I’d never make it to forty. I think it’s been in my subconscious, spurring me on to write every story taking up space in my heart as quickly as I can before the worms claim me, before the cold, damp earth is my pillow. I do want to leave something behind whether I die prematurely or whether I live as long as Ray Bradbury did. Something of substance, that has meaning for somebody other than myself. I don’t think it’s a lofty goal. I think all true artists, whether they’re successful or not, want to connect with other people and share the beautiful things they’ve seen, and the tragic times that have scarred them, and how the world has shaped them. As writers, or painters, or musicians we hold a mirror up to ourselves and the time we live in, and it’s not easy. We’re a very quiet voice that can easily be lost in a lot of white noise. But I see how important it is to try and keep trying. I’ve gained some wonderful fans. They might not know it but they know me through my work.
Narrator Matthew Stevens recorded my first audio bookNURSERY RHYMES 4 DEAD CHILDREN. We’ll also be working on the audio for the sequel THE DAMPNESS OF MOURNING after New Years.
I also had a local paper interview me, which was neat. Thanks to reporter Bill Petzold! That was a lot of fun and I found I enjoy being interviewed much more than I ever thought I would.
Some other highlights this year were meeting John Connolly, Lee Child, Michael Sears, Stanley Trollip, Les Edgerton, Michael Connelly, Michael Koryta and Sabrina Callahan at Bouchercon (The World Mystery Convention.) I don’t know that I would be the writer, or even person, I am, if not for the books my heroes have written.
Some of my heroes (Tom Piccirilli, Jack Ketchum, Brian Hodge, Robert Dunbar) read my work in 2012 and gave me blurbs. Having your heroes read something of yours is one of the greatest feelings there is. It’s fireworks in your head and a sudden jolt to your heart. It’s quite dreamy.
Reviews, which I never get very many of, have really taken off this year. Especially on Goodreads, which is one of my favorite sites. I get to talk to fans on there, too, which has been wonderful. And one of the groups (Horror Aficionados) has invited me to be the guest author for January 2013. They’ll be reading my brutal novella WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL and we’ll all discuss it. Very neat, yeah? Thanks to Jason and Tressa for the opportunity!
Sales grow as my audience grows. Thanks so much to everybody who has been buying the work and spreading the word about it! Word of mouth is vital. It helps me when I feel like I can’t write worth shit and then I find a stranger who enjoyed something I wrote, which leads to me finding my balance again. To remember that, yes, I’m writing for me, but I’m also writing to connect with other people. It’s weird, but it’s good.
New novels… I wrote three novels this year (The Collected Songs of Sonnelion, The Lesser People, and The Wolverine) and got halfway through a fourth (Gossamer). I have ideas for the next ten books that will range between 70-90,000 words. All I have to do is write them. Easy. My goal is to write four novels a year. I tell myself to take it easy, don’t work so much, but it’s part of my nature. I am an obsessive and the work gives me purpose that life would be too depressing without sometimes.
I signed a three-book deal with Darkfuse/Delirium Books in December. I’m very excited about it since Shane Staley has been awesome to work with and he publishes what he believes in. I’m writing and turning in a standalone novel every March, which works out great too because I have a ton of novel ideas and nothing for novellas or short stories lately.
Since I am quite prolific when it comes to novels, and I write more than just Dark Fantasy, I’ve decided to use several pseudonyms. I’ll keep the Dark Fantasy under my name. Have the name Thomas Morgan for Heartbreaking Coming of Age tales with a Historical Thriller slant; James Logan for suspense fiction that is very tightly plotted but has more hopeful endings than all my other work; Julian Vaughn for novels that are more big-concept with a lot of heart/more touching than horrific.
I had a writer I met at the World Mystery Convention (Les Edgerton) refer me to his agent for the pen-named work after he read WHEN WE JOIN JESUS IN HELL. That was really nice of him and whether it works out or not, him trying to help me counts for a lot. I’m really not worried about it since all of my worry is that the books are what I want them to be.
I got to interview a bunch of my favorite writers here. They are amazing.
I sold a couple of short stories. The River to my favorite mag Shock Totem. It will be in issue #6 along with Jack Ketchum and interview with me! And The Most Mysterious Silence sold to Nameless Magazine, owned by Jason V. Brock who made a great documentary about Charles Beaumont.
