“…often their last book and their first book are different. They’ve changed.” – Darrick Dean, author of Among the Shadows

My freshman year of high school was a landmark in my life. I started the year with dyed blond hair. I ended it with brown. I started with no experience playing varsity sports. I ended it as our baseball team’s starting shortstop. I started with no braces and ended it with a consultation that would lead to braces (again).  Lastly, I started with no girlfriend…and wait, I ended without one too.

Okay, so it wasn’t a complete landmark experience. But, there was plenty happening that year.

My friends, and especially my family, noticed the changes I was going through the most. Especially when it came to my outward appearance. I shot up about five inches. It was a much-needed growth spurt. For the majority of guys in my eighth-grade class had apparently been taking horse pills during the summer break. So I needed to grow. And thanks to father time, I’d been given the chance to do so.

But, I’d also changed on the inside. I’d gotten more confident. I made decisions faster. I prioritized things. I even broke some rules that year. I stayed out later with friends. I took risks. And though it was uncomfortable at times, I was beginning to navigate who I was as a young adult.

Yet, I did my best to stay grounded. I liked doing things outside the norm. But, I didn’t want to lose who I was as a person. Yes, I wanted to become more independent; more

Writing is often seen as an outward expression of inner workings. The things that make us tick, boiling to the surface and out. How we feel about our world and what we think it ought to look like according to us. Ernest Hemmingway once said about writing, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And there you have it – minus the blood.

When I interviewed Darrick Dean, a fellow author, he and I were discussing how writers cand change over time. How even the most seasoned scribes like Stephen King can sometimes change their habits. How writers can alter their styles and even deviate from their core content (see my first book vs. my last).

And though this can be true of the writing world, I don’t tend to stress about it. Style can change; much like a teenager in high school. The only thing I do want to concentrate on is my message; the themes I am engaging. The feelings I am leaving with my readers. This is something I want to have some consistency in. For I believe any great writer knows his words will outlast his lifetime. That he will be regarded (and remembered) by the messages he left behind.

In my case, I can look back and see how I’ve changed; some ways more drastically than others. Yet, I must be aware that this is all part of the process. Finding a voice. Owning it. And being cognizant of how to utilize it. Every writer ought to be aware of this; every good writer, that is.

Because even if you aren’t recognizing every little change in you, your readers most certainly are.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Special, Bonus, Extra Features…for writers

Some years ago, our VHS tapes were traded in for DVDs. Do you remember this? Home entertainment changed – No more recording shows on a clunky recorder. No more rewinding or fast forwarding to that funny “whizz whizz” noise. And no more home movies being taped via that huge shoulder-mounted tape recorder that your family owned. Movies and television shows were making the jump to Digital Video Disc. Picture quality was better, sound was smoother – VHS tapes were soon to be obsolete.

Sigh, I think I just had some serious nostalgia….

Well, sweet nostalgia aside, the arrival of DVDs brought another big thing with them: the “bonus disc”. For the science fiction geek, it was the holy grail of movie fandom. The Lord of the Rings was one of the first to cash in on this concept. Not only was there the “regular” DVD, you could also get the DVD with “special features disc”. Three hours of extra footage that included interviews, how the hobbit’s feet were made, and original cut scenes. It was all there. But wait! That’s not all. Some time later, the “Special Extended Edition” disc was released and the Tolkien universe rejoiced. Now you had the movie, the bonus features, and hours more of scenes that extended the experience. Wow, right? The DVD was more than just an upgraded conduit for home entertainment, it was a money-making missile aimed straight at the hearts and imaginations of anyone who wished to be closer to the cinematic experience.

But I won’t rain on the parade. Bonus discs can and do offer some interesting insight to any fan who is willing to pay a little extra. Imagine having the opportunity to find out just what someone was thinking when they filmed that pivotal death scene? Or why the director decided to nix that particular musical score for the climax? The bonus disc allowed for this to happen. Granted, not every question could be answered but the window had been opened.

As a writer, there is no special features disc when it comes to writing books and sharing story. You may get a bonus disc, which we may call a “sequel”, but that’s about it. I found this to be a unique insight; one that a friend of mine brought to light recently. Whenever I share a story with people I know, they give me immediate feedback. Then they may ask me questions. Why did you do this? What were you thinking about there? To which, I can reply and answer. But if you’re writing something for people beyond your social circle, there’s no Q and A time. This may appear to be an obvious concept, but let me extrapolate that further.

