The Slog and the Glory

From time to time, I’m approached by a student wanting reassurance that writing will bring guaranteed success or income. My answer is usually to tell the individual to choose another major. Shocked, the young person often walks sadly away and gives up the creative dream.

The reality of writing is that it bring no guarantees of any kind. Very few things actually do. Those of us who write generally do so because we can’t not write. It is a part of our heart. It is our blood, our breath, our life. We can turn our backs on it. We can close our ears to its siren’s call. We can ignore it, and we can smother it. But we do so at the peril of rejecting a gift that most people will never experience.

Of course, the writer’s life is not always kind. It’s certainly not easy. Dictating bestselling novels while reclining on a chaise longue and eating chocolate is more fantasy than reality. Just when you think you’ve come up with a genius-level story premise, you find that no editor is interested and no publisher will buy it.

And when you’re slogging along in what feels like a muddy rut to nowhere, a friend will email you and ask, Have you checked your numbers lately? They’re fantastic. Congratulations!

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to say over and over, “Trust the process.” And that’s all a novelist can do when half-blind, dazed, fatigued, and unsure whether any scene in the middle of his book is working. You trust your idea and your knowledge of the writing craft. You have faith in those elements, and you just keep going.

Once I learned how to put scenes together, how to write dialogue, how to design characters, how to control viewpoint, and what pacing was all about, I had to learn trust. And trusting something can be the hardest lesson of all.

I’m stubborn. I’m deliberate. I’m inclined to take my time. I do not trust quickly or readily. I was the child who spent the entire first week of my two-week series of swimming lessons learning to put my face in the water. But once I give my trust, I give it.

When I learned that trusting the writing craft would see me successfully through the completion of a novel every time, I put my belief in it. I won’t say that every book I’ve written since then has been stellar, but I know that when a story falters it’s due to my mistakes and not the fault of writing principles.

I’ve also learned to trust my story sense and the fact that I was put on Earth to write stories. I don’t mean to sound grandiose or egotistical in expressing that. It’s just the way I’m made. It’s what I do.

For me, writing flows in a feast or famine cycle. There are lean years and fat years. There are times when I am unable to explain to anyone why I continue to write. I just have to.

Experience has taught me that if I keep going, keep utilizing my craft to the best of my ability, then just about the time I feel most lost is about when the famine cycle flips to a feast.

In my view, if a writer gives up when feeling most discouraged, then he’s never going to find the glory that follows the slog.

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Writing Routines

Whether you call it routine, ritual, or method, it’s important for writers to establish work habits that contribute to–rather than hinder–the creative process. Perhaps you like to sit down at your keyboard with a cup of tea, or write while listening to certain types of music. You may prefer a certain hour of the day when you feel alert and at your best. Perhaps you place a chocolate chip cookie on a pretty saucer and put it on your desk to be your reward when you type your daily word quota.

It’s also fun to learn about the habits of famous authors. Balzac, for example, had to write in a particular room at a particular desk. Hemingway preferred to write while standing. Faulkner liked to scribble his plot events on the walls around his desk. I keep a quote from Somerset Maugham near my workspace that announces his preference for starting work at nine sharp every morning.

The benefit of these little rituals is that they create a focus within us, a signal that triggers our imagination and helps prepare us for the concentrated effort to come. It is the same principle as switching off electronics thirty to sixty minutes before retiring to bed, dimming the lights, taking a warm bath, etc.–activities that help prepare the body for sleep.

Of course, we do not all have the benefit of a day’s uninterrupted writing. If we’re scrambling to type a few paragraphs before we have to roust the kids for school and get ourselves to work, or if we’re wearily sitting down to type our five pages after we’ve cleared the supper dishes, helped with homework, walked the dog, and finished three loads of laundry, we may lack the patience for rituals. Some writers scoff at the idea of not being able to write until the sun sets or all the ink pens are aligned with the desk’s edge. They boast proudly of being able to write anywhere at any time.

Certainly it’s important to have that flexibility. I know when I have a deadline looming and I’m writing as hard and as fast as I can, I don’t always bother with pretty saucers. The entire bag of cookies may be tossed on the desk instead. If I’m fully immersed in my story, then I’ll write during my usual time plus at any other opportunity I can carve out for myself.

