Category Archives: Writing Journal

What to do When You Think You Suck

“So the Dark did a simple thing. They showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing–fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth–fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such great fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.” 

Susan Cooper, in her incredible, award winning series The Dark is Rising, writes this particularly insightful passage. I can’t think of a better way to describe the fear and anxiety of being an artist. I could say so much about this feeling, as I’m sure anybody who’s ever created something could. However, I’ll leave it at this: It’s okay to have this feeling. It’s not okay to be consumed by it. One more quote, this one from Neil Gaiman:

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.”

Thoughts on Composing: Plot vs Concept

I’ve been hitting a little bit of a writing block lately. I haven’t written much over the past few months, but now that things are settling down a little bit in my life and I’m feeling far less depressed, I’ve been missing it. I need something fun and quick (relatively speaking) to get me back into the right headspace where I write nearly every day simply because I like it and it makes me feel good. Therefore, I decided to write a short story. I sit down at my desk/kitchen table, put on my favorite hat, turn on a lamp to set the ambiance, pull out my notebook, and start writing. This all goes smoothly for about ten minutes, but then I hit a block. I realize around this point, I don’t know what I’m writing. I’m just rambling, with no direction and nowhere to go.

Now, I’ve never been one much for outlines. I like to sit down with a thought and write it out and see where the story takes me. This works well for me. When I try to write from an outline, I end up forcing the story in a direction that doesn’t feel right to me, and my writing suffers for it. However, this is not to say that I don’t usually know what I’m doing. With the stories that have worked well for me, I’ve always had a basic plot in my head. If I let the story wander a little bit, it’s fine, but I always know where it’s going. It’s like taking a detour down a side lane on Christmas because you notice some cool lights on a house. It’s great to be flexible because then you get to see the lights, but without a destination you get lost in suburbia and before you know it you’ve got four kids and a minivan and YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE! Not a good place for your story to end up.

So destination. This is where I’ve been failing in my story writing. This is where I hit a wall. It’s not the commonly referred to writer’s block. It’s more insidious. Where regular writer’s block is merely frustrating, this is wasted effort, busy work, digging holes and filling them in again. It’s sitting at a desk and writing 1,000 words of nothing. The thing that’s so nefarious about this kind of writing, is that you’re actually doing something. You feel productive and that feeling blinds you to the fact that you’re really doing nothing. This is why destination is so important. Destination is what makes a story a story. Let me explain.

There are two ways I typically have ideas for stories. One I’ll label simply “Concept.” A concept is when I have one specific detail in mind, but no story surrounding it. A couple years ago, my in-laws told me about a reservoir near where they live with an underwater graveyard buried in it. I immediately wrote that down in my journal because holy shit isn’t that a great setting! So here I have this setting, and last fall I tried to turn it into a story. It did not go well. Why? Because I didn’t have a story to tell. I could write a terrific description of the underwater graveyard. I could even make up some fun spectral inhabitants. But I had no idea what would happen there. I still don’t. This is a scene that’s better off sitting in my journal until I need to pull it into a story, but it’s not a structure for a story in itself.

This brings me to my second type of story idea, which here I’ll label “Plot.” A plot story is like a concept, with one very key difference. In a plot, something happens. It can be something small, insignificant even in the final telling, but it starts you out with action. And in the end, that’s what stories are. Stories are actions. Stories are destinations. The key element in a destination is you have to do something to get there. You have to act. Without that key element, a story is just a setting, or a character, or something else boring and inactive. In order for a setting to be a solid basis for a story, something has to occur within it. The difference between a character in a story and me on the couch is the character is doing something. This is the basis for all great storytelling. And this is where I’ve fallen short. And now that I know that, it’s time to get writing.

See you guys after I’ve done something.

The Importance of Science Literacy in the Arts, or I have a bone to pick with Billy Collins

If you are not aware of Billy Collins, he is a famous and deservedly acclaimed poet. He acted as US Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003. He is very good at his craft. Now my bone to pick.

The other day I was introduced to a poem of his titled, “Earthling.” I won’t post all the text of the poem here because I don’t know if I legally can, but the whole text is posted other places on the internet. Straight off I want to say this is a very good poem, and the part I have a problem with is very nitpicky and doesn’t actually affect the overall message or sense of the poem. But it bugged me, and what is the internet good for if I can’t declare nitpicky wrongness about well made works of art?

“Earthling” deals with issues of body image and weight, and it does so in a clever and unique manner. Right off Collins starts by commenting on the effect of scales commonly found in planetariums which show a person how much they’d weigh on other planets. I visit the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City fairly often because it’s fun and awesome, and as soon as the poem mentioned the scales I was hooked.

