A Very Busy Week Ahead

Last night we used the new fire pit. I really like it a lot. I’m the kind of guy who can sit out in front of a camp fire for hours thinking about writing and that’s exactly what I did last night. I also used my 7×50 Vixen Forestas to look at the grouping of Venus, the Moon, and Jupiter last night. I could also see the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula. Normally the light pollution is so bad from my backyard I would have trouble seeing decent images. But last night, for whatever reason, it wasn’t that bad, even for bright objects like these.

I woke up early today. Got a busy week lined up. I will be looking at trucks this week and, frankly, I’m about to get one, I think. The Bonneville I have is fine, nothing wrong with it, but we do a lot of camping and outdoor activities and a truck will help with that a lot. Also, the Bonneville is going to someone in the family because he needs a new car (he’s getting married) so it works out for everyone.

I also have to get finished with the Argo Navis Publishing website and get the rest of the stories listed. I also need to get started marketing these published stories but I want to be careful about that. I see a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook spamming their indie work and I find that kind of behavior tiresome.  After I finish that I want to get back to work on the Haxan novel. I feel I am starting to lose touch with it because it’s been so long since I have looked at it. Oh, and there’s a dentist appointment in there, somewhere, too, this week. But I think I will have to reschedule that because I will be working that day at The Observatory. No problem there. I’d much rather work than go to the dentist any day.

And tomorrow I have to go to Frisco and meet my writing buddy. Maybe I can take a look at the Haxan novel then. I might be able to work that in. Bottom line is you might not hear from me much this week, but I’ll try to post when I can, or schedule some posts.

I am sure there are more things happening this week I have forgotten about. But, hey, some things will have to fall through the cracks! 🙂

 

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Good Writing is Often a Question of Character

On the argument of Character vs. Plot I tend to side with the former.  I think a story with a strong character connects faster with readers than a plot-driven story. Then again the strongest story is one in which both character and plot are very strong and work together.Books with characterization and plot tend to be my favorite. Fleming was good at both.

There are always counter-examples where this may not be true, of course. Such is writing. And readers. Some readers honestly prefer plot-driven stories. How else can you explain Tom Clancy’s success? I read two or three of his novels back in the day and couldn’t go any further. His characters were pure cardboard, but the plots were great. Same for two of the biggest SF writers: Clarke and Asimov. They were superb on plot and sometimes lacking on characterization. On the flip side Heinlein was a very good character-driven writer. Lazarus Long, Mike the Computer, Podkayne, these are a few of the examples in his fiction of long-standing iconic characters. Same for Edgar Rice Burroughs and his creation of Tarzan. I love the Tarzan novels. The plots are forgettable. It’s Tarzan we remember.

Novels that do double duty, however, tend to be my favorite. Moby-Dick is a good example of outstanding characterization and a memorable plot. Dune, by Frank Herbert, is another. Dr. No by Ian Fleming does double duty in this regard, I think. Bond is definitely a memorable character and the plot of the book is a superb framework.

There are tons of other examples, and lots and lots of examples that don’t agree with my supposition. But speaking for myself I tend to gravitate toward character driven stories. Finding a story that has both characterization and plot is a special gem.

Which story is easiest to write? Well, I don’t think any story is easy to write. But I suppose if all you are doing is laying down a plot and stuffing it with interchangeable cardboard heroes…well, that should give you some clue.

Fortunately, there are lots of different writers who write lots of different stories for lots of different readers. There is no one format or guideline to writing and I hope during the existence of this blog I have shown that.

But some readers do prefer certain styles, as do some writers. That’s the world. Knowing the difference, and being able to make a judgment as to which makes the story stronger, character, plot, or both, is a necessary tool for any successful writer.

Reading Outside Your Genre Even if it Kills You

There are lots of ways to get better at writing. Sitting down and writing more is one of the more obvious. Another helpful way is to read a lot, and read often. That is also obvious. If you write science fiction you should read a lot of science fiction. If you write romance you should read a lot of romance.

But a step past that is to read outside your genre. It makes sense to read the genre you are working in. That gives you perspective to what is going on, what is being published, and the impact it is having within the genre. But reading outside your genre? Does that mean if I write science fiction I should read Regency romances?

Well, you don’t have to read all Regency romances. I am arguing you need to be familiar with them, what they are about, how they are written, the structure of those novels, etc. That goes for every genre. I firmly believe you need to cross-read into other genres to get a perspective on your own genre. The more you know about other books and writers the more tools and confidence you can bring to the table in your own work.

There are genres I despise. I mean, I absolutely despise them. But I have read a couple of novels and short stories within them to have at least a passing familiarity with them. I also bring that knowledge to my own work. My dark fantasy stories set in the mythological town of Haxan have the benefit of not only being westerns. In that setting I can write romance, fantasy, mystery, suspense. drama, practically anything I want. The setting allows versatility.

Therefore, if I am going to write a romance story  in the Haxan mythos then shouldn’t I at least have a passing familiarity with the genre? I cut my teeth in science fiction. I read it almost exclusively when I was growing up and that’s what I first started writing. But that is a narrow focus. Anytime you look to one genre as your template you are limiting yourself.

