Why I Write Fantasy: A Post About Possibilities, Magic, and He-Man

by John Howe

“Why did you pick that genre? Why fantasy?”

It is almost a strange question to me, like why do you breathe air. Though of course, sometimes I don’t breathe air — sometimes I hold my breath and swim deep into the seas of historical fiction or Gothic romance.

But I always resurface soon enough, always drawn back into worlds of magic, of epic struggles between reluctant heroes, and bold villains, of landscapes beyond belief — but not quite beyond imagination.

Buy why? And when did this begin?

The answer is that I grew up with no lack of fantastic worlds to delve into. As a young child, Mary Poppins, Dumbo, and Pinocchio were as oft repeated as The Music Man and The Sound of Music (note: I never said I was a normal child).

But I also can’t remember the first time I watched the original Star Wars trilogy (I know there’s a difference between sci-fi and fantasy, and some people consider Star Wars fantasy anyway — but for me, any speculative story is what I mean when I say fantasy).

There is no time, no moments or days, that precede me being in love with — and in awe of — Star Wars. The light saber battles, noble Jedi knights, and the terrible (and completely awesome) Lord Vader. And the funny robots. In a lot of ways, that perfect popcorn-bliss ball is something I still strive for in my own writing — and so do a lot of others.

But other stories existed early on for me right alongside that Perfect Trilogy. He-Man chiefly, as well as The Last Unicorn, and our Apple II computer’s pixel-licious version of Choose Your Own Adventure: The Cave of Time. Oh, and Robin Hood — both the Kevin Cosner and animated Disney fox versions. Equally.

And of course books: Fables and fairy tales, adventures and beautifully illustrated childrens’ books about the numerology of crows (12 is for joy tomorrow), the value of journeying East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and how, if you’re Barney Bipple, you should spend your magical dandelion wishes on practical things — like a talking dog and a new baby brother.

But, the counterpoint to all stories that have touched and changed me, past and present, is and has always been nature. I don’t believe I could write the fantasy I do without having grown up where I did.

I was born, literally, in the house I still live in down a mile-long dirt road in Oglethorpe County. I sleep about 30 feet from where I was born — I guess you could say I haven’t gone very far yet in life.

We lived on seven acres, five of which were wooded. My sister and I grew up illegally home-schooled outside the system by our mom, a former math teacher, and our dad, a nurse. It was a good, secluded, new agey upbringing — where magic crept in amongst the edges of the everyday. I was raised hearing that fairies played out in the garden, dancing under the leaves of Mom’s beloved flowers and herbs. Dad thanked the ‘wind spirits’ if — while on vacation — we had a good day sailing, and we learned that tiny triangles on crystals meant they had carried messages from ancient civilizations.

But we were encouraged to read, to grab an encyclopedia (back when all the knowledge of the world could be bound in 28 volumes) or the dictionary to answer any question, and yet — we were not guided, not told any things were real or not real. Everything was possible. And so I grew up — while non-religious — still placing Jesus and the Ark and the garden of Eden in the same realm of accepted reality as Bigfoot, aliens, unicorns, and New York City. All existed in a world large enough for every incredible thing to be true — if one sought it with enough dedication.

A teenage favorite of mine

For me, in writing, the fantastic has always been life as it is, but turned up to 11. Nature is an 11 by itself. I remember many a childhood play session outdoors (you have a lot of free time if you don’t go to school — I think our mom kind of quit our formal education after age nine). I would watch the ants hustle and climb their way to victorious feasts both large and small, and I would carefully flatten and decorate the sand under where faded goldfish bones were buried.

Ah yes, death (and birth) were an easy companion in the world of our little farm. I understood which bush the placenta that had accompanied me into this world was buried, as well as where a beloved dog I had been too young to remember yet knew the name of was buried. The dog’s grave was hollowed ground to me, buried beneath a gate long before I understood that as a metaphor. And my grandmother loved a story of us finding a dead rabbit and I swung on a swing all afternoon, holding the already stiff rabbit by a leg, swinging higher and higher, unconcerned and even indifferent to the chasm between his world and mine.

There was a magic, a perfection from the dawn of my memory until my 21st year, when my grandmother got sick and this sort of perfect pause ended and a slightly more real, more adult life settled in — though it’s still a world of magic, I must say.

But those early, unfettered years allowed for play, and for storytelling — I was the wild horse of the plains, then later I added people to my stories, continuing sci-fi TV shows’ story lines in the long wait from week-to-week. I loved how big the worlds could be, how strange the situations, how much was required of people as they journeyed onto other planets, or back in time, to discover the impossible and the unexpected.

As teenagers, my sister and I acted out impromptu ‘episodes’ of favorites The X-Files, Earth 2, and SeaQuest — the latter, on one evening, turning into a story of philosophy and almost religious revelation. Sadly no texts remain, only memories.

And now, of nature. Again. I have realized that nature is ‘ The center of my center, the heart of my heart.’ There is no question to which the answer is not found in the natural world. Just this summer I walked in an old growth forest in Western North Carolina, and wept in front of 300 year old popular trees, and if I doubted magic for one second in this world, all my doubts were swept away as I walked across a literal wooden floor made only from the living, woven roots of giants. We also saw the ghost of poet Joyce Kilmer, in the shape of an Appalachian Cottontail but that’s a story for another day.

from Our State Magazine

And so again, I circle back to the question — why fantasy? I love reality; I deeply admire a well-researched, true life story. The world has many beautiful dramas, and funny comedies. The common person is never commonplace. And yet…

J.R.R. Tolkien described the great city of Gondor in Lord of the Rings as “…not builded, but carved by giants out of the bones of the earth.” That is all I seek: great writing and the great bones beneath the reality of what we see and understand. A pattern and structure to explain why we are gifted with angels and poets and prophets at the exact moments in our lives when we need them most, and how we can find grace and meaning in a leaf or a rainbow or a Heron flying overhead on our mother’s dying day.

by Alan Lee

Another writer, Francois Rabelais, said, ‘I go to seek a great perhaps.’ I was raised on ‘perhaps-es’ — in a world where anything was possible and even likely, the world of Atlantis and the Moon landings, of dragons, both mythic and Komodo, a world free of bullies, but also lacking in new friends. A world of a thousand doors, a thousand magical experiences awaiting me only to discover how to turn the key.

