The Ecstasy of Creation

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“On the evening of October 1st, 2012—I completed the largest manuscript that I’ve ever written. At 257 single-spaced pages, at 146,322 words, this is the most ambitious project that I’ve ever executed. After almost 7.5 months it is finally finished, and while there’s still so much work to do (editing, revising, editing again), I’m so grateful to everyone who’s asked about the process and posted encouraging comments to Facebook when it seemed like each of my posts was an update on page numbers and word count. Tonight, I rest. And then tomorrow? Back to work.”

 

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On Order and Chaos

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Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

— Kurt VonnegutBreakfast of Champions, p. 215

The Next Big Thing

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Shortly after the release of “Someone to Remember Me” I went through the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression. My baby was out in the world, warmly received by friends and family—though not monstrously successful in that “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” kind of way. In retrospect, I could’ve been a little more generous with the vampires. I pushed out an update back in April that addressed the most glaring editorial shortcomings and I have more planned…eventually. For all intents and purposes, I continued forward in my writing and considered where to go from there. “Someone” marked the first time I’d ever actually finished a project from draft to publication and I was enormously proud of it. I was lost in the immediacy of it’s release and subsequent update. What next? Did I go back to former, existing projects and force them through to completion? I took stock of what was on the drawing board for a few days and nearly went back to work on my space-opera that’s been sitting at the 50 page mark for two years. If any of you are reading this and we’ve had this discussion before, I apologize for the repetition but 50 pages is my personal kiss of death. It’s where the writing typically gets real; where the sheen on the original idea wears off and I have to figure out how to fully, fairly, and enjoyably realize the entire project without losing interest. I don’t know if any other writers have this problem with their manuscripts but I do.

I can’t tell you exactly how I settled on what I’m working on now, which is a wholly new project, but if I had to take a guess I would say that it came as a result of Eight, the lead female character from “Someone to Remember Me.” Eight’s most telling line in the whole book is when she shouts “I’m nobody’s slave!” at the top of her lungs near the book’s end. (Kudos to my stepdad for slogging it through the end. Good on you, champ.) And in the days after letting her into the wild an image of a woman with a gun and a sword popped into my head and I knew she was going to make a ton of trouble for someone. That was the genesis of Sarah al Villete, the main character of my newest book. Unlike so many of the other characters I’ve written, Sarah is an anti-hero in the extreme. She is what we would classify as a terrorist, a person committing hit-and-run attacks against the standing government. In a nutshell, she gets stranded with a bunch of innocent people who are wrongly accused of being her accomplices. So it’s her choice to let them be captured and killed or to take responsibility for them. The best “book blurb” I’ve written is the following:

For two thousand years the Union of Man’s rule has gone uncontested, but now the unthinkable has happened. Sarah al Villete is leading a crusade of revenge against humanity’s last government, and the authorities are desperate to capture her.

When her latest act of terrorism goes awry, Sarah becomes the reluctant steward of innocent fugitives. Fleeing the Union’s overwhelming might, Sarah and her companions are confronted with the mysteries of the Union—secrets that could help Sarah topple an already frail civilization.

I outlined this story with a level of detail that I’ve never attempted before. I created a rough outline of “essential” events in a chronological order. Then I beefed it up with cool and interesting scenes and ideas that occurred to at the time. In the first week alone back in March I wrote 30 pages. About a month later (after the surgery to remove the golf-ball sized cyst from my right wrist) I slammed through the 50 page mark. By May I was at the 80 page mark. That was where I hit my writer’s block that usually occurs around page 50. For whatever reason my creative impulses ground to a halt, none of it seemed interesting anymore, and I wondered what I was doing and if I could make this work. I blame vacation and reading for getting me out of that funk, because here we are at the start of July and I just crossed the 150 page threshold. By comparison, my first novel Someone to Remember Me is close to 110 pages with lots of extra dead/empty space in single space, 12 point Times New Roman font in my manuscript file. (In the ebook format it comes in around 240 pages.)

For this novel I’m experimenting with new formatting. Read as: I don’t use chapter numbers or names, and there is no break in the narrative except for the name of the character in bold that the narrative switches to. I’m describing this book as a crossover between the Game of Throne multi-POV narrative structure and the revenge-centric plot from V for Vendetta in a book that is ultimately a tragedy scifi/fantasy novel. Though, atmospherically it is a much more modern novel than anything else I’ve written, since there are cars and cities and cellphones.

That about does it for this particular update. My blog has been upsettingly empty as of late, so I hope this post kindles some renewed interest on the part of any readers lingering in the shadows. That’s all for now, I’m off to Comic-Con 2012 tomorrow. Pictures, maybe? Definitely.