I particularly love it when science and poetry come together. The universe is easily as strange and rich and beautiful and amazing and incredible as anything the human mind can imagine. Sometimes even more so. As such, it lends itself perfectly to the imagination and invention of poetry. On the other side, poetry is perfectly situated to make people aware of the majesty of science often blurred by the math we don’t understand. This is the kind of thing you get when science and art inform each other:

Holy shit! Isn’t the universe amazing!? I don’t think you can look at that picture and not want to be a scientist and feel like a poet at the same time. They are a perfect match. And that is exactly why the poem’s fourth stanza irks me. It reads,

Imagine squatting in the wasteland
of Pluto, all five tons of you,
or wandering around Mercury
wondering what to do next with your ounce.

Did you catch that? It’s okay if you didn’t. We’re not all scientists, and that’s kind of the point. The problem here is that the poem seems to suggest that weight is directly proportional to one’s distance from the sun. In other words, on Pluto you’d weigh 10,000 pounds (1 ton = 2,000 pounds) because it’s so far from the sun, but because Mercury is so close you’d only weigh one ounce. This is so utterly false.

Weight is a measurement of the force of gravity on an object. This means higher gravity = higher weight. A quick internet search reveals Mercury’s mass to be about 38% that of Earth. This means in order to weigh one ounce on Mercury, you’d have to weigh a little less than 3 ounces on Earth. That’s less than a quarter of a pound. For anyone out there using metrics that’s about 0.08 kilograms or 80 grams. Now Pluto’s gravity is only about 6.7% that of Earth. Which means to weigh 10,000 pounds on Pluto you’d need to weigh a little more than 149,000 pounds, or about 68,000 kilograms.

Do you see the problem the poem presents?

Now, you may be saying, “But its a poem.” As in, “It’s not meant to be taken literally.” And you might be right. But here’s a counterpoint, I’m not a scientist. I’m not even that well versed in science. I got a C+ or something like it in Physics 101. But I did all that research and math in about five minutes with a quick internet search. You might say, “But this poem isn’t brand new. Maybe Billy Collins didn’t have all that information at his fingertips like we do now.” To which I say, this poem was first published in 2001. The speeds were slower, but we still had the internet back then. But maybe Billy Collins is a bit of a Luddite. Well, there are these places in pretty much every major city all over the US where you can get this information. They are called planetariums and he references them in this exact poem. And if none of those were in easy reach, there are these dusty old places called libraries. They’re basically the internet without computers. Except in 2001 most libraries had computers which connected to the internet and were free, or very cheap, and were set aside for public use.

The point here is that as a professional it’s your job to get it right, and if you have to do a little research then fucking do the research. It’s a small price to pay for science literacy and it won’t drive people like me to write crazy, nitpicky rants about fairly harmless mistakes and post them online.

I could go on about how scientifically literate language wouldn’t ruin the language or cadence of the poem. I could point out in depth the problem presented by an earlier stanza in which Collins seems to get the science right. But I’m sure if anyone is still reading this far in you just want it to end. Or maybe those who have stuck it out are only the crazies and want this to go on forever. Either way though, I’ll bring this entry to a close with a few short thoughts:

1. I don’t mean to attack Billy Collins’ character or claim he’s bad at his job. He is a terrific poet, but I feel he kind of dropped the ball here. Or maybe he wasn’t even holding this particular ball to begin with. But he should have been.

2. Science literacy is appallingly low among American adults (and probably elsewhere as well). It is especially important to get it right in venues where you can reach people who aren’t scientists and who may not have much to do with science in their day to day lives. People who read poetry in general tend to fit into this category. But there’s no reason it needs to be that way. In fact, science and literature can and should complement each other perfectly. When they do they improve each other, and the world is better off for it. And I want to live in that world.

What Kind of Author Do I Want to Be?

Recently, I was reading articles and thinking deep thoughts in an ill-advised attempt to avoid doing any actual work. These thoughts turned to what I want out of life, and inevitably how far away I am from that point. I had just read through an interview with my favorite author and fell into the evil practice of comparing my own work and life with his. This made me feel . . . bad.

Fire Bad

Not Frankenstein bad. Just like a piece of shit.

Of course, I want to be like my favorite authors. They are the ones who made me want to be an author in the first place. It would be ridiculous to not want to be like them, or to write like them. And to expect to not compare myself to them is also ludicrous, even if it is unhealthy. However, I decided to put this soul crushing activity to good use. I thought about why I like certain authors and how my own writing is different from theirs. Then, I thought about what I could do to make my work more like theirs. Not a bad activity, and I got some useful thoughts out of it.