Tuesday’s Training, my weekly writing advice essays for novice writers, has been a lot of fun. I know it’s helped a few people. That’s nice. I had help too: from things I’ve read, questions I asked answered by people far busier and far more experienced than I am, and help just through the encouragement that comes in something as simple as a smile.
Thanks to the publishers who have put their faith in me, the writers who encourage me, the pre-readers who help so much by offering feedback I can’t come up with on my own, the fans who help pay my bills and continue to come back for more of my work. 2013 is going to be an even more incredible year, which is really hard to fathom. But it will be. What a life. Thanks for helping me live my dream! Now go buy all my books for your friends for Christmas!
Beginning writers are told to avoid creating one-dimensional characters, but I believe it’s just as detrimental (and possibly more common for a beginner) to construct a one-dimensional plot.
Raising the stakes is such an important part of the craft. When it’s not mastered you end up with a novel that reads at the same emotional depth the whole way through and the challenges never get tougher and the protagonist isn’t tested enough.
Novels like that have a ‘flat’ feel to them. It’s like giving someone a flat soda to drink. Bah. Don’t do that.
The good news is that once you learn to raise the stakes it’ll make your plot more gripping and the changes the characters undergo will be more powerful.
So, let’s begin, yeah?
I’m not sure if you do any prep work or not when it comes to plot. Totally up to you. But here are some things to think about/consider at least while composing–though I strongly encourage considering these things ‘before’ and ‘during’ the composition of your magnum opus…
There are more than physical stakes.
There is social ridicule, embarrassment, familial complications, isolation (whether forced upon the protag, or of his own choosing out of stubbornness, or wanting to protect those close to him), professional/work trouble (such as backstabbing, small-scale espionage, double crosses, loss of said financial security… which makes me think this all boils down to a loss of security. Remember that: Loss of security and the character working to regain it), and there is the emotional damage that arises from all of the above. The emotional damage of failing to be who they want to be, or who others think they should be. Brainstorm. Figure out what will hurt them most and why it will hurt them (because everybody handles things differently.) You want to make things worse on your character, to make the reader (and hero) wonder what will happen next. You really have to test their wit, ingenuity, and understanding of themselves and the world they live in.
The simplest way to see where stakes are raised is by looking at the Doorways in your story. The story opens up once a character crosses–or is forced to cross–a threshold.
Doorways are easily identifiable in most stories. My best learning experience came from making note of where they fell in old Twilight Zone episodes. Doorways are points when things become irreversible, and they also drive the characters toward the climax. At first the protagonist’s ordinary world is upset directly and it won’t return to normal until they do something about it. Then come complications (some brought on by their choices, some brought by outside influences). It’s not my job to show that to you. Go grab some of your favorite books and see where the protag’s world has gone from normal to not-normal. That’s the first doorway. How does your favorite writer achieve/present the dilemma? Go look at five more of your favorite novels. Take notes. See where things take a turn for the worse, how the character reacts, how things grow worse still. Highlight them.
If you need a craft-style book to understand it, I suggest Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. I’ve read it countless times (okay, four times) and believe it lays things out plainly enough with examples for anybody to grasp.
Raising the stakes also requires understanding what your character wants. If you don’t know what they want, and can’t present it clearly and succinctly, you’ll want to figure it out. Not only will it help you write your novel, it will be essential in writing a query letter and synopsis.
What your character wants is the driving force alongside what prevents them from getting what they want.
For me, the best way to see if my protagonist’s stakes are raised is to do a chapter-by-chapter outline. I summarize each chapter in a paragraph. Is the character spinning their wheels chapter after chapter? Do they make decisions and do those decisions complicate how to get what they want?
Like most other skills, it takes being aware of how the professionals do it, and learning how to apply it to your own work. So read a lot. Read more now than you’ve ever read before. Soak it up. Be a sponge. Ask why? a lot. Then search for the answers.
Next week we’ll look at Showing vs. Telling. For more thoughts on writing craft go here.
You’ve worked months or years on the first draft of your novel. You’re excited and burned out from living in your imagination more intensely than you’ve been living your normal life. But you do this because you want to make your imaginary life an intricate part of your everyday gig, to entertain readers, to do more than follow your dream. There are no hard and fast rules for success or self-expression. All you can do is write the best novel you can manage during that point of your life, revise it, sell it, revise it some more, and let people know it’s there while you’re hard at work on repeating the process.
