Learn From the Masters

It’s often said that to be a good writer, you not only need to write a lot, but read a lot. You can learn plenty from reading good writing. And this is quite true. But frequently, what you learn is how not to do something.

For example, I recently finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors. In fact, if I had to name one author who most influenced my writing, it would be this guy. I first read the book when I was still in high school and have read it several times, though it’s probably been twenty years since my last reading of it. However, after this experience, I’m hesitant to re-read other old favorites. Because this time, the book really bothered me.

I still admire the work for the ideas it put forth, the impact it had on so very many people (and on society, for that matter), and continue to view it as a remarkable novel. It is rightfully viewed as this author’s masterpiece (though it has never been my absolute favorite of his books). I’m not going to name the author or the book, because I don’t want to see a bunch of emails telling me that I’m an idiot, that it’s a phenomenal book, etc.

The thing is, in the decades since I last read this book, I’ve published four books of my own. I’ve become a better writer during that time, and now, looking at this novel with more experienced eyes, I see lots of problems with it, problems that – were they to come from my own hand – I would find mortifying.

Virtually the entire story, for example, is told via dialogue. There is very little description, very little exposition. This is not uncommon in this author’s work, and because these works influenced my younger self quite a lot, my early writing also had a lot of plot in the dialogue. But that’s not what dialogue is for. Sure, conveying some information pertinent to the plot via dialogue is okay, but it should be limited. In this book, it is anything but.

Another problem very common in this author’s works is that the protagonists are hardly ever seriously challenged. They encounter no major setbacks, and they always seem to be financially well off, so money is never the concern it is for most people. Without challenge, a character can’t grow, nor can the reader feel much suspense. The ultimate impact of the book will be lessened.

Did you not have an editor or what?

Being a writer essentially forces me to look at any story, whether books or movies, from a writer’s perspective. And as this example shows, it often reduces my enjoyment of the stories – even when the works themselves are praised, and by highly regarded writers.

So yes… read a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Just don’t be surprised when what you learn is how not to write.

Posted by admin in Characters, Dialogue, Plot, Problems, Writing Process, 0 comments

In Defense of the Origin Story

None of my readers will be surprised to know that I’m a big fan of the superhero genre.

Ya think?

And I’m very pleased that superhero movies have achieved a much higher level of excellence than when I was younger. I really look forward to every new film to be released, especially the first ones. The origin stories.

To my surprise, I’m finding out that quite a lot of people don’t like the “origin” stories. They say that they can’t wait for the origin stories to be done so they can get to the “real” stories. I really don’t get that. There is nothing more important than the origin story.

Why? Because stories are about change. (Yes, I know sometimes they’re about a lack of change, but for the post part, they’re about change. Now hush.) And the origin stories are all about change! They’re dripping with it!

When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins, I can’t tell you how many people were of the opinion that we didn’t need another Batman origin movie. Anyone who’s at all familiar with Batman knows how he came to be… parents killed by a thug, rich kid grows up to be Batman, etc. Simple.

Except it isn’t simple at all. Christopher Nolan did something that no other Batman movie director had done: he made a movie about Batman, rather than a movie about the villain.

Yes, you get an hour of Bruce Wayne before you get Batman. And that’s awesome.

 

You can’t watch Batman Begins without coming away with a really good understanding of the character of Batman. You understand the how and the why of the changes to Bruce Wayne, while other movies just glossed over them. Tim Burton’s Batman, for example, was really more of a movie about the Joker.

This genre needs an enema.

Let’s extend this outside the superhero genre. Sequels to movies are ridiculously common, today, despite the fact that sequels rarely live up to the quality or success of the first film. But there’s a good reason why most fail to do so: because in the first film, everything is new and fresh. We’re introduced to the situation, the characters, and often completely new worlds. We’re impressed by the novelty of it all, which is a large part of why we enjoy the story.

With a sequel, that novelty is gone. Sure, new characters and new twists are introduced, but that fresh thrill can’t be recaptured, no matter how good the sequel is. We’re in familiar territory, now, so it’s going to take a lot more to impress us. And that’s not an easy task, sometimes.

