Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tip Tuesdays: Inertia Is Your Friend

In the interest of full disclosure, this could turn into a "do as I say, not as I do" type of thing. This is a case where the advice I'm giving today is something that I've heard time and again, but it's advice that, while I know it's good and I should follow it, I have a hard time doing. And it all comes down to a scientific principle that I'm stealing and applying to writing, that of inertia.

You all know what inertia is, right? To put it simply (perhaps overly so), inertia is the principle that an object in motion tends to remain in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. While this principle governs the movement of objects in our physical world, I believe it also applies to what happens when we write. Simply put, a writer in motion tends to stay in motion. A writer at rest tends to remain at rest.

I've certainly seen this principle at work in my own writing life. For example, when I was writing Numb, I did pretty good for the first four chapters or so. I wrote every day, even if it was just a few words here or there. And then, I took a long break. If I remember correctly, I stopped writing for several months. I don't remember why anymore. I just know that I stopped writing. When I finally came back to it, I had a hard time getting going again. It took a few days before the juices really started flowing and I got into it again.

And here's the thing: I'm pretty sure when I took that break, I only intended to cool it for a day or two. But with each day that I didn't write, it became easier and easier to find excuses and reasons not to sit down and put words on paper (or into the file, as it were).

It's inertia at work. If I find the time to write every day, it's easier to keep writing. The words keep flowing, the pages get filled, and soon, the first draft is done. But if I don't write daily, it's easy to find other things to do.

That's why most authors will tell you to find time to write every day.

Some writers will set a time limit: write for an hour. Others set a wordcount target to shoot for. My advice is this: do either. Or both. Or just make sure that you get some words added to your story every day, even if it's a dozen or so.

The other trick here is to find the right time to write. I don't remember where I saw it, but I once read an article about how morning people and night owls feel more creative at different times of the day. Do some experimenting to see when you're at your best in terms of creativity and writing. And then chisel out the time every day to do some writing during that time.

I know it's not easy. Like I said, this is "do as I say, not as I do." I'm not the best at this. But I'm doing my best to live up to these words of advice.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tip Tuesday: Almost W

Okay, so you've done your reading (or reading-cubed, if we're going by the formula I made up for the purposes of this series), and so we have to move on to the "W."

The "W" is obviously for writing. And so, based on this formula, it would seem that as soon as you're done doing your "Rs," it's time to dive right into the writing.

Except . . . well, not quite.

See, here's the thing. Before you do any writing, you should really do some pre-writing.

Now you might think that this is the outliner, plot-firster in me talking. Someone who plots out pretty much every move in advance is naturally going to do a lot of groundwork before he or she starts writing. But even if you're a seat-of-the-pants type of writer, even if you're a character-first writer, you're going to want to do some work in advance.

For me, the advance work is (once again) based on Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. Except I don't make it through all ten steps. I usually get about two-thirds of the way in and I hit what I like to call "critical mass" and I have to start writing right now.

If you're a character-firster, maybe you could spend some time writing journal entries in the voice of your characters.

If you're a pantser . . . well, I'm not sure what to tell you.

Whatever the case, doing that work up front, whether it's world building, practicing your characters' voices or sussing out their backstory, is time well spent, because it means when it comes time to actually do the writing, you can focus on that.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tip Tuesday: The Third R

Two "Rs" down, one to go.

For those unaware of what I'm talking about, let's review. I've been sharing my limited experience with writing, using a formula I made up:

Given what we've seen, what do you suppose the third "R" is?

Wrong. It's actually "research."

Okay, okay, we'll call it reading, because that's usually the way we conduct research. Not the only way, of course, but certainly a way.

There's an old adage that writers toss around from time to time: write what you know. Some of the best fiction comes when the author writes about a subject that they're uniquely qualified to know and understand. And there's certainly some truth to that. When an author puts together a proposal for an editor or agent, one of the things they want to know is if said author has any special qualifications to write his or her book. For example, if someone is writing a hard sci-fi book about time travel, an actual theoretical physicist will have a better chance at getting noticed than, say, a Lutheran minister.

Not that I've written a book on time travel.

. . . yet. Ahem.