Depending on the writer and their experience, the first draft of a new novel can be a horrible mess studded with some gems, or a nearly ready manuscript that just takes some tweaking. I’ll share what works for me on a second draft, just some questions and how I approach tackling the rewrite/revisions. You may not agree with all of it, but try some of the suggestions to see if they help or not.
I like to run while the book is burning hot. As soon as the first draft is finished I’m starting at the beginning and making notes in the manuscript using a “#” to mark where I may need to consider making changes.
For me, addressing the big issues first, is paramount. Then I can take care of the small stuff like spell checking, repetitive words, etc.
#1. Does the end tie into the beginning?
#2. How can I work the setting against the characters more?
#3. Is every paragraph clear?
#4. Is the climax big enough and have an emotional payoff?
#5. Is there anything that can be held back until further in the novel?
#6. Is the novel’s tone consistent?
#7. Why will the reader empathize with these characters?
#8. Is the antagonist demonstrating any redeeming qualities?
#9. Is every scene necessary? If one is removed will it destroy the plot?
#10. Are the biggest moments big enough? Are the small moments quiet enough?
#11. Does every scene propel the protagonists deeper into the story?
#12. Are the stakes raised higher the further the reader gets into the novel?
#13. Do actions and reactions happen logically?
#14. Does every scene end with a reason for the reader to start the next chapter?
#15. What “out-of-character’ things happen because a character is terrified, relieved, or desperate?
#16. What places am I being vague and lazy instead of being specific and creative?
Once I address those big questions and tweak the manuscript, I can tackle the little stuff.
#1. Are there any word choices that seem forced?
#2. Is the description clear and lively from the POV of the character’?
#3. Use the search function to find words seen too many times in this genre: For example: “Dark,” “Look (ed, ing),” “Dread,” “Black,” “Forced,” “Angry,” “Gun,” etc.
#4. Are the similes and metaphors clear and original?
#5. Proofread for typos.
I keep the big questions in mind as I’m writing the first draft, so when it’s finished and I come back to give them my full attention, I have less work to do.
What has worked in tightening second drafts for you?
“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” ― Ernest Hemingway
A lot of beginning writers worry about finding their voice. They spend money on courses and exert an incredible amount of energy thinking about it. I think it is within us from the beginning. It’s not hiding at all. Our voice is our experience, our biases, our pains, our joys, our passions, the themes of our own lives. We just need to learn and practice our craft so the expression and execution of those things that are ours and of us come across as powerfully as possible.
I believe, at least in my own case, that there is a duality that has to be acknowledged and embraced. My duality is a deep-seated wonder of life and people in contrast to the other side of my nature which is hip-deep in melancholy. I can write with authority in a certain area because I know them, feel them, and they’re of my essence.
I believe favorite writers–like Dennis Lehane, Stephen King, John Connolly, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Michael Connelly–all have a unique voice. Their writing is an extension of them is my bet.
You want to discover your voice? Know thyself. Your voice comes from honesty, reflection, acknowledgment, craft and confidence.
What holds people back from letting their voice out? Fear is probably number one. We don’t want people to hear what resonates in our hearts, what makes us us, and not accept it, or worse, make fun of it/judge it, and in turn judge us. But that’s part of connecting, and we can’t please everybody, so write from your deepest self. I get it, our egos our fragile. Yet I believe that if we’re spending a ton of energy protecting who we really are then we’re NOT expressing who we really are.
It’s also fun to explore the things we squirm away from. The ‘hot buttons’ for us. I think it’s a quick way to challenge ourselves, by creating a character who shares an opposing core belief different from one of our own, and instead of showing the reader how the character is wrong, let the character show why he’s right from his perspective. It’s an important skill learned to grow as a person and a writer. To gain new perspective and tear down the walls we build to protect ourselves from the world.
What do you really want to write, more than anything else in the world? What story are you scared to tell because you’re afraid of what those around you might think of you?
What do you think you need to become a great writer that you lack now? Once you can identify it, you can learn it. You can learn what is important to say and what is wasted breath. You learn what you fear is not insurmountable, even if every fiber of your being cries out that you can’t do it, or think it, or say it. You learn to understand yourself, the good and the horrible. And you learn to understand other people and show their lives honestly, beauty and blemish.
