Character Dynamics in “The Road To Mars”

The Road To Mars follows, for the most part, a trio of characters (trying to be #SPOILERfree here). There’s Darion, my protagonist; Jack, the “thief”; and the Shepherd, my larger-than-life visitor from Mars. Each has his own agenda. Each is searching for something. And each may or may not take issue with someone in the group; unbeknownst to that person.

I know because I wrote it that way.

When I began fleshing out The Road To Mars, I envisioned it like a really bad family vacation. Nobody likes going somewhere – especially far away – with someone they don’t like. Or someone they’re not too familiar with. The Road To Mars is all about unfamiliar travel. Mars, by itself, is already an unknown landscape. But, in my story, it’s a haven. An escape. A place Darion wants to be. He wants out of the mess the Earth is in. The Pulse has damaged Earth with clouds that sap light and energy. The Earth, as far as Darion is concerned, is a lost cause. So he’s trying hard to leave it behind and get to Mars. Not just for himself, but for his daughter as well.

Jack, on the other hand, is more like a baby bird fallen from its nest. He’s survived the fall – survived the Pulse – but now he’s alone. Nobody is looking out for him. Until he meets Darion. And then, ultimately, the Shepherd of Mars. Jack has had little direction in life. He’s a got a bad seed in him, you might say. But, meeting Darion has given him direction. And the Shepherd has given him hope. Two things he’d never had before; and important to any person.

As for the Shepherd, his mere existence defies logic. He’s huge – more than seven feet tall. He’s built like an Olympic gymnast and speaks like he’s lived 10 lifetimes. Yet, all that power and wisdom is a cause for concern. Even for Darion, whose entire journey has been about finding said Shepherd. No man can be all these things in one. There must be a catch or something hidden. But, Darion – and Jack – are willing to see whatever that is till the end.

What I’ve just told you is incredibly important to any story: character dynamics. As much as I like the mythology in The Lord of the Rings and the universe where Harry Potter resides, I know neither of these stories would be worth their weight in salt if it weren’t for the characters. Where they come from. How they interact. Who they are driven to be next to. Or be in conflict with – all are imperative. For the characters push the plot. Push the agenda. And keep your audience interested till the end (Writer’s Digest has a good tutorial on this very topic).

For The Road To Mars I wanted to get this as right as possible. Each of my characters needed to feel natural. Needed to have predictable behaviors, yet be thrown into unpredictable circumstances. For it’s the unusual scenarios where development happens. Characters become more than a name on a page – they become (almost) like real people. Someone you or I can relate to. It’s key to telling any good story. And it’s key to transforming a book from I-read-five-chapters-now-I’m-done to, “Hey, when does the next one come out?”

I, for one, prefer the latter.

When a story “stays with you”

It’s 1989. I’m five. And it just so happens to be Christmas. I open my first present: a VHS copy of my soon-to-be-favorite movie monster, Godzilla. I watch it. It’s a horribly made dub, but I’m in love. Giant mutant dinosaurs wrecking cities with the theme of nuclear proliferation has me hooked. And from then on, I’m convinced the greatest thing I can do as a grownup is become a monstrous reptile myself (keep in mind, I’m still five at this point).

Flash forward to 1997. I’m in my English reading class. The teacher asks me what my interests are. I sheepishly admit science fiction and “monsters”. He selects Dune by Frank Herbert. I read through the novel – understanding little, but absorbing much – and when I’m done, I feel like I’ve been to another galaxy, another world entirely. One that’s full of monsters and sci-fi goodness.

Now, it’s 2013. A friend has been suggesting I read Ender’s Game for a long while. I finally take the plunge and read it. And I love it. Not only is it good (to me), but I find myself recognizing similar storytelling techniques that I might employ as a writer. Soon, the idea that I could write a full-scale novel comes alive. And I start writing that said novel, finishing in the latter half of 2015.

