Sunday, May 21, 2017

How we measure success

Words this week: 2,500

I'm writing a massive battle scene that is the first major pivot point of my book. It will take the story to around fifty percent completion, and I expect it to take many thousands of words to write. The hard part of this is not to let my imagination be too dominated by the awesome scenes of castle siege warfare from the Lord of the Rings movies, but that's where my mind is automatically going. Still, I'm trying to keep it fresh, and I'm enjoying the process and am also doing research along the way.

One of the bits of research that was key to the part of the book just before this one was: where do the soldiers live? What do soldiers do during times of peace? What did they do in the middle ages? I've basically just had them continue training in their barracks, which I think is believable enough. Funny that all I could think of were the months I spent playing the first Warcraft PC game the moment I started using the word "barracks" in my story.

All that to say, another productive week. If anyone ever asks me in twenty years, "How did you write so many books?" my answer will be "with three hundred shitty words per day" to riff on this story that Mark Manson wrote in his blog a while ago.

Who's Mark Manson? A blogger, but I know him more as the author of this little gem of a book:

I used my Audible credit to get the audiobook version, and I'm forty five minutes away from finishing it for the second time. It has its faults and I have the usual complaints that I have with most catch-all philosophy books written for public consumption (i.e. soft research, generalized claims about the world, and trying to touch on too many things in one book), but it's quite illuminating in so much of what it says about life. It's basically a crass-but-not-so-explicit-it-makes-you-want-to-roll-your-eyes advocate for Buddhism and the idea that life isn't about finding happiness, but about accepting that pain, suffering, and problems are just part of existence. The main idea, as I understand it, is that you shouldn't be trying to fix all of your problems, but that you should be looking to find better problems in your life. Instead of only asking "What do I want out of life?" ask yourself, "What kind of pain do I want in my life?"

Anyway, don't leave it to me to sell you on it. If you're tired of overly-positive books about never giving up and doing all you can to achieve your dreams, this is a refreshing punch to the gut. I totally recommend it, and it's something that I'll be listening to from time to time to keep myself grounded and focused.

How does this relate to writing? Well, this book is really about what we choose to value in our lives and how we measure success in our lives. It uses the example of Dave Mustaine, the former guitarist of Metallica who got kicked out the band, formed Megadeth, sold over twenty five million albums, toured the world, and still felt like a failure all because of how he chose to measure his success: to sell more records and to be more popular than the band who kicked him to the curb.

Of course, it's utterly ridiculous for Mustaine to compare himself to one of the biggest rock metal bands in history, but it was his choice to measure his success that way, which left him feeling like a failure until later on in life. The lesson: set realistic expectations and realistic benchmarks when measuring your own success.

Yes, I could compare myself to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but that would be ludicrous and incredibly unrealistic, especially with where I'm at now. A more realistic goal is simply "try to write three hundred words per day consistently." That's how I'm choosing to measure my success. It's the process that's the rewarding part - the feeling that you're doing something you enjoy and are getting better at it.

So, in terms of what I choose to value and how I measure my success, I'm choosing to value creative output and measuring it by simply checking myself and making sure I hit my daily word goal. That's it. And that's good enough, as it's been keeping me grounded and content, so I'm just going to keep doing it, one word at a time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Shut up and write

Words written this week: two thousand and change. Maybe closer to three thousand. The days melded into each other and I know I missed a week of tracking. I will just say that I've been hitting my goals for three straight weeks now and don't plan to stop.

Okay, onto business.

If you want to get good at something like writing, you have to take it seriously and basically treat it like a job. This is not news for those who have been doing it for a while. I'm mentioning it now because I'm in my infancy as a writer, so I'm going through the paces that almost every writer goes through at one point or another, including needing to learn that excuses for not writing usually end up being nothing more than bullshit.

That's because they usually are.

If I have time to play a game or to endlessly scroll through Facebook posts on my phone, I have time to write. If I have time to watch a sitcom on my PVR, I have time to write. If I have time to sit on the toilet, I definitely have time to write.

You get the idea.

Today, I finished reading The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans.

It's a quick book with a very surface-level approach to SFF writing advice, but it has a few positive things going for it, and it also has a passage that really spoke to me today:

"Many books and articles on writing advise something like this: Find a safe place to write - an office, a nook, some kind of cave in which you can work in absolute silence and solitude, surrounded by inspirational knickknacks or whatever.