You see, stories are interpreted differently from person to person. The visuals created in their head are theirs and theirs alone. But a writer may have a different vision. Or will provide details meant to create that vision. As such, some readers often miss the intimate details of a writer’s vision. Writing is an intimate experience for the writer, but it’s not always as intimate for the reader. Writers provide, readers receive but a reader may miss the point of what the writer is trying to convey altogether. Yes, it does happen. And when that happens, there’s no bonus disc for the reader to dive into and find out what the deal was. It’s up to interpretation – no added interviews, no backstage with the film crew, and certainly no added scene to fill in the gaps. There’s great mystery and excitement in that because let’s face it, you can’t please everyone. But there is little opportunity for interaction if there are still lingering questions or a desire to seek more information.

Well, no worries because now we have blogs. It’s a writer’s very own “special, bonus, extra features” hub for sharing any additional thoughts and comments. Space is available for feedback (should you choose to accept it) and along with that, virtually anyone can pick the brain of the person they enjoy reading. That’s a cool concept, but overwhelming too. It’s something I’ve enjoyed though and I continue to look forward with each new post I make. The same can be said for anyone else’s work I follow or comment on. And what’s more, it’s free. No extra money needed to comment, post, and everything else. Way to go, social media. Nicely done.

Till the next bonus features post then.

Creating a Writer’s Group, A How to

Writers Group

I’ve never been good at dealing with criticism. Hearing my work butchered, aka edited, is never easy for me. I just don’t like the heat associated with it. But having published a couple books in the last few years, I understand the need for constructive/harsh/brutally honest critique. I knew that I wanted to start some sort of writer’s group (or something close to that). I sat in idle depression as nothing got off the ground. So I prayed, talked about the idea with some friends, forgot about doing it for a while and eventually gave up. But eventually, word got around and prayers got answered. A friend of mine, who knew I was a writer, had been doing some writing of his own. He really wanted some honest input and so, I agreed to meet with him. Then his brother was interested in meeting. So he joined. Then another joined. And another. And soon it became apparent that this was more than just some guys hanging out – it was a legit writer’s group.

Pretty cool, eh? Nearly 10 months later and we’re still going strong (that’s just a portion of the guys in the pic). We have sci-fi specialists, an aspiring filmmaker who already has his own production company, a crime writer enthusiast, a guy who wants to write for video games (and is already working on one), a pastor working to write better sermons, and other aspiring writers still finding their voice. It’s a rather diverse bunch, to say the least. And if you ask me, that’s why it really thrives.

So let’s say you want to do the same. The only trouble is, where do you start? Where does anybody start, really? Well, there’s no exact science, per se. You just have to know what you’re looking for. And have a plan of action on how to get there. Here are some key points that worked for our group. This may not work for you, but it may be a helpful start.

1. Ask around your circle of influence, aka let your intentions be known.
Inquire with the people closest to you if they know of any other writing enthusiasts. Coworkers, friends of friends, anyone you’d consider a credible source is a good start. If they know of some people who write in their spare time or do plenty of reading, then you may want to contact them. Do so with the permission of your contact though. And be deliberate about your group. You never know what conversations your friends are having when you’re not around. One member of our writer’s group got started with us because my friend (who doesn’t write) talked with this member’s mother about our group. If I had never told my non-writing buddy about what I was up to, we may have never garnered a new member. But if you can’t do it, ask someone else in the group to do the marketing for you. There’s one in every group. That’s the truth.

2. Weed out the posers and the deviants
If you’ve discovered a few potentials then you probably want to do some sort of screening process. Establish some questions or maybe meet for coffee first. Ask what their interests are, who are their influences and if they enjoy reading and critiquing other people’s work. Be warned here – not everyone who tells you they enjoy writing is actually a dedicated writer. Yeah, I make my own dinner once in a while, but I’m no premier chef. There is a difference. You need people who are as serious about writing as you are. This is not to say that you shouldn’t invite people who are interested, just don’t feel like you should put pressure on them to perform. Eventually they may realize that your group is more than just a social hour – it’s about getting better at writing. So know your stuff. Understand what first-person perspective is versus third-person omniscient. These are some items you may want to spell out in the beginning.
So far as trust is concerned, be open with each other about not sniping each other’s work. Naturally, you may not want to share what you’ve been working on with total strangers. There’s always the slim chance that somebody will take your project, copy and paste, and then pawn it off as their own. Ever seen the movie The Words? Yeah, it could happen to you so be smart about who you invite into your new circle and when to share and discuss.