As I got older I started branching out and began to read everything. All right, being a voracious reader to begin with I was already reading everything I could get my hands on, but this time I started reading in order to understand what the genre was about. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I see a lot of that, by the way, from new writers in SF particularly. There’s a lot of “reinventing the wheel” that comes along. I know the SF genre pretty well, I think. I’ve exhausted it completely via my reading. Not difficult to do because while deep, the genre itself is rather narrow. As opposed to fantasy which is extremely broad in nature, but there’s not as much literary depth as one might like. Or westerns, which is both narrow and shallow. (More about that later.)

One good thing that comes from this is you can stumble across great books in other genres you might not necessarily have thought about approaching. I freely admit when I was younger I was an SF snob. I didn’t see any reason why I should have to read classical literarture. What did dead Englishmen know about SF, aside from the scientific romances of H.G. Wells? Shakespeare? Joyce? Shelley? Hell do they know about science fiction?

You can see the fault in my so-called “logic” I am sure. By limiting myself to only one genre I limited my knowledge of the genre I professed to be interested in: Science fiction. Because the more you know about other genres the more you know about your own. Fortunately, I grew out of that ridiculous assumption the classics were unworthy of my time, and now I love the classics. In point of fact they, along with history, are what I mostly read now, with the occasional foray into books I read in my youth for light entertainment: Burroughs, Fleming, Hamilton, Le Carre, and others.

So why don’t I continue to read a ton of science fiction? Because I have exhausted the field. As I said before, while the genre is somewhat narrow, it is deep. Even so you can completely exhaust the field via reading in four or five years. And I’ve been reading that stuff since I was a kid. I’ve seen it all. I know all the plots and I’ve seen all the variations. There is nothing new under the sun in science fiction other than different ways to tell the same story.

All right. That is true for any genre. I get that. But we’re talking about science fiction here because that is the genre I cut my teeth on. So once I realized I was reading the same book again for the umpteenth time I moved on to other genres, other work, other voices. I don’t always like what I see. Actually, unlike when I was a kid, if a book or a story doesn’t grab me right away I move on. I don’t give a book “time” to grow on me. I try not to do that as a writer, and I don’t like coming across it as a reader. Besides, there are lots of other better books out there, so if something doesn’t grab me right off I move on.

Writing is always red in tooth and claw. That’s the way it should be.

Finally, a word about westerns. I am deeply involved in working this genre right now. My attraction to the genre is well documented: I fell in love with the old time radio series Gunsmoke and wanted to write something like that. Meanwhile, I began to read through the genre to get a feel of what was out there.

Hoo boy. A lot of crap, mostly. Even the so-called “classics” of the western genre are achingly bad. It didn’t take me long to realize there wasn’t a whole lot going on here. Very little growth, almost nonexistent literary quality, and an almost obsessive dependence on myth and cliche.

It didn’t take me long to read through the genre at all. There’s simply not that much out there that isn’t a clone of something else, and the times you do run across something new and different like Cormac McCarthy, or Ed Gorman, or Estleman, well, it’s a real pleasure.

But because the genre is so narrow I realized here was a great opportunity. I could write anything I wanted if I created the right setting. I could experiment with all sorts of stories. I am not saying I am the first one to do this in the western genre. I know better. I am not saying I am doing it better than anyone else, either. I am merely stating I love the opportunity to work like this and hopefully, by some small part, bring a fresh look and a reawakening to a genre that, at best, is on life support.

Well, I’ve said a lot in this blog post. You may or may not agree with all of it. But one thing I want you to take to heart, particularly if you are a beginning writer. Read everything. I mean everything you can get your hands on. You don’t have to like it, but be familiar with it. When you start writing your stories and your books and your plays, you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel like the other writers around you.

You will have read outside your genre. You will be well armed and well prepared to meet whatever obstacle comes your way as you write your story because of your breadth of knowledge. Want to be a writer? Then write.

And read. A lot. No. More than that. Read everything.

I am still a writer first…everything else comes second

This morning I did some publishing work. I uploaded a new science fiction/cyberpunk story entitled “Dead Reckoning” to Kindle. I will let you know when the story goes live and give further details for it and Argo Navis Publishing.

Last week was a long, stressful week for me for many reasons. I am hoping this week will be a little better. (It could hardly be worse.) I hope so. I want to get back to working on the new Haxan novel and I am still in the process of planning my trip along the US/Mexico border to do research. Meanwhile, I am still practicing classical guitar but I really should be a little more serious about a regimented program. Then again, it is foremost a hobby for me and I’m having fun…what’s to gripe about?

Also hoping the weather takes a turn for the better. I miss going outside for my walks. They help clear my head and I use them to think about stories and where I want to go next. I foresee some hiking involved on the trip as well, so it would benefit me to get a little exercise in preparation.

All in all I am doing all right, considering. My main focus now is turning back to work on the new novel because even though I have to do this indie publishing stuff now I still only view it as a necessary evil. I do not and never will define myself as a publisher. I mean, I want to do a good job with Argo Navis Publishing and I want to present quality work for readers. I am the type of person who believes if you have to do something, then do it right.

But it does not define me. I am a writer first and last, and I always will be.

So when all is said and done I am doing all right so far. *knock on wood*  How about you guys, how have you been?