TED Talks Redux

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A few days ago I gave an extremely impromptu talk about my passion for writing to an audience that deserve a better speaker. After graduation, a promotion, and a flurry of family-related activities the talk was the furthest thing from my mind. I got up in front of 40ish people and rambled, though I’m told I ramble well. What I found as I spoke and answered questions was that three themes emerged. Now that I’ve had some time to think back on these themes I’ve compiled a better examination of them. If I’d prepared for the talk I gave about a week ago, this is what I would’ve said:

Contemplate Your Mortality

Mortality is a subject that I think every writer becomes obsessed with in one way or another. Two years ago my mother spent nearly two months in the hospital and has periodically returned there. A few months later my grandfather passed from complications related to surgery. Last December my 13-year old cousin Ian also passed away unexpectedly. These events have had a transformative effect on my writing and my outlook on life. I try to think that the changes have been for the better but there’re times when I wonder who I’m kidding.

When I was a senior in high school my English teacher, Mr. Caughey, once told me “If you ever really want to freak yourself out at night, just think about how you’re absolutely going to die. It’s a trip.” In the past few months this has become an unescapable nightly ritual for me. In those moments between the waking world and the ethereal realm of sleep I consider how much closer I am to the end. Life is spent preparing for death, though we hardly realize that. We grown, love, and lose—with increasing rapidity as we accelerate into adulthood.

It’s become something of a crutch that I use to remind myself that I’m still alive; that there’s so little time but, infuriatingly enough, so many opportunities. While many famous writers throughout history writers have allowed their mortality to drag them down to the bottom of booze bottles and cigarette cartons (here’s to looking at you, Joyce!), I’ve spun something of an optimistic approach on it all. And also I just don’t have the funds that constant drinking and smoking require. I equate mortality with scarcity; there’s not enough of it, and it can so suddenly disappear anyways, that it has become the spine of my motivation. I’m going to spend my life working. I’m going to spend my life writing.

I had a discussion with a mentor of mine the other day at dinner. She shared with me her growing desire to retire from teaching after decades of work in high school classrooms reminding America’s youth of this country’s checkered history. It was then that I admitted that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to retire. I can’t help but think that I’m going to be one of the poor fools who works until he dies. What’s the point of retirement? What’s the point of admitting that you’re coasting until you die? I know that just about any retired person would argue me on this. Time for travel, time to relax, time for family. But if you’ve spent your whole life putting those things off until the tail end of it; that you’ve boxed your desires into a twenty year span at the end of your life, how do you deserve them? How can you expect that you’ll accomplish them?

I contemplate my mortality as a motivational tool, not a tactic of self-inflicted depression. I think that if more people were mindful of their impending deaths then we might, as a race, be happier with ourselves. Whole swaths of us might change professions. Might be more confident. It may be a rose outlook but it’s an outlook nonetheless. My advice is to think about it. To remember it. To accept that one day “you too shall grow old.”

The big question there, though, is how will you reflect on your life looking back?

Do What You’re Meant To Do.

I am lucky.

There’s no easier way to say it than that. I am lucky to have found my passion when I was fifteen years old. I’m lucky to have written something everyday since then, to have practiced and honed my craft to the point that I’m comfortable talking about and sharing my writing with others. I was stunned, during the presentations of the other artists last week, to see the sheer magnitude of passion evinced by other human beings.

Humans are a colorful, passionate race of contradictions and complexity. We aren’t meant to spend our lives doing things that make us miserable. When I think about my job I know I’m thinking about something that I’m good it. Working 9-5 is what I want to do. What I need to do in order to survive. Writing my books, staying up late and outlining the next chapter or story—that’s what I’m meant to do.

Not enough people discern this and spend lives laboring to be productive and fruitful, ultimately falling short of some grand goal. They realize they’ve spent years in the shadow of their one true passion. Coincidentally, our true passions are often the most useless things we’ve ever encountered. Painting doesn’t make the world a safer place. Taking photos doesn’t make it any more or less wretched. Writing doesn’t physically change a damned thing.

At my graduation ceremony retiring Professor Gerald Butler asked why the world questions and devalues the arts when it needs it most. He postulated that the act of sharing is what enriches the human experience, that the creative urges of mankind are what help us escape the eras of dark pragmatism and cruel budget cuts.

I agree. When things get tough humanity switches into survivalist mode. But this isn’t the preindustrial age anymore. We have our civilization, or so we’re taught, and with it we’re meant to achieve great things. Think about Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Boticelli—artists whose works continue to shine hundreds of years after their deaths. Each of them contributing to the legacy of humanity. At a certain point we need to back away from survivalism and reevaluate the inherent value of creative wealth we can generate.

We spend so much time doing what we’re told to do that we ignore the desire to discover and do what we’re meant to. I’m lucky to have discovered that I’m meant to be a writer. I’m meant to write my books and read unholy amounts of novels and lead a generally introverted lifestyle. The sooner that we each tap into that realization then the sooner we’ll each feel more fulfilled.