But even that is a ritual of its own. During my teaching days, I write in odd corners of available time, the moments stolen and therefore sweeter. But the day after classes end for the summer, I am in my chair in comfortable jeans and bare feet, and my fingers are rocketing the computer keys. Knowing that time is coming helps me keep control of my patience as I grade papers through the warming days of April instead of writing just one more scene. It helps me focus and prepare for the sweet advent of May.

What are your writing rituals? Do you have a regular writing time? A dedicated writing place, even if it’s just a room corner? Do you check your emails first or last? Do you set yourself a word quota, or do you just allot an hour for writing? Do you always save your work when you’re done for the day? (The extra save to the Cloud or to an external hard drive).

Do you allow yourself time for creative exercises to get your imaginative juices pumping? Exercises such as art projects or cutting out pictures from magazines to represent your characters or their house? What do you do to support your inner writer?

Writing is challenging work, but we should never forget that it should also be a joy.

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Stephen King’s Advice

Humbly, today I suggest you read what Mr. King has to say about writing. He expresses it much better than I could.

http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2015/02/24/stephen-king-everything-you-need-to-know-about-writing-successfully/

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Skip and Fall

Let’s consider this scenario:

You have an idea for a new story. You’re excited. You’re eager to start writing right away, and you have several scenes in mind. You even know how you want things to end. There are vague spots in your outline, but you don’t mind. You want to get going.

Boom! You write the first incident in the story that will introduce your protagonist and–you hope–set up the story situation.

But then, although you can clearly envision the next important event that will occur, you can’t figure out how to put your protagonist there.

Let’s say your protagonist is on a journey to a new life in a new town, about to start wizard school.

You want to introduce your young protagonist as a youth with natural magical powers, as yet untrained and poorly controlled. So you write an incident where Yen the Youngster is bored by travel and so conjures up a spirit companion to talk to. But the spirit turns out to be one best left unsummoned. It’s loud, unruly, causes all sorts of mayhem among the other passengers. Yen is nearly thrown off the transport, and only the intervention of an older, experienced wizard who happens to be traveling can banish the spirit back to where it belongs.

Okay, so what happens next?

Easy, you think. Wizard school!

Wait!

Hold on!

Not so fast.

It’s like standing on one side of a creek when you desperately want to get across. There’s no bridge in sight, not even a log spanning the two banks. The water’s too deep to wade, so what do you do?

Run along the bank until the creek narrows and then jump across?

Sure, that’s fine for crossing streams. But jumping across story, leaving gaps to be “filled in later,” isn’t such a great idea.

If you “jump” to Yen’s first day at school after the spirit misadventure, your reader will be wondering about what happened to Yen after the spirit left. Did Yen get into trouble? Did Yen have to pay the other passengers for the damages? Is the master of the wizard school aware that Yen is a wild card? Will Yen cross the threshold already in disgrace? Were any other students aboard? Are they talking about Yen, gossiping and spreading rumors to prejudice the student body against him?

But perhaps you don’t want to bother with such questions. Yen’s arrival isn’t important. You want to focus instead on his first day in the classroom.

After all, Yen is destined for Great Things. His first class will be in wand waving, and you’re eager to write about that. You’ll go back and fill in the “trivial” stuff later, when you have more time.

So you jump from the spirit’s banishment to Yen in the classroom. You want Yen to demonstrate his raw talent and impress his teacher, at least until he loses control and his new wand flies out of his hand and hits the ceiling. All the students laugh at him, and Yen will be sad and frustrated.

Except again there are questions left unanswered, questions that might need to be considered before Yen steps into the classroom: How is he learning his way around the school? Has anyone befriended him? Does he want to start with wand waving or does he wish he could take a different subject instead? And if he got into trouble because of the spirit he summoned, what happened with that? Is he already on probation?

When questions are raised due to your protagonist’s actions, you’re responsible for answering them and not just ignoring them or leaving readers to wonder, wonder, wonder.

Also, the answers to such questions should affect what’s going to happen next.

But maybe you’re too busy thinking ahead. You want Yen to stay in trouble. Character in trouble is an important writing principle, right?

Right.

So without considering what’s happened thus far, you’re blazing forward by thinking that maybe halfway through his first term he’ll blow up the potions class. No, wait … that’s too close to the Harry Potter plotline. You’ll rethink that part … but later. Because you can’t be bothered to work through the middle right now and you really, really, really want to write the battle scene when Orcs attack the town where the wizard school happens to be. Yen and all his classmates are going to be drafted into helping defend the place. You know this part is going to be nifty.