SWTOR is fastest selling game in MMO history…and it’s only Week 4

Star Wars: The Old Republic has sold two million physical copies in four weeks, outselling all other MMOs and expansions. What amazes me is these are only physical copies. Which means people going down to Target or Best Buy or whatever and picking up the game. This is how I bought my game. It’s how I buy all my games. I’m old school. I always prefer physical copies.

This doesn’t take into account the number of digital copies that have been sold. That is to say, the number of copies downloaded over the Internet from clients like Steam or whatever. (I don’t know if SWTOR is on Steam, I’m  using an example.)

It’s an impressive number and I have to think it has grabbed the attention of the people at WOW. When you look at the number of SWTOR copies sold week by week, you see a big drop off. That’s normal for any MMO, however. The first week is always the big week and it tails off fast after that. I think one reason the numbers are so good for Week 1 is because the game was launched right at Christmas. You can’t discount that kind of market timing.

What remains to be seen is the retention rate. That’s a big if. How many people will resubscribe and continue playing the game? Any MMO that has 150,000 active subscribers can be considered a success these days. SWTOR has sold almost two million physical copies in one month. I think we can say the odds are pretty good it will retain more than 150,000 active subscribers from that pool.

Of course, one thing SWTOR has to keep in mind is that while 150K player base is good for your average MMO, SWTOR is not your average MMO. Bioware put a lot of money up front into the game. Therefore they need a high retention rate to make their money back. How much did the game cost to make? Figures have been bandied about. There was a rumor the game cost $300 million to produce. This number is totally unfounded and has been traced to a person who was fired from Bioware. More reasonable estimates put the figure closer to around $100 million. That’s still a lot of money… and a hell of a lot of groundless speculation. The only people who know the exact number are the suits at Bioware and they aren’t talking.

Another aspect of MMOs isn’t only the production money, but the continued bills of paying for servers, technicians, updates, everything else that goes into a mammoth enterprise like this one. To break even SWTOR has to have a pretty big retention rate of subscribers, I would think. One way you do that is by providing patches and extra content for the game. Again, I have seen speculation about this on other forums, but that speculation is groundless. They don’t know what the game cost to produce, they don’t know how many subscribers are currently active, they are just pulling numbers out of thin air. The only people who know those numbers are the employees at Bioware and they aren’t going to tell us that proprietary information any more than WOW will.

MMOs are a cutthroat business these days. You don’t open yourself up to attack from other companies by revealing either your strengths or your weaknesses. Bioware knows this, as does Blizzard.

Of course, all this is mere speculation. We don’t know how much the game cost to produce, we don’t know their operating costs, we don’t know how many subscribers SWTOR has…no one outside Bioware has that information. And anyone outside of Bioware who thinks they have hard numbers simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

But there is one number we do have. Selling two million physical units in one month is an impressive feat for any MMO. We will have to watch if the numbers continue to sell, what the final drop off rate of sales will be, and the retention percentage of subscribers. MMOs are all about numbers. The one number we kn0w is almost two million hard copies sold in only four weeks.

That is amazing.

SWTOR is the fastest selling MMO in history...two million physical copies in four weeks

“The Whistler” is being aired on Theater 13 Radio!

Theater 13 Radio is running an Old Time Radio marathon of The Whistler. This classic radio show was based on horror, mystery, suspense and other genres. The main thing about this show is you get to follow the story through the eyes of the murderer, and yet the story always takes an unexpected twist in the last minute. They are very well written and like all OTR I think theybenefit writers who want to concentrate on dialog and story structure.

Enjoy!

 

Mistress Zarella welcomes you to Theater 13 Radio....

 

SWTOR: Casual fun with glowbats in the classic mythos of Star Wars

I am enjoying Star Wars: The Old Republic quite a lot. I have been looking for an MMO since I quit Eve Online a while back, and bailed on World of Warcraft after the disastrous Cataclysm expansion. I think I have found my MMO at last.

I am a casual gamer. Period. I can’t and I don’t devote hours everyday to game play. I’m a writer and a publisher so gaming has a back seat. No problem. But finding an enjoyable game I can return to when I have a few free hours is a nice change. For the record, I do not like the mythos of Star Wars. In point of fact I absolutely despise it. I think Lucas is a hack and he proved it in his ridiculous and ill-fated attempt to channel Joseph Campbell’s hero mythology with his Star Wars arc.

From my perspective, because of how I feel about the original mythos, I cannot review this game without looking at the movies. As for them, the only one I can watch without puking is The Empire Strikes Back and that’s Lucas wasn't always a hack writer and director. He did make the excellent SF movie THX 1138.for a very good reason: it was written by Leigh Brackett, a real science fiction writer. Lucas views SF as background furniture for his story. He has no real love and appreciation for the history and canon of classic SF. It’s just a cartoon backdrop to him. Okay, I give him credit for the movie THX 1138.  But that was when he was young and hungry and his creativity was at an all time high. Star Wars? At the core it’s about a mass murderer (Darth Vader) who apologizes in the last reel and that makes everything all right and magically transforms him into a sympathetic character who finds final redemption and forgiveness.Think about that a moment. Try getting that story published in Analog or Asimov’s or any top flight SF magazine today. Hell, try getting that story published in the bad old days of SF pulp. Even worse, it’s a perverse parody (if not a downright misunderstanding) of what Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology was all about.

