I recently returned to Los Angeles from a vacation in rural Upper Michigan, where I grew up. Obviously, these are two largely different worlds with different cultures. Having lived in Southern California for so many years has made me largely forget some of the differences between the places.
For example, Los Angelenos tend to take good weather for granted. You don't need to make alternative plans in case it rains. You don't need to check the weather forecast to decide if you need to reschedule something. You just go out and do what you need to do. You don't have to force yourself to go outside if the weather is good because a clear sky is a rare thing.
In Los Angeles, I rarely get sick. If a bug is going around at work, and I start feeling ill, I'll take a sick day or two, and it almost always puts the sickness at bay before it gains a strong foothold. Back in Michigan, when it gets cold and wet, people tend to stay inside, and you hear coughs the likes of which you almost never hear in Los Angeles. It's almost impossible to avoid sick people in cold climates.
I tend to go to sleep around 2am here in Los Angeles. This is 5am in Michigan, about the time people start getting up. This makes it incredibly hard for me to sleep while I'm there. I tend to get around one or two hours of sleep a night. Mix in with this a house with sick people in it, and it's hard not to catch something. I, fortunately, dodged the bullet this time around, but it really got me thinking about how differently people have to think and act in cold and warm climates. I must have a much greater chance of getting sick in two weeks while visiting in Michigan, than I do spending the other fifty weeks of the year in California.
Naturally, this makes me think about writing. I grew up in rural Michigan, yet because I rarely visit when it's cold, I sort of forgot how much harder it is to dodge sicknesses there than it is to in a climate where people don't have to stay indoors. Having gone to an outdoor wedding while in Michigan, I was reminded that in most places there has to be bad-weather contingency plans for major events. I can't remember the last time I even thought about the weather in Southern California affecting something that I wanted to do.
And that made me wonder if living in a unique area in the world actually works against fiction writers.
Obviously, many great writers have written beautifully about Paris without having been there. I think, however, it would greatly benefit any writer, if they have the opportunity, to travel to a place they're writing extensively about. There are so many different aspects to various regions of the world—some major, some minor—but knowing even the smaller stuff could really add some wonderful color to one's writing.
I never seem to have enough time, nor money, to do much traveling. I have to change that in the future, because traveling and experiencing can only lead to better writing.
I'm on vacation in Upper Michigan, and in my spare time I've been preparing my novel, "The Wicked Trees," for a paperback release via Amazon's CreateSpace. Some of it has gone smoothly (the CreateSpace end), some not at all (the Scrivener formatting).
For all that is great about Scrivener, it's such a nightmare to learn that it's enough to make one go mad. Its functionality is what drives writers to use it, but I find it incredibly hard to learn how to use any of it. The manual is a gargantuan nightmare. There are many how-to videos that people have graciously put up on Youtube, but everyone doesn't use it the same way, and many show older versions of the software.
It also still seems buggy to me. For instance, I could not get the program to consistently capitalize the first couple words of every chapter. It would work for about two-thirds of the chapters, and in no seemingly particular order. I just couldn't figure out how to get it work consistently, so I gave up on that part.
After many, many hours, I was finally able to compile a workable PDF. I'm not going to give up on Scrivener at all. Once you learn it, it is wonderful. But I don't understand why it can't be made more user-friendly. I feel if it doesn't become easier to learn and use over time, people will begin migrating to other options.
CreateSpace, however, was surprisingly easy to figure out. As long as you have a correctly formatted PDF, uploading it, and preparing it for sale is a relative breeze. My only complaint is that the cover-creator is still a bit rudimentary. However, you can easily upload your own cover. I finished my formatting last night, and the digital proof was ready for me to review by morning. When I get back to SoCal, I'll order a physical proof copy. Can't wait to see how it looks.
Amazon has obviously done wonderful things for independent writers. They deserve a lot of credit for doing so. I don't want to bash Scrivener too much. It is a Godsend compared to Word. Once you get through the horrific process of learning it, you'll love what it can do. I'm pretty sure that the post-writing part of novel #2 takes up a fraction of the time of going through it for novel #1.
If Amazon wanted to dominate the market, however, they'd purchase Scrivener, make it more user-friendly, put it all online, and connect it to CreateSpace. That would really seal the deal for most authors, and could make the world of writing a much more wonderful place to be.
I found a pretty cool (and I think useful) website called thetruesize.com. It allows users to accurately compare the sizes of states and countries (which are obviously massively distorted on globes).
I think this can help us as writers because it gives us a sense of how large things are compared to places we know. It's difficult to get a sense of how big Spain, The Netherlands, Brazil, or Bangladesh are, without having lived there. Fortunately, with this site, we can get a clue.