Stop the madness!

What was once a promising premise is turning into a very poorly plotted story.

Thus far, although there are incidents where Yen hits trouble, there’s no cohesion, no actual conflict, and no unfolding of plot. The whole thing is a cobbled-together mess that’s totally author contrived.

Although a writer wants his protagonist to hit opposition, obstacles, and trouble, such difficulties should connect plausibly with each other in cause-and-effect logic. A story is not a random scramble of action and dialogue.

If you skip ahead, and only write the parts that are vivid in your mind, you will never go back and fill in what’s missing.

Not because you don’t intend to, but because you probably can’t.

Skipping blitzes cause-and-effect. Trying to wedge consequences for character actions between otherwise disconnected events simply doesn’t work.

Let’s go back, back, back to the beginning when Yen uncorks that unruly spirit. What if the wizard that pulls matters back under control happens to be the school headmaster?

What if he’s so angry with Yen that he almost expels him?

And why is it so important for Yen to attend this school instead of one of the five alternative wizard schools in the realm? Why this one? Did Yen’s father and grandfather and six great-uncles attend this school? Is it a family tradition? Or is Yen the first in his family to manifest magical powers that need formal training? Is his mother so seriously proud of him that he’s desperate not to let her down?

Furthermore, if Yen has to plead and beg to be allowed to enroll at the school, what awful threat will the headmaster hold over him if he messes up again?

Now, with these answers in mind, reconsider what stakes are involved in Yen’s wand waving class. If he’s on probation, then he could be afraid stand out or try, afraid to make a mistake. The teacher, however, is insisting that he not be bashful. They have goals in opposition, which means the scene between them will contain solid conflict. Yen makes a mistake, and it’s a whopper. His wand careens all over the place. It nearly puts Maranda Mogwimple’s eye out, and poor Yen is in greater disgrace than before.

Also, if you work your way one step at a time with Yen and his struggles, by the time your story reaches the imminent Orc invasion, you will understand Yen as a character and readers will empathize with him and–most importantly–care when he faces his first battle. You will know his strengths and his weaknesses. You will know his motivation for trying his best even if his time at school has been difficult and unpleasant. As a writer, you will be prepared to push Yen into the biggest test/challenge of his life.

But if you skip, you won’t know him well or understand what combination of experiences and conflict has forced him to grow through the arc of your story.

Beware. The next time you’re tempted to skip over a vague portion, ask yourself why.

Why haven’t you bothered to think through the consequences of what your character has done to that point?

Why aren’t you willing to think through your character’s next options?

Take the time. Solve the plot problems as they arise. You’ll find that doing so makes quite a difference in the quality of your plotting.

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Carrot Time

As anyone writing fiction knows, a tremendous amount of patience, perseverance, and self-discipline goes into crafting a story–from the first glimmer of an idea through the slog of writing, writing, writing, rewriting, and writing to the marketing.

Dreams are fine and good, but it takes effort and sheer gut-crunching determination to stick with a project from start to publication, especially novels.

And some days, writers are just weary, unable to put more than a few words or paragraphs on the computer screen. The plot is a blur. The characters are flat constructions, speaking tepid lines of dialogue, and the pacing seems to drag. Certainly I have reached points two-thirds of the way through some of my fantasy novels where the deadline was looming larger than a mountain and I just wanted to type, “Then they all died suddenly of the plague. The end.”

There are writing sessions where the only thing that keeps us going is a stick. We grit our teeth, think of our book contract or deadline, remember our flat bank account, and continue typing.

And there are the days of joy, when the writing soars, our heart is light and happy, and the words spiral from our imagination into our tapping fingers. Those are the carrot days.

For the past few weeks, I have been laboriously proofreading scans of my back list for re-publication in digital format. Although hampered by tender eyes recovering from surgery, I dutifully read and read and read. For the most part, I enjoyed being reacquainted with some of my earlier work. A few that I feared would be dogs turned out to be decent, and one science fiction tale in particular that I remembered as being fun to write is actually pretty lame. Alas!

Still, my first published fantasy novel, REIGN OF SHADOWS, is now on Kindle and today it’s ranked #1 in dark fantasy. I realize that this is due to its promotion as a free title and that the ranking won’t last, but at the moment I don’t care. I am simply enjoying it.