It seems like good advice, and for years I followed it and wrote very little.

Never do this. Buy a laptop as soon as you possibly can. Write while sitting on the living room couch, in bed, at a coffee house or bar, at the library, on the bus or plane or train - write everywhere and whenever. If you find yourself thinking, "Well, I can't write without, unless, or until..." then stop right there, get your laptop fired up, and write something. I don't even care what it is, just write.

Write when the kids are asleep or running around you in circles screaming at the top of their lungs, with the television on or off, with or without music, where people are talking or silent. Do not ever let yourself be limited to a place, a time, or a set of circumstances in which you can write. Free yourself, and your words will follow."

Hell yeah. As I type this, I'm sitting on the couch at almost 1am with Jackie Chan's Drunken Master playing in the background. (sidebar: excellent movie. There are few people better at the "show don't tell" rule of storytelling than Jackie Chan)

To put it into a broader perspective, right now, I'm doing all I can to surround myself with the type of thinking above by diving headfirst into writing advice books, fantasy stories of all types and mediums, and making sure that I do at least a bit of writing every day, whether it's in the morning, on the bus, or once my kids have gone to bed. Or wherever and whenever else.

In short, I want to treat writing like a job, but one that runs around the clock and doesn't get weekends off. I truly feel like I've learned a lot in just over four months of taking this seriously (with an ill-advised one-month break in the middle), and I want to keep riding that momentum.

Is the book I'm writing right now any good? I think parts of it are, but I also think a lot of it is gutter trash. Most of it probably is, actually. But hey, that's how I'm going to learn, and I do feel I've gotten better even in the short time I've been taking writing seriously, and I intend to keep it up.

Star wipe to final scene.

To finish off, I'll end with something a little random but not entirely unrelated.

I used to think that writing was mostly about stringing together original sentences and working in flowery language wherever one could in order to ignite a reader's imagination and keep them reading. Writing was more about saying things in a beautiful or creative way. And it is that, don't get me wrong. However, the most important thing that I'm learning right now (subject to change as the journey continues), especially as it pertains to genre fiction, is that storytelling is the heart of writing. Exploring worlds and getting to know characters is great, but if there isn't compelling action, conflict, and consistent progress, it's boring. You can write the most beautiful prose in the world, but if nothing happens, few people care.

So that's where I'm at right now...just trying to focus on being a better storyteller. Showing more, telling less. Planning ahead more, pantsing less. It feels damn good, and I'm looking forward to seeing what breakthroughs await.

Thanks for reading this far, and if you liked the quote I typed out above, check out Philip Athans' fantasy writing blog. It's incredibly useful and another essential text that I'll be adding to my growing list of websites and resources. Thanks for the fine work, Philip!

Finally, check out his excellent article related to the topic at hand entitled "Save the Bullshit Excuses."

Now go write.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On writing talent

I want to be a weaver of words with the ability to thread vivid images and emotions through people's imaginations.

I wonder how much of this ability is dependent on my own innate talent, or lack of it, and how much of it can be trained and learned with practice and discipline. Much of what I've read on the subject says that talent is a necessity when it comes to writing. Ernest Hemingway himself once wrote, "Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent." If that is so, what is talent? More specifically, what is talent in the realm of writing?

My personal definition of talent is a sensitivity towards and instinctive knowledge of a particular skill, as well as an instinctive ability to use that particular skill. The question then becomes this: can people actually be born with these types of talents, or have them activate at a certain point in their lives? I say, maybe, but there's more to it than talent simply being a gift. That would be too easy.

Surely, Hemingway didn't come out of the womb with a pen. Neither did Einstein come out writing equations. Hell, even F. Scott Fitzgerald questioned his own writing constantly. They all had to work and discover their talent; mine for gold within themselves. So if figures such as these had to work at their crafts and sciences in order to get good at them, and if they struggled before becoming masters, what's stopping someone else from doing the same if they invest the time and earnest effort? If you truly love doing something and want to do it well, and you take the steps necessary to get better at it, what's stopping you from becoming good or even great at it?