Everything you need voice-wise is already intact. You just have to trust yourself. Refine it. Learn how to express yourself masterly. Expect that not only will you discover the voice already inside you, but it will morph as you experience more, assimilate it, reflect upon it, and share it.
For more writing advice visit this page. If you find any of it helpful, share it with someone else.
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat… Theodore Roosevelt
I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying… Michael Jordan
Most of the first half of my life (I hope it’s only the first half) has been riddled with mistakes, setbacks and failures. Every successful lunge forward is the result of some mistake I learned from previously. Some people have taken great delight in the failing side of the equation as I’m sure you have people around you who love to see you fail. But that’s only because they like to make it about them, how they would have done it smarter, or faster, or better. Only they never seem to take a risk with anything. Cowards are the first to laugh and criticize.
Being aware of what went wrong helps us learn and move toward the life we want (though even that life will never be perfect. What is?)
My first novel came out one year and four months ago. I’ve written and sold a lot of fiction since then and I’ve made some mistakes along the way that I’ll share with you here. The things I learned I couldn’t have learned without fumbling the ball, without falling from the wall I was climbing to see what lay on the other side. No regrets here. This is life. We only get one (that we can verify.)
Mistake #1: I started with the Division Mythos, a thirteen-book story. This could be the biggest mistake I made as a new author. Most people start with a standalone book, or at most, a trilogy. I’d written three books that were part of a thirteen book epic journey. The books were not in order: Before Leonora Wakes is the first in the first trilogy, Red Piccirilli’s. Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children is the first in the second trilogy, John McDonnell’s. Iron Butterflies Rust is the first Frank Gunn story. But I hadn’t known when writing each that they were all pieces of a puzzle until I’d finished them. My subconscious is always way ahead of me and makes me feel like a laggard so often. So I hurried to write others in the series, but I didn’t write them in chronological order. I know I should have but the stories didn’t come to me in that order. And instead of stopping and writing some standalone novels to build my fanbase, I pressed on with the Division Mythos because it continued to burn inside me, and still does. And luckily I’ve written the other stories in the last year and four months to fill in the gaps so that when my next two books are released the first eight books will be out there and can be read in order. Phew. Big mistake.
What I learned: I learned several things from that big mistake. One is that I am prolific. I can write a few hundred thousand words, and write them well, in a year and a half. And I can do it only writing a half hour a day, sometimes even skipping writing days because I just want to read or have other people’s stuff to critique. The second thing I learned is that I don’t control my muse, my muse controls me. I can’t write whatever I want. I have to write whatever project is constantly on my mind and I can’t move on to anything until I finish said work. I don’t see that as a bad thing though. The third thing I learned from the big mistake, and linked directly to being prolific, was that I can do like some of my heroes and write under a pen name. I’m going to up my game to write in the morning and at night (one hour a day total) and write four novels a year under four different names. Partly because I want to write in multiple genres, partly because by the time I’ve finished a WIP I already have ideas for a few more novels. I want to write as many of them as I can before I die, which could be tomorrow if I have a real bad day. So, with the pen names I’ll write each novel as a standalone, shoot for a broad and epic and moving story in 100,000 words. Piece of cake. Plus the muse can take me wherever it will because writing under four names in four genres I’ll never get bored. (I hate getting bored.)
Mistake #2: When I started I made the mistake of believing that writing is easy, even though I’d been a horrible student who didn’t know the difference between to, too and two, who then became a frustrated, uneducated and devout worshiper of Jack Daniels. Writing in my late twenties I thought you just write a story and then you sell it and hey, people are going to see your genius. I’ll tell ya, I’ve hung around a lot of creative types and we can easily think we’re Shakespeare or Hendrix or van Goh without ever creating anything that genuinely moves someone else on a physiological, let alone, a spiritual level.
What I learned: Eventually, after you’re writing and subbing stories for years without selling anything for cash, you have to face the facts that you’re not that good. So, I said, “What the hell am I doing wrong besides thinking I’m already good?” So I went out and studied the craft, hand-copied favorite novels, met some great friends who read all my work, asked questions of pros, read tons and tons of novels, read all kinds of genres, looked at my own life and the lives of those around me for material and emotions to draw from, did all kinds of things except sell my soul to the devil on layaway (hey, there’s a short story I’ll be writing this week). All of this searching and striving helped me a lot. I realized that even as much as I learned in a couple years of cramming was still only the tip of the iceberg. I think the greatest lesson I learned from it was that writing isn’t easy, that there is so much to learn and understand, and that there comes a point with each book where I have to set myself aside and bring my whole life and everybody I’ve ever known, and everything I’ve ever seen and splash it against the page. And then I learned to shape it with the craft, the What Makes Good Writing: which is this… get out of the way of your characters if they’re interesting.