Anyway, that adage is all well and good, but it can also be a bit limiting. If all we're supposed to do is write what we know, that could turn out to be rather confining. Should I only write about people who are Lutheran ministers, since that's what I know? Should my only setting be the sinking of the RMS Titanic or the USS Enterprise D since I used to research those things a lot when I was younger?

C'mon. Like you couldn't have guessed that second one.

The answer is "No." While "write what you know" is a good adage, the reverse is equally true: know what you write. If you want to write about time travel and you're not a theoretical physicist, do the research and find out what you need to know.

The reason for this is simple: no matter how obscure the subject you're writing about, someone, somewhere, will read your story and know you don't know what you're talking about. It'll either be a minor glitch that momentarily leaves the reader scratching his or her head. Or it could be so major that they'll stop reading and vow never to read your stuff again.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about, but not one from the literary world (exactly). Let's talk Castle.

I love this show. It's simply awesome. Nathan Fillion, playing a writer? What's not to love? However, as great as the show is, it's obvious at times that the writers don't always do their research.

How do I know? Because of Lee Lofland and his blog, The Graveyard Shift. Lofland is a retired police office and every week, he posts a "review" of the episodes, pointing out where the show got the police procedures and research wrong.

Now one might argue that this is a TV show, one designed for entertainment and not education. At the same time, though, every now and then, the writers make a doozy that really, they should have done better.

I'm not saying that these research errors make me love this show even less. But it illustrates my point. Lofland knows better. And at times, his frustration over the mistakes is very obvious. In spite of them, though, Lofland keeps watching.

So when do you do the research, before, during, or after? That's up to you. Like I said last week, writing is about finding a method that works best for you. Some folks have to do extensive research before they put one word on the page. Others wait until after the first draft is done. Figure out what works best for you and stick with that.

Just make sure you do it. You don't want to lose any readers because you didn't do your legwork.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Failstate" Book Trailer Contest

Before you keep reading, be sure you watch this video:

Ummmmm . . . I'm not sure what else I have to say. Any questions?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tip Tuesday: The Second R

Last week, I started this column to pass along writer tips that I've picked up as I traveled the road to publication. I stated that while it's difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all roadmap for people, there are some general principles that I think can be quantified into a (hopefully) easy to remember formula:

And, as the little red line indicates, last week we talked about how writers are readers. We devour books, both in our respective genres and out of them.

So what, pray tell, does the second "R" in the formula stand for? Why, reading, of course. More specifically, reading about writing.

Let's be honest, unless you were born with a supernatural amount of writing talent, there's a lot that you have to learn. And I'm saying that, not as someone who has learned it all, but as someone who knows darn well that I still have a lot to learn too! Writing fiction is never as easy as it seems. There are a lot of tips and tricks to pick up, lots of ideas and concepts to master, techniques to squirrel away until you need them.

To learn all of this stuff, you could just surf the web and hope someone is doing weekly writing tip columns on his blog (ahem). Actually, there are a lot of websites out there that offer advice (better than mine, that's for sure), such as Randy Ingermanson's and Jeff Gerke's.

Or you can always go to a bookstore and find the reference section. There's usually a ton of how-to-write books that cover a wide range of topics. You can usually find good ones published by Writer's Digest (although they can also be a mixed bag; some good, some not so good).

Of course, one of the best ways to "read" about writing is by joining a writer's group. For example, my membership in American Christian Fiction Writers has been invaluable, not only because of what I've learned on the e-mail loops, at local chapter meetings, and at the national conference, but also because of the networking I've been able to do.

So there's a lot of advice out there for you to find. Gather it, read it, assimilate it, use it. But do so with a little bit of caution, because there's a trap you can fall into all too easily.

Let me give you a personal example. A number of years ago, I started "getting serious" about my writing (I've done that a lot; seems to be a every-other-year type of thing) and I started gathering books about writing to learn more.

One of the books I got was On Writing by Stephen King. I figured if anyone could tell me about how to write a page-turning spellbinder, it'd be Uncle Stevie. And by and large, this was a great book. I'd recommend it to just about anyone.

But as I read it, I got a little nervous. See, King stated emphatically that the only true way to write a thrilling, unpredictable book was to go into the story with no idea how it'll end. He said that if you figured out the plot step-by-step, it'd be too predictable and boring. So he instructed his readers that the only good way to write was to make it up as we went along.