So what’s the point of all this? For one, I’m still a fan of Godzilla. For two, I am still a fan of Herbert’s original Dune saga and for three, I’ve read plenty more of the Ender series since reading the original Ender’s Game. Why? Because each of these stories had an impact on me. They had that “it” factor. But, most perhaps importantly, they stayed with me. We’ve all seen a movie or read a book we’ve found to be entertaining. But, was it good enough to come back to? Again? And then one more time? Aside from the three stories I listed, I can think of a few others that have had that affect on me. I’m sure you can think of your own list too. Often it’s just the right timing. Other times, it’s just our interests being realized through story. And yet, in some instances, it’s a good story that grabs us and doesn’t let go.

As a writer, I tend to desire many things: great sales, a following of dedicated readers, maybe a movie deal, to name a few. But, one of the greatest compliments I can receive is a reader who not only reads my work, but comes back a second time to read it again. And a third. And maybe even a fourth. Because that’s when you know you’ve written a good story. It stays with someone. It doesn’t end on the last page. It just keeps going, reigniting that magic you felt when you were five. And that’s a great feeling, as I can recall.

What is a writer’s responsibility?

Pilots fly things. Salespeople sell things. And accountants count things (my wife is an accountant so I know this to be true). So, by default, one would say writers write things. Or rather, it’s part of their job description. Write. Write. And write some more.

Sounds fun. If you’re into that sort of thing. Yet, what does a writer actually write about? Or what should he write about?

There seems to be plenty of voices in the world to begin with. There are people with opinions. People with experiences. People with opinions about their experiences. That’s a lot of topics to cover. However, most every book started with interest. What interested the writer. Because what interested them might ultimately interest someone else.

When I first started my writing journey, I wanted to be a satirist. That’s a fancy way of saying I wanted to be a “know-it-all-with-humor”. Think John Stewart minus the television program and New York roots. I thought I’d be able to break into the publishing world that way. There was a multitude of “know-it-all” books at the time too. And that seemed like a good way to “get ahead quick.”

Yet, that was the whole problem. What interested me wasn’t what I was writing about, but what was popular at the time. Yes, I believe I could be a great satirist when I wanted to (read my past work at your own discretion), but I couldn’t keep up the passion for it. Inevitably, I just couldn’t keep forcing it out of myself. I had some interest, but not enough drive. A change needed to happen.

So, I started by asking myself a couple questions. The most pertinent of which was like this: what would I like to read? What would I find to be exciting? And when I asked those questions, desire surfaced. And a book emerged – my first one. And hey, it felt really good. But, to that point, more began to pour out. Interest had brought me there, but passion and desire were driving me to completion.

So what’s a writer’s responsibility? First and foremost, discovering his or her desire. A powerful voice emerges from desire. And captures the attention of others when it does.

O Mars, How Art Thou?

I came up with a book idea about Mars about four years ago. I recall watching a news story on the Mars Rover and thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. We have a robot on Mars”. That means we will be taking pictures. Sending back video. On Mars. For a commoner without a space degree like myself, this was exciting. But, I can only imagine what the rest of the science community was thinking (and various alien conspiracy theorists as well). It was a memorable moment for me and when the news story was over, I was finally receiving the inspiration I so desperately needed.

Time to get to work.

Before that time, I had been dabbling with a story about an alien visiting Earth. Only this alien was not a “true alien” in the sense of what so many are familiar with. You know – having tentacles, double jaws, and acid blood. Or parading as a seductress intent on luring males to their deaths (e.g. Species and Under the Skin). So rather than explore terrifying renditions of extraterrestrials, my alien would be some form of an advanced human. One who had come to take his people from Earth. To somewhere. Far away. And for reasons that were unknown to even the ones being rescued. But, of course, those being rescued would have their suspicions:

Is this traveler only taking the “best qualified”? Only the worthy?

Or is the visitor just harvesting Earthlings under some elaborate lie? (I hate using the term “Earthlings” but hey, it fits here)

Or perhaps, it was a combination of both?

