Monthly Archives: January 2013

Never Chase Buses, or Trends. You’ll Always Get Left Behind.

Whenever a specific genre story is published and becomes really popular, you see another dozen similar titles pop up, like pimples after a chocolate binge. The pimple analogy can be taken a step further, since these copycat stories are generally a little soft and filled with something unpleasant.

In my time attending the Surrey Writer’s Conference I’ve seen many such trends surge upward, like a plague of bad mushrooms. A dozen or so people see the mass success of a story like “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games” and race to complete a dystopian vampire novel, where the main character wears a braid and someone sparkles. These poor souls bring their newly minted manuscripts to the conference, filled with hope and an inflated sense of their own accomplishment, but are invariably smacked about by the agents and editors in attendance, when they say “We’re pretty much over Vampires”, or “I can’t read about another character with a braid.”

The other problem with these stories is that they are seldom any good. The reason: When you chase a trend, and try to write a specific kind of story because you think it might be lucrative, you separate yourself from your passion for the craft, and start churning out shitty words because you think it might make you a buck.

The most successful writers you see are writing about the thing that speaks to them, whether it be Vampires, teenage wizards, or barbarians who want to hack you to little pieces with an axe. They aren’t straining themselves to capitalize on the latest trend; they are telling their story the way they need to tell it, and it shows in the writing.

I might not be one to talk, because I write my own story my own way and it has gotten me next to nowhere, but at least I have a good time writing. I seldom get blocked or stuck on a story, because the story is something dear to me, something I believe in. My characters come easily because are alive in me and speak to me from the page; they are ready and willing to tell me their story, and I just kind of write it down and try to get the grammar right.

As my friend, kc dyer, tells me when I get myself into a snit “It has to be the writing that drives you,” and she is right. When you’re writing, especially when you’re just starting out, it has to be the craft itself, the love of the words, that motivates you, not the hope of a dollar. If you write someone else’s story, and not your own, it will ring hollow, and there will be no truth in it. But, if you work at the words hard enough, develop your voice, your character, your story, the success of publication will follow. You might even get paid (but likely not very much).

As I’ve said before, about a dozen times, not everyone is going to like your story, and that’s okay – I can’t stand Stephanie Meyer’s writing and look how good she’s doing. The important thing is that you get your story, the story that is important to you, on the page so it can be important to someone else, too.

Thanks for reading, and keep writing.

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Any Place You Damned Well Please

Ice fishing, I’ve recently discovered, is a lot like writing: You spend a good deal of time standing around doing nothing, waiting for something to come to you, and then scramble madly for thirteen seconds when something bites.

This, and other ideas, floated through my empty head on an ice-fishing trip with wife and my Dad this past week. I was standing on a sheet of frozen ice, shivering in the wind, wishing my wife would catch her first fish so the excited look on her face would warm me up a little, when I peered through the frosty air, at our surroundings. We were on a secluded lake in the British Columbia interior, surrounded on all sides by tree-covered mountains. The clouds above us were a lavender colour in the fading light, and contrasted in a most dramatic way with the snow-covered pine trees below them. There was a story in that scene, I thought to myself as I looked on, and instantly I was yanked away from where I was standing to go on a sudden journey, riding on the wind whistling between my ears.

A story is an empowering thing, I thought later as my wife asked me what I was looking at with my mouth gaping open, a line of drool freezing on my chin. It has the ability to take us anywhere we want to go, or anywhere the author is willing to take us.

I’m not what you would call worldly, but I’ve been to many different places, many different times: I’ve fought the English at Stirling with William Wallace; I have stood on the walls of Constantinople and repelled a horde of Turks screaming for my blood; I have ridden a dragon, stormed the walls of Mordor, and slain strange creatures in the Tower of the Elephant. I have loved, been lusted after, made dumb mistakes and triumphed more than any any single person could ever hope to. I have lived a hundred different lives, and can tell a thousand different tales, all as though they were my own.

This is the power of story. This is why we do what we do.

The power of a good story is such that we can hop on the coat-tails of our favourite author and travel to any destination we damned well please. As a writer we can live any life, any adventure, we can dream up, and, if we are sincere, we can take our reader along with us.

Be warned, however, that sincerity is all important. Do not undertake this craft lightly, or for frivolous reasons; if we do not believe in the path we are walking, how can we expect the reader to believe in it?

When you write, do it with conviction. Do it with belief. Do it with the desire to go on a grand journey and take us all with you.

I guarantee that someone will thank you for it.

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The Right Words

Like I said in my previous blog post, “Reach out and Touch Someone”, I believe that the moment of feeling – that connection between writer and reader –  is all important. But, that feeling cannot happen if we don’t have the right words to convey our meaning.

As a writer, I am on a never ending quest for the right words, both in my own writing, and in the stories I read. Occasionally, I am rewarded in that quest when I find something that really speaks to me. Today, was one of those occasions.