After a while I couldn’t avoid at least pretending to be productive, so I started typing up part of a manuscript I’d already written. (I do my first drafts by hand for reasons. It works well for me, also for reasons.) As I was typing and making some edits I kept thinking about what I could do to make this story more like those of the authors I love. After trying a few things, I hit on a simple technique that also happened to solve a problem I’ve been worried about with that particular story.

As I worked through the edits I had in mind though, I realized that to change the style of the story would require A LOT of work. And I wasn’t in the mood to do work. I decided to put off the big edits and just work on little stuff and getting the story typed. It’s been a while since I’ve worked with this particular story. As a matter of fact, I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately and haven’t worked a lot on any particular story. Therefore, I had forgotten a lot of the minutiae in this one that really makes the story feel unique and fun. While I typed and read over this story and the minutiae and got reacquainted with its particular flavor, I realized something: It’s a good story. It’s good just the way it is. And I can be proud of writing it. The thing is, if I tried to change it all to fit another author’s particular style, it would lose all that. Or at least most of it. And I don’t need that.

The funny thing is, one of the big reasons I’ve been in a slump lately is I feel like I haven’t had as much opportunity as I’d like to just work on something for myself. But in trying to change my story I would be just perpetuating that problem. I’d be doing it for someone else, who didn’t even ask to be emulated and probably doesn’t want to be.

This realization led to another; I have eightyish more years of life (barring too much life happening to me) to write different stuff. One of the things that worries me is getting typecast as an author. I don’t want to be introduced as a “fantasy author” or “literary author” or anything. I want to write what I like, which is a bit of everything. But the answer to that problem is to just write what I want and not worry if it’s like someone else’s stuff or if anyone else with love it like I do. If I write something good, something that I like, it’ll find a home somewhere. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Q&A With Author Kyle Shoop

Here it is at last. I asked Kyle a few questions about his life and writing, and he was very kind to respond in more than a few words. Below is the full transcript. But before we get to that, here are some things you should know about Kyle:

He wrote a book called Acea and the Animal Kingdom. It’s written for kids/young adults and is absolutely fantastic. Here’s my review of it: https://christotaylor.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/acea-and-the-animal-kingdom-book-review/

You can check out Kyle’s homepage for more information about him and the Acea Bishop triology. (That’s right, Kyle is writing two more books!)

http://www.kyleshoop.com/

Finally, you can buy the book through Kyle’s homepage, or Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Acea-Animal-Kingdom-Volume-1/dp/1480207675?tag=ap0a7eddd0-20.

BONUS: To coincide with this post, Kyle has bumped the ebook price down to $0.99. Go buy that immediately! Also, I know sometimes ebook versions are tricky and look really bad or don’t translate well. I own the kindle version of Acea and it works beautifully. SO GO BUY IT!

And without further ado I give you, Kyle Shoop:

Kyle Shoop

 

I know when I write a lot, it really takes it out of me. I mean, it’s really hard, exhausting work. How do you find the time to balance writing, lawyering, and a solid marriage?

You’re not alone! Though my wife may sometimes disagree with the “solid marriage” part of the question, I’d like to think I’ve found a way to balance those things. Really, it’s all about prioritization. Being a husband, father, and practicing attorney take up about 90-95% of my time. So, it’s with the other 5-10% I try to use to write.

But whenever I find the time to write, it’s something I genuinely look forward to. Oftentimes, I look forward to it so much that I find myself thinking of plots and characters during commutes and church (shh, don’t tell!). Because if you think about it – writing a good novel requires more than just finding time to write – at least for me, I have to spend a large amount of time thinking about the story and researching things I don’t know about. At the end of a writing period, I usually am mentally exhausted. In fact, when I do write, I normally write until I’m exhausted. But it’s the type of exhaustion I look forward to because of the satisfaction I get from creating something. I imagine it’s kinda like the exhaustion that people who enjoy working out (not me) get – only I really have no clue about that for sure.

 

Do you ever experience writers’ block? How do you get through it?

Yes. I do something I think a lot of writers tell you not to do – I stop writing. To me, the worst thing that I could do is continue writing if I genuinely don’t know where the story is going to go. I’d hate to have to go back and change so much of the story, because much of what I’ll continue writing in the future depends on what I’ve already written. Waste of time. I stop writing and start thinking a lot about it – and talk to people about what different avenues the story could go down.

This actually happened to me in writing Acea and the Animal Kingdom. I experienced a mental block about ½ way through the Terrarium room. I stopped writing for about a month and just thought through what the plot should be in great detail and how it fit into the larger story. Then, once I decided I was ready to begin writing again, the story just came to me a thousand times easier.