I fell in love with the idea and ran with it. Then the Mars Rover came along and you know the rest. Looking back, the choice to make Mars my destination shouldn’t have come as a shocker. Sci-fi’s forefathers have been indulging the love affair with Mars long before I was around. Perhaps one of the first was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, swiftly followed by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series. Flash forward about a hundred years and we are still getting stories like Andy Weir’s The Martian. Inevitably, it can be said: we want to see what’s waiting on the 4th planet from the sun. And with the uber rich making plans to do it (see this), we can rest assured that someone is going to make it happen.

But, as I’m exploring with my own story, I’m curious to know what people will do once we’ve colonized a foreign world. Will we turn from Earth and never look back? Or will we yearn to come back home? As with anything that’s new or untouched, our human curiosity must be satisfied. We’ll only know what awaits until we go there.

 

 

 

 

Come now, all ye critics

Criticism can be a creative’s worst nightmare. Even if you’re aren’t of the creative mindset, you can still relate at some level. There’s a specific kind of hurt reserved for the one who hears his work is garbage; or crap; or downright putrid. That hurts. That hurts right in the “feels”. Yet, criticism is a part of the deal. The unwritten contract every artist / writer / author enters into. Be it knowingly or unknowingly.

I’ve been writing for a while now and I can honestly say that the “early days” of getting critiques were the hardest for me. Before that time, and when I was still under the protective hood of public school, I got patted on the back quite often for my penmanship. “You write well”; “You have great voice”; “You ought to consider doing this for a living someday” – yeah, I heard it all. And believed it too. And why not? It’s great getting noticed for something you enjoy doing. That’s a wonderful feeling. So, when I made the decision to pursue that passion, I found myself struck by a fascinating revelation: not everyone is going to like what you do (shocking news, isn’t it?).

Well, for an aspiring scribe, it can be a major jolt. Ego and all.Critics_Prep

Much later, I was listening in on a writer’s podcast and heard how a lot of writers are only interested in being discovered. They aren’t necessarily interested in getting better. They just want someone to tell them how good they are. Show’em some love. Make’em feel good. And after hearing this, I couldn’t agree more. Because that’s the place I was coming from. By now, I realize there are plenty of talented writers out there. I know this to be a fact. But, are they willing to do the work to get better? That’s the real question. And part of that “getting better” process is learning how to take criticism.

This trade off, this price to be paid if you ever intend to get paid, can make or break the deal. And what’s more, not everyone’s creative pace is the same. Last year, I bumped into a woman at a writer’s convention who told me she’d spent 11 years finishing her first book. Eleven years. I couldn’t even imagine. By comparison, it took me a year and a half to finally release The Road to Mars and that felt like an eternity! Yet, in hearing her story, it made see another grim truth: spending too much time in creating can keep you from ever finishing what you started. Which, in turn, can make a person dread the day a fair critique comes along. The payoff may never come. And that’s a pretty damn scary thing to think about.

But, I know myself. And I know that I’d rather get a fair critique than an empty pat on the back. That’s the greatest service any writer can get. Well, aside from a few purchases. That’s always cool too.

 

 

The Book’s Out! Now About Those Expectations….

Sure, I’ve released books in the past. And yes, I’ve told people about it. And yes, I’ve worked hard to tell those people to tell even more people about my book. That’s all well and good. But, that doesn’t change what comes next – the expectations. I have expectations for my work just like anyone would. The only difference now is that I’m a little older, a little wiser, and a little better prepared. For instance…

If you self-publish, don’t expect to quit your day job. Not right away anyway. It’s probably one of the biggest myths about self-publishing. Ask anyone in the publishing industry and they’ll tell you the same: don’t quit your day job. Not until you can financially provide for yourself. Or in my case, for a familOne Does Not Simplyy. A lot of folks get into publishing and think they’ll sell books like Stephen King. Well, you may be able to write great thrillers like Mr. King, but does anyone actually know you? Do you have a dedicated base of ready-and-waiting readers? These are questions you need to ask yourself before you hand in that two-week notice. Pay the bills first. Then, ride off into the sunset with book in hand.