For example, Spain is slightly smaller than Texas (which doesn't seem accurate in my mind):
The Netherlands is much, much smaller than the state of Utah (how can that be?):
It turns out that Brazil is really, really big:
And Bangladesh, with its 172 million people, is half the size of New Mexico, with its population of just over 2 million:
I think this tool can not only help us with travel times, but it can give us a better sense of population densities as well. I'm definitely adding it to my writing research folder.
I haven't done any writing in almost three weeks. I've done far too little of it in the past couple of months, and I won't be able to do any writing for at least a couple of more weeks.
I'm going through the long process of buying a condo in a co-op and fixing it up before I move in. It's been painting at the new place for a couple of hours before driving into work, every day. Up in the morning, home after midnight. It's right at the same time of year where I work a bunch of overtime since a lot of people are on summer vacation. Needless to say, I've been busy.
What I have been able to do, is think a lot about my fantasy novel that I'm about halfway through the first draft of. So while I'm putting the paintbrush to the wall, I'm still thinking about my characters and the plot-lines, and it's actually been nice because I've worked through some things that I think will benefit the project as a whole. Separation from a project is sometimes beneficial.
Yet, not being able to get any writing done, much less watch any of the tv shows I've wanted to catch up on, has been a bit of a pain. Every couple of nights I've been able to play some Witcher 3 for an hour before nodding off, which has been fun, but I'm seriously looking forward to moving in so I can get back into the old routine.
I'm also looking forward to the change in environment to see how it affects my writing process. I have a feeling that I'm going to spend most mornings poolside doing some reading or writing before I hop in and get my exercise for the day. Plus, since I'm moving from one end of the San Fernando Valley to the other, I'll be able to check out a whole new neighborhood of coffee shops.
I'm hoping a change of environment does my creative process some good. I have a feeling it's going to bode well for me.
I've been using many different writing programs throughout the years. For screenwriting, I started with Final Draft, moved to Movie Magic, back to Final Draft, and then went with Scripped.com (which I loved), until it one day died and lost everyone's scripts (I had most of my stuff backed up on a flash drive). Now I use WriterDuet.com, which is decent. I received a discount on a lifetime membership there for being a life-time member of the failed Scripped.com. One thing that WriterDuet doesn't do is allow you to write a novel. Bad WriterDuet.
During my MFA, for short story and novel writing, I alternated between Word and Google Docs. Unfortunately, neither are that good for writing online. (Message to Microsoft & Google: Please work on this. Thanks!) I later switched to Scrivener, which has a learning cliff, but is terrific once you get past that.
Lately, I've been looking for a second place to write non-screenplay stuff. I'll stick with Scrivener for my primary novel, and will use it to format novels that are complete. But I want something secondary to be able to hop on and work on poems, short stories, or a second novel, that is something much simpler than Scrivener, and something that is online.
I've been testing out Novlr.org. It's still in its infancy phase. It definitely doesn't have enough customizable options yet (including a small enough font size). But it is quick, easy, and has a great, comfortable look to it. It keeps track of your writing stats, and a writing goals feature is supposedly coming soon. One thing I like is a background setting that allows you to switch between day, evening, and night, depending on how dark you want your background. I prefer a darker background since it's easier on the eyes.
I see potential problems with Novlr, though. For one, it's expensive. There's a two-week free trial, which is nice. Then it's $10/month or $100 per year, which is very steep considering the lack of features. They currently have a short-term sale of $150/lifetime, but I got bit by a similar deal with Scripped.com. So it's a matter of bleeding out with a high monthly expense or taking a risk that it'll be around for awhile and buying into a long-term deal. I'm afraid that with the high monthly price, there won't be enough users sticking around to make it profitable.
I've liked it so far, though. I'll give it a couple more days of a test run before making a decision. If it were half the price, I'd have a lot more confidence that it would be around a couple of years from now.
It's been almost three years since I graduated with my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (and seven years since I finished my MBA), and the more I look back at it, the more I'm glad I went to grad school.
I'm convinced that the MFA program I was in made me a better writer. That's what I paid for. But above that, it made me be more able to fully appreciate great writing. I can better understand quality writing when I see it. The downside is that it's made me hate poor writing, all the more. But when I read really good stuff, I'm better for it.
I miss the days of being in grad school. It was nice to be in contact with so many other writers on a constant basis. Once you're done with it, writing becomes a very solitary process.
Writing groups take time. Too much time. It's fun to follow authors on Twitter, and to read articles written by novelists, buts it's not the same as being immersed in a group of writers. Besides the learning, grad school is a wonderful way to be in a large group of people with a similar passion who are all cramming to learn the same stuff as you. It's a real benefit. I miss it.
I read a lot of articles written by people who either recommend MFA's or don't. There're many pros and cons. I'm definitely in the pro-camp, as long as you find a good one that's affordable. A graduate degree in creative writing might not lead to tremendous financial wealth, but it does make you wealthier in other ways.
Perhaps later in life, when I'm an old man, I'll be teaching writing somewhere. Being around other writers is a good thing. I miss it.