Luckily, I have the ending of books two and three already planned out and I can’t wait to share it!

 

Why write for children? Do you want to continue with them as your audience? Are there any plans for an adult oriented novel?

I write for children for three reasons. First, because my wife has been a teacher for young kids for so many years, that age group is just organically what I’ve been influenced by. Second, it’s a welcome change from my day job of legal writing. Third, I actually started putting pen to paper (keyboard) after I read a couple chapters of another popular book in this genre. After having read those chapters, I decided my time would be better spent writing the plot I’d been developing in my head instead of reading.

Yes – I love having that age group as my audience! One of my favorite reactions I constantly get is from parents who say they read Acea with their kid at bedtime. I can only really get that reaction that from this audience.

With that being said, though, I’ve often developed plots for more-adult oriented novels, such as horror and love novels (yea, crazy, I know…). In general, any time I find myself really enjoying a movie, I get inspired for that genre. But at this time, I’m so focused on making the Acea series as entertaining, intriguing and rewarding as I possibly can that I can’t even see past it. But, who knows – maybe when I’m done with the third and final book I’ll write something totally different.

 

You self-published. Any particular reason why? What did that entail?

It’s just the way I roll. I did contact some agents about representation but in the end decided against it. Just wasn’t my thing. I even used to self-record music back in the day – where I played all the instruments and sang on it. Maybe my prior creative independence played a role in my decision.

Self-publishing does take a lot of work, though. You only reap what you sow. I did my own book cover, website, etc. In fact, I’d say making a website was way more laborious than writing. In the end, I’m open to traditional publishing if the right circumstance arises – it just hasn’t yet.

 

Do you consider all your various endeavors (musician/author/lawyer/etc.) careers/jobs or does one stand out there while others are hobbies?

Being a lawyer is definitely my career and job. But being a self-published author means I have to not only just enjoy writing, but I also have to treat the marketing like a job – which can be tough because writing is inherently an introverted profession. So it’s easy to say all I want to do is write and then write some more – and maybe if stars align people will buy it. I can’t do that – I’m always looking for more ways to bring Acea to more readers. Basically, I treat writing like a hobby – that way I’ll continue enjoying it; whereas I treat the marketing side like a job. 

The most common question I get from readers is “when is the next book coming out?” With how often I get that question, it does add a certain amount of pressure to make writing not just a hobby but a job.

Being a musician was always just a hobby. I used to write and record my own albums for personal enjoyment and never really tried to market it. I also like to think that writing music was my “gateway drug” to writing stories – it gave me experience in expressing myself in a way which allowed me to see how people would react to my ideas. If I was never a musician, my novels would probably not be as entertaining.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

My wife explained best once to someone we know – I guess I’m a dreamer (whatever that means). However, the ideas have to make sense – the plot has to be going somewhere, feel like there are real stakes, and that it pays off.

For Acea and the Animal Kingdom, I tried really hard to have every chapter end in a way that the reader would want to immediately start the next chapter. That actually was a challenge sometimes and I found myself coming up with new twists or raised-stakes that I otherwise wouldn’t have.  As I go back and re-read it, though, I’m surprised at how many different things – movies/tv/books – have influenced certain points and I didn’t even realize it while writing.  However, I really didn’t want to write a book that felt like it was just re-hashing a prior plot. It had to feel original to me.

 

How do you go about doing research?

For the first book, I actually visited a zoo and took copious notes about all animals – even ones I wasn’t sure would be included and ones that I’d seen a hundred times before. Then, I’d obviously research stuff online. I can’t tell you how many hours I spend learning about tarantulas and watching videos about them eating. Not fun.

For this second novel, the research is actually a reason why it’s taking longer to write. Instead of animals, it revolves around the 7 ancient wonders of the world. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know much about them –I must have missed those days in school or something.

In general, I try to have the setting of the novels be based in things that require research. And hopefully I get most of the research based stuff right.

 

I’m sure you have bouts of “I just want to sit here and watch tv/play a game/eat my dinner and not write anything.” How do you get through that?

Yes, I certainly do. And I can’t say I get through that. I re-watched the last season of Lost with the excuse that I was trying to spark my creativity for the second book, but I think it was really just about re-watching Lost. (Lost-haters – don’t worry. The second book is nothing like the show.) In the end, I think it really boils down to prioritization and motivation.

 

What’s your favorite part of Acea and the Animal Kingdom? Why is it your favorite? Was it easy to write?