So there’s that. But, what about the game itself? It is Star Wars after all and our characters run around with glowbats and operate within the trappings of the classic mythos with the force and Sith and whatnot. Well, as a game it’s quite entertaining. Are there problems with the game? Yes, there are. I see video artifacts sometimes, and one or two of the quests I have come across are definitely bugged. But I have not experienced any game breaking bugs so far. I do very little PVP other than the battle zones so I can’t speak for those servers. I hear there are ability timing issues and global cooldown problems. I haven’t experienced them but that’s not to say they don’t exist.  But it does appear Bioware is involved and engaged and working to correct the biggest problems with the game. They released a big patch yesterday with more content and fixes to come. They’re not ignoring the game and problems inherent within the game like Age of Conan did.

WOW has been around a long time in terms of MMOs. It’s pretty polished. Therefore, since SWTOR is only about a month old I discount the angst and tears and pearl clutching from whiners and self-indulgent WOW fanbois on the Star Wars forum. One suspects they would be unhappy with everything less than instant gratification anyway. If you just go by the forums you might think the game was a broken, buggy mess. It’s not. There are problems. They are being addressed by Bioware.

Then again maybe I am a little more forgiving because I used to play Age of Conan and Star Trek: Online. And those games are still a buggy mess.

Speaking for myself I bought a six-month subscription to this game because of my style of casual play. I wasn’t the only one. This game has already sold over a million units. It’s had a very fast start. But a six-month sub will give me enough time to level my toon and maybe start one or two more. As a writer I do love the story-driven arc of the leveling process. I think it’s very well done and it would be hard for me to ever go back to WOW and read quest text. And this coming from me, someone who always said the WOW quest text was very well written.

Finally, as far as comparisons go,  SWTOR never promised to be a WOW-killer or anything of the kind. To be fair the only thing that can kill WOW is Blizzard. Just like the only thing that can kill SWTOR is Bioware. But SWTOR is engaging and fun without being too serious like Eve Online. It’s darn near perfect for the casual gamer. If you want hardcore SF gaming, play Eve Online. I still plan to return to Eve now that they’ve brought back ship spinning. But I may wait until I get my new computer, it will make the transition that much easier.

All I have left to say about SWTOR is if someone like me who has never liked the Star Wars mythos can find something enjoyable in this game, then maybe you, too, should give it a look. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and have a lot of fun swinging your glowbat and busting heads.

I’m on Soresu server and the name of my Jedi Consular Sage is Gaella. Come find me and we’ll do a quest line together and kill some Sith.  🙂

Enjoyable game so far, good story line.

Edit: Sorry about many of the grammatical errors in this review. I am having problem with my vision today. As close friends of mine know, the Lasik surgery I had some years back did more harm than good, and there have been recurring problems from time to time. Thanks for your patience and understanding. –KMH

Magic Words: “I am a writer and I need help.”

There are many cool things about being a writer. I know I talk a lot about how difficult this profession is and the obstacles we face, and those things are true. But there are many cool things about being a writer and one of them is how quickly people are willing to try and help you if you tell them, “I’m a writer.”

People on the street. Ordinary people who have other responsibilities and jobs and dreams and aspirations. But if you’re doing research especially and you approach someone and need help or guidance, and tell them you are a writer, it’s a like a magic key or something. They almost want to jump and help you out.

I have thought about this and I don’t know exactly why, but I think I have an idea. I wonder if it’s because they don’t view writing as something mystical. I don’t mean to single out writing. I am wondering if the same thing happens for other people involved in an artistic undertaking. People respond to that. They want to help.

Or if it comes up in conversation they suddenly want to know more about it. They are interested maybe because they view our profession as something strange and mysterious, when those of us who work in it know it is no different than digging ditches. It’s hard work.

I got to thinking about this because a while back I was working on a story that took place in Syria. I couldn’t find any detailed maps of Damascus or the countryside (this was before Google Earth) so I wrote our embassy there and told them my situation. One of the people associated with the ambassador got back in touch with me and sent me a bunch of maps and all kinds of stuff. How awesome is that? He didn’t have to do it. He didn’t know me. It wasn’t like I was Stephen King or something. But people often like to help you if you tell them you are a writer and need assistance.

I was wondering if anyone else has noticed this?

One of the nice things about being a writer is people are often willing to help you.

No one understands a writer like another writer.

Writing is difficult at the best of times. When things are going badly, or when things are going well, it always helps to have another writer to talk to. Because no one, and I mean absolutely no one, understands a writer like Only another writer understand what we go through. another writer.

I see this often. Family members may be supportive. They may care about you and want you to do well and cheer you on. They may sympathize with you when things are going badly or the words don’t come. But they don’t understand what you are really going through because they are not themselves writers.

Writers are a special breed. I don’t mean that in any privileged sense. If anything writers are the least understood, the least respected, and the least thought of people in the entire process. Oh, sure, other writers and editors and publishers respect writers. (For the most part.) But they are all involved in the business and profession in some way so even if they are not writers themselves they get some of what we go through by osmosis.