Earlier this year, I set pretty solid writing goals for myself. I'm working on a fantasy novel and wanted to make sure that I was making adequate progress throughout the entire year. The first several weeks, it seemed to be working well. If I was too busy one week, I'd make up for it the next week. That often seemed to be the case.
Lately, however, the goals are having an unexpected effect on me. I've suddenly had much more available time than I usually do. In fact, this month I have almost nothing on my calendar, which is extremely rare. So I've been writing, hitting my weekly goal, and then taking time off from writing. Too much time.
When you're behind on what you're expecting to accomplish, goals work well. They are rigid guidelines to keep you going. But when you're in the midst of a good run, I think they become an excuse to take a break, once you've flown past the goal.
When you reach a goal, it gives you a sense of accomplishment. I think what's important is that you tie your ultimate satisfaction only partly on accomplishing your weekly goal, but more importantly on how you feel about what you've accomplished during the period. How good is the quality of what you've written? How much have you written compared to the available time that you had? Do you wish you would have accomplished more?
I now realize that the original mid-year page count goal I had in my mind is not adequate if I keep having sizable chunks of free time. I have to get 15k words or so above that goal. But I don't want to set that in stone because I know at some point I'll get insanely busy with life again.
Goals need to be adjusted in both directions, depending on what comes at you. Allowing a goal to be used as an excuse not to write really defeats its whole purpose. What you accomplish should be primarily guided by what's in you, not what you've written down on your to-do list.
I'm sitting here watching the Detroit Tigers play the Miami Marlins during their first game of the season. I love it when the baseball season finally starts.
Baseball is different for me than football. Because the pace is so slow, I usually do something else while watching the game. Sometimes I play Minecraft. It's a slow, slog of a video game that works well when watching a slow, slog of a sports game.
I also tend to write while watching baseball. It's a good mix. Writing for me comes in spurts. Baseball action does too. They compliment each other well.
I watch baseball on the MLB app, sometimes on my TV, but usually on my phone. When I had a tablet, it worked perfectly for watching baseball. At some point, I'll have to buy another Google tablet, solely for watching sports on it.
Of course, if it's a big game, especially towards the end of the season or during the playoffs, it's on my tv, and I'm not doing anything but watching it. I think it's not only the fact that baseball is slow, but also that each regular season game means so little, that helps make it watchable while doing other stuff. I could never write or play a video game while watching football.
So here's to the 2016 baseball season and hopefully a successful campaign for the Detroit Tigers. I will most likely write hundreds of pages of stuff while watching them play. The game takes the edge off of writing, and writing takes the edge off of the game.
At the end of the last final exam every semester during grad school, as I walked away from the business building, I felt a relaxed feeling in my shoulders and in my neck, like a heavy load had been lifted off of them, along with a tremendous feeling of relief, knowing full well that I'd be getting a terrific night of sleep ahead of me.
I don't have that grade-worry anxiety any longer, but the one time of the year when I get a feeling that's similar is when I get done doing my taxes. It's always such a pain in the ass to go through all the year's receipts and itemize everything, that once I have my meeting with my tax guy and hand it all in, I feel relaxed as hell as I walk out the door (knowing that I'm getting money back helps as well).
I had my tax meeting yesterday afternoon, came home, hopped into bed, and had the best three-hour nap I've had in years, during which I had the most memorable dream I've had in a long, long time.
I'm not going to divulge the concept of the dream, but I will say this: it was a frightening (but often in a good way) narrative that had a very distinct beginning, middle, and end. What was amazing is that I woke up right after the climax but before the denouement, at the exact time when the emotional rise had peaked and had started falling like a rock. It was a wonderfully immersive experience that was scary as hell.
Though it was not complete enough to form a complete novel or feature-length story, the concept was complete enough to serve as the foundation as one.
I think it says a lot about how the creative process works. Sometimes it's in the abnormal times in our lives (emotional or comfort level extremes) that we come up with good stuff. It's in these times that our minds, even our unconscious minds, can see things from a slightly different angle, which is often all it takes to open up the development process deep inside our brains so the magic can happen.
That's the awesome thing about dreams. There's no work involved. You just kick back and watch the story that you create in real time. For a writer, it's doing work, while doing no work at all.
An old adage regarding writing fiction is that you should 'show' instead of 'tell.' The idea, which Hemingway was a big proponent of, is that if you have characters reveal something through interaction, it's more powerful than simply have a writer reveal it through exposition. Recently, there's been a backlash of sorts against the rule, by writers who think that a mix of showing and telling is better for pacing and dynamic range of action within a narrative. Most fiction teachers stick by the rule, however.
I belong in the latter camp. Exposition is extremely efficient, and many times works well, especially when describing backstories or large amounts of information that needs to be laid down as a foundation for the narrative. Sometimes, however, I find myself leaning too far on the telling/exposition side of things.