That freaked me out, because I tend to do outlining before I write. At the time, I thought, That's why my books aren't selling! I've been too predictable! I have to make it up as I go along.

Shortly after finishing King's book, I moved on to read The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey. Again, a good book with some great ideas and advice. Only there was something that confused me. Frey said that if you wanted to write a best-seller (which many of his students have gone on to do), you have to come up with an outline first! And not just one, several!

I was so confused. I had Stephen King saying, "Make it up!" on one side, James N. Frey saying, "Outline that sucker!" on the other. So who should I listen to?

In my case, it turns out that I should have listened to Frey. See, here's the thing, folks. Oftentimes, a writer, when giving advice, will try to codify the way they do things as "the only way it works." I think that's what King did. When he writes, he makes it up as he goes along. He has no idea of how his story will end. And that's great! Good for him! But it doesn't work that way for everyone. By suggesting that it does, King is trying to force a round peg into a square hole. It just doesn't work.

Again, that's why I'm a bit hesitant to give out too much advice. I know what works for me, but I'd be foolish to suggest that it's what would work for everyone. For example, I love Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. I've used this several times and I think it's helped me write some strong stories (Failstate, my upcoming novel, is one such example). But is it for everyone? No, not really.

That's why you should always take advice from others with a little grain of salt. Yes, there are some universal, set-in-stone kind of rules. Spelling, grammar, punctuation. But al;ways be cautious when someone tells you that their way is the only way. It works for them. It may even work for you. But if it doesn't, don't worry about it.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Schrödinger's Cat

Ever hear of Schrödinger's Cat? This video will explain it for you. Consider it a quick lesson in physics on a Friday:

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


I've been looking forward to this one for a while now. I mean, I've been a huge fan of Jill Williamson ever since I discovered her Blood of Kings trilogy. When I heard she was moving into the realm of science fiction, I knew I had to check it out. Her latest book is Replication, published by Zondervan. In the interest of fairness, I'll confess . . . reveal . . . state that I received a copy of this book for free. It's funny. I actually pre-ordered a copy but that's okay. This book was good enough to warrant two copies.

Now normally, I'd spend some time summing up the plot, but in this case, I don't have to, because Williamson has done the heavy lifting for me:

So there we go: clones, a secret facility, nefarious purposes, and a very good lesson about faith, one that actually snuck up on me when I wasn't looking.

I suppose I could leave it at that, but let's dig a little deeper. This book is shorter than I expected, which helps make it a fast read. Williamson did a great job creating unique voices for both Abby and Martyr. I especially liked Martyr. He kept me smiling the entire time I was reading, especially some of the "logical leaps" he makes with incomplete information about the outside world. One in particular caused me to chuckle for a few minutes. The plot has a lot of great twists and turns to it, plus a lot of excitement to keep you turning the pages.

In short, if you're looking for a great read, you can't go wrong with Replication. Jill Williamson has done it again!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Tip Tuesday: The Equation for a Story

As of this posting, there are 88 days until the release of my debut novel, Failstate. This has been a long road to walk, one that I talked about in a column over at Speculative Faith. But it's a road that I didn't walk alone. There are a lot of people who have walked the publication road before me. There are a lot who are following behind. And there are some who are just getting started, who have caught the dream and want to see a story that they created and wrote appear in print, for people to read and enjoy.

Only here's the thing. A lot of people have a distorted view of what it takes to be a writer. For instance:

Okay, granted, that's a joke, but the sad thing is, everything the ignorant bear said has been uttered or at least thought by would-be writers.

Now I'm hoping that no one that's reading this currently holds any of those ideas (if you have in the past, well, that's another story that you can keep to yourself). But maybe you're just getting started and you don't have any idea of what to do.

That's where this column will come in. Every week (hopefully), I'll be sharing some writing tips that I've picked up over the past decade or so. Now understand, I'm no expert. What I'm sharing is stuff that's worked for me in the past or advice that others have given me that makes a lot of sense. If any other writers want to contradict me, please do so. I'm always open to correction. If nothing else, consider this friendly advice from someone on the road.