Get the word out. I laugh when I think of how my first book release went down. My book went to the market and after it did, I think I checked my sales rank on Amazon about twice every 15-30 minutes. Up I’d go, then I’d be down again. Up, then down, up, then down… you get the picture. It was maddening. But then again, I was totally new to this publishing thing. And remarkably impatient. So there were some lessons to be learned before I could call myself a true “author.” Namely, I had to be more conscious of marketing myself. Do I have a Facebook page now? Yep. Twitter? That too. A blog to talk about this stuff? Self-explanatory. And lastly (and perhaps most important of all) was I reaching out beyond my own social circles? Or was I content getting a thumbs up from my aunts and uncles? Well, that’s another item I can check off these days. Guest blogging, for instance, is something I’ve been fortunate to do as of late (you can check’em out here and here for the latest). So I’m becoming less and less afraid of telling people about what I do. Because in the early going, the books just won’t sell themselves.

road-to-mars-cover-6x9-bleedThe Road to Mars is a fictional novel, not a non-fiction or a short story. My first two books were non-fiction works. And in addition to that, they were satirical in approach and delivery. That’s a stark contrast to what I’ve done recently. But in order to make that transition possible, I started a little project where I’d try to write a short story every month. I tentatively called it #12Months12Books and I did this for much of 2014 and 2015. It was probably one of the most difficult – and asinine – things I’ve ever taken upon myself to accomplish. Not only was I under the delusion that I could write a short story every month, I also thought I could polish, edit, and release said short story in a timely fashion (without staying up all night wondering if I’d done right). In hindsight, that was a really difficult undertaking. But, I got through it. Till about June. Which is where reality sank in and I had to stop. But as always, there’s something to learn from the experience. Namely, writing short stories are like writing miniature novels. They force a storyteller to break down the mechanics of storytelling as a whole. Character, plot, setting, motivations – the works. All of these elements have to be trimmed down so that when you’re ready for the “big leagues”, you can have something to work with.

Reviews, reviews…and hey, more reviews. If there’s one thing an artist appreciates, it’s feedback. Whether it’s showering praise or having tomatoes being flung (does anyone still do that?), the result is the same: it’s a response. A reaction. An opinion to what the author has put out there for the enjoyment – or disenchantment – of his audience. Which is why I am humbly asking any and all who read my book, to please review my book too. Five stars? Four stars? No stars? Well, I suppose that’s up to you to decide if it deserves a “zero” rating. In which case, I might offer an apology. Or cry for a while. I just won’t write about that part if it happens.

The Road to Mars is out and only available on Amazon so by all means, check it out if you haven’t already! Have a great weekend, folks.

 

 

 

A Year’s Worth of Persistence

Last year – around this time – I was writing about persistence. And how important persistence would be in the coming year.

Self-fulfilling prophecy or not, this year has been exactly that: a major test in persistence.

For starters, 2015 been the most difficult year for me, personally, than any other year I can remember. 2015 challenged every aspect of me, my character, and goals I set for myself and my family. As proud and excited as I was to become a father (I think I was literally leaking joy for a while) I felt the burden of fatherhood rushing upon me. My son was born in June so from January till day of birth, my mind was set on all things fatherly: reading books, getting advice from parents, reading books advised by parents, and making space for my son’s arrival. These these were the things I had to do. These were the things I felt compelled to do.

But even after many moons of prep, I found myself feeling no more prepared than the day before.

Truthfully, there is little you can do to prepare for parenthood. It is simply an experience like no other. Reading a book about middle-of-the-night crying is wholly different than experiencing middle-of-the-night crying. I found myself sympathizing with so many parents who appear to be at their wit’s end, especially when they are out in public. Thankfully, our little guy hasn’t had too many meltdowns. So we’ve been blessed in that regard. However, that’s not to say it hasn’t happened at home. And when it happens at home, you still have to operate within the notion that somebody – someone – is watching you.