But your average Joe and Jane in the street…they don’t understand. And I don’t blame them at all. I blame us. I blame writers. We are at fault for not telling more people about what we go through, the battles we fight, the demons we face. We suffer most of these in silence because writing is so solitary anyway. The solitary nature of writing feeds directly into us keeping these things to ourselves.We should try to be more open. I think if we were people would respond.

No one understands this like another writer. I firmly believe that. Even if you take other artistic expressions, a painter say, or a sculptor. At least they have a model to work from. A bowl of fruit. All writers have are ourselves. We sit alone in front of a screen and the only person in the entire world we can depend on is ourselves.

That wears on you. That drains you. That takes little pieces away from you a bit at a time until you start to feel like you’re becoming invisible. That is way you should always have a writer friend you can talk to. Because we can say things to each other and we understand perfectly what is going on. If I say to my Writing Buddy “I’m having trouble finding an entry point into this story” she knows exactly what I am going through. I don’t have to go into detail how I am being haunted and feel like I am in a maelstrom of doubt. She knows that already because she’s been there.

No one understands a writer like another writer. Not because we are special in any way…but because we face demons other people don’t usually face, and we are forced to face them alone.

What I learned from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and why it scared me.

I remember the very first time I came face to face with how much creativity would be needed if I was going to be a writer. I was in a high school English class and we had finished reading The Old Man and the Sea. In one passage the fisherman comes back to his hut and collapses on his bunk, arms thrown out and feet crossed in an attitude of the crucifixion. We were talking about that passage in class and finally my brain started working and I realized my teacher, Mrs. Gohlke, was saying Hemingway did that on purpose. I even asked her that same question. I raised my hand and asked, “Did Heminway write that on purpose?”I remember the day I learned there was more to writing than telling a story....

Yes. Yes, he did.

I was flabbergasted. I had thought it was a happy literary coincidence.  But on purpose? He did that on purpose? I sat there at my desk, stunned. That meant Hemingway thought about his story while he was writing it. That meant he was doing something more than telling a story about a man who lost a big fish. He was using the story to elevate and reveal something deeper about the character and about fiction itself.

And here I was, seventeen years old, dreaming my stupid dreams to be a writer. I knew then there was a lot of work ahead and it intimidated me. Before this point I thought all I had to do was tell a good story. Oh, I don’t mean to say I believed then (or now) that every story must have a message. I don’t mean that at all. But for the first time I came face to face with what a writer must do if he wants to be successful. Here was something about writing I hadn’t considered. This made it concrete for me, I guess you could say.

I thought about that incident the whole day. I went around in sort of a daze. Much more than usual. Hemingway had done that on purpose. Writing was harder than I imagined. Maybe I didn’t have the skills to do this. I was scared. I wanted to be a writer. Now I faced what being a writer was about. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe I would never be good enough.

Finally I got hold of myself a little bit. If I was going to be a writer, I was going to work harder and read more. I was going to have to be voracious. I didn’t know if I would be able to elevate my fiction using those tools or think of things like that. He was Hemingway…I was just a dumb kid in South Texas who dreamed of being a writer.

I have never forgotten that lesson. I think back on it often. On that day I realized writing was harder than I possibly imagined. I still feel that way. I believe the best writers are always learning, always adapting, always seeking.

Speaking for myself, I try to keep that in mind. I never want to think I can throw something out there and consider it good enough. I will never settle for good enough. Not when it comes to my writing.

I learned that lesson long ago in high school. I have never forgotten it and it has stood me in good stead.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. But stories are forever.

I remember when I began to get serious about writing. I was in my early twenties. One of the things that really worried me is would I have enough ideas for stories? It worried me. At the time it only seemed I had one or two ideas worth developing. It didn’t look good for the long term prospect, haha.

But I will tell you a little secret only writers know. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Taking those ideas, and shaping them into a story, however, is the harder part.

Ideas are just that. Ideas. They have no story, no characters, no theme, nothing,. You can’t sell an idea as a story to an editor. No editor in his right mind will buy an idea from a writer. They want stories. Here’s an example of a classic idea:

1. Boy meets girl.

2. Boy loses girl.

3. Boy gets girl back.

That is a classic story. It’s been around forever and it will be around forever. It has deep atavistic qualities which gives it staying power, I suspect. But it’s only an idea. It’s not a story. You have to flesh everything out. Do all that, change a few elements here and there, and you come up with:

Old Yeller.

That’s right. Old Yeller is a “boy meets” girl story changed into a “boy meets dog” story. And the real strength of the story? It’s a “boy meets something” story that is a lead-in to an even stronger story theme: A boy grows up to be a man.

That’s the true theme of Old Yeller, how a boy grows up to be a man. But it started with the simple idea of “boy meets girl” changed to “boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog back.”

That’s what we do as writers. Ideas are easy. But when you get your idea how are you going to develop it into a memorable story that says something about human character? Ideas are easy. The writing that comes afterward…that takes a little more doing.

Old Yeller is a story drawn from a classic idea of "boy meets girl."

The Smoke and Mirrors Effect in Writing

Writing, good writing, is all about smoke and mirrors.Don't confuse being truthful to the story with the demands of fiction. They are apples and oranges.

You’ve heard the old saw Truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also unpublishable as fiction. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood notwithstanding, trying to write pure fact as pure fiction is darn near impossible. Even for all of Capote’s talent and genius he knew enough not to write everything in that story as fact.