One of my favourite websites is lettersofnote.com. The site is a collection of letters from different people over varying periods of history (how the webmaster comes by them all, I am unsure). Today, I read a letter from Ronald Reagan to his son, written just before the boy was about to get married. The meaning of the letter touched me so that I immediately shared it with my wife, and want to share it with you now here.

This, to me, was an example of both finding the right words to convey a meaning, and setting them out so that it touches that place of feeling in someone else. I doubt, very much, that Reagan meant those words to be read by me when he penned them almost 10 years before I was born, but they have existed and remained, for over 40 years, and have now reached through that space and time to leave me with a little tingly feeling in the back of my neck and the bottom on my heart.

These are, indeed, good words.

When I look beyond the Craft of these words and examine them solely for the meaning behind them, it touches me. The words may be a little outdated, and perhaps viewed as a little chauvinistic, but the message is sound: Love your wife (spouse). Be good to her. Be true. Don’t be a lying, cheating bastard because it will cheapen both you, and your relationship. No matter who you give your love to, be you straight, gay, or any other variation, I think this is something that can speak to us all.

We live in a day and age when love, and marriage especially, seems to be a disposable thing. We hold it close when it is new and shiny, and show it off to everyone we meet, but when the surface gets a little dull, or the edges wear thin, we are quick to put it out of sight and look for the next thing that might sparkle a little more. Reagan is saying that a relationship is all the more better for the work you put in to loving just one person, and giving them everything of yourself you have to give.

This message, crafted between a man and his son, is a message we could all hear a little more often, I think.

This is the ultimate goal of our craft. Whether you write novels, short stories, essays, blog posts, or small thoughts; to have your idea, your message, move through the space of 40 years and several generations, to reach another living person and touch them is a valuable thing indeed. It is something we can all aspire to in our own writing, and hope for in our reading.  

As I re-read the message I wrote in the above post, I wonder if it will still exist in 40 years, and if it does, will someone read it and take the meaning I am trying to convey.

Only time will tell, but if a dead president can reach me with a 40 year old letter I was never meant to read, then I think there might be hope for me yet.

And, perhaps, hope for us all.

Thanks for reading.

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Reach Out and Touch Someone – But Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Sometimes, if we are lucky, the work of a writer – a storyteller – touches us, and I don’t mean like that creepy guy at the bus stop who smells like liquor at 8 o’clock in the morning.

If we, the reader, are very fortunate, the meaning of a piece of writing will break through the haze of complications and worry that surrounds our inner minds – the part that really feels – and give it a little tap. Whether it is a fictional story, a real life anecdote, or maybe some observations on the human condition, that moment of feeling – an all too brief connection between writer and reader – is very important and needs to be pursued.

The majority of popular culture, it seems to me, is afraid to make that connection or to to be touched too deeply – kind of like a nun with a rape whistle. Anything that gives us an emotional reaction or, God forbid, makes us think, cannot possibly be a good thing, and should be avoided at all costs.

This is why, I believe, Reality Television is so popular. It is a group of characters behaving badly, with no discernable arc or personal journey who are well beyond any hope of growth or redemption. The programs are a flat line of conflict without story, and are, really, just a collection of idiots making a lot of noise while they give humanity a bad name. It does not ask the audience to feel anything (except maybe shame at being caught watching) and so is an easy, mind numbing experience that costs us nothing.

If we really get emotionally involved in something, whether it is a cause, a friend, or a story, there is a price we have to pay. We are called upon to examine the way we feel about something. We are called upon to learn a little bit about ourselves. We are called upon, perhaps, to change the way we see things if the lesson we learned strikes deep enough.

Most of the time people don’t want to feel, they don’t want to learn, they don’t want to change. They want to soak in the ridulousness of horrible people doing horrible things so they can ignore their lives just a little bit more, for a little bit longer.

This I cannot abide, and if you’ve been reading this blog, or anything else I’ve ever written, I’m guessing you can’t abide it either.

I think the world needs more stories. It needs more heroes, worse villains, and greater journeys. The world needs storytellers, not to preach to us about the way things should be, but to move us to open our minds a little so we can figure out how things are, and how we ought to make them.

I am not guiltless, and have my little addictions to silly shit, just like everyone else. But the next time you sit down to watch another episode of drunken idiots saying rude things to each other, ask yourself if you’re learning anything, if you’re feeling anything. When you have an answer, think about the truth of it, and what it means.

In my writing life, I have had plenty of opportunity for discouragement. But everytime I read something that touches me, that really affects me, I am inspired. When I hear from someone that they liked one of my stories, that it really spoke to them, that maybe it made them feel something, then I am once more filled with an enthusiasm for the words.

If you are a writer, keep writing. Those words you’re getting down are valuable, and they are needed.