The true reason I love to write those stories is that only fantasy can capture the magic I have experienced when discovering a pepper moth camouflaged against the forest floor, only sci-fi can envision worlds as grand as the order behind the universe in which we have been given, and only horror can return to the world the awe to which it is owed.

I only write of magic, because I have only seen magic — in all my days and in each of you — and I hope to leave a little bit of enchantment behind me before I pass under my final gate.

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The Inelegant Balance Between Being Right and Becoming Better

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Now, we all want to be right — to be smart, admired, to think for ourselves and not let anything sway our convictions.  But at a certain point does certainty inhibit progress?

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I’ve been asking myself this question a lot in 2015.  Firstly, as I move forward toward becoming a professional writer, I have started thinking more about what audiences want — and deserve.  A little background: I’ve been a follow-your-vision, write-only-what-interests-you, write-what-you-love-and-the-money-will-follow type for years and years now.  And as I started to discuss the idea of writing more toward the audience’s desires with other writers, I heard my own arguments returned to me again and again.

“I think you’ll be more successful if you just follow your heart.”

“It’s more interesting to just create what you like.”

“Doing what others tell you and chasing popular opinion is no way to live your life.”

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True.  True.  True.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that just being self-satisfied with ‘being me’ wasn’t — actually — helping me get better.  I wanted to take the confidence (and experience) of listening to my inner voice and pair it with something more — with the tumultuous seas of outside opinion.

Rarely has the universe responded so quickly as it did now. 😉  Within weeks of seriously starting to think about this issue, I was challenged with a huge question — Did I want to be right, or better?

I had sent my newest novel, the 1810s-set Society & Civility, out to several friends for feedback.  But this novel — you have to understand — it had become such a favorite with me.  Ever since I’d started it last fall, I had enjoyed its world and characters so much, reread it several times almost just for fun, and thought it was a huge step forward for me as a writer.  It was a lark, a love story — and the best thing I’d ever written.  SO.  When the reviews came in there was a lot of love (most rated it 7 to 8.6 out of 10) and a BIG problem.  Toward the end of my story it totally breaks with the whole Jane Austin genre.  I knew that might be a problem, which is why I’d sought feedback before completing any more drafts.  People didn’t understand or like ‘the twist’ (as it came to be called).

I held out hope that my sister (the last of my beta readers) would feel the same way as I did and ‘get it’ as it were.  Then the crushing blow came — she felt the exact same way as the other readers.  So my perfect novel wasn’t considered by others to be perfect at all — now what?

Found on coolartcanvas.com

Found on coolartcanvas.com

Well, here was the puzzle of pleasing the audience writ large: they loved the book except for the twist.  Did I hold fast and complete it as was — the way I loved it — or should I change it?  I knew I could just brush off the opinions of these smartest, kindest friends — all creators and lovers of this genre — and tell myself that *my* audience would totally get my choices — whenever and under whatever rock I’d find this mystery group.

But– but.  In my heart of hearts I knew these were my readers — and I’d let them down.  I could always have a copy of *my* edition, but now what?  Didn’t I want to challenge myself and make a story everyone could fall in love with?  Didn’t I want to become BETTER that I was?  The answer — after only thinking about quitting writing six times in one morning — was yes.

fatfreedom.net

fatfreedom.net

So far the rewrite is going well.

So when you come up against that question, that challenge — should I listen to others or go my own way? — I would ask yourself:

  1. WHO is giving you this feedback?  Are these people you respect, people you want to emulate, or people who have valuable experience?  There no point in following someone down a road you don’t want to travel anyway.  In the example above, I had every reason to admire these readers and believe that they would give good advice.  In a different example, a co-worker was recently applying for a job I’d previously held for two years and I offered to help them out and answer any questions they had.  They pretty well blew me off, believing they already knew ‘everything’ about the position.  I was someone with insight and a desire to help — and that could have been a powerful resource to help them if they’d been willing to listen.
  2. WHY are they telling you this?  Some people just like to complain, nitpick, or put others down and you should never be using these people to judge your work or your life.  But if you’ve asked someone for their advice, you should listen because you probably thought they had something valuable to say — you know, before they told you what you didn’t want to hear.  And if you are creating products you want people to buy, consume, or love — you need to listen double-hard.  Most likely, they are disappointed — and now they are trying to help you — maybe imperfectly, maybe in the human language of anger or frustration — but what they take the time to tell you are the words a hundred other customers may have walked away with still written in their hearts.
  3. Are YOU 100% happy with your results?  If the answer is yes, you’re done.  Stand firm.  Tell the rest to go to hell and hold true to your path.  Discover your fans and let them discover you.  But… if in your heart you know you could be better, then listen.  Acknowledge that you may be very good — you’re at least very smart and full of potential — but you not as good as you could be.  So learn a better way to jog, take a class to improve your painting skill, and be open to starting anew on that book.  If you see a gap, you owe it to yourself to bridge it and get better.  Even if the gap is just between the audience’s expectations and your design.
  4. Are you EXPERIENCED enough to weed out the noise?  This is high-level stuff, this balancing of being true to yourself and listening to others, and I want you to side 100% with your heart and intuition until you’re ready for this level 16 challenge.  Keep in mind that you always get to decide in the end — listening to others and getting feedback is nothing more than offering you more options to choose from.  And like I said, beware unsolicited advice, negative people, and anyone who truly doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to do.  You really are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff here (okay, not really 🙂 — what you are looking for is that small bit of advice that interests you, challenges you, and makes you say ‘Damn it — they might be right’.
  5. Will this help you get BETTER?  In the end, it doesn’t matter if the critics are right or wrong if their advice hurts your progress.  Weird but so true.  With young writers, my secret feeling is ‘Yes, you are not there yet, but all you need is ten years of enthusiastic hard work.  Then you’ll be great.’  No one really wants to hear that, they want the shortcuts — but you can still bleed from those cuts.  Don’t wound yourself upon the opinions of others if you’re not ready.  I loved my first critique group but then came a time that I felt I must withdraw, and grow in secret like a mushroom, pushing out of the leaf litter and into the sun only when fully formed.  And now I’m ready to face the light.