A perfect example is dialog. Go to a coffee shop or listen to how people talk anywhere you are. You can’t print that jabber. It’s loaded with dialect, ums and ahs and umphs and ers and who knows what else. Now read a story. Pay attention to the dialog. People don’t talk like that in real life. A writer has to keep that in mind. He has to make the dialog sound real enough without interfering with the story.

This is a trap beginning writers sometimes find themselves in. They want to be truthful to the character and the reality of the place, and the story itself, so they load down the dialog with unreadable dialect. When they are called on it they say “But that’s how people really talk.”

I know that’s how people really talk. But that’s not how you want it to read. And believe you me those two are apples and oranges.

I’m going to say something that’s going to shock you, but I want you to take it to heart. When you are writing a story it’s okay to cheat. You don’t have to show everything you know about the character or the time or the place. In fact the less you say the stronger and the more impact the story will have.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. Truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why it’s not fiction. Fiction is just that: it is truth disguised as fiction. That’s what you have to keep separate, and most writers do.

We are told over and over we have to be true to the story. I agree with that statement. But that does not mean you have to disregard the peculiar demands fiction requires.

People read stories to be entertained. They can be taught new things about the human condition or history or life or love or whatever in the process…but first and foremost your readers want to be entertained. Fiction has a power unlike anything else because we can use the smoke and mirrors inherent in the art form to disguise that which needs to be hidden, while at the same time illuminating those points we want to drive home.

That’s a powerful tool, imo, and one that has to be used judiciously.

“Why, the character just took over the story! I had no control at all!”

See: Title of post.Are you really trying to tell me that as a writer you have NO control over your story and you're just a puppet on a string....?

Ha. I must admit I get a little chuckle when I see or hear a writer say this. As if.

I know what they are feeling. I guess I understand what they are trying to express. But they are writers. At our core we are challenged to write about the human condition. I can’t help but wonder if sometimes they don’t get confused with what is happening on the page.

Characters don’t “take over” anything. They certainly are not alive or “have a mind of their own” which is another phrase I often hear.

Have I read stories and novels where it seemed as if the characters were alive? You bet I have. Lots of ’em. Those are the most memorable stories I have ever read. But I maintain when the writer was writing the story the character in no way “came alive” or “took control” or anything of the sort.

Okay, maybe you are saying I am being too pedantic with all this. But I”m not the one who says this, they are. And they say it like they believe it. Which I find curious.

When I am writing I am always in control. Even when the story takes an unexpected turn or a character does something I had not originally intended him to do. I like when that happens. Heck, I love when that happens. But it’s all me and nothing but me.

I don’t know. It’s almost like they are trying to impart some mystical quality to writing that doesn’t exist, at least not by any quantifiable nature. I have said on this blog I view writing as an organic endeavor. That doesn’t mean I think the story is organic by strict definition of the word. It means I view the process as one of organic creation controlled by the writer. It’s not the character. It’s you and it’s me. Those actions are coming from us as we write. Which, as far as I am concerned, is one more example why we should trust our instincts when it comes to writing.

I just wish they would stop saying it because it’s such a fallacious argument. They are trying to impart some supernatural element to the story that lies outside their control. They are the writer, they are not a puppet on a string. That is just ridiculous.

Writing as an Organic Process (in other words, it’s Art)

I have a background in physics with a little chemistry on the side. So I know all about the scientific method and how you employ it when approaching a problem. And the scientific method works when you are doing science. There are lots of questions in writing but few answers due to its orgainic nature.

But we have no common method when it comes to writing. It’s extremely organic and most of it is shifting sand. If we are not careful we can get swallowed up with minute detail and lose sight of the big picture: THE STORY WE ARE TRYING TO TELL.

So there is an inherent difficulty built into writing (and I would argue most artistic endeavors) we must overcome if we want our story to be successful. I have maintained in recent posts I do not believe this is an easy thing to do. I merely argue it is necessary. If that is the case, how can we be successful?

By recognizing that writing is, at its core, organic. There is no crystalline structure to writing. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. What works for me will almost certainly not work for you, and vice versa. Heart surgery is difficult, but the surgeon has a process he follows. He does each step in turn, omitting nothing, taking no shortcuts. Same thing in science. You start taking shortcuts, you are almost certainly going to achieve at an error-filled result.

Writing is way different. It’s organic nature demands that each one of us must find the path that works for him. You can share your results with other writers, but don’t take it as an affront if they decline to follow your footsteps.  They have to find a process to write the story in their own way. They have to find a method that works for them.

I know a writer who writes everyday. He literally writes everyday, even if it’s nothing but a paragraph. I could never do that. You sit me down when a story is not ready to be written and I can promise you all you will get in return is garbage. I never write until the story is ready to be written. I’ve tried the Write Everyday recipe. It doesn’t work for me. But that’s just me. It works for a lot of other people. My method is no better than theirs. It’s just my method.

Because of the orgainic nature of writing you are going to have to find your own road in this regard. I, and other professional writers, can show you signposts and give you guidance and support, but bottom line you have to write the story yourself. And that is hard. But I know you can do it because I did it and so did tens of thousands of other writers.

Keep writing!

So you wrote a story? Congratulations. That was the EASY part.