Mistake #3: To aim high. I wanted to make a living at writing. That was my idea of aiming high. It’s really not that ambitious. With work and dedication and a little talent I think anybody can do this after they’ve put in ten or fifteen years.
What I learned: Wanting to make a living as a writer isn’t that important to me anymore. I already know I’ll be able to do that, and even if I couldn’t I have a more important goal now, and one that would make my living through writing mute. Now what have I learned? I want to write something that will move thousands upon thousands of people. I think I pulled it off with the novel I just finished. I think it is literature and more human than anything I could have ever written. I learned that I didn’t aim high enough to begin with but that was probably because I doubted any talent I had.
Mistake #4: I am antisocial.
What I learned: Try to be less antisocial.
The great things about mistakes is that they teach you about yourself.
As all things Real Life, this applies to the characters we create, too. Story itself is a moving picture of failures and a striving for wrongs righted. What is a story without a character making a choice and facing the repercussions of a bad move? Or someone else making a choice that affects them and our character having to make a choice in turn to return things to normal?
Simple. It’s all so complexly simple.
What mistakes have you made and what have you learned from them?
P.s.– Did you hear that the super awesome Jack Ketchum read my latest standalone from Darkfuse? Here’s what he said. Go grab a copy already. And go grab a copy of one of his books.
Ah, the beauty of wonderful tones. We dig them by our favorite guitarist, in the timbre and resonance of our favorite vocalists, in the bright relief of late autumn, and unsurprisingly in the books by our favorite authors.
We do not want bland, run-of-the-mill music, scenery or characters. We want something that stirs our very spirits. And as creators I think it’s important to dig deep and find our tone for each story as early as possible. There are definitely wrong tones for a piece, and a great story can be made mediocre by something so fundamental. Who would have thunk it, right? But imagine a classic like The Grapes of Wrath being written in the tone of a whiny narrator. It would get old quick. Imagine Edgar Poe’s classics written with the tone of a frustrated and bored father. It wouldn’t be right focus-wise or in building atmosphere and conflict for what he set out to do.
I think that is a revelation. Don’t write every story from wherever you are in that stage of your life–a frustrated and bored father, an overworked wife and mom, a happy drone, a rising force in your corporation, a beloved family comedian–write each story from the place that best suits the character’s attitude, goals, frustrations and convictions.
What exactly is tone? It’s a huge part of an author’s voice and approach to a specific story. It, like many aspects of well-written story, is directly linked to an author’s word choice and how specific they are, what details they share and those they don’t. And most of all, I believe it’s the consistent voice of the narrator’s view of the story he’s telling for the length of the work. The character’s attitudes sets tone, which can also help you judge how interesting of a character you have created.
If we’re writing something very personal, that has recently happened, our tone can be bitchy or whiny or angry. You might think that it adds fire to the fiction, but writing from an open wound about something that just happened without any objectivity is dangerous and a lot more boring than you’d think.
Best to let yourself cool for a while, to gain some distance and perspective, before bringing the fiery stuff to your work. Don’t write as an embittered victim. Write from the place where you’ve acknowledged and accepted your part of any painful experience, and write from above and outside the experience itself, perhaps as if it had happened to one of your best friends. Yeah, do that.
Likewise, hardly anybody wants to be preached at. Learn some stuff, possibly, but not be beat in the head with your agenda. If you’re in the story more than the story is in the story… Cut! Step back. Reassess. Keep the story moving at its natural gait, don’t make it syrup with your tacky personal injections every other paragraph.
I had a talk recently with my publisher that made me think about tone in climatic moments as well. Not all characters will view those intense emotional actions/reactions the same way. Some will move without thinking, some will overthink, to some there isn’t a brisk, snappy play of events (displayed as shorter sentences) but a speeding-up of time, a running together of everything that came before that moment and the chaos that swirls violently around the axis of said climatic moment. Let your character dictate the tone and you’ll be all right. Try to force a tone on a character that doesn’t jive well and you’re in for trouble.