I was writing a scene this weekend on the medieval fantasy novel that I'm working on, and established a mercenary group called The Triad, via exposition. It worked well in the course of the scene. But after thinking about it for a day, I decided to add another scene, one that takes place in a tavern, that establishes the group via a conversation that takes place after a very tense conflict between two characters. The result: a very tense added scene and an added character that helps fill out the chapter in a much more intriguing way than what I had. The description is far more veiled as well, as I decided to hold on to a few cards to play later on in the game.
I like to break the rules--a lot. Sometimes too much. Because I favor going against the grain, I have to keep myself in check at times, by thinking to myself: By breaking the rule, am I engaging the reader as much as if I followed the rule?
It's definitely something that rule-breakers like myself need to keep in mind.
Every now and then you run across a gem of a statement on Twitter. A few weeks ago, fantasy author @BrianRathbone tweeted the following: Writing is the art of claiming time and avoiding distraction.
I don't think I've ever heard what writing--in terms of life, really is--summed up so succinctly. The vast majority of people who love to write, who in fact do write novels, screenplays, poetry, etc., don't make a living at it, so they have to find time in between commutes, work, grocery shopping, reading, spending time with others, and general life. The actual small amount of time one gets to write in a day is very precious.
For most serious writers, being distraction-free is a must, if one wants to get anything accomplished of any decent level of quality. It's the same as if you're working out complex mathematical formulas in your head: being able to focus is key. Your story is a puzzle, and you're constantly searching for the correct next piece.
Some non-distinct grey noise in the background can be beneficial (coffee shops are great), but anything that is very distinct, and specifically targeted directly at you, makes it all but impossible to complete the task at hand.
Some people don't seem to understand (a) how strongly distraction negatively affects a writer & (b) how precious the short amount of time one has to write really is. I think many people don't have the desire to try to be exceptional to the world in any way (or the desire to put out the monstrous amount of effort required to be exceptional), and for some of those people, doing whatever is necessary to not be bored in the current fleeting moment is on the forefront of their minds, constantly, just like with puppies.
When these puppy-people distract you, especially when they distract you often, for no other purpose but to express some banality of the moment, so that they're not bored--they are taking away something from you that is precious.
And you just want to take a rolled-up piece of newspaper and smack them over the head, and say "Bad puppy!"
I spent a few days at a hotel resort, in a room facing the ocean, up on the central coast of California. What a beautiful part of the country. California has it all: hip & dirty urban centers, mountains, the largest trees on the planet in remarkable forests, deserts, and a gorgeous coastline.
It wasn't by accident that I chose San Simeon for a writing getaway. The theory goes that if you're working on the large concept part of a project—big, majestic, open spaces are preferable for the creative mind. If you're in the late detail stage—a smaller, closed environment is preferable.
I'm working on a fantasy novel, and even though I'm about 30% through the first draft, there were still some things I needed to work on regarding the plot lines and the character arcs. So, I spent a few days, relaxing, writing, sitting, watching the ocean, reading, and swimming in a heated pool. And I think it paid off in spades.
I now have a very clear picture in my head of how my different plot lines are going to come together at the end of this novel, and where they're going to begin and probably end in the 2nd novel of the series.
Big, open spaces. In Los Angeles, there's not a lot of those. So, as an LA writer, it pays to get out of town every now and then, and see the wide open spaces in the rest of the this remarkably beautiful state.
I woke up at noon after ten hours of sleep, something I hadn't gotten in over ten years.
I got a fruit smoothie going for brunch.
Wrote for a couple of hours.
Went for a three mile walk.
Wrote for three hours.
Went for a three mile walk.
Had some Szechuan Beef for dinner.
Ready to watch some Netflix for a couple of hours before going to sleep.
That's a pretty damn good day in the life of a writer.
There's been a slew of iconic musicians dying lately, including Motörhead's Lemmy, David Bowie, and The Eagle's Glenn Frey. I'm afraid we're seeing the tip of the iceberg, as the hard partying legends of the late '60's and '70's are all reaching a certain age.
It's incredibly sad for more than one reason.
The bulk of music created in the last fifteen years doesn't resonate with many of us who were born in the '70's or earlier. It comes across as thin, shallow, and incomplete. The primary reason, I believe, is because music has shifted away from deep narratives for the sake of simplicity. Shallow pop, country, and hip hop rule the day, much to the dismay of those who appreciate a certain depth in their musical art.
This is not a lyric you would likely find written today:
Well, I'm a standin' on a corner, in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It's a girl my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford
Slowin' down to take a look at me
At first look, this lyric appears simple in nature. It is not, however. The power of this lyric is that you can feel what the author(s) felt in that moment in a deep sense. It's a scene. It's part of a narrative. There's nothing more American than an attractive woman driving a flat-bed Ford through rural America. The picture is painted beautifully. The feeling of attraction was felt by the writer, and transferred to the listener, with incredible effectiveness. This awesome moment is forever captured—from the very distinct setting, to the feeling of elation during the connection between two people in that particular moment in time—by a poet writing and singing his art.