Today I want to elaborate on a topic I touched on yesterday. I would argue, at least from my own experience, writing is very hard work. It’s not easy to write a story. Everything is against you. Time, quality, need of story, Writing is hard...but that's the easy part of writing....laziness, readiness, you can name a hundred different obstacles you have to overcome just to write the story. The one thing I have to dismiss, mostly out of observation and verifiable evidence, is talent. Talent in any form is absolutely unnecessary when it comes to writing the story. I wish it were otherwise, but that’s simply the case. You don’t need talent to write a story. I know this from experience because I have seen many stories, published and unpublished, that were written and conceived without any verifiable talent in evidence.

Furthermore, talent is unnecessary (as much as it pains me to admit) when it comes to publishing a story. Particularly in this day and age. But let’s face a hard truth here. Mediocrity has often been the benchmark. Do just enough to squeeze by, hit a chord with people, and you can be hugely successful. Jean Auel, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, Robert James Waller and a ton of other “successful” writers prove the point (at least to me) over and over. So there’s nothing under the sun that can be done about that. We writers who try to view this profession in more serious terms of organic art have to accept that fact. I don’t begrudge them their success. But I don’t have to read their tripe, either. And I don’t.

Which brings us to the focus of this post. So you finally wrote a story. Congratulations! It’s a big achievement and never let anyone tell you otherwise. You know how many people never start and then finish a story? Most. So you are already ahead of the game. Therefore, congratulate yourself because you deserve some recognition.

But that was the easy part.

As difficult as writing is, and I maintain it is extremely difficult (particularly if you want to do it well) writing the story was the easiest part of the entire process. Now you have to be judgmental. And there is no worse judge of his own work than the writer who wrote it. That scene you like so much and you think is the centerpoint to your story? It’s probably not that good. That paragraph you are thinking of tossing because in your mind it just doesn’t work? More than likely it needs to remain because it’s central to the character growth.

There is no worse judge of a story than the writer who wrote it. So what can you do? Find a beta reader. Better yet, find two or three. And, no, I don’t mean family members (unless you know they can read critically) who will by default like what you wrote and not want to hurt your feelings. I mean find a cynical judgmental hard-hitting no-holds-barred beta reader who, while he may like you personally, has no problem at all telling you if your story is crap.

Sound rough? That’s just the beginning. It gets rougher, believe me. You have to put your ego aside and listen to the criticisms that fly your way. As my writing buddy will tell you, there are few people who have a smaller ego than myself. But when push comes to shove I don’t care what I think, I care what the editor thinks, and if he has a way to improve the story then I am on board with that. Because I want one thing: to make the story as good as it can possibly be. I don’t care about my feelings, or what I like or don’t like about the story, or how I think it should proceed.  I have written the story. Now it’s time to let someone else judge the thing on its own merit.

Hey, it’s not all bad. Maybe the beta reader will like the story and have a few criticisms and changes you need to think about. Or maybe he will tell you to stop killing trees…or I guess in this day and age stop wasting valuable electrons.

Now the difficulty scales up on a hyperbolic curve. You have to submit the story, often again and again before it finds a home. That entails researching guidelines, markets, the list is enormous. And then the story gets bought and you have to think about marketing strategies. It never ends. You are swamped in detail. Amidst all this…you have started your next story. That’s right. You don’t keep patting yourself on the back. You write another story. You keep running the marathon knowing you are never, and I mean NEVER going to reach the finish line, because there is always one more story to write, one more idea in waiting.

Writing never ends. It’s organic and it continues, and has continued throughout our history. I am very cynical when it comes to the human species. But there is one cool thing I know about us. We will always tell stories if we have the chance to do so. As hard and difficult as writing is, I like knowing I am part of that long process that defines us as thinking, seeking creatures who want to understand their place in the universe. A good writer tries to do that with every story.

Keep writing!

“The Downside of Persistence” by Richard Parks

Occasionally I come across a post by another writer that is so good I just have to share. “The Downside of Persistence” by Richard Parks is such a post.

I know Richard from the time I lived in Mississippi. He is a superb writer and he thinks deeply about the process of writing and its outcomes, something I think about myself. Yet, I am unable to quantify my ideas as succinctly as he can. Again, which doesn’t surprise me because I know him personally and know what a great writer he is. Anyway, he really hit a home run with this post, imo.

If you are a beginning or an established writer I think you should read Richard’s post. I found it very helpful and enlightening…and I don’t say that about most things I read.


The Downside of Persistence by Richard Parks

 

Process VS Protocol, or why only one thing matters in writing

I’ve been a professional writer (by deed and definition) for a long time. Sometimes it amazes me. I will never be satisfied or ready to rest on my laurels, but I must admit if I never wrote another word for the rest of my life IWriting is hard work. When we accept that fact we have won half the battle. have come further than I had any right to expect. But aside from that, because of my physics and chemistry background I often think about process and how it can be applied to different facets of writing. Or how it can NOT be applied, as the case may be.

I don’t know that this has any value in the long run. But it is something I think about quite a lot, mainly because as a writer I know deep down there are no hard and fast rules to this profession. Therein lies the conflict with the scientific background of my nature and my education. In physics, as in all sciences, we approach a problem with systematic care. We have a protocol to follow: Hypothesis, experimentation, measurement, theory. It is a rigorous lifestyle and one I believe in with all my heart. In science we are trained to put aside what we want and accept the facts.