Parenthood, despite what any sitcom or cheesy commercial may play it up to be, is a gloriously, amazing challenge. It tests more than just patience; it tests resolve and selfishness. As a writer, I need time to think and be alone in my thoughts. I need space to breathe for my mind. But, when you have a baby, that time becomes extremely limited. And no, this is not a moment to complain. Or to promote not having children – no, I am merely stating how much my own life had to be readjusted for the sake of my son. No longer can I come home and dig into a new book or head off to Starbucks for some therapeutic journaling. No, my responsibilities now lie with the little life I helped create. Throw in the fact that my wife and I have been married for little more than a year and you have an even greater recipe for learning how to serve someone other than one’s self. Talk about being humbled!

So parenthood was the biggest adjustment. But, there were other twists and turns I did not expect in this year of persistence: new work. New books. New friendships (and the parting of old ones). And perhaps, most unexpectedly, the doubt.

Doubt is truly one of the human experience’s biggest enemies. To a writer, it’s paralyzing. It’s immobilizing. It makes you feel like you’re the only one going through the aches and pains of a failed draft. And another failed draft. And another. And no matter how many uplifting essays you read. No matter how many email lists you find yourself a member of; or fortune cookies with inspirational messages you find – none of these things do much for learning to deal with doubt.

Like a first time parent experiencing middle-of-the-night crying, learning to overcome doubt is simply something you have go through.

And it’s something I look forward to crushing further in 2016.

See you all in the new year.

Mars and Science Fiction

Wow. It’s been a while. Let’s get right to it.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I found myself anxiously awaiting NASA’s big Mars announcement this week. I mean, come on, we’re talking about Martians here. Did we find’em? They out there? Every book that’s ever been written about the red planet would be turned on its head if so. But, as we know, that wasn’t the big news NASA had for us. Make no mistake though, what we got was still big news: flowing salt water. Water. Flowing freely. That’s pretty cool, right? I mean, water is a precursor for life. And though there are slim chances of a Mars shark or a Mars dolphin swimming about the water highways of Mars, there’s always that slim chance something with a heartbeat could be on the red planet. Right?

Or as so many science fiction minds have imagined in the past: absolutely. 

From a literary perspective, Mars has been a source of inspiration for more than a handful of stories over the years. Perhaps most well-known is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; one of modern literature’s first attempts at the alien invasion genreFirst published in 1898 (hard to imagine), Wells’ classic detailed a battle between Earth and Mars’ inhabitants, the technologically advanced “Martians.” The book was received well and consequently influenced several other science fiction writers. Most notably, perhaps, was Edgar Rice Burroughs; the man behind the John Carter series, who wrote a series of books on Mars and his fictional race of people who lived there.

But, that’s not all we got from Mars over the years.

There was the trippy and engaging film, Total Recall, that took us to a Mars where people were trying to make the air on Mars “breathable.” Oh, and there’s mutant people in it, too. Then there was Mission to Mars, a film that tried to explain the theories of the universe through the eyes of highly intelligent alien life form (I guess that’s like having mutant people?). And there was the unfortunate box office flop, Red Planet, that tried to convince us of Martian “nematodes” that eat people. No mutants, just yikes. And for the less-than-serious takers, there was the satirical Mars Attacks! A film made to intentionally mock old school alien invasion movies while poking fun at its cast throughout. Jack Nicholson is in it. Pierce Brosnan is in it. Natalie Portman is in it. And so is… well, that’s all you need to know. Mars has been host to more than a few stories where alien life is bent on our destruction. And naturally, the general public loves it. Even if it’s coming from brother Mars.

But, what about now? Does the discovery of flowing water change much? I’d be reluctant to say that it hasn’t. If nothing else, it’s provided even more inspiration for us Earthen folk. And with Matt Damon’s The Martian coming out this year, it seems like the timing couldn’t have been better. We may not be dreaming of terrifying tentacles or tripods with ray guns (well, not as much) but we do have that much more to work with. Ice miners on Mars? Rivers filled with Martian fish?