Poetry typically fails to connect with today's masses unless there's a beat behind it. That's the truth. Some of the great conventional poets of our day are read by only a handful of people because that's all who are able to effectively connect with their work. But those who put their poetry to music—they're heard by the whole world.
Unfortunately, some of the great ones are beginning to die off, and when we look at the landscape that holds their replacements—the view looks disturbingly bleak. Thank God, however, their poetry remains, and future generations, from now all the way until the end of time, will be able to enjoy the emotionally charged poetic experience.
Rock on Glenn Frey.
There are two types of fiction writers: the one that structures out stories and characters before putting pen to paper, and the one that just begins writing without any planning. The prior tends to have better plots, and the latter better characters, or so traditional wisdom would tell us.
In business, firms generally come up with a strategy, typically what they're going to produce and who they're going to produce it for. They hit a target market and try to find a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors who occupy similar space.
And then there was Steve Jobs. He had no strategy other than to stop making crappy stuff. That's it. He reduced the number of products that Apple made from 350 to 10. Even today, the number of things Apple makes can fit on a kitchen table, and the firm is worth twice as much as the second most valued publicly traded company on the planet. Everything to Steve was either great or crappy, perfectly binary, with the vast majority of stuff being on the not-good-enough end.
I think if Steve Jobs was a fiction writer, he'd not work on the characters or plot in advance, but would certainly edit without abandon as he pushed forward with each chapter. I believe he'd be brutal with what he cut and what he kept though. Is it absolutely great? Are you sure? Then keep it. But if it's not—delete.
Many writers push through a first draft without editing along the way. Steve Jobs would certainly never do that. I can't either. I don't have to wait until a reread much further down the line to realize something is short of what it could be. So as I make my way through that first draft, I'm constantly going back and working on previous chapters. I just don't have the mindset to allow something to stay, even for a single draft,, if in that moment I think it's inferior to what should be there.
This approach seemed to work for Steve Jobs in the tech world. I'm not so sure it works for most in the literary world, but I can totally see where he comes from, and I'm sure I'm not the only writer that loves to cut recklessly with a chainsaw during the first draft.
If it's not a great section of writing—it's crap. Delete it. Put something in there that's worthy. I think that's what Steve Jobs would tell us writers if he could.
I've blogged before about writing retreats. Many authors swear by them, both official retreats (where you meet other writers) and unofficial retreats (where you just get away from your daily life for a few days and focus on getting those next few chapters down).
Last summer I spent three days in a cabin in Big Bear, and I had planned to do a lot of writing, but ended up spending most of the time learning how to use Scrivener. It was time well spent, and I totally fell in love with the idea of getting out of town to focus on the novel. Instead of spending my credit card points on Starbucks, which I've done for years, I've been using them recently to save up Orbitz points, specifically to get out of town three or four times a year, for brief excursions, to get away from the distractions of home.
Having worked a ton of overtime over the holidays (including a twelve hour shift on Christmas and on New Year's Eve), I'm itching to get out of town for a bit. I've been focusing on improving the writing space in my apartment so I'll be more apt to spend a couple of hours a day writing at home every morning. But I think getting out of town for an extended weekend to focus on my fantasy novel would do me some good.
Big Bear is not an option this time of the year because I don't want to put chains on my 300 and drive through the snow. So I'm thinking of going to Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo for a few days at the end of the month. The only problem is that we're starting our El Niño winter here in Cali, so if I plan it too early, I might be spending time at a beach during a downpour.
I truly want to get to Austin either this October or next to check out the city and the film festival. It's the festival for screenwriters, so it's a must to get to at some point. I think in the early summer I'll take a long weekend and drive back to Big Bear or up to the Sequoias for a quick writing getaway. And hopefully I'll be able to squeeze another one in sometime late in the year.
Maybe in 2017 or 2018, I'll try to get to a writer's conference. For now, I'd like to just keep to my commitment of getting a few writing getaways in a year. It seems to help a lot of writers in their process, I think it'll help me as well.
Keeping the focus is a big part of my 2016.
2015 was a year of decent progress for me. In February, I started this blog, and have been posting relatively frequently to it. In July, I finally released my thesis novel, The Wicked Trees, on Kindle. Throughout the summer I made progress on my unnamed horror script. I also got about 25% through the first draft of my next novel, a medieval fantasy story, which I plan on turning into a series. I've rewritten those first few chapters numerous times and I like where it's going.
Later in the year I finally purchased a stellar writing rig, a MacBook Air, and became pretty proficient with Scrivener, which wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I've switched shifts at work, so now I have my mornings open to write, and gain about an hour or so every day because of an easier commute time. I should gain a lot more energy throughout the upcoming months as I'm getting good sleep for the first time in years.