Here’s the quandary as I see it. With writing there is a process. You have to juggle many different things in a story to keep them all straight. You have to watch the pacing, be cognizant of tone, characterization, info dumps, grammar, tone, texture, quality…it’s damn near overwhelming. If truth be told a lot of this happens subconsciously. I think that’s the mark of a good writer. Don’t get me wrong. I always feel I am in control when I am writing. I hear stories from other writers about how the “character took over” the story. I call piffle on this. How ridiculous. That’s not the character, that’s YOU. The story is coming from you. Nothing is alive on the pages of a story. What a writer must do is make the character come alive for the reader through sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors. That’s the real trick.

So I have little patience when I hear something like that. When a writer bemoans the fact he tried to get a character to act one way, but the character had a mind of his own. Spare me, please. That’s your instinct at work, your subconscious. And as a writer who has done this for a little while at least I can assure you that listening to your instinct is the one thing you should always do.

But where does that leave us? With the hard truth that in writing there is no standard protocol or hard and fast process to follow. I guess if there is one constant in this profession, one rule that has withstood the test of time, it’s this: To be successful you must make yourself sit down and write.

I agree with that statement…up to a point. I have never thought you should try and write a story before it is ready to be written. Which is to say, before your subconscious is ready to take it on. The whole “to write you have to sit down and do it” has always grated on me to some extent because it overlooks this. Forcing yourself to write a story before it is ready to be written is a sure recipe for failure. To be fair this is far different from making yourself sit down and work/write on a story that is ready to be written. No one procrastinates better than a writer. Even Hemingway acknowledged this when he said he made it a point to “fix the refrigerator” first before he started writing. In other words, he looked for anything else he could do before he started writing. I also think he might have meant a writer needs a clear mind and no worries before he delves into a story. But that last is probably to a lesser extent than the fact we often do look for an excuse NOT to write. Writers are really good at looking for reasons not to write. I have a theory about that, too. I think because we know deep down writing is not that much fun. It’s work. Hard work at that.

I have literally dug ditches. I have cut brush with a machete all day long, from sunup to sundown. I have carried 90 pound geophysical cables through ice-cold sloughs, up steep mountains, across baking deserts. I can honestly say that was easier than writing.

Which brings me full circle to the point of this essay. The old saw “you have to sit your butt in the chair” is true for writing, but up to a point. I think what needs to be said, and what that old saw is actually implying, is that: Writing is work. Deal with it.

And that’s the one thing a successful writer needs to be aware of and accept. There is little in the way of process that transfers from writer to writer. We all do it differently. And as far as protocol goes, forget it. That animal doesn’t exist in this profession. But there is one hard and fast truth that has withstood the test of time. Every published writer knows it to be true. Writing is work. We have to deal with that.*

When we accept that as a fundamental truth we realize we don’t really need process or protocol or a list of Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to writing. We know writing is hard work. We accept that fact so we buckle down and do it. The process we use, or the protocol of steps, is, and will remain, secondary.

 

*In the future I someday want to write an essay about how after you write the story the easy part is over, and the really hard work begins.

A Very Dark Haxan Story “Alpenglow” has been Released from Argo Navis

I’ve had a special place in my heart for this story a long time. I like a lot of things about it, especially what I tried to do with the characterization. I am never interested in playing it safe, and this story was my attempt at crossing a line or two, but still with the overall idea of delivering a readable story.

This is a dark Haxan story and I still remember when I was working on it at the coffee shop. Some stories are like that. I mean, I can remember when and where I was when I wrote them. “Alpenglow” is such a story.

It’s been released by Argo Navis Publishing and is available for Kindle and Kindle Fire right now. It will be coming soon to Smashwords, Pubit and Anthology builder. When I get around to doing podcasts this will be one story on the slate.

If you are interested in the world of Haxan I hope you guys take the time to give it a look, and I hope you like the story. Thanks! 🙂

Blood, dust, wind....

A Writing Superman…or how I scrambled to get things done before I wigged out

This has been a very busy week for me but a good week. I got a lot done, mostly with Argo Navis, but one thing sticks out. Hoping next week I can take on the role of Superman and get more writing work done....

I haven’t gotten to work on the novel again.

I’m not upset about this turn. I merely note it. I can’t do everything at once. I am not Superman. Next week should be better. I have a lot of writing stuff to catch up on. Oh, ok, Argo Navis Publishing is writer stuff, too, but you know what I mean. I need (and more importantly I want) to get back to work on the new Haxan novel. And I’ve got a ton of reviews to write and all the other little things that go along with writing but are piling up.

Here’s hoping next week will turn out more amenable for writing. I am hoping so, anyway. Then I can leap a tall building in a single bound. Just like Supes! 🙂

 

Woot! My new science fiction story “Tennessee Waltz” is available from Argo Navis. Hope you guys enjoy it! :)

  • Tennessee Waltz

“Mark Hoover is a writer who never hesitates to go deep, to try to find the core of what it means to be human and take a good hard look. If he has to stare down a nightmare or two along the way, well, that’s just fine.” —Richard Parks, author of the Lord Yamada series

 

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