I believe you can get 95% of the way to your goal under your own steam, keeping your secret counsel, and trusting your instincts.  But when it comes time to finese the final pieces, to push yourself further than you know how to go, you have to seek, to see beyond your own faith and fallacies, to press and push yourself ever upward — to become more than you are, more than you thought you could be.

To stop being good and to become truly great.

Found on llhdesignsblog.com

Found on llhdesignsblog.com

 

The SELF-PRINTED 3.0 Splash

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As anyone who is interested in writing and has ever been trapped with me in a elevator, car, or coffee shop meeting room knows, I’m a HUGE fan of Catherine Ryan Howard.  When I was getting started in self publishing, I realised I was still stuck in the ‘vanity press’ mindset of old and didn’t know anything about Createspace, formatting, or selling online.

Enter Self-Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard.  I thought I found the book by accident on Amazon (but later learned it was through Catherine’s savvy choice of keywords) and I was so delighted by it that it has become a large influence in the group I founded, the Athens Writers Association.

In celebration of Self-Printed 3.0, (releasing today!) Catherine is answering a question posed by yours truly: What can self-published authors do to help each other that you don’t see done often enough?

Here’s her answer:

Great question and one I really had to have a good think about. I’m afraid though that my answer won’t be very popular…

I don’t think self-publishers are in need of helping each other out more, because from what I see the self-publishing community as a whole is incredibly helpful towards each other already. You see it all the time: self-pubbed authors hosting other self-pubbed authors on blog tours, recommending each other’s books, gathering together to release box-sets featuring multiple authors so they can cross-promote, etc. etc. When one ascends the ladder a rung or two, more often than not they reach down to help another few take a step up behind them.

So, what would I like to see more of? To be honest I’d like to see more self-publishers holding their fellow self-publishers to higher standards. I’d like to see more self-publishers talking about how important it is to hire a professional editor, work on your cover, etc. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of readers do not hold self-published books in high esteem because in the past, a lot of them just weren’t that good! Imagine now that John Smith, a new self-published author, manages to convince one of these anti-self-pub readers to take a chance on a self-published ebook – and the reader finds grammatical errors, typos, inconsistencies, bad formatting and a table of contents that doesn’t work. Now John Smith has just confirmed for them what they always suspected about self-published books: that they’re bad. So they don’t try anymore. And maybe the next one they would’ve tried would’ve been yours, or mine. Now John Smith has cost us both a sale. Shouldn’t we have tried harder to get him to self-publish professionally?

I think so. So if there’s something I’d like to see self-publishers do to help each that I don’t think I see often enough, it’s to encourage professional self-publishing and to point out that when you don’t, you let the entire side down…

Awesome answer.  I agree completely.  One of the goals of the AWA is to help everyone get better and send well-written, excellently edited books out into the world.  If you’d like to do likewise, I highly recommend Self-Printed 3.0!
Here’s additional facts about Catherine, who is herself a self-publishing success story:
Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer, self-publisher and caffeine enthusiast from Cork, Ireland. SELF-PRINTED: THE SANE PERSON’S GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING (3rd edition) is out now in paperback and e-book and available from Amazon. Follow the #selfprintedsplash on Twitter today (Friday 24th) and/or visit www.catherineryanhoward.com for chance to win an amazing prize that will get your self-publishing adventure started!
“SELF-PRINTED is my self-publishing bible. It taught me how to format, create and upload my e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. It showed me practical things such as how to build a website/blog and how to promote my books. More importantly, it taught me how to compete with the professionals. Just look at the results – The Estate Series has sold nearly 100,000 copies and following that I got a traditional book deal with Thomas & Mercer too, so I’m now a hybrid author. Jam-packed full of hints and tips all in one place, I’m always referring back to it. In a word, it’s priceless.” – Mel Sherratt, author of The Estate Series and DS Allie Shenton Series  

What Inspires You Most?

When I saw author Rob White‘s list of books that have influenced his writing most (in no particular order), I knew I had to make my own list.  And I encourage you to do the same.

Whether you’re a painter, writer, musician, etc, the way you create today probably owes a lot to something you read or saw or heard along the way.

Now, this isn’t a favorites list, that would be a little different, but these are the books that are influencing how & what I write right now —