My first project of 2016 is to build myself a better writing space. I'm getting rid of my breakfast nook that takes up too much of my kitchen and am replacing it with a small wooden table and chairs. It's a nice sunny spot in the morning to get away from the living room TV and Xbox. I might even try to squeeze in a little desk next to it. I'll see. The main objective is to have a small, distraction free space, where I can spend a couple of hours every morning with my laptop, before I go into work. I think I'm going to purchase an Amazon Echo to fill my writing space with music when I'm in the mood for it.
My plan is to get my thesis novel out on paperback sometime this Spring. It'll be nice to finally move on from that project, which I felt turned out pretty damn well.
I want to make significant progress on my fantasy novel during 2016. If I could get the first draft nearly completed, that would be great, but I'm not going to rush it.
I also want to make a decision as to which direction to take my horror script. I think it's satisfyingly scary as is, but I want to add something to make it more iconic. I've been tossing around ideas in my head for months. I'd really like to take a couple weeks here and there and push it further towards a final draft.
I'd also like to take a couple short writing trips in 2016. I've always wanted to go to the Austin Film Festival, so maybe this is the year I'll finally go. Perhaps I'll attend a writing conference or just go somewhere and hole myself up for a few days and focus on my novel while in a different environment.
Anyway, 2016 is here, and I'm excited about it.
About ten years ago, I had a shift change at work, going from swing shift to early morning day shift. It worked out at the time, because I was working on graduate degrees, and needed early night time for classes.
The years went by and the commute got much longer. I live about 20 miles from work, and during those ten years, I've gained over an hour worth of commute time because of increased Los Angeles traffic. I've also gained many pounds because I've been so tired doing the 90 min. commute home.
Starting tomorrow, I'm going back to swing shift. My commute into work will still be about an hour, but it should take me no more than 25 min. to get home.
The ultimate goal of this is to get more time and energy to write. This new shift will be a better fit for my natural wake/sleep cycle as well.
So hopefully, I'll be able to step it up and gain a lot of writing time. Somewhere down the line I'm going to have to move to a state where the traffic and expense isn't so punishing. But at least for now, I'll have a bit more time to type those words. And I'm really looking forward to spending mornings in local cafes, drinking mochas with my laptop in front of me, and a book sitting on the side, ready to be picked up.
A couple of days ago I flew from LAX to MQT to start two weeks of vacation in the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I was born. While at airports and in planes, I like to observe human behavior for future character creation tips. I ran into a couple of dandies on this trip.
First off, I really like small behaviors that can go a long way in defining who a person is, especially non-verbal behaviors. The more we learn who the characters are, the more satisfying the narrative is going to be.
Second off, there're two types of assholes. Asshole Type 1 is a person who realizes they're an asshole, and just doesn't care. Asshole Type 2 is a person who just doesn't realize that they're being an asshole. Both have intriguing aspects. I think each has their benefit to a story given the narrative situation.
When I entered the Delta terminal at LAX, it was crowded as all can be, as it always is. Since the check-in and security process went amazingly quick, I had a couple of hours to kill. I thought I'd sit down and have breakfast. However, every seat at every bar and restaurant was taken (the terminal is rather small for such a huge airport).
So I decided to grab a cup of coffee and to sit down and write for a bit. They now have a/c posts (of course not enough of them) where multiple people can plug in multiple devices. Not wanting to kill any battery juice before I took off, I searched for a seat near a post. There was not one.
What got me though, is that many of the people sitting next to the posts, had nothing plugged in. There were ample seats away from the posts, yet they chose to sit near the posts, seemingly to a/c block those who needed a charge. I'm assuming that the majority of these people were Type 2 assholes, not aware of what they were doing. Instantly, I can read a ton into what kind of people (or characters) they are.
I board the plane. I sit down and wait through a minor mechanical problem. The plane takes off. Instantly, the lady in front of me reclines her chair all the way back. For the duration of the flight, she's the only person that I can see that has her chair reclined back, and it's not to take a nap. She just wanted more room—at my expense. There went four hours of potential writing time because I no longer had enough room to open a laptop.
I'm guessing she's a Type 1 asshole. She's a person that just doesn't give a fuck. She'll gladly take some of what is mine in order to have more for herself.
On the second leg of the flight, I board a much smaller plane, and have a window seat. Same exact thing happens. The only person on the entire plane to lean their seat back is sitting in front of me. On this plane, however, the amount of legroom is unconscionably small. The seat drops back into my face. It was the most claustrophobic experience I've had since being shoved into an MRI tube.
I loudly discuss with the person next to me how little space I have. The man in front of me doesn't care. He's clearly a Type 1 asshole. What a villain. I plotted my revenge, but the flight was so short I didn't have ample time to carry it out.
Next time you want to efficiently establish that someone is a Type 1 asshole, have them get on a small plane and drop the seat back into the lap of the person who's sitting behind them. Small behaviors like this speak volumes about who the person is—most likely in many facets of their life.