Gosh, so many! My favorite question to ask readers is what their favorite room is, even though I don’t really have one myself. I had to make each room be my favorite while writing it, so it’s tough to narrow it down – kinda like having to choose which child is your favorite.  Without giving too much away, though, I’d have to say that I really thought the part where the gorilla rips open the anaconda in the jungle room was an awesome idea.

 

Finally, why write?

For me, expression has always been a necessity – even if no one ever read a thing I wrote.

It started with writing and playing music and then expanded into storytelling. When I was doing my undergrad, I actually made a crazy goal that I never thought I’d ever follow through on. It was to record a music album, write a novel, and compose a symphony. Five years later, I completed writing/recording my third album and decided to let music-making just take the back burner. Without even thinking about my prior goal, I’d begun crafting the outline of a novel after having a certain dream.  One year later, I’d finished the draft of Acea and the Animal Kingdom.  Only, just as I ended up actually recording three musical albums instead of one, the Acea series is now planned to be trilogy! Writing – whether music or novels – is such a rewarding form of expression because it’s my own creation.

Thanks again!

If you have more questions, leave them in the comments section. I’m sure Kyle will be happy to answer them if he ever gets a break from his incredibly busy life. Thank you Kyle. This was immensely fun.

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard passed away earlier this week. He was, and I suppose still is, one of the more prolific and successful and just downright good writers of the last century. If you haven’t read anything of his, STOP READING THIS BLOG AND GO READ ELMORE LEONARD! Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the subject.

In 2001 Elmore Leonard wrote and essay titled WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” which was published in the New York Times. Since then, many people have distilled this essay into either 10 or 11 Rules for Writing. After his death, many other people decided a good way to honor him would be to flood the internet with these rules. Leonard deserves the honor, but I am going to explain why I think this is a bad way to honor him.

First, the rules are only a small part of the full essay. Second, because they are only a small part, the distilled rules are not Leonard’s actual advice to writers. For every rule, he writes a lengthier description, often including caveats and exceptions to the rule. In other words, Elmore Leonard was not advocating that every writer follow these rules or that doing so would automatically make the writing good. He opens the essay with this statement:

“These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”

In other words, these are his rules for himself. This is advice, not rules. And to represent it as something it is not does a disservice to the man who spent time and effort relaying the advice. Now, I could go on and on and on and on and on (well you get the picture), but instead I will simply do this. Below are two links. One will take you to Mashable.com for a distilled version of Leonard’s rules and the other will take you to the full essay. Read both, and decide for yourself which is better writing advice.

http://mashable.com/2013/08/20/elmore-leonard-rules-of-writing/

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html?src=pm

Disclaimer: the Mashable article does link to the NY Times article, and its whole presentation makes it one of the better versions of the 10 rules I’ve seen.

Depression and Writing

I don’t know what it’s like to be normal. That’s not to say I’m not normal (although the case could be made), but I’m not sure what normal is. In speaking specifically on the subject of depression, I have periods of my life (usually lasting anywhere from 1-3 weeks) when I get very very depressed. I don’t think I suffer from clinical depression, which my wife does and it sucks. I think my depression is the normal kind, but like I said-I don’t know. Anywho…

“Blah blah blah,” you say, “Chris is depressed. Cry me a river. What does this have to do with writing or books or anything?” To which I respond, “Let me get there Grumpypants!”

When I get depressed it usually has something to do with writing. Either I’m not writing enough, or I’m getting rejected, or I feel like my writing is bad and I should just give up. Some of these things cause the depression, some just extend it. The point is though, the only way I know how to get past it is to write more. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. I tried writing more in the last two days. I’ve got a story in my head that I think will be good once it’s down on paper. I tried writing that. It didn’t help.

In fact, not only did it not help; it made me feel worse. The story, which I know is a good one, wasn’t working, and working on it when it wasn’t working made me feel like I was never going to be able to get anything done. I almost contemplated giving up the whole writing thing and taking a job as a security guard and working my way through the ranks until someday I could make a $50,000 salary and buy a Smart car. It’s not a bad life, not really.

Last night, a sentence came into my head. It’s a fun sentence. Not perfect, not fantastic, but fun. I wrote it down. Then I wrote more sentences down, and before you know it they started to make a story. I wrote out a few pages, then I felt sleepy so I went to bed. But now I’m feeling less depressed. Writing is a strange demon that way.

I don’t have much of a point with this post. It’s really more of a “This is what’s been happening in my life.” than, “I know what I’m talking about.” I wonder though if other writers feel the same way. Do they worry about their writing the same way I do, or is it just a thing they do? In other words, Am I normal? I think I am, but then again I don’t know what the hell that words means anyway.