  1. The Lord of the Rings — Frodo the hobbit joins a fellowship of heroes to destroy a powerful ring.  One book to rule them all (sorry).  I’ve only been able to read it once, but for me, LOTR is a lot of what I want to create: magic, great characters who interact in interesting ways, probably the deepest fantasy world ever created (or at least one of the best) and most of all, a world that extends far beyond the main story and makes you think there’s always another tale to be told.  And beautiful descriptions.
  2. Pride & Prejudice — Lizzy spars with the wealthy Mr. Darcy as she and her sisters try to find good husbands.  Not only am I writing a novel very much inspired by Jane Austen right now, Society & Civility, but I have become more and more in awe of P&P’s plotting over time.  It’s such a wonderful escalation.  And Lizzy Bennet is still one of the best heroes in English fiction.
  3. Remains of the Day — A butler finds himself on his first vacation in years — a road trip to a special destination.  There is something about the way the lead character, and his world, is so tightly wound and constructed (no surprise how other covers show a pocket watch).  I think the idea that, in the end, we may be jailers of our own lives and that our personalities may be our final prison is an intriguing one.
  4. Fruits Basket — Orphan Tohru Honda comes to live with boys cursed to transform into the animals of the Chinese zodiac — whenever they are hugged by members of the opposite sex!   This manga is 23 books long (the story is rather like a multi-year TV series) and has a cast of over 20 main characters.  I reread it this spring and it was one of the highlights of my year.  More characters means more of a balancing act, but the payoff is wonderful and you watch the characters interact and grow.  Great ending.
  5. Misery — A writer is saved after a car accident by his ‘biggest fan’.  Too bad she’s crazy.  This was always one of my favorite Stephen Kings books (and I read a lot of them as a teenager) but it was only rereading it after becoming a grown writer that I really was taken in.  Perfect plotting, intense drama, and one of the greatest villains of all time.
  6. About a Boy — Will is an adult with lots of money, no job, and no responsibilities.  But everything changes when he meets serious, 12 y.o. Marcus, and they begin to become friends.  Love Nick Hornby, and High Fidelity or Slam could be here instead but AAB captures funny dialogue, great details, and real life problems and solutions (and not-so-solutions) in an easy-to-read, winning way.  Love the way the leads trade viewpoint chapters.
  7. Mystic River — Three childhood friends are reunited when one’s daughter goes missing; the other two are a cop and a suspect.  The story’s great but it all comes down to the lines; I’ve often thought Dennis Lehane could do more in six words than other people could do in a paragraph.
    “Dave watched him standing up at the bar, chatting with one of the old dockworkers as he waited for his drinks, Dave thinking the guys in here knew what it was to be men. Men without doubts, men who never questioned the rightness of their own actions, men who weren’t confused by the world or what was expected of them in it.”
  8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Poor Arthur Dent awakens just in time to see Earth destroyed; luckily, his wacky space adventures are only beginning.  There was a time in my youth when Hitchhiker’s and Dave Barry books were the thing when it came to humor.  I even stopped reading Dave for a while because I thought he was influencing me too much.  That influence is lessened now, but Hitchhiker’s still casts a long shadow.  Even though most of my writing isn’t pure comedy, this novel still speaks very strongly to me.
  9. Maurice — Maurice is a proper early 20th century English gentleman, perfectly made for society in all ways, except one –he is gay.  I recently told my sister that I feel like there’s somewhere where I’m always reading this book (or watching its movie) even while the main me is talking, working, and living my life.  It’s had that big of an impact on me.  To me, it is just about the perfect love story, but it’s also about figuring out who you are and what you stand for.  A lot of my characters have a Maurice-like journey.
  10. The Secret Garden — Orphaned Mary is brought to live on an English estate and discovers the titular wonderland.  I kind of get chills just looking at this cover — this is why the book is here, even though I read it so long ago (and really, Alice in Wonderland should be here too).  This book is about place, and growth, and discovering friends in the most unlikely of places.  But in the end, I always just really wanted to be in that wild, forgotten, beautiful garden, and even now my writing continues the search for the mysterious and the extraordinary.
  11. The Great Gatsby — Nick comes from the midwest to New York and soon meets the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a man of many friends — and secrets.  This is a bonus entry because I forgot it the first time I did the list.  Still just about my favorite kind of writing on a sentence level.  “Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” WTF!  That’s just sensational writing.

And in the end, that’s what resonates with me most — fantastic stories, characters, and lines that make me a little jealous — and a lot inspired.  So who’s inspiring you?

A History of a Writer

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I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember and, as I’m turning 35 in a few months, it looks like the odds are good I’ll be telling them for the rest of my life (not just gonna yell ‘That’s it!  I’m done!’ as I blow out my birthday candles).  But how did I grow into the writer I am today?  Here’s what I remember (note: these ages may be off a little) —

423440_10150723496996095_1852258631_nAge 6 — Some of my first memories were playing with He-Man figures, though I remember liking the villain Skeletor better than the hero.  We also had an Apple computer and played ‘Choose Your Own Adventure: Cave of Time’.

Age 7 — Loved listening to stories but couldn’t hardly read at all till one summer my sister and I got excited about the Athens Regional Library’s Summer Reading program.  I think I read about 50 books including my first ‘big’ novel — Black Beauty.

Age 10 — Wild Ponies! Wild ponies everywhere!  I loved The Black Stallion, The Island Stallion, Smoky, and all those horse stories and so I made up a lot of tales of wild horses while running around a 50 acre property my mother care-took.

Age 12 — Huge TV fan.  We never had cable (still don’t) but for a while I’d watch 2-3 hours a night and tape many programs (tape, ha ha, the memories!).  I once even pretended I was the head of a network and invented 50 series (each with a log line) and then rolled dice to see which were successful and got ‘high ratings’).  Few of the people who call me intelligent and thoughtful today know just how many episodes of The Nanny I’ve seen.

Age 13 — ‘Sisters’ the TV show premieres.  I’ve watched better shows with my sister and mother (Quantum Leap!) but something about this show makes me start telling stories about people instead of horses (mostly just Teddy & Falconer [a young George Clooney!]).  Adolescence has begun.

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Age 14 — I’m reading a lot of Stephen King and Dave Barry.  Also, SeaQuest DSV and The X-Files debut followed by Earth 2 a year later.  My sister Sarah and I spend untold hours playing out ‘episodes’ of the shows that we ‘write’ (as well as Chicago Hope).  We even have props, like a bicycle tire gage that serves as a syringe.

Age 15 — I start my first book, pretty much called ‘If Dave Berry Had Written Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’.  I write a few chapters, enjoy it, and still remember a scene where a road crew is placing giant, brightly-colored fish in the highway, like stones in cobblestone.  My adventures in literary greatness have begun.

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Age 16 — I make an epic sci-fi / fantasy love story called Move to Fathom about the assistant to the president who is destined to be the soul mate to an invading alien king.  Strangely enough, I only write down the dialogue, not the whole story.

Age 18 — I decide I’m serious about screenwriting.  Later, when asked why, I said, “I was just enamoured by Hollywood I guess.”  I take a 2 day workshop lead by Michael Hauge.  As a home-schooled-off-the-radar person, it is my first formal training.  I go on to complete two feature length screenplays — ‘Murder in the Movies’ which is about a murder on a murder mystery set, and ‘Divining Grace’, which is about an angel earning his wings by helping a human girl.

Age 19 — I get first job just so I can buy an amazing desktop computer with my sister for gaming.  It was AWESOME.  Suddenly, Duke Nukem 3D, Unreal Tournament, Arcanum, X-COM, Civ II, and Myst start to inspire me.

Age 21 — Watch High Fidelity and then start reading Nick Hornby.  My favs (in time) become About a Boy, High Fidelity, and Slam.