I’m aware, of course, that there’s a bit of irony in what I’m saying, since I’m making the Dynamistress story a trilogy. But again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have well-done sequels. Just difficult.

Which is why that third book is behind schedule.

And writers have allowed their sequels to get out of control. I can (but won’t) point at several talented authors who need to just stop writing books in their popular series. (And don’t get me started on Hollywood.) The longer a series goes on, the more likely it is to become drained of all the originality that endeared us to it in the first place.

I also believe some works simply should not have sequels whatsoever, especially one produced just for the sake of making money. A sequel should result naturally from the original. And by all means, when the major story arc is done, don’t force another one. Know when to stop. And if that’s after just one story, so be it.

Because that first one, the origin story, is the most important, anyway.

Posted by admin in Characters, 0 comments

Fiction Therapy

All artistic endeavors are, in some respect, therapeutic, for the creator as well as the consumer. Teenagers spill their angst-filled words onto paper in the form of poetry. Some people sing the blues. And some writers pull extensively from their own lives, using fiction as their therapy.

I’ve never sung the blues, but I did my share of teenage poetry. And all of my novels have drawn from my life quite a bit. Some of my friends have noted that Dynamistress is, in many ways, a female version of myself, and I’ve never denied this. I deliberately gave her some of my own “issues” that I was struggling with at the time I began the first book. It was an experiment, to see if I could help myself by having “her” work through my own crap. To my surprise, it actually helped me.

Yes, she has her own series, now. No, I don’t know why. Read them all here.

Fiction writers are accustomed to analyzing their characters in order to work out their motivations, to figure out how they pull through. It can be difficult to self-analyze; we can’t look objectively at our own situations. It’s much easier to do this with a fictional character. Even a fictional character drawn heavily from our own lives and problems.

Posted by admin in Characters, 0 comments

Memory Mining

Like many writers, I draw from my own life experiences for the things I write. As I write this, I’m currently working on the third book in the Dynamistress series. These books are filled with variations of events that actually happened to me as a kid or young adult.

I’d always planned to do this for the books, but some of the things that came to me were very unexpected, things I hadn’t thought of in an awfully long time. For example, at one point in the story, Dyna’s brother is making an analogy and he mentions a particular item from their (my) youth: a bag of marbles.

When I was a little boy, there was a big bag of marbles my dad had. They were old, and I knew that my older siblings (older by 15 and 16 years) had played with them when they were little. Sometimes I actually played with them in game form with my friends, putting a circle of string on the floor and we’d take turns shooting them out. But mostly, I just liked looking at them.

Not the actual bag, but…

There were all sorts. Some were plain glass of white or black. Others were “cat’s eye” marbles, with beautiful waves of color nestled inside the clear glass. There was one that was an old style, made of clay, rough to the touch. There were even a couple steel ball bearings in there.

When the memory of these marbles popped into my head, I allowed myself some time to savor the memory. But then, as I’m prone to do, I went online and started researching marbles, including how they’re made, how much some of them sell for, and so on. One of the things I learned is that some of the marbles being made today are crazy beautiful.

Now, sometimes I do deep research on things for the sake of making accurate points in my stories. Entire scientific articles are studied just for the sake of a single, almost throwaway, line in a book. But no, there won’t be anything about the marbles in the book aside from their use as an analogy. I was doing the marble research purely out of curiosity and fascination. Because I’m insatiably curious. Also, easily distracted.

I admit that when I first decided to use memories of my personal history for inclusion in the books, it was because it would be an easy source of material. What I’ve found, though, is that it not only allows for a richer storytelling, but also a deeper appreciation of my own life, both past and future.

Posted by admin in Details, Inspiration, 0 comments

Imposter Sequels

As many creative people are, I’m pretty protective of my intellectual property. In this case, that means the stories I write and the characters who live them. I make no secret that I’m not crazy about “fan fiction,” even though I understand where the desire to write it comes from. Heck, in my youth, I made my own attempt at fan fiction in a story blending the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to abandon the tale, given how wildly different those universes are. After that, I never tried it again. For those who insist on writing it, feel free. But don’t for a minute think about publishing it.