In On Writing, Stephen King writes that "it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one." I prefer this line of thinking to Hemingway's. It at least looks at writing talent as a spectrum and not as an either/or scenario. Perhaps Hemingway didn't mean it that way and also believed that a person could have a range of talent, but King's words are more explicit and offer more hope on the matter. 

At this stage, I certainly wouldn't call myself a good writer. If I'm being kind to myself, I think I am merely a competent one. (at least, I hope so) I assume a bad writer lacks the foundations of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation, while also lacking the organizational skills to make themselves understood in print. Of course, there are plenty of people who lack the ability to string together a coherent sentence, never mind a series of them, but even they might be able to write something which tugs at the imagination once in a while. It's also worth keeping in mind that some bad writers are likely so because of a lack of proper training and opportunity, so it's quite possible, and probably very likely, that there are many potential writers out there who simply haven't been put in the right situation to allow them to nurture their talent.

And there's the rub.

I firmly believe that talent - being an instinctive sensitivity towards and knowledge of a skill, as well as the ability to use that skill on instinct - can be developed, cultivated, and nurtured. The human brain is infinitely permeable and capable of adapting to new knowledge. Given the right conditions, mindset, discipline, and guidance, a person can learn to become a master in almost any field, creating the equivalent of muscle memory, provided they have a love for it. In some cases, even if they don't.

For the writer, developing sensitivity means observing, listening to, and experiencing life with an open mind and an open heart - focusing on the details of what makes people do what they do, say what they say, and react how they react. This is done both at the micro and macro levels. A great writer absolutely must have empathy and compassion for others, be it for their partner, their work colleagues, or people across the sea going through difficult times. These are traits which, barring a damaged amygdala, everyone possesses to some degree, and which everyone can learn to develop.

In regards to knowledge, a writer can study the rules of grammar; they can pick up books in their genre; they can learn the types of turns of phrase which stir the imagination; they can study story structure; and they can put all of these things to use through practice.

In the end, both sensitivity and knowledge, and thereby talent, can be acquired. It may take some longer than others, but it is possible. Once a writer acquires enough knowledge and fine tunes their sensitivity towards the world, themselves, and language, they are able to weave the types of tales that have the effect of magic on a reader.

Once I personally acquire enough knowledge and fine tune my sensitivity towards the world, myself, and language, I hope to be a weaver of words with the ability to thread vivid images and emotions through people's imaginations. One day. One step. One word at a time.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A burst of inspiration

Total words written over the past seven days: 5,500

This is great. After an extended period of creative barrenness, I feel like I'm back on track with the book. I'm doing my best to push through the crap as much as possible and to write the best scenes and dialogue that I can. Well, maybe not the best best, but still something that keeps in line with the story I want to tell. Luckily, that story is becoming clearer in mind the more I write. I'm not going to be surprised if I end up tearing my first draft to bits once it's all said and done. Right now, the key is to get all of my ideas down on paper, then rifle through them and see what sticks and what needs to be tossed in the trash.

When I haven't been writing, I've been reading about writing. The book I'm into right now is The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy Volume 1: Alchemy with Words. Every chapter is written by a different author, so it's proven to be a mixed bag, but some of the chapters are filled with tons of useful resources, and fantasy story planning gold, such as information on how to design a magic system, how to make sure you get food, weapons, and clothing right - the nuts and bolts of fantasy writing, which I'm currently lacking and constantly working on. I hope I'll get there one day.

Well, that's all for now. To finish off, here's a very small chunk of those 5,500 words I mentioned at the top of this post. Any feedback is welcome.


He had never taught Lucia the Laws. Not word for word, and never attached to Valaron. He wasn’t sure why exactly, but he now reasoned that he probably hadn’t had the time. Between working for the king, caring for his home, and nurturing the relationships between himself, his wife, and his child, there were few minutes to spare for Valaron. Regardless, he felt he had done a respectable job of teaching his daughter the difference between right and wrong and the large space between the two.

Right and wrong. The words hung like two apples on a tree - one sweet, one sour.

He knew the time to pick one would come soon enough, and he hoped he would be able to tell the difference when the hour arrived. And it would arrive. He was sure of it, even though he didn’t know the name of the man he sought to confront.

The Tale of Lady Midday (words: 568)

Lady Midday loved the smell of children in spring. She delighted in their honeysuckle hair, jasmine-imbued coveralls, and the hint of homema...