417713_10150723505716095_955974438_nAge 22 — I take a three week trip to England to watch the world’s largest dog show (why do other people go?).  I also fall in love for the first time (well, first time recipatated) with a handsome English bloke.  I come home determined to finally start my story ‘Other Gods’.  I try it as a novel instead of a screenplay because I want to flesh out the world and make it deep and meaningful.  I fall instantly in love with novel-writing.  I also join my first critique group and learn about the evils of -ly words.  And I started watching LOTR and the reading the book for the first time.  Yowza!  I realise I have to take my writing to a whole new level.

Age 23 — Go to my first Writer Conference.  I have a fifteen minute session talking to Patrick LoBrutto, who ruins me for talking to any other agents/editor/etc types — he’s so sweet and nice and helpful.  I’m probably here today because of him (at least partly)!  Also see 28 Days Later — the era of my modern movie love has begun.  Suddenly Rain Man and Titanic just don’t seem quite as great.  Hello (in time) Danny Boyle, Zack Snyder, Guillermo del Toro, Neill Blomkamp, Darren Aronofsky, and Alfonso Cuarón.

Age 25 — Shadow of the Colossus (PS2 game) comes out. DA-mn.  Never gonna forget that world.  Time to up my game again.

Age 27 — I watch Deadwood, my first cable show.  I know it only as ‘That show that won all those awards and people curse a ridiculous amount”.  After watching the first episodes, I know it as the show that changed my idea of TV forever.

Age 29 — I finally finish my first novel ‘Other Gods’.  The story of two servants of the god of Darkness (one willing and one unwilling) on a journey to destroy all of the gods on a desert planet.  It clocks in a 140,000 words but I’m very proud — my first book!

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Age 31 — Start my second novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’.  I had been trying to write a sequel to ‘Other Gods’ but the timing just wasn’t right.  So I decide to pick a short, sweet idea, and ‘Let my romanticism off the hook’ for the first time.  A love triangle starring a man trapped in a cage is born.

Age 33 — I start People Who Have Come Alive, to inspire others to live their dreams.  I also met Rob White, an Athens-area writer who has inspired me in many ways including founding the Athens Writers Association that year.  I also wrote my first non-fiction book ‘How To Come Alive: a Guidebook for Living Your Dreams’ and self published for the first time.  Yow!  Things are getting busy!

Age 34 — Finish and self publish ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’.  Will finish (soon!) 12 year project — ‘Fall Street’ novel.  Am writing a teleplay.  Soon to start next novel …

Taken on day #5

Still crazy after all these years.

 

How To Write a Book (Part 2 of 2)

Here’s the second half of my guide to book writing —

Austin Kleon

— Austin Kleon

How to Write — a Practical Timeline

Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I get to ‘The End’:

  1. Get an idea.  You might be reading a news article, or a another novel, watching a film, or daydreaming a ‘what if’ and it gets you — this is a good book idea.
  2. What kind of book?  If you want to explore organic farming, is this a non-fiction investigation?  A ‘how to’?  A novel set on an organic farm?  Figure out what first drew you in — that’s your passion.
  3. Who lives there?  In a novel, for me, the people arise from the idea.  In ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ I ‘saw’ a cage in the middle of a Regency England estate and started asking ‘Who would be put in such a cage and for what purpose?  In a memoir you might be writing about your grandmother but who influenced her?  Who were her heroes?  Her nemeses?  Even a non-fiction book may need examples of people who succeeded — be in it building a birdhouse or starting a business.
  4. Make an outline / roadmap.  A couple of page document, meant just for you, that hits the main points of what you want to tell.
  5. Research (if the spirit moves you).  Some people LOVE research, others can’t stand it.  Depending on the story you’re writing, you may eventually need to do some, but whether or not you like it, don’t let research slow you down too much from actually starting writing.
  6. Boldly begin.  Start a chapter one, and make time to write.  I also don’t believe in writer’s block.  If something isn’t interesting to you, set it aside and write something else.
  7. Edit (a little) as you go.  I know this runs counter to what a lot of people do but my way is to start each day rereading the pages I worked on last session and making spelling/grammar corrections along the way.  I don’t worry about making big changes though; I mainly read just to get back to the flow and excitement of what I’m doing.
  8. Finish the first draft.  Hit the last page and celebrate.  Buy yourself dinner or a nice bottle of bubbly.  Then put your book aside for two weeks or a month.  This time is crucial to getting some distance and seeing your work with new eyes.
  9. Do a second draft.  Reread the book, see how you feel about it — is there anything BIG you want to change?  New chapters, love interests, and ideas can be worked in now.  Once the ‘big picture’ looks good . . .
  10. Do a third draft.  Start looking at the little things — each line, each word.  You may feel like an extra scene is needed to explain a growing friendship, or you may discover new data to share in your ‘how to’.  Reading aloud to yourself is also a great tool for ferreting out awkward sentences.  The third draft is about making it as good as you can make it.  Then . .
  11. Find trustworthy readers.  This is super-important: only use people you trust, love, share your idea of a good book, and WANT to read it.  If you can’t find that, it might be better to go it alone.  But getting these outside opinions is valuable, provided you remember it’s your book at the end of the day and the most important person to please is yourself.
  12. Do a forth draft.  Take feedback from your readers (try to find at least three) and decide if you need to make a few changes.  If all your readers mention something, you might want to look closer at it.  Most of the great feedback I’ve gotten has been about beginnings (orient  the reader about the world better), little side endings (couldn’t they get away and get the money?), and lackluster areas (the ‘food’ section of my self help book eventually became ‘Energy’ after reader feedback).
  13. Do a final draft (and copyedit).  Go over your book again, seeing how it strikes you now.  Are you happy with everything or is there anything that still sticks out and bothers you?  Take the time to fix it.  And you do need to copyedit a lot, catching all the grammar and spelling errors you can.  It can be hard to do this on your own, but there are a lot of inexpensive copyeditors out there, or you might be able to do an exchange with another writer (you’ll catch their errors easier than your own).
  14. Cerebrate!  You just became an author!

Some common questions —

How do I get published?  It’s pretty confusing these days and only you can decide what ‘published’ means to you.  The traditional way is to get an agent, who in turn will try to sell your book to a traditional publishing house.  You can also query a small publishing house, self-publish, or hire someone to ’self publish’ your book for you.