Of course, there are those out there who will disagree with me on all of those points, including the last one. Because what is an unauthorized sequel to a book by a different author other than fan fiction?

Here’s one example.

A somewhat popular book that was made into a movie you might have seen.

Margaret Mitchell died decades before this thing was published:

The “sequel,” which was made into a TV mini-series you probably didn’t watch.

Another writer, though, didn’t have the decency to wait. Here’s another one you probably know:

The original.

And…

The phony.

Salinger was still alive when the sequel was published in Sweden and was in the process of suing the publisher at the time of his death. A lot of things have been said about the book… that it’s not really a sequel, but a parody; that it’s a literary criticism of the original; and that it actually reads like fan fiction. (*ahem*) I wouldn’t know, since I have no intention of ever reading it (having not enjoyed Catcher in the first place). However, even though I wasn’t a fan of Catcher, I was opposed to this book for the same reasons Salinger was: I didn’t feel “J.D. California” had any right to publish it in the first place.

Now, there are plenty of sequels out there written by people other than the original authors, done with the approval of the copyright holders of the originals (the James Bond novels published after Ian Fleming’s death, for example). Some, I hear, are quite good.

My experiences have been less than stellar. Frank Herbert’s Dune series is, in my opinion, incredible. The Dune books by Frank’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson don’t really do it for me.

But a recently published work has me reconsidering my refusal to partake in such sequels again. I’m referring to The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Written by David Lagercrantz, it continues the “Millennium” series of books by the late Stieg Larsson, which gave us the character of Lisbeth Salander –  for my money, one of the most compelling characters ever written. It is that love for the character that made me consider reading it, while at the same time being afraid to.

Yes, read them.

Amazon reviews currently show it with a four-star rating, after some 1600+ reviews. That’s not bad. I tend to read negative user reviews first, and some of the complaints do give me concern, but they are so overshadowed by positive reviews that I’m willing to overlook them.

In the end, one factor has led me to decide to read it. I skimmed the first few pages using Amazon’s “look inside” feature, and learned that one of the minor characters is a young autistic boy who has yet to speak his first word by age eight. As it happens, I now have a young autistic boy in my life who has an essentially non-existent vocabulary at age seven. So, yeah… I think I’ll give it a shot.

Fingers crossed.

 

Posted by admin in Other Writers, Publishing, 0 comments

The Negative Effects of Praise

Everyone likes being told that something they’ve done was good. Sure, some people do have difficulty accepting compliments, but most people appreciate that others feel our efforts are praise-worthy. And that includes writers. It’s wonderful to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed my work. Even after nearly a decade and a half, I never get tired of hearing it.

Of course, there are good ways to praise, and not-so-good ways. Here’s a great article over on Parenting Science, in case you’re interested in reading up on it. One of the points made by the author is especially relevant to me: “Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others.” I think one of the biggest disservices done to school kids is giving praise for being “best in class,” so to speak, rather than actually being good. Throughout elementary school, my English teachers praised my writing. This continued through high school, so by the time I graduated, I thought I was some sort of literary genius, when in fact I was anything but. I might have been better than the majority of my peers, but that’s not the same as being good.

Okay… and…?

Because of this, I entered my college writing classes with a bit of an ego. And to be fair, my work was still better than many of those in my classes, but no longer was I receiving the glowing commentary from teachers. Instead, they pointed out the flaws. And before long, I realized that I still had a lot to learn. I realized I wasn’t anything special.

The truth was that I’d entered my college writing program without any understanding beyond my own instincts of what elements were necessary for a good story, since that wasn’t something I was taught in high school. Nor, it turns out, was there much of that in my college English classes. It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class through the film department in my senior year that I learned these things. To say my opinion of the English program lowered then is an understatement.

Or actually teach me something of value.

In later years, I put together a series of classes (eight of them, in total, each focusing on a different aspect of fiction writing) for an adult education program in Sacramento. I had a number of students over the years tell me that they learned more in my classes than in all of college, which of course is why I put the classes together in the first place – to contain what I should have been taught all those years ago, rather than having to learn it on my own.