In some ways, I'm a little nervous about writing articles like this. I don't want anyone to think that there's a magic formula to getting published. There's no "one size fits all" way of doing it. If you were to poll a hundred published writers, you would hear one hundred different stories of how they got where they got and what they thought was important. Simply put, if anyone tells you that there's one way and only one way to write good stories, they're either deluded or lying.

That said, I think there are some general, universal principles that can be codified into an easy to remember formula:

We'll spend the next few weeks expanding what each of those symbols mean, starting with the first "R." The first "R" stands for "reading." Or, to be more specific, reading fictional books.

I honestly don't know any successful writers who aren't also avid readers. A love of the written word means that we not only produce them, we devour them as well. When filling out the "Interests" section on Facebook, writers will usually include "Reading" somewhere toward the top of the list. To be blunt, if you don't read, you're not going to write. Imagine a person who claims to love doing needlepoint but doesn't own a single hoop thing. Imagine a self-professed car nut who doesn't spend any time in his or her garage. The same principle is at work here. If you're going to write, you're going to read as much as you possibly can.

Take me, for instance. I like to joke that my family was the terror of our local library when my siblings and I were children. We would check out two or three crates worth of books every couple of weeks, doubling or even tripling the staff's workload when we visited. And while we didn't read all of them, we read the majority. My first job was at said local library, and I usually left work with numerous books I found out in the stacks. When I was in school, I carried a novel with me wherever I went to read between classes.

Nowadays it's no different. This is my current to-be-read stack:

This is actually pretty deceptive. I forgot to include three library books we have in our basement. And on the very top of the left stack is my Kindle, which currently contains 34 books I've picked up over the last year or so. Yes, I've got a lot of reading to do, and I can't wait to tear through most of this.

So why do writers read? Well, there are three primary reasons. I've touched on the first: because we love stories and are driven to consume them.

Secondly, I think that reading stories help us produce more. It's sort of a "you are what you eat" type of thing. I don't know about other writers, but there have been periods where I haven't been able to read as much as I would like. When that happens, I notice it's more difficult to write new stories. I need a constant input of ideas and words and images to keep my own imagination flowing. As a matter of fact, I'll often try to juice my imagination before I begin a writing project by reading a bunch of books that I know I'll enjoy, just to give myself a high octane boost.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I think it's good for writers to read because it's a great way to learn what to do and not to do.

One thing I've noticed over the last few years is that when I read, I'm not just reading for enjoyment anymore. Oh, sure, I still love a good story, but I've been asking myself questions like, "Why did I enjoy this scene so much? What did the author do?" or "What made this book a flop to me and how can I avoid the same thing?" We can pick up techniques and ideas along the way, stuff that we can use in our own writing to improve our books.

For example, in Neil Gaiman's book Neverwhere, we're introduced to Richard Mayhew, a somewhat wimpy man with an over-domineering girlfriend named Jessica. Now Gaiman could have just told us that (sort of like I just did), but over one chapter, he paints such a clear picture of both Richard and Jessica that I wound up clearly on Richard's side and wanted nothing more than to see Jessica kicked to the curb.

Now I could have read a book about showing vs. telling (and there is one available. Take a look in the above picture). But by reading Gaiman's book, I found such a great example of that principle in action that it's stuck with me even though I read the book years ago.

The same thing can happen for you as well. Pay attention to what successful authors do. If you found something you really like, ask yourself how the author achieved that effect. If the story doesn't work, consider why it doesn't and ask yourself how to avoid a similar pitfall.

Now you might rightly ask yourself how to find the time to read. Well, it's all a matter of priorities. If writing matters to you, not only do you have to find time to do that, you should also find time to do the reading too. And there's plenty of time to read if you know where to look for it. Let me ask you this: when you go get your oil changed or see the doctor, what do you do in the waiting room? Do you read the moldy oldy magazines? Do you watch TV (if there is one)? Do you pull out a smart phone and commit avian acts of aggression against non-kosher enemies? Why not bring a book with you and spend the time there?

To put it simply, writers read. If you want to be a writer, you also have to be a reader.

Thanks for joining us. Next week, we'll take a look at the second "R" in the equation. Until then, happy writing!