3. Have a consistent meeting place
Just how every sports team has a home field, so do writers. You need to do the same with your group. Establish a good place to meet and try to get there each week at the same time. My group meets on Saturday mornings at a local Panera Bread. That works for us, but it doesn’t have to be the same for everybody else. Find a place where you can sit, discuss, and share your work.

4. Create topics for discussion
If you helped create this monster, then you better bring some kind of agenda to the table each week. The writer’s group that I’m a member of has voiced several times that they enjoy structure. And structure is what I strive for. Writing prompts, encouraging others to read their work, giving some semblance of topics a week ahead – these are the types of things you need for a writer’s group. Otherwise you may find yourself spiraling into chaos. What happens when a legion of writers and readers get together? Well, they have a tendency to sit and analyze every major film, book, or literary achievement for the past 100 years. And if you aren’t careful, that’ll get everybody off topic in no time. So stay focused and try to keep a tight regimen on when the meetings end and/or begin.
Here are some good starter topics to consider for your group: establishing a genre of interest for each person, establishing what each person feels they are gifted in, promoting a basic understanding of those who are the most popular in your genre, etc. That should spark some good conversation and broaden the scope of others in the group who may be more knowledgeable in one genre versus another.

5. Encourage going to events together
For those who have attended job fairs, you have a good handle on what I’m referring to. There are always writing conventions, public reads, and agent meetings springing up all over the place and you, as a writer, should be checking them out when you can. If you’re like me though, you may not want to go by yourself all the time. So why not take your writer’s group? That way, you have a posse backing you up and you can get a bigger perspective on the world of publication. One word of caution here: experience. Not everyone in your group may be ready to go and talk with authors and agents. I’m not saying to go at the pace of those who are not as far along as the others, but be cognizant of where everyone is at. Try considering what each person in your group may take away from going to an event. Is there a downside to going? Will everyone get something from the experience? Ask yourself these questions before you start scheduling field trips.

6. Keep pressing forward and have an objective
This one goes along with point number 4. Let’s say you create a decent syllabus for your group and everyone is enjoying your discussions week to week. But what then? Every good writer knows there needs to be progression in a story. And you need to have that for your group. Create some goals, write down some objectives and try to stick to them. Our writer’s group started out with the “12 Steps to Writing” as a means to get going. Yes, it was a joke, but it helped us get our feet wet with what we wanted to accomplish. Now, our mission is simply “write something worth reading”. As we’ve started sharing with each other, we’ve gained more confidence to not only give honest feedback, but to receive it as well.

7. If 1-6 aren’t working, don’t get discouraged. There are other ways.
Let’s say that you didn’t find anybody worth starting a group with. Let’s also say that once you started the group, you found it to be a total mess. People didn’t show up on time, nobody liked the discussions, or maybe people weren’t disciplined enough to read other people’s works. Basically, it all fell apart. Here’s the reality: it doesn’t always go quite the way you planned. So if you didn’t find a core group worth getting together with or you struggled to keep the group going, there are other avenues out there, of course.
For instance, if you happen to go to a writing conference or public read, try talking to the people there. You’ll never know who you may meet. It could be someone who is looking for a group just like you are. Or they may know of a writer’s group that’s already established. Writers tend to be isolated by nature so fight that natural urge and get outside the comfort zone. Ultimately, you are going to share what you’ve written with the world and that’s the important thing to remember as you stride forward.

Possessing the “Look” of a Writer

Long Hair Photo

That’s me in the foreground, not the back.

My friends often tell me how I don’t always fit the profile of an aspiring author. They say that I’m missing certain “criteria” as it pertains to being a writer. This picture may be proof of that, no? Well, it’s not that I’m uneducated, or that I’m from the Midwest, or that I have a slight love affair with giant squids (those animals are amazing, aren’t they?!); no, it’s the other aspects of my life that seem to be lacking in their eyes. I’ve spent some time compiling their various reasons and I have placed the top 3 below.

So here we go.