Praise is a double-edged sword. One edge was the praise that gave me confidence to continue writing and to consider doing it “for real” as an adult. The other edge, though, was praise that gave me false expectations of how that would go.

Everyone and their cousin is writing a book, today (and publishing e-books to sell for pennies). Likely as not, a huge number of them were once kids who were told they were good writers by well-intentioned primary school teachers, but who never actually learned to become good writers. Why should they? After all, they always got an “A” on their stories. That may be the most negative effect of praise: the current flood of mediocre novels.

Posted by admin in Writing Process, 0 comments

Are You a Writer, Yet?

Novice writers often fall into one of three categories. The first category is the almost stereotypical individual who never hesitates to proudly claim to be a writer and boast about works-in-progress and how great they are, but never seems to produce anything. Or at least, never shows the work to others.

The second category is someone who talks about writing a lot, and of the books or stories they want to write. They’ll have notebooks full of ideas, often quite detailed, but no actual words on the page.

The third category is the self-conscious person who doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to identify as a writer simply because none of their works have yet been published.

One of these three is actually a writer. Hint: it’s not the first or second.

When I taught fiction writing, I met a lot in this third category. These were people who wrote regularly. Sure, they had a lot of things to learn, but they were making the effort. Still, they felt that, because they weren’t published, it wasn’t right to call themselves writers.

That’s baloney. There’s only one criterion for being able to properly call yourself a writer, and that’s to write often.

Our bragging friend in the first category may have written something at some point. It might even have been good. The enthusiastic one in the second category may have lots of ideas that could one day become great stories. But unless there’s actual writing going on, the label of writer doesn’t apply to either of them.

Which category are you in?

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Five Facts About One Nation Under God

Part Two of the “Behind the Scenes” peeks at my work. This installment is the 2004 dystopian future novel, One Nation Under God.

Fact #1 – People Do Judge Books by Their Covers

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course. After all, the purpose of having an attractive cover is so that people make the judgement to pick the thing up and look at it. But in this case, a lot of people judge it by not only the cover, but the title, too.

This cover should scare the hell out of anyone.

In my last blog, I mentioned an outrageous incident that occurred at the California State Fair some years ago. Here’s a less outrageous one. A guy sees the book and gives me two thumbs up and says something like, “One nation under god… right on, man!”

I gave a slight smile and said, “It doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “Right on, man.”

Look at that cover. It’s meant to offend the shit out of people. Replacing the stars with crosses? That’s absolutely not okay, folks. But evidently, some people disagree.

Fact #2 – I Had to Change a Character’s Name

In the first draft of the book, President Christopher’s wife’s name was Laura. But then this dude who was running for the office in 2000 somehow “won” the election, and wouldn’t you know it, his wife’s name was Laura.

I didn’t model this character after Laura Bush, but this bonehead:

“Dr.” Laura – hypocritical conservative busybody.

I knew, though, that readers might make the Bush association, so I changed her name to Sarah. No, not because of Sarah Palin. At that time, I thankfully had no idea who that airhead was.

Fact #3 – It’s Clearly Not as Prescient as I’d Hoped

I’ve been asked frequently how I “predicted” some of the things in the book that eventually came to pass in the real world. My answer to that is that I didn’t “predict” anything. I just saw the writing that had been on the wall for a while, and just projected what would happen if the Prez and Congress went ultra-conservative and uber-religious. I mean, more than they were at the time.

However, there’s one thing I did not see coming whatsoever:

I just wasn’t that much of a doomsayer.

Social media wasn’t even on my radar when I was writing the book. Would it have changed the story? Well… no. Because of certain plot points, I wouldn’t have had the protagonist actually using social media, but minor characters would have, and it would have been nice to have included them, if only for more accurate setting.

Any book that’s set in the future invariably will either over- or underestimate how much technology will advance. We don’t have flying cars, yet, after all. But we have the interwebs. Sci-Fi writers of the 50s would probably be surprised by both facts. So I suppose that, even though I didn’t see social media on the near horizon, I’m still in okay company.