Best of all, it’s given me a psychological boost and I’m happily writing on a new project with restored confidence. We writers have to be as tough as old boot leather, able to take blunt editorial comments without blinking and find inner strength to keep going when no one else believes in our story premise, but despite the swagger and the growing of rhino hide, we remain at heart fragile creatures. We must keep our sensitivity and our ability to empathize with others, most particularly our characters, if we’re to bring our pages to life in readers’ imaginations.

Carrots help. Whether that reward comes in the form of a cookie permitted at the end of a writing day or through an exciting ranking on Kindle, it doesn’t matter. Whatever gets us up, eager to sit at the keyboard, whatever fuels our passion for the words, whatever gives us hope and spurs us on … it is both necessary and good.

And so much better than the stick!

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Full or Flat

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was “Dudley DoRight,” probably because he was a Mountie–which was almost a cowboy in my young eyes–and rode a horse. The villain was called Snidely Whiplash, and I loved his name. It always made me laugh (and still does).

Snidely twirled his black mustache and leered from my television screen. He was always kidnapping Dudley’s love, Sweet Penelope, and tying her to train tracks and giant buzz saws in the best tradition of the old action serials.

But although Snidely has enough vivid character tags to stick in my memory, he remains a simple cartoon villain. He has no depth, no complexity, not even a motivation for why he is so evil.

He’s not just a villain. He’s a bad one. In other words, his design is so flat and thin he could never work in prose fiction. Especially today.

Often, new writers are bombarded with plenty of advice on character design. They do their best to juggle personality traits and external tags. They try to remember character goals. They worry with physical appearance, and sometimes become stymied over the right name. There are so many elements and details to pull together, and all while trying to wedge the character into a plotline.

I constantly chivvy my students with reminders of how an antagonist must bring conflict to the story, how an antagonist must oppose the protagonist.

With all of that to handle, is it any wonder that inexperienced writers often construct a tissue-thin villain performing wicked deeds?

If you are writing conflict between your protagonist and a villain, and the scene or story feels lifeless and difficult, or if you are plotting your story events but you can’t seem to bring the bad guy to life, consider these tips:

Look at what’s behind the villain’s goal:
Let’s say that your villain plans to steal the story McGuffin–secret plans for a new super rocket.

Why?

Uh, because the hero has designed them for the Right Cause and if the villain steals them the hero will be in trouble.

Is that all you’ve got?

Because that’s a cartoon motivation behind a flat villain.

Let’s reconsider what drives this villain. Let’s dig into his past, or invent a past for him. Let’s raise the personal stakes because even villains need emotional reasons for the actions they take.

Make the villain’s goal personal:
Okay, Vic Villain wants those secret plans because …

1) he can sell them for a lot of money.
2) he wants to mess with Harvey Hero because he can.
3) years ago, he was Harvey’s roommate in engineering school and they worked together on the prototype. Now Harvey’s getting all the credit and Vic wants a piece of the action.
4) all of the above.

Let personal stakes spark emotions:
If Vic thinks he was done wrong by his ex-roomie, then he’s going to be harboring years of resentment.

Maybe he’s watched Harvey’s career zoom to dazzling heights. Maybe he’s nursed a grudge all this time, blaming Harvey for his failures instead of himself.

(Okay, yes, I hear those of you who are clamoring with the question: what happened between Vic and Harvey? How come Harvey has the plans and Vic’s out in the cold?)

Good question, and one you shouldn’t answer for readers until the middle or near the end of your story.

Determine why the villain will strike now:
Sure, you want Vic taking action from the opening scene of your story, but if he and Harvey go back years … why has Vic waited until now in your story to act?

You need a catalyst, something that changes the circumstances for both Harvey and Vic.

For this example, let’s say that years ago Vic abandoned the project as impossible and walked away from it at a critical point. Maybe Harvey pleaded with him to have faith and keep trying, but Vic saw a better opportunity and ditched the partnership.

Now, all these years later, Harvey has finally solved the final glitch and created the super rocket. He’s making a billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon. It’s in the news. He’s nominated for a major science prize.

Reading this in the newspaper at breakfast, Vic looks at his messy pile of unpaid bills, the dirty dishes in the sink, and his dead-end job. Something snaps inside him. He forgets that it was his decision to quit, and he shifts his sense of inner guilt to blaming Harvey for his troubles.

He makes the decision to take revenge on Harvey by stealing the plans and selling them to a higher bidder.

Build your bad guy from this foundation:
Vic isn’t a fabulous character construction yet, but he’s more filled in than before. Now it’s time to layer on more complexity.