Say I want an agent — how do I get one?  First you’ll need a very good query letter and/or proposal.  There are whole books about how to write them — in a nutshell, they should recapture in a few pages what made you excited about this book and let the agent know what to expect.  Queryshark is a great site about queries for fiction writers.  You can find an agent on agentquery.com or by googling your favorite writer and the word ‘agent’.  But, it’s super hard to get an agent right now, as their whole industry is changing and they’re not taking on a lot of new clients right now.  So don’t be discouraged if you’re not chosen.  And always remember, you don’t pay for an agent — instead, they get a percentage of the book sale.

How do you ‘self publish’?  You can pay a printer to print up copies of your book.  But the best option for a lot of people (if you book doesn’t have many pictures) is to create a paperback and an ebook using services like Createspace and Lulu.  You’ll need a program like Microsoft Word, and then Createspace will give you a template that helps you design the book.  The upside is that Createspace is free (you only pay for the books you buy), and puts high quality paperbacks (of yours!) into the hands of Amazon customers (and you get a percentage of the profit [higher than traditional publishing] from each sale).  The down side is that it doesn’t work for books with a lot of pictures, and EVERYTHING is on you.  You control how good the cover, editing, format, and marketing is — that’s a lot of power and responsibility.

What about companies that ‘help’ you self publish?  The best examples of these companies really are invested in making your dream come true.  The trade off is usually that you give them several thousand dollars and they take back a lot of that EVERYTHING responsibility that self publishing pushed into you — editing, formatting etc.  Different packages are different prices — just be sure to do a lot of research if you go this way.  And remember, it’s not anything you can’t learn to do yourself — but then, neither is making your own clothes.  You just have to decide if it’s worth the cost.

I have a great idea for a book.  Can I get someone else to do the ‘writing the book’ bit?  Yes — if you pay them.  Yes — if you want be part of a writing team and do half the work.  Yes — if you’re famous in your field and have a big built-in audience.  But if you have an idea (especially for fiction) and you just want someone else to do the work of writing — you’ll find writers already have too many good ideas and won’t take on some else’s.  So pick up that pen!

Can I get rich and famous doing this?  Of course; we’ve all read the success stories.  But the most important question is What do I really want to get out of this?  Don’t just lump your book in with your job, the painting you found in the attic, and the lotto ticket you bought this morning at the Quik Trip.  To paraphrase Fight Club — you are not your get-rich-quick-scheme.  If you spend time with your grandmother, learn her life story, and self publish it as a treasured family heirloom — does it really matter if every book club in the country isn’t reading it?  If your great new plan for paying off student debt faster helps 100 kids have better lives, is that not a success?  If the characters that seem as real as day to you suddenly find a home in a second heart — have you not succeeded spectacularly?

Some Tips —

  • Use a computer if at all possible (it will save you a lot of time later)
  • Use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman font
  • Use format>linespacing>Between Lines 2 SP (or something similar in your program).  This is double spacing your lines — it’s easier for editing.
  • If you only have one backup of your book file, you don’t have a backup.  Keep several copies on different flash drives, hard drives etc.  And emailing yourself the file is a good way to keep it ‘in the cloud’.
  • Name different saves along the way — yourbook010414.doc — might be a good name for an extra copy you made on Jan. 4th.  If you don’t like changes you made, you can go back to the older file.
  • Remember to find inspiration — songs, paintings, picture, articles, jewelry etc that can inspire your book and your characters.  Put the pictures around your work area (or on a Pinterest.com board to inspire you).
  • Printing out a chapter, editing it pen in hand, and reading it aloud to yourself can really make a difference in your finished product.
  • Don’t worry about copyrighting your work.  It’s yours from the moment you write it.  If you’re concerned, you can always print out the pages and mail them to yourself.  Don’t open the package; the postmark now serves as a date of when you began the work.  If anyone later tried to claim it, they couldn’t.  But honestly, I’ve never worried about it.  And if you’re afraid of someone stealing your once-in-a-life-time Matrix-like idea — then keep it to yourself until the book is written.
  • Read different things.  Don’t read only romance and write romance, or only self help books and then write one.  Instead, try all sorts of things and let them inspire you.  Graphic novels, rap songs, 500 year old poems, British TV shows, documentaries!  Your work will be better and more original if you have more interests and express them in your works.
  • Get excited.  There has never been a better time to write, to publish your own book, and/or to share your work online!

How To Write a Book (Part 1 of 2)

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— Lemony Snicket

Somewhere in your heart you know it.  Maybe this is a recent dream, but quite likely it’s been kicking around in your subconscious for some time and every once in a while, when reading a new book, or hearing an author interview, or thinking about your lifetime goals it comes to the surface — you want to write a book.  Maybe you dream of being a fulltime, famous, professional writer or maybe there’s just one idea or story that begging you to expound on it and send it out into the world.

Whatever your dream project is — a memoir, non-fiction, children’s book, or novel — there are some common elements needed to move from Chapter 1 to ‘The End’.

Elements of Success in Writing:

  • Figure out what you want to tell and why.  Before you write a word, get a good idea of why this book?  Toni Morrison says ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’  That’s always been my driving force.  Figure out what makes it special and different than similar books.  Don’t worry about originality yet (we’ll get to that part), just envision who your book is for.  Sometimes it helps to think of a person you know who is also your intended audience.
  • Plan (a little).  Finding a similar book can help you get an idea of number of chapters, number of pages, type of words (for children’s books) etc that your book might have.  The internet has acted to level the playing field and let you acquire ‘insider knowledge’ of the book business. Did you know there are four categories for children’s fiction?  Simply do a Google search for ‘books how many children fiction categories are there’ and you can find the answer.  Just remember that ten ‘Wikihow’ articles don’t necessarily equal the depth of one good how-to book.  This is the ‘know the rules so you can break them’ phase.
  • Make a roadmap, not a blueprint.  I wish I remembered what writing book this was from, but never the less it’s still important advice: make a roadmap not a blueprint of your book.  A blueprint is exacting and unchanging, but a roadmap lets you decide to take a detour when you see something interesting and you still know where you’ll be at the end of your book.  A lot of beginning writers start without a roadmap, and begin with a flush of excitement but can lose their way after a few chapters.  To me, a good road map is only a couple of pages long but will let you know the next ‘beat’ of your book if you get lost.  The outline for my novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ was two pages long and explained the main plot from beginning to end — just like you were telling a best friend the plot of a movie you saw.  For my self help non-fiction book, I decided to focus on five areas of improvement (Inspiration, Freedom, Peace, Energy, Strength) and then decided to have five little chapters in each area and named them (i.e. Do Yoga).  These outlines kept me moving forward while giving me the freedom to discover better ideas along the way.
  • Make your goal to finish.  Believe me — there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing your first book, of knowing you’ve done what a lot of people will talk about but never do.  You can always edit and polish on later drafts but just getting finished should be your first goal.  I started with screenplays and just told myself that whether or not the plot made any sense, I would reach page 100 (the length of a screenplay).  I knew one writer who kept rewriting chapter one over and over again.  I met him again years later and he was still writing chapter ones.  Now, each person must follow their own path and it’s great he’s still writing, but if your goal is a finished book — look toward that finish line.
  • Remember — you have potential.  My belief is that LOVE + TIME = TALENT.  If you keep writing, and reading, and learning you will get better and better.  The book ‘Talent is Overrated’ has some wonderful stories about how being born ‘talented’ might mean you get out of the starting gate before everyone else, but if you’re trotting and everyone else is working hard and galloping along you’ll soon be left in the dust.  If you love the book you’re writing, if you’re excited by it, the feeling will pass right along to the reader.  And you are the only you who has ever been, so your work (if it’s true to you) will be original and one-of-a-kind.
  • Just keep writing.  Even a page a day will get you to your goal.

Next time I’ll give you a timeline for writing your novel and answer some commonly asked questions.

Reclaiming ‘Perfection’

Black Swan

Perfection is a dirty word.  Look up ‘perfection’ quotes and you get everything from the funny —

to the downright hostile —

And I get it, really I do.  Trying to be a perfect, flawless person sets one up for heartache.  Some people spend years before realizing that it’s an impossible standard — we are human, we make mistakes.

By the same measure, some people find having too high of standards stops them from producing any creative work at all, from finishing anything.  That too is bad.

But I will fight to my dying day for the idea of perfection.

Why?  Because why the frick else are we here (and by we I mean creators of all types)?  Yes, I’m not a perfect person, not by a long shot.  And my work isn’t perfect, but it’s as close to perfect as I can make it.  I have high standards and love beautiful, amazing works.  Yes, these works could be The Great Gatsby and they could be Sid Meier’s Pirates! I think lots of different things are absolutely impeccable manifestations of their ideal nature — Hannibal is nothing like How to Train Your Dragon nor should it be.  But to me, both take their basic ideas and push them to new heights.

If you are not trying to achieve perfection in a piece of art or a novel, what is your aim?  Pretty good?  Nice stack of paper you got there?  ‘It’s 43% of what I wanted it to be’?

To me, perfection is just the top shelf liquor of excellence.  Being able to create the best version of your best vision.  When I begin a project — I see, I feel, I know the highest, most splendid version of that story exist somewhere out in the universe.  And my years of honing my sense of what I like tell me when I’m getting closer to that best version.  But like Ira Glass says —

KMBA-Ira Glass QuoteSo, while my taste tells me when I’m getting warmer or colder, it’s only my level of craft and dedication to keep going that decides how great the work will be.  Leonardo Da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and there is an element of truth to that.  I do the best work I can, polish as long as I can, and at some point realise I’ve reached the limits of my powers for this book.  It’s a little frustrating because I know the future me will be able to write it better, but if I’ve worked hard, I feel satisfied that it is as close to perfect as I can make it at this time.

And if it pushes toward perfection, even if that’s a distant star, I smile at it.  I’m proud of Other Gods and A Caged Heart Still Beats and How to Come Alive: A Guidebook to Living the Life of Your Dreams.  Because they are all perfect in a way, in a way humans never quite are, because we can’t rewrite our lives and relive them.

And in the end, maybe that is what I love about perfect works — they were messy, crazy things full of jagged, broken bits and a thousand mistakes.  But in the end, they form a glorious, perfect whole.

And in that sense, maybe I do believe in perfection for people too.

Quote by Sarah Cerulean

Quote by Sarah Cerulean

 

Awesome Day #3 — Finishing a book

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Yesterday was day #3 of my 8 day ‘stay-cation’.  Except for going to see X-men (it was great!), I spent the rest of the day working on my novel Fall Street.  It’s not done yet, but it’s getting closer.

As a writer, there’s a special feeling as you get toward the end of a book, perhaps a little like what a parent feels when their child graduates high school.  You’re excited for them and their future, and yet you’ll miss this early time in which you discovered who they were and helped mold them into the thing they’d become.

Fall Street is about a 15 year old girl growing up in 1950s America.  Her views and beliefs change after she unexpectedly befriends the most popular guy in school, Tommy Delano, and through him, she gets to know John Rainhorse, the only Native American boy in town.  A lot of trouble ensues but Claire never loses her sense of humor or her desire to see the world become a more tolerant place.

Yesterday I was re-reading it and making notes on this draft.  I’m a failure as a writer though (!) because I feel I should be making bigger changes but I love it just the way it is 🙂  Oh well, I did polish it a lot over the years I was writing it.  Of yes — years.  I wrote the first chapter in 2004, then just kept coming back to it now and then, whenever the mood hit me, till I finished it last year.  So excited!  In fact, I’m off to reread the last ten pages now . . .

Here’s a little except — 

I could still feel John’s hand upon my neck, even though we’d parted a half hour ago.  I ask again, “So you really don’t think it’s wrong?”

Tommy was slicking back his hair.  He shook his head, seemingly a little puzzled.  “He’s been my best friend for three years.  I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me, his skin.  I just kind of stopped seeing it.