This all really goes back to what I believe is the backbone of great fiction: a character who feels strongly about something surrounded by other people who feel strongly about stuff; inner and outer conflicts. Pretty simple. If your character doesn’t feel strongly about himself, where they grew up, how their parents raised them, about their job, about their wife or husband or kids, or religion, or politics, or how their dreams never manifested into reality, I’d lay money the tone of your novel will be all over the place. And when something is all over the place in tone, it diffuses the main thread (your main character’s story) into something scattered and vague. Don’t be vague. Vague is not a good tone.
Go study how the professionals establish tone through characterization.
The green stuff. We all love it. It’s hard to eat without it. As an aspiring writer you may have dreams of building houses made of money based on nothing but your sheer talent and your staggering genius, and although it’s okay to dream big, it’s also good to be realistic because it is a fact that the farther our expectations are off from reality, the more upsetting the results will be.
A lesson I learned a few years ago from my hero Tom Piccirilli was “Don’t just publish, publish well.”
In other words, sell your work to professionally paying markets, and sell to publications that have a solid reputation. Sell to markets you love to read, that has a readership, etc. You can give your work away if you want to and count it as a sale, but how is that really any different from putting your story up on your blog for free? It’s not any different. But most everybody has done the for-the-love thing starting out, I’m sure. It gives us that little bit of validation we need to keep going (so we tell ourselves) but that validation is also pretty fleeting. Hell, validation is pretty fleeting even when you sell for actual money (though the money is nice because then you can go buy books! Or take a vacation! Or pay your bills!)
So, publish well, grasshopper. Be grateful and proud of yourself, but realize the journey is never-ending when you have the chops to sell to magazines and book publishers you respect.
Money comes to the writer. Who said that? James D. MacDonald. Money flows towards the writer. You don’t pay a publisher. You don’t pay an agent to represent you. You don’t pay some magazine to publish your short story. You don’t pay a production studio to make a movie adapted from your novel. You get paid for your creation. Basically leasing the rights to the work in some form (Hardcover, paperback, audio, digital, film) for a specific amount of time. And you get paid.
The indie author’s journey makes this a bit different. Because you do have money going out before you ever make a dime. As an indie author you have to pay for editing, covers, formatting, and all that. But that is an investment in your work so it’s different. Not much different than paying for good advertising on Goodreads or in a very popular magazine. And the money is still coming to you, its just you have to soak up the bills that a traditional publisher takes care of first.
As you approach writing full time you also have to learn how to manage your money better. This can be a big shocker. Have you ever worked one of those jobs where you get paid every two weeks and sometimes it’s difficult to make the money stretch until your next paycheck? Okay, now imagine getting a paycheck every three months. Think about that for a minute. Sure, you’ll get some short story sales that pop in here and there for 250 bucks a pop, but it’s not like you’re selling a story every week, week after week, at pro rates. And the payments for those short stories will also be a long time off. It’s not typical to be paid ‘upon acceptance’ but ‘upon publication’. And sometimes you have to wait six months or a year before the story you sold comes out and you collect on that piece of work, so think long term now. Learn to manage your money now, in your everyday life, before the illusion of rolling in wealth is shattered. Learning to budget will save you stress. Again, it’s a hard truth that the further our expectations are from reality the more upsetting it is when our expectations aren’t met. Don’t worry about getting rich, worry about writing the best story you can and improving your craft and being a professional and everything else will fall into place.
In traditional publishing you get paid an advance against royalties to help you live as you write the next book. But you’re not making a dime until your book earns back that advance, which sometimes never happens. And sometimes, if sales are abysmal, your publisher might not give you a contract on another book. Though it’s partly art, it’s also partly business. That’s why it’s important to keep writing, to manage your cash flow and not get all crazy like you’re going to be the next Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. You’re probably not. I’m probably not either and that’s okay since we know how few people get ‘rich’ in any profession.
Sometimes, especially starting out, there just isn’t much money coming in from our first book. We can augment that income by gaining experience and branching off into other areas.
You learn to save receipts (for internet bills, living space, research trips, conventions, paper, ink, etc.) to help come tax time.
You learn to make extra cash from other skills as well as from non-fiction.
You line up editing gigs to make extra dough so you can do what you love most and write fiction.
You can make extra money from ghostwriting.
You can make extra cash from writing under a pen name in another genre.