Here's a picture of me trying to read on that second flight, with my book above the headrest of the asshole who sat in front of me, because that was the only space available:
I've had my MacBook Air for a few days. I downloaded the newest version of Scrivener. I set up all my Chrome tabs with my dictionaries/thesauruses/grammar sites/etc. I've tweaked the rig (including hiding the annoying dock on the bottom), I transferred over the novel I'm currently writing, and actually spent several hours putting words on the virtual paper.
So far, I'm completely understanding why novelists are shifting towards Scrivener on MacBook Airs. First off, the Mac Scrivener version is much more complete than the Windows version. I've not encountered any bugs as of yet, either.
The MacBook Air has many things going for it. Even though it's not very powerful—for writing it's got plenty of power. I'm really beginning to love the keyboard (it's comfortable during fast-typing). The thing boots up in a breeze. The power cord connects with a magnet and is so easy to remove. The battery will last a full day of writing. The whole thing is damn light; it's a dream to carry around.
I'm glad I went with the 13-inch screen (vs. the 11 inch). Once I launched Scrivener and did the divided screen (so you can see two parts of the novel at the same time), I realized that the bigger screen was the way to go. The rig is still extremely portable. (Remember, only the bigger version has the SD card slot as well).
So far, I'm elated. I can't wait to write a bunch of killer novels and screenplays on this thing. I'm almost glad that it's not too powerful because it will always remain my writing-only rig. I won't gunk it up with anything else.
One lame thing: on the Mac an em-dash is alt/option plus shift plus -+. How diabolical is that? Thankfully, there's a setting in Scrivener to convert double dash to em-dash, so all is good.
Yes, the MacBook Air is a pretty expensive option for starving writers. If you can afford it though, it's probably worth the purchase price because of its stability, functionality, and portability. It's got me pumped to do more writing.
How many times does a writer need to learn a lesson about backups?
I'm currently working on my second novel, a medieval fantasy tale. I'm using a program called Scrivener, which I'm not too familiar with, but since so many authors are turning to it, I'd thought I'd give it a try. After spending a bunch of hours playing around with it, I've gotten to appreciate its functionality, even though it's not the easiest thing in the world to figure out how to use. (I know—not the first time I've complained about it)
So I was working on a long chapter. I was about 10,000 words into it, and I was feeling pretty good about it. The day before yesterday, I left off at a good point to pick up from, and closed Scrivener, and saw it make a backup.
Now, I've been having an irritating problem since upgrading to Windows 10. Every time I close my laptop, it doesn't go to sleep—it goes into hibernation mode. Not fun. It's a widespread problem that I hope MS will fix with a patch soon.
Yesterday, I boot up my laptop out of hibernation mode and open Scrivener. Much to my dismay, my 10,000 word chapter was not there. Damn.
I immediately search for my backup folder, find it, and look at my most recent file. It's completely missing the chapter as well. Double damn.
I look to the next previous backup, which for some reason was from many days ago, and luckily it had 7,000 words of the chapter in it. But since I've only been writing about 500 words a day, I was initially confused as to why there weren't more backups.
Come to find out, my backup option was set to backup on program close. What I've gotten in the habit of doing, is closing my laptop, without closing Scrivener. This usually isn't a problem, since I can just pick up where I left off. Now however, because of the Windows bug, it goes into hibernation mode, and the program is shut down without creating a backup.
So I lost a few days of writing. But at least I better know how the Scrivener backup system works. I need to close the program every single time I stop writing.
How many times does a writer need to learn a lesson about backups? I don't know, but I'm guessing the number is pretty darn high.
One of the most common pieces of advice handed to new authors is to write only for oneself. If you don't, you'll inevitably fail. The thought is that one writes his or her best work if that person is writing what they want to write.
However, in the screenwriting world, the common advice is to do exactly the opposite. Because studios look for specific product, there's an endless list of rules that one is suggested to follow. You don't want to put yourself at a disadvantage since the odds of selling a screenplay are so long to begin with.
I've started writing a medieval high fantasy novel, and even though I'm about 20% into the first draft, I'm still not sure who I'm writing it for. Here are the options that I'm considering:
1. Kids-Teens - Harry Potter level. Nothing too violent. Highly sanitized language.
2. Teens-Mid 20's - Dragon Lance Chronicles level. Fantasy violence. Minor language.
3. Adult - Game of Thrones level. Hardcore violence and language.
4. Extreme Adult - Cormac McCarthy level. Extreme violence and situations.
Each group has its pros and cons. This first two are very popular right now when it comes to fantasy fiction and are probably the safest path to financial success. They play well in Middle America. They're definitely the most likely type of novel to make it to the big screen.
The third group, because of George R.R. Martin, has recently gained popularity, lends itself to cable channel adaptations, and plays well on the American coasts.