A) A long, scraggly beard – Writers are sometimes viewed as being unkempt. That means we tend to neglect certain facets of our hygiene; the most noticeable being our hair. We are so focused on our writing – a process by which we hope will aid in shaping the world and solving various theories of the universe – that we forget to shave. In the olden times, when scribes were dipping their quills in ink, shaving must have not been very important on the morning “to-do” list. Famous writers like Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Socrates; these guys sported some hefty facial hair. Norelco and Gillette weren’t around back then, but these guys could have at least picked up a cleaver and done a halfway decent hack job to their beards. And yes, I am well aware that there are female authors too – I just didn’t really feel like going there on this one.
B) I don’t do drugs – This is an interesting one. Geoffrey Chaucer once stated, “People can die of mere imagination”, and I couldn’t agree more. A short trip on a foreign substance could lead to a balcony leap or something equally foolish in pursuit of an original idea. I’d rather suffer through a few writer’s blocks than dip my tongue in acid for some inspiration. Besides, and I quote Geoffrey again, – “All human activity lies within the artist’s scope”; so basically, just living amongst people will give a writer everything he’ll ever need to write about. Or at least provide him with something to get him started. The rest is up to the creator.
C) Lastly, I don’t isolate myself – As much as I’ve enjoyed having my own apartment, I don’t really love the “living alone” thing. It’s alienating and can be depressing at times. To alleviate this, I like to have some company when I can. But even more so, I’ll leave my apartment to be sociable, thereby being active in my pursuit of companionship. If you look at some of history’s great writers, you may not get the same picture. Henry David Thoreau was famous for his cabin in the woods; a place he went to for solidarity and quiet so he could better focus on his work. As much as that intrigues me, I don’t foresee myself doing that anytime soon. But hey, you never know….

When you look at these stereotypes, I suppose you could say that I don’t really measure up. Yes, there are several modern writers who don’t fit this this bill either so I suppose there’s hope for me yet. I’ve done my best to find a picture that would accurately, and adequately, showcase me as “fitting the description” so there you have it. I’m obviously lacking in facial hair. That much is certain. And you’ll notice that another person had to have taken the picture (hence filling the “social” criteria). The only thing in question is my expression, I figure. And I may appear to be somewhat homeless. The hair on my head could have been harboring a nest of birds, but I don’t recall that ever being the case so we’re good there too. Granted, this photo was taken about eight years ago so it’s not exactly current, but you get the idea.

Maybe one day though, right? Then I’ll know I’ve “made it” as a writer. When the world tells me who I am – I’ll know what I’m meant for. That’s the goal, correct? Well, that answer is no, absolutely not. If the world tells me that I’m to be unclean, a user, and an alienated man – then I’ll know that I’ve lost my focus. However, if I’m called to suffer a few trials then sure, I’ll do my best to see it through (minus all the hygiene troubles, of course). The last thing I’d want is to be just another guy whose selfish rebellion against himself skewed his own perception as to what he was meant for.

At which point I’ll reluctantly put that sweatshirt back on and sit in a pit of despair as I await divine inspiration. Come to think of it though, if I still have that hoodie, I’m donating it to charity right away. That and my hair if it ever gets that long again. No doubt about that.

So I’ve been outed…

Whether this was sheer coincidence or divine intervention, I’m not entirely sure (though I’m more inclined to believe the latter), but a friend of mine recently made me aware of something rather creepy/interesting.

Whilst attending a new year’s eve bash, the party’s host began talking about one of his favorite shows. That show is Family Guy. Anyone who knows me, knwos that I am not the biggest fan of Family Guy. It’s the sort of program where so much is going on and yet, there is simultaneously nothing going on in every episode. The show’s plot jumps around so much that I feel as though I’ll have a panic attack before it’s over. As such, I turn the station lest I have a seizure.

Plus, I sort of made fun of this show in one of my latest rants.

So when he struck up this conversation, I didn’t pay it much mind. But then he told me that one of the latest episodes featured a skit which reminded him of me. I decided to inquire further.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, they made fun of writers and how they write at Starbucks. I immediately thought of you. You know – because you’re a writer and all.”

He laughed. I laughed. But what we both neglected to do was mention how I also frequent Starbucks when I do my writing. Ironic world we live in, huh? I was a little floored by this so I grabbed my phone and searched YouTube for a clip of this scene. When I found what I was looking for, I laughed. Not because it was funny, but because I related to the scene. Basically, two writers joke with each other about writing every single thought as they sit in public. It’s essentially poking fun at the writer’s narcissistic tendencies and apparent obsession with open displays of writing prowess.

Yeah, I guess that’s me.

But instead of feeling bad, I felt like a mini-celebrity. Like the writers of Family Guy had heard my disdain for their show and decided to one-up me with a clever comeeback.

Well, touche’, Family Guy. That episode may have been written well before I resolved to poke fun at your incompetent storytelling and stereotypical jokes, but nice work in getting back at me. I just want you to know that it’s my turn now. And I promise to have the last laugh.

And I promise that it will be in public. Preferably at Starbucks.