You learn that it can be fun, enlightening and profitable, to span mediums: Novels, Novellas, Short stories, Screenplays, Audio books, Hardcovers, Paperbacks, Graphic novels, Games, Songs, Non-fiction, etc.
We’ll never make enough money just like we’ll never have enough readers or kickass reviews. It’s human nature to always want more. But we can find balance, create it like we do stories, if we’re aware of what it’s like to write for a living. Not the dream, but the reality. Stay disciplined. Study your craft. Listen to your mentors and heroes. Be humble. Be honest with your readers.
Since we’ve talked about money here we’ll follow up next week with what you want and don’t want in a book contract.
Note: This Friday (August 31st) marks the final chapter of my FREE serial novel The Collected Songs of Sonnelion! It’s an important puzzle piece in my Division Mythos and the last book in the first trilogy. It’ll be up for a few weeks after that and then my publisher will be taking it down. Catch up while you can! Find out more on my Division Mytho’s website.
I’m reading an awesome book called Becoming Faulkner: The art and life of William Faulkner by Philip Weinstein. In it, as in many looks into the lives of creative geniuses, I see an unbreakable bond between a author’s personal life and art. Mining real life seems to be a common practice of established writers. And is there any doubt why? What we know intimately, what we have strong feelings for or against, not only shapes our views of ourselves and the world we live in, but also shapes what we hope to become and how we hope others will see us in retrospect and as yet unseen days. Our reality can differ from other realities. Our memories can differ from the other’s memories though we saw the same thing. I believe that the lifeblood of story is inescapably tied to our life experiences crossbreeding with our imagination.
By the time we’re adults we’ve dealt with, savored, and struggled against every emotion. We build up memories both factual and fictitious. We embellish the most outrageous moments we’ve seen or heard about, and we relish the mundane, when things were simple play, a gearing up for adult life and our place in the world. We store away so much that sometimes we forget, and it takes a trigger, a certain smell, a certain turn of phrase, a certain hue of the evening sky to recall with incredible clarity a moment once lived and now lost to us. Until those moments–people, emotions and situations are dredged from our psyches, of whole cloth, inseparable from who we are or who we were–they’re useless.
What can we mine from real life for our fiction? The easy part is knowing our own motives if we’re honest with ourselves. What’s not easy, at least at first, is creating characters who are strange to us, who act different from us, who believe things that we deem crazy, childish, or wrong. But that is where we can grow so much as writers. To grow beyond our limited, sole selves. To turn away from the comfortable and familiar and dip our toes in the water of someone else’s experience. To reach out and try to understand the reasonings of someone else, especially someone vastly different, brings with it a gift we can receive no other way. What gift? The gift of insight, of exploration, of freedom and understanding and compassion.
What can’t we mine from real life to use in our fiction? I don’t see any restrictions. I think it’s all fair game. Some of it will hurt to dig up though. Sometimes we enjoy denial about our own actions, justifying them, or pretending they don’t exist. Sometimes we do the same for those we care about. But man, do the truths as we know them, and the truths others know for themselves, enrich our work.
Mining real life is also about connecting again with ourselves. In such a mad world, possessed and obsessed with getting ahead or being noticed, we lose something of ourselves in the simple striving to keep up with the rat race. Mining real life makes us be still and listen, to analyze and feel, to be a conduit for what has happened and to bring that thing, be it an emotion, an image accompanying it, whatever, to life.
How can you put this into practice? Let’s use a simple exercise.
Daydream on your past. As you remember, make notes of how each thing below made you feel and why it made you feel that way.
List one highlight from your childhood that you found touching.
List one downbeat from your childhood that you found horrifying.
List one highlight from young adulthood that you found exciting.
List one downbeat from young adulthood that you found confusing.
List one highlight from adulthood that you found extremely satisfying.
List one downbeat from adulthood that you found depressing.
The beauty of mining from real life is that the textures we can steal from it to apply to our current work is limitless. But be warned, like real mining, it takes an incredible amount of work and it can be a dirty job. But the fortune it provides once exhumed and refined is well worth it.
Shameless plug: We’re nearing the final chapters of my free serial novel The Collected Songs of Sonnelion, which you can read on Darkfuse or Issuu. You’ll want to catch up before time runs out and it’s taken off the web!
“Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, Not because they never found it, But because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.”