The fourth group is by far the most limiting. Yet it's the group that I love the most. I can't imagine most people being able to stomach Blood Meridian. But for those that do, there's nothing like it. Now, that novel will probably never be adapted to film or TV, because the odds of it gaining a large enough audience to be profitable are small—very small. Cormac, perhaps the most talented living author, will never sell the amount of books that J.K. Rowling sold, and hence, will never become a billionaire. But the amount of pure joy that I gain from reading his work is so far above that of stuff written for wider audiences.
I'd have much more fun writing a fantasy novel without limits. I'd have more fun writing one with some limits than one with many limits. However, at this early stage in my writing career, I have to consider which path is the most intelligent for my future career.
So which audience will I write for? That is the question that will be on my mind for the next few weeks as I continue with my first draft. Since I'm planning on making this story a trilogy, it's a pretty big decision. Unfortunately, I think too many of us writers are keeping agents and publishers too close in our minds while putting pen to paper.
Below is a fascinating video of a presentation by Dr. Matthew McCaffrey (who is a Lecturer in Enterprise at The University of Manchester) on the economics of Game of Thrones. If you're a fan of the show, I recommend watching it.
In the video, Dr. McCaffrey talks about economic systems of the different factions in Game of Thrones and how they play into the storyline. For instance, The Dothraki earn their wealth almost exclusively through plundering. This puts a stiff upper limit on the amount of wealth they can collect, whereas the Lannisters received their wealth through gold mining, which allowed them to fight massive wars, until the gold ran out. The Iron Bank has enormous clout, and doesn't need to have huge armies because it has lent out money to so many factions, they can quickly call in favors.
This goes to the heart of why George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones stories resonate so strongly with avid readers and viewers. Although they happen in a medieval fantasy realm, they come off as real. There's many multiple connections to our world and time that make it easy for us to relate with the characters and plot lines. These connections are done well in a micro and a macro sense, and they connect us to this wonderful world of Westeros in a way that fantasy fiction is rarely able to achieve.
In the last two weeks, I've watched 45 episodes of 'Game of Thrones.' I've also started reading the first book. When I'm done with Season 5, I'll write a post stating what I like about the show. For now, I'd like to share my favorite scene. Playback is disabled for the embed, but click HERE to watch it, and then continue reading this post. It is the scene where King Joffrey, while sitting on the Iron Throne, asks his grandfather for a report on the meetings of the small council.
What a terrifically written and acted scene. In seven words of dialogue: "We could arrange to have you carried," Tywin Lannister establishes that he is in fact in charge King's Landing (if not all of Westeros), not his grandson, King Joffrey.
This couldn't have been more effectively stated with epic battle scenes or grotesque power plays that lasted episodes. It is powerful and concise, and I can't think of a better way to establish this most important piece of information.
In case you don't know, George R.R. Martin is a brilliant writer. It's not always about the grandness of the scene. Many of the best moments in the history of narrative have been delivered by a simple line of dialogue or description. It's coming up with those rare iconic lines of tremendous meaning that is part of what separates the good writers from the great.
I've mentioned in a previous post how the secret to great writing came into focus for me while working towards my MFA in Creative Writing. The key is that engaging characters are what separate the best narratives from the rest. They're more important than plot or style. It is the characters that we remember.
Recently, I finished the main campaign in Grand Theft Auto 5. The game is one of the most highly rated games of all time and has sold tens of millions of copies, bringing in hundreds of millions in revenue to Rockstar Games. This was expected, as Rockstar has a long history of producing high-quality sandbox games that resonate strongly with gamers.
I really enjoyed the campaign but was struck by something about it. Storywise, it was pretty weak. The plot was simple, unbelievable (which fits the genre), and actually forgettable. But where Rockstar knocked it out of the park was with the characters.
In GTAV, you play three different characters: Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Each is well developed, unique, and a joy to play. Trevor is one of the most outrageously over-the-top characters in the history of video games. The 45 million or so players that have played GTAV have had enormous fun through these characters, not even realizing or caring that the story was subpar. They will easily forget the plot, but few will ever forget Trevor.
Compare this to Ubisoft's first foray into the genre: Watch Dogs. The game was good, especially for a series launch-game. The story was exceptionally intriguing, but the characters were nominally interesting. Now granted, Rockstar has been doing these types of games for much longer than Ubisoft, and has much bigger budgets to play with. Watch Dogs, at 8.5 million in sales, was a hit. But it wasn't as quite fun as its chief competitor, even though the story was far superior. Part of this was game mechanics, but the majority of it was the difference in character quality.
Characters make all the difference in the world. This goes for writing a novel, a feature film, or a video game campaign. The quality and engagement of the characters is what separates the good from the great. Hence, it is the character creation that should receive the most focus.
This may be the most important writing lesson there is to learn.
(p.s. both games are well worth playing)
Jon David Rosten, author of
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