‘You know, this one time in church, the preacher told a story about these two women who did everything alike — breakfast at the same thing, eggs, everything.  And they both loved gardening.  Same . . . Shovels, everything.  The times they liked to work—  It went on like this.  But they liked different petunia colors or something.  And so they were bitter enemies, and they fought all the time, and then one day God came down to them — ’cause God came do that in stories — and God came down to them and said ’If you have everything else in the world in common, why are you fighting over this one thing?  And they became best friends.  I’m kind of like that petunia woman.  What’s color matter in the end?”

Oh my God, did Tommy Delano just make my parents look like idiots?

 

How to Reevaluate Your Life

from lifeinblush.com/blog

When you decide to reevaluate your life, remember: you are not looking for easy answers.  At this stage you are only trying to ask the right questions.

10 QUESTIONS

  1. What’s my dream life?  If you could have anything, no holds bared, what would you be doing, day in and day out?  It’s fine to have a big goal (climb Everest) but try to drill it down to a 24 hour picture.  Dream lives still involve many of the things you are already doing — so what’s different?  Imagine being excited to get to work — where do you work?  What does your house look like?  Who are you married to, if anyone?
  2. What do you want (do you really, really want)?  Dreams and fantasies are often funded by the unbelievable.  “I’d fly off to Paris in my private jet.”  “I’d be married to Tom Hiddleson.”  We think getting a great life is so impossible that we literally make it so; you might as well say you want to live on Jupiter and marry Errol Flynn — it’s as likely to happen.  So instead, take time to get to the heart of your dream — past the money and movie stars — and figure out what you really desire.  Maybe you’ve never been to Paris — but if you saved up all your ‘fast food’ money for two years you could do it (and be much healthier).  And maybe you long to meet intelligent, joyful people and have become discouraged by the potential romantic partners in your job or social circle.  Ask what makes your dream great.  Most times it’s not just having more money in your hand.
  3. What’s making you unhappy now?  Think about the last week or month — what were your most unhappy moments?   Who/where/what did they involve?  It’s hard to admit, but if you don’t come away happy from seeing someone, then that’s someone you need less of in your world.  Life is short, and unless you birthed them or adopted them, you don’t owe anyone your happiness upon this Earth.  We’ve all had friendships and relationships we’ve tried to ‘make’ work.  Well, today you found your get-out-of-jail-free card; I’m officially telling you it’s okay to let things that don’t work GO.  Believe me, you’ll be making room in your life for much better things.  If debt or your weight are making you unhappy then even a tiny step toward a better life will improve your mood.  And if your job is the problem, hang on . . .
  4. Do I hate my job?  I just saw a Pin that said something like ‘When asked what they would reevaluate after winning the lottery, 51% of people said ‘their job’.  Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels right.  To me that also says that, in addition to not liking their job, most people are afraid to leave because of finances.  This is a tough one — we need money.  But how much of it?  Could you get by (and be happier) with less?  Instead of imaging winning the lottery — imagine you already have.  According to one estimate, the worldwide median household income is less than $10,000.  So if you’re household makes more than that, you are already living the high life.  So maybe a different job (even if it paid less) would be something to think about.  And know there are people out there who are paid well to do your dream job; the first step to joining them is acknowledging you’re unhappy where you are.
  5. Am I filling my life with ‘time-wasters’?  Everyone deserves ‘down time’, ‘fun time’, or a break but everything in moderation.  Playing video games can be amazing but 6 hours a day for five years may not lead to a fulfilling life — unless you’re a game designer.  The same way, the amount of human time spent on Facebook is astounding (and I can be as guilty as anyone, though more often it’s Pinerest for me).  Just try to imagine the world, the power, and the individual lives we could build with that excess time.
  6. Why am I sad?  You may not be sad, but if you are know that a few small changes can make life great again.  You don’t need to throw out everything, you just need to realign your life with your heart’s desire.  And if you have a problem that seems very hopeless — know that there’s probably a group, meeting, hotline, or program for people battling the same troubles as you.  Reach out and get help.
  7. What am I impatient about?  For me, it’s becoming a full-time writer and then traveling the world.  And I know I’ll get there.  But when progress feels slow, I wonder if I need to go get a college degree, move jobs, move cities, SOMETHING to prove I’m not stagnant and not going to be standing here in one place forever.  If this is you, and you are doing something that should have the payoff you’re looking for (a breakthrough in job, becoming your perfect weight through a diet) then I suggest you give yourself a place in the future to re-reevaluate that one goal and decide if these small steps aren’t adding up to something big.  For example, I’ve decided to write three new amazing things then look at whether I need a different day job, education, what-have-you.  Until I have those three novels or plays in front of me, I won’t worry about how long I’ve been at my day job while ‘planning’ to become a full time writer.
  8. What’s on my ‘bucket list’?  One of the things about this year is I’ve talked to some older people I know who never have done the items on their bucket list and now wonder if they’re too old.  While I’m a total believer in doing as much as you can as long as you can, it is easier to climb a mountain in your 30s or 40s than your 70s.  Whatever your age, part of the un-fulfillment you might be feeling is because the big things just sit on a distant horizon and never get any closer.  You need to pick a before-I-die goal, pick a date (even if it’s a year or two out) and start planning, saving, and/or training for it NOW.  Our lives are short and precious, leave nothing important undone.
  9. Why am I asking this question now?  You Google-searched for this question (or are just a fan or friend of mine) — why?  Are you fed up with the way things are going?  Have you been trying to make changes but still feel far from your goals?  The important thing is to feel empowered — this is a great moment.  As soon as you start really looking at your life, you may get depressed, scared, and feel hopelessness.  But the important thing to know is that this is an important first step that some people never take.  You are now officially on the road to your dreams.
  10. Am I ready to be bold?  There’s a saying, “Are you really happy or just really comfortable?”  You have come to this place by your choices; some parts of your life work great and some need to be switched or fixed.  But if you are at the point of knowing you need a change, then realize you really have nothing to lose.  Start by cleaning your house and giving some things away, then make that bucket list plan, then start seeing what parts of your life make you happy and what things need to go.  Envision your dream and walk toward it.

from periwinkleporte.files.wordpress.com

 

June 2015 update: Please visit my new site ‘How To Come Alive‘ if you’d like to learn the 25 things that have helped me most in achieving my dreams.