As I said earlier, I’m eager to see what’s next.

 

 

 

 

#12Months12Books – April: “Spirit, Run”

This month has been rough. I’ll just throw it out there. I’m officially four months in and this #12Months12Books thing isn’t getting any easier. However, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to re-release this novella, Spirit, Run for the month of April. So here we go.

A little about Spirit, Run, I wrote this story about a year ago and shared the majority of it on my blog. I’d say this was one of my first attempts to do something that wasn’t a full-scale novel. The entire thing felt like a contained story, one that could be told in fewer words than a big, overarching tale. I liked the concept and away I went with it. Ironic considering how appropriate I feel the title has become for what I did with it: run. 

Originally, Spirit, Run was just Spirit Run (hopefully you caught the change there). There was no emphasis added; no comma. I know it may seem ridiculous, but that added punctuation made all the difference. It turned the title into a command. As if the spirit is being ordered to run. That’s what I liked about changing the title. Rather than sounding like a linear tale, one that followed a specific track, it was now left with a greater deal of freedom.

The main character, a spirit racing toward its human vessel, is commanded to run for its target. And it does so under the guidance of three angels; a trio of protectors battling on the soul’s behalf. However, they are unable to interact directly with the one whom they are defending. A real challenge considering the types of opponents they find themselves up against. As for what (or who) they end up fighting against, I’ll leave that up to the reader to find out.

Spirit, Run will be available on Kindle Friday, April 24.

Hope you enjoy.

 

You Have to Outlast the Others

Winning requires preparation and perseverance. Having some talent certainly helps, but it’s not the defining piece of any success story. Talent, as we know, only takes a person so far. However, what we don’t know – or so often neglect – is how far we’re willing to go when our talent runs out.

For instance, I’ve always been good at baseball. When I was a kid, I took to the sport very quickly. As soon as I could walk, I could also hold a baseball. And throw one too. Granted, learning to throw well took some time. I didn’t whip out four-seam fastballs right away – that took some effort and some growing. But, my ability to adapt and learn the game was always a cut above most everyone I competed with (or against). I wasn’t a prodigy, but I was definitely someone who could succeed if I stayed with the game long enough.

And that was just what I did: I stuck with it. When I was growing up, I met a lot of other naturally-gifted ballplayers. Many of whom were better than me. They seemed to hit home runs rather easily. They threw curveballs with an arc that seemed to defy all laws of physics. They could field, catch, and throw with a precision that looked predetermined. I was good, but I still wanted to be greater than they were.

Then, as I got older, something strange began to happen. My skills improved, yes, but the same standouts that kept me hanging around were falling off the radar. They were the same men, with the same names, but their skills somehow diminished overnight. At first, I thought it was only because was getting better. That somehow, I had eclipsed them and could now focus on a new enemy. But, it was more than that. Somewhere along the way, these fellow ballplayers – these prodigies of baseball – had plateaued. They had reached the peak of their natural gifts. And now, without the proper disciplines in place, they fell out of the sport and never returned.

Seems odd, doesn’t it? That despite all their accomplishments and their love of the game, they just up and left. Usually doing so because the going got tough. Looking back, what looks like a mystery actually makes a lot of sense.

For example, Mozart was known as a virtuoso. In the realm of music, he was a genius; highly skilled and possessing an innate knowledge of how strings, horns, and percussion should come together for perfect harmony. But, he also had discipline. The same can be said for Michael Jordan; a man who was cut from his high school basketball team (you probably know the rest of the story). It’s hard to imagine, but consider for a moment how many “unfinished works” there are. How many unrefined or incomplete talents have gone to the wayside because the discipline was the only thing lacking. I’m sure the number is impossible to count, but you get the idea.

If you want to be a success at something, you have to have more than just talent. You have to maintain the course. You simply have to outlast the others.