Create complexity in a character through contrasts:
If Vic is the story’s villain, what are his good qualities? Is he ever nice? To whom? Why?
Take the time to think about your villain as an entire person.
What are some of Vic’s positive accomplishments?
Has Vic ever helped anyone?
Who does Vic care about?
Does he love his mother, his wife, his child, his pet canary?

In the classic noir film This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd plays a stone-cold killer who assassinates people for money. Yet while he’s a loner, impassive, wily, and ruthless, he likes cats. He buys milk and leaves a saucer on the open windowsill of his cheap rented room for the stray cat that comes by. He considers cats to be “his luck.” Slowly his backstory unfolds, and the audience learns that he was an orphan raised by a cruel aunt who physically and verbally abused him. From that, it’s evident why he can’t befriend people and why he can only show kindness to cats, perhaps the only creatures that have ever shown any affection to him.

If you can create Vic Villain into a multi-layered individual of contrasts, understandable motivations, emotions, and the capacity to do the right thing, then when he decides to do the wrong thing that makes him so much more villainous than if he’s portrayed as a cartoon figure or a sociopath.

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The Passion and the Effort

Since the writing bug first bit me, I have been passionate about writing. I lived, breathed, dreamed, and talked story, story, story. My characters were often my only childhood companions and my story worlds gave me imaginary outlets to explore during a sometimes lonely youth.

So whenever I hear the adage, “Follow your passion,” I know exactly what that’s about. I feel privileged to have been able to turn my passion into a career and to achieve my dreams of publication.

However, recently I came across a quote from successful entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who said, “Follow the effort, not the passion.”

It made me think. I understand Mr. Cuban’s point, which is that dreams alone won’t get us where we want to be. But there’s more to it than that.

When I was a novice writer, my passion drove me to make the effort and to keep making it despite challenges, failures, and discouragement. My passion to write motivated me to work extremely hard to learn the writing craft. And I have been thankful, on numerous occasions, when the effort and hard work to acquire craft paid off by enabling me to complete challenging projects.

Today, I was listening to a talk given by romance novelist Darlene Gardenhire (who writes as Darlene Graham). She mentioned that writers have to deal with both hemispheres of their brain, which she termed “The Imp” and “The Taskmaster.”

Whenever I’m off deadline and between projects, I relax and permit an imbalance of those brain hemispheres. The Imp runs wild while The Taskmaster takes a vacation. All that means is that the passion for writing is all over the place, yet nothing is actually being accomplished. But soon it’s time for The Taskmaster to return, settle down The Imp, and get the work in progress moving forward.

Anyone who achieves a long writing career goes through phases. He or she may grow bored with a genre and desire to switch to a different area of fiction. He or she may fall into a rut and desire to write a longer, more intricately plotted, or complex novel than before. He or she may hit a dry spell. Markets change and fall into or out of fashion with readers. All sorts of things happen because the publishing industry is always in flux. These changes can dampen or curtail passion for a time–especially if there’s a learning curve before breaking into a different genre–but a professional writer has to keep working.

I know writers and wannabes who have always depended solely on their passion. They wait for inspiration to strike. They perhaps gain a good plot idea from a dream and then expect fortune to smile on them the same way once more. Such writers generally have low production and erratic quality of work. Maybe when they’re “on” they’re geniuses, but the rest of the time their works are a “miss.”

And I know writers who don’t count solely on inspiration. They instead believe in the novelist’s adaptation of Einstein’s quote: “Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.” They put in the effort of learning craft, practicing craft, knowing how a story works, understanding which approaches will create dynamic characters and how a story should be paced. And maybe, after 30,000 words of what possibly feels like sheer slog, inspiration glimmers briefly, and the writer finds the heart and will and passion to soldier onward through the remaining 70,000 words.

New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher calls it the BIC (butt in chair) factor. You can dream all day long about being a published writer, but if you don’t actually write … and try … you won’t achieve anything.

Getting novel manuscripts plotted and written takes brain-numbing effort. Almost every time. There’s no shortcut or easy button. And no two books are ever the same. The Imp–if relied on alone–will skip out on you. The Taskmaster–if allowed to completely override and/or ignore The Imp–will turn a good story into a emotionless grind.

Writers need both the passion and the effort. They need the agony and the ecstasy. Glove in hand–it’s a dual process, and the best, surest way to real accomplishment.

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