Like with many of these Tuesday Training posts, this idea stems from talking to my buddy Shaun. When we’re talking about writing, we’re also talking about life. When we’re talking about life, we’re also talking about writing.
There is no escaping Doubt. It enters every aspect of our life at some point: work, creativity, sex, parenting, goals, dreams, and death. It has its moments and we beat it into submission, sometimes after wallowing in self-pity a while. And don’t be fooled, Doubt wants us to wallow because then we can hang out longer with it and Doubt’s a lonely sonofabitch. Doubt drives us endlessly forward believing that we always have to be productive, that we should feel guilty for downtime, and that’s a horrible way to feel when there’s nothing wrong with stepping back, or stopping completely and taking a look around at the beauty in the present moment. We can miss so many things, so many amazing things, along the way if we’re constantly rushing forward.
I remember when I started writing about ten years ago, how hard the work was to produce, to polish, to submit. I racked up over a thousand rejections that fluttered about upon their beating razor blade wings. And those horrifying little creatures still intrude on my life like a plague at times to remind me that the race is won not by how many cuts I ignore but by how many cuts I can endure and learn from and accept as part of the process and life itself.
Everything cuts you when you’re hungry to say something, when you’re aching to prove something to yourself and the world and all who told you, “You can’t do it. Some people have it. Some people are born into it. Some people start young. Some people have degrees to do that. Some people know other people who get them in. Some people are lucky. You’re not. You’re none of those things. Instead you’re a truck driver, a carpenter, a nurse, a waitress. Don’t be silly. Don’t make a fool of yourself.” I’d like to tell everybody that ever told you those things to shove off. There should be an island just for them. One we could drop a bomb on. Deep down we know that these people–these naysayers and critics who not only haven’t read our work, but any novels in general expect maybe a beach book once a year–are the same cowards who never even take a chance, not a baby step toward chasing their dreams since they’re terrified of connecting on a deeper level, since they’re the type who avoid anything that challenges their ideal of themselves first and their world view second. What do they know? Why even listen to a coward?
Many trains of thought are developed when we’re young. Many by parents, some of them who even mean well. Maybe you never did anything good enough for them, but ask yourself if you’re doing it good enough for you.
Doubt hunches on our shoulders as we wait to hear back from an agent who has our manuscript. But you do what the pros do and you pour yourself into the next piece because the last one is out there and it may come back crinkled, or it may come back bearing good news, yet the fact is that it’s out of your hands. You’ve done your best. You slaved with your soul over something that wouldn’t have existed if you hadn’t put the time and effort into creating it. That’s such an amazing gift, just to be able to create something of ourselves and of our time and even of our very essence. Be proud of each little accomplishment, each line that sings clearly and each character that you’ve born of your love and agony who has since lived on in the halls of your heart.
When Doubt parts your lips with an “I can’t…” you tell Doubt, “I can, I have, I am. And I am, I have, I can.”
Instead of despairing over the last rejection, you embrace the challenge of upping your game by mastering your craft, by asking those who will not sugar coat, where and how your work is lacking. We need those people. The heavy readers who can articulate what is ‘off’ about our work. What is missing. Because once they have a chance to explain, and once we see their meaning clearly, it’s a lesson we never forget.
When Doubt says, “Will I ever get a goddamn publishing credit?” you say to Doubt, “My time will come because I am committed and I am serious and as long as I learn and I’m honest, I’ll improve and my day will come because I have earned it with sacrifice, with great effort, with an imperishable conviction.”
When Doubt says, “This project is too huge…” you say to Doubt, “This single page, I can beat it, I have beaten it before. I will defeat this page right now because these characters have a story to tell.”
When Doubt says, “This story means a lot to me but no one else will like it…” you say to Doubt, “If it truly means something to me, it will mean something to someone else.”
When Doubt says, “I’ll never be adored by everyone…” you say to Doubt, ” You’re right, I can’t please everyone, no matter who I am. Not even Stephen King can do that and he’s like Jesus to some people, but not all.”
Instead of listening to the black void of hopelessness, we focus on the wonder of creation itself, our creation, other people’s creations, we dream up new creations, we press on because that’s what creators do. We’ll never get it perfect, but we can get it down honestly and passionately and expertly.
Believe in yourself. Slow down and enjoy the process of discovery again. There is no room for Doubt in the discovery, there is only room for enlightenment, and exhilarating joy.