Fact #4 – The Book Came to Me Fully Formed

No, it didn’t come to me in a dream, but it might as well have. I was living in Utah at the time (essentially a theocracy) and was sitting at my temp job when the idea just sprang into my brain. Not just the ideas for the characters and general thrust of the story, but also the formatting, a sort of 21st Century epistolary novel, with diary entries, email exchanges, newspaper clippings, web pages, etc. I just knew this was how it needed to be told.

Ironically, it was this form that prevented me from getting agent representation. I kept being told, “Epistolary books are a tough sell.”

Because people don’t buy epistolary novels. Nor do they get made into movies.

Fact #5 – The Book is Actually a Scrapbook… and a Handbook

The format of the book is meant to reflect the scrapbook that the teenage protagonist put together, a chronological telling of her family’s story. This is why many of the aspects of the story are not examined in much detail – they are things only of passing interest to her.

But I also meant for the novel to be a sort of handbook, a very loose primer on many different unconventional ideas, many of which are near and dear to my heart. Just a few of them are: alternative communitiesalternative religionalternative educationalternative relationships, and so on.

a.k.a. Ten Years of Utter Weirdness

Educating while entertaining. That’s always been my goal.

Posted by admin in Five Facts, Genre, Other Writers, Setting, 0 comments

The Value of a Book

Several years ago, I was part of the California Authors exhibit at the California State Fair. This one evening, I was seated next to my friend Phil Silver, a children’s book author who had two small books for sale. At one point, a man and his son (maybe four years old) stepped over. The man picked up one of Phil’s books and flipped through it. Then he turned to his boy and said, “Hey, would you like to get a book?”

The son seemed fairly disinterested, but the father continued to leaf through the pages before saying, “Are these free?”

Phil and I sat there in shock for a moment before Phil advised him that, no, they weren’t free, but seven dollars each or both for twelve (or something to that effect).

The man looked absolutely incredulous and said, “Seven bucks? For a book?”

He said this in all seriousness, then put down the book and escorted his son away… carrying a can of beer that I knew was selling at the fair for six dollars.

This is what’s wrong with America.

I regularly tell this story as an example not only of a massive parenting fail, but of society’s misplaced sense of value. A man will pay six dollars to enjoy a beer for maybe fifteen minutes, but be utterly appalled at the suggestion that a book was worth seven, even though it would likely give his son many hours of enjoyment.

This could not be more backward. I admit that the concept of “value” is somewhat subjective, but only a person dying of thirst should find more value in a beer than a book.

Posted by admin in Other Writers, Readers, 0 comments

It’s All About Marketing

Last month, I was one of the exhibitors at the Sacramento Wizard World Comic-Con. I had a table in “Artist Alley,” as I did last year. I do a few different such conventions each year, but this one is the largest of those.

As expected, I had great fun. I always enjoy meeting new people. And, obviously, I love it when people buy my books. But perhaps most of all, I love seeing the cosplayers and their often amazing costumes.

Nice kitty…?

The downside of being an exhibitor is not having the ability to attend the special events going on or getting to meet any of the celebrity guests.

Someday, my dear…

Then again, being always out on the floor has certain advantages. Like being randomly interviewed by SidewalksTV! Dyna and I were lucky enough to score about four minutes of facetime!

Click the pic to hear Dyna say mean things about me.

As you might expect, Dyna gets a lot more attention at these events than I do. And I’m really okay with that, socially awkward guy that I am.

I have a love/hate relationship with interviews. On the one hand, I enjoy being able to talk about my work, but on the other hand, I’d much prefer these interviews be in print, not on camera.

But I realize that interviews – and live appearances – are necessary. It’s all about marketing, as are this blog, my newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s not enough to produce a quality product, whether that product is a book, an automobile, or a salad dressing. People need to know about the products, too.

They say word of mouth is a great marketing tool, so if you’ve enjoyed my work, please tell anyone you think might also enjoy it. This socially awkward writer would appreciate it.

Posted by admin in Marketing/Promotion, 0 comments
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