In the words of Robert J Sawyer at the last Surrey Writer’s Conference: “Your story won’t matter to everyone, but it will matter, very much, to someone.”

Thanks for reading.

 

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Resolving the Resolutions

I hate New Years Resolutions, and let me tell you why.

Resolutions, as they are popularly conceived, are banal generalities with no real substance behind them. They are hastily uttered to friends over a glass of something that warms the belly on New Years Eve, and are quickly forgotten about in the light of day, when the resolutioner realizes that the idea they were yapping about the night before might actually take some effort.

“I want to lose weight”, “I’m going to be nicer to people”, “I’m going to get off my ass and do something with myself”, are all very vague ideas with no concrete measures of success or failure. Mostly failure.

The theme of Resolutions, however, is sound; the new year brings new beginnings, and it is a good time to start new things. This I like, and can get on board with. So, when the new year comes, instead of making useless resolutions, I think we should set some goals.

Every year, when I start thinking about what goals I want to pursue, I cannot help but reflect on the year just past. This one, in a general sense, was very good to me.

I had a lot of challenges, and saw a few things I wish I could unsee, but I had a lot of successes as well: My wife and I bought our first home together, and for the first time we own something bigger than a shoe box. I had my first book published and was actually paid for my work (not very much, but that isn’t important right now…or so I keep telling myself). I saw a few parts of the world I’d never seen before. I made some new friends, reconnected with old ones, and grew even closer to those people who have been mainstays of my life for years.

All in, all said, this was a good year. But, as they say, we’ve gotta move on, and the world is moving quickly.

As I look forward into the New Year, I’ve got some pretty solid goals, with definite time lines, that I want to achieve. Some of them are ambitious, but they are possible, and that is what I think is key when you’re setting goals. If they’re too easy, you feel no satisfaction in reaching them, but if they are too lofty, then you get intimidated by the scope of it and quit.

That said, my first goal is to finish two rounds of edits on my work in progress: the sequel to my recently published story, “The Watch.” I want to have this done by my birthday (March 21st, in case you want to send me a present). This is going to be hard, but I can certainly do it if I don’t waste too much time on the internet, or watching old episodes of “Duck Dynasty” and “Highlander”.

My second goal is to get the first draft of another story completed, something with different characters that I’m currently working with. I’ve got part of an outline done, and the first ten pages slopped together. It is an interesting story – well, to me, anyway – and I think it is going to turn out really well once I sit down and crank it out. This, I want to have done by the next time I start ranting about how much I hate the concept of New Years Resolutions.

Third, I want to get through the “to-be-read” pile that is taking up so much space on my book shelf. There are only about 19 books there, but some of them are extremely substantial endeavours and will take me a while to get through. Really I’m hoping to read them all much sooner than the start of 2014, but between my own writing/editing, work, and all the other things that steal time in my day, I think the year end is a realistic goal.

Fourth, I want to establish a writers group among a few people who have shown interest in such a thing. Myself and one of my colleagues, Scott, have been talking about it, and discussing, and bullshitting for the better part of the last year, and it is time for the palaver to stop. I would have us meet once a month, share ideas, critique some writing. The actual activities we complete while meeting is currently in flux, but the substantive part of the goal is organizing the monthly meeting. This I would like to have in place and rolling by February 1st.

Fifth, and final, I need to lose 10 pounds. Through illness, injury, Christmas eating and far too much sitting on my ass, my waist line has expanded a little further than it should have. I’m a bit of a gym rat, so getting motivated to work out is no problem for me, it’s more an issue of controlling my diet. My favourite activity is going to the gym and burning 500 calories, and then feeling entitled to eat a whole pizza (about 3000 calories). I have a game plan in place, and a training partner who will ride me like a rented mule, so this should be well in hand. I am currently about 225 pounds, and need to be at 215, and 210 would be better. Once again, I plan on getting there by my birthday (March 21st, in case you forgot).

If you’ve managed to read this far, and put up with my blathering about what I want to accomplish this year, then you’ve done me a great service. In sharing these goals with you, my friends, I have made myself accountable to you. If I don’t manage to reach these goals by the time I have indicated, you can call me on it and yell: “You didn’t do what you said you were going to do, you lazy bastard.” Then you can sit in judgement and make me feel bad about myself…and no one wants that.  

As we move into this new, hopefully exciting, New Year, abandon the idea of Resolutions, and set some solid goals for yourself. Then, share them with someone so they can hold you accountable. Share them with me if no one else wants to listen, and I’ll send you an email checking in and calling you all sorts of ridiculous things (like a one-eyed, bow-legged, crusty-faced monkey herder), should you fail to achieve them.

Thanks very much for everyone who has read this blog over the past year. If I’ve not given you any serious thoughts or good ideas, then hopefully I’ve at least made you laugh, and hope to do so again in the New Year.

Let us move forward together, and all reach our goals.

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