Respect Your Voice

The other night I said “to tamper with your voice is a crime.” That’s a position I maintain because of its authenticity. If you’re doing what you love to do and you tamper with your style then you’re only hurting yourself. I gladly accept edits and comments on my work but at the end of the day I alone decide whether or not to care, or even read, said feedback.

So there is an element of arrogance at work in how you treat your creative pursuits. You have to be arrogant enough to know when something will hurt your work rather than better it. You need to learn to see if you’re asking for feedback because you’re being polite or because you truly desire it.

At the end of the day, nobody gets to be renowned for bending to the desires of other. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was famously rejected twelve times before it was published and became a staple book of high school literature. J.K. Rowling’s The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected eight times before it was published.

Not another living soul will defend your voice for you, because we’ve all seen how lonely and antagonistic the world can be when it sets itself against you. I assume, daily, that the only person who finds my writing any good is me. And, therefore, I alone retain absolute control over what stays and what goes—because I am, and was, my first fan.

I wished that I had prepare this that Sunday night instead of the dribble that I offered to such a polite crowd. What it boils down to is that your creative pursuits are the chance to set the tone for your life and your life’s work. Don’t neglect it, don’t put it off and expect it to disappear. Each wasted day is a wasted opportunity. In parting, I offer the following quote from Maurice Sendak:

“I’m clearing the decks for a simple death. You’re done with your work. You’re done with your life. And your life was your work.”

5 Tips to Get Your Writing Started

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Writing, believe it or not, is easy. Are the first words that hit the paper automatic gold? Nope. Far from it. But like any other talent or skill, writing is something you get better at the more you try and fail at it. Today’s post is about the planning stage—the things you can do before you sit down to write your next book that will help it hit the top of the New York Times Bestseller List twice as fast. (Editor’s Note: This is hyperbole. I’ve never been to the top of that particular list, so results will vary.) These are a few tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the past year that I think make a big difference in my writing that add to my overall feelings of accomplishment when I finish a project.

1. Pick Your Poison

In my experience there are two ways to begin the process and these are to either a) plan nothing or b) plan everything. This is a gross oversimplification but it gets the general point across extremely well. Chances are that you, as a writer, will bounce between these two as you grow and experiment with your own style. Speaking personally, I used to hate planning my books. Or I would plan only a fraction of the work as a whole, as I tried to allow the spirit of the story to guide my process. As I undertook more ambitious projects, which were namely books in a series, planning became increasingly crucial to the long-term viability of the books. What I’ve discovered is that, like building a house with many rooms, you need detailed blueprints for a book. Without them, the whole undertaking falls apart leaving behind an absolute mess.

What I found as I undertook more and more ambitious projects (specifically books in a series) is that I would lose track of the many things I wanted to explore. Character interactions, particular scenes, powerful events…all those little details that kindled my original interest in that project. Since then I’ve moved closer to the planning side of things, though I try to leave room for a lot of spontaneity.

2. Outline. Brainstorm. Outline Again. (Repeat as Necessary)

Planning has some serious benefits. It allows you to document what you want to explore. Character interactions, major events, minor details…all the elements that kindled your initial interest in that project. Going back to our analogy, outlining your story is equivalent to creating a blueprint of your book. I accomplish this by listing major plot points, punctuating them with character development and world building. When you read the term ‘world building’ you might say, ‘well I’m not writing the next Game of Thrones–or fantasy for that matter–so I can assume people know all about my world.’

Tell them anyways. When you take for granted that people know what grass looks like, or what the beach smells like, or how the mist feels, you’re only hurting yourself. Take the opportunity of outlining to include the details that interest you, the scenes that you want to write. Forget plot for five minutes and write something you don’t think is exactly necessary but would be fun to include. I recently wrote a scene where two characters sit outside a barn and gaze at the stars. Does it bring them any closer to the climax of the novel? No. Does it advance the plot? Not really. Was it something that screamed at me to write it for a week? Heck yes. You, as the writer, are the first and most importance member of your audience. Write to yourself first and to others second.

Dare to stray from your outline. While a major advantage of planning is that I get all of my thoughts into one document, keep in mind that this reference document is a living, breathing entity. In life, few things go strictly according to plan. Let your literature reflect that. Allow your outline to reflect that. Add the unexpected, the dangerous, and the frightening as it occurs to you. Keep what works, remove what doesn’t. I often dare myself to stray from my outline. To push the boundaries of my story in creative and exciting ways. I invite you to do the same.

3. Create Characters Who Don’t Always Get Along.

Coming back to the realities of the world, you won’t always get along with everyone you meet. It’s an unfortunate but wonderful truth that you can apply to your writing. If you’re writing six books and a movie and your characters get along from day one, how the hell are you going to fill all those empty pages with meaningful, witty, and emotional text? Remember how Hermione didn’t get along with Harry and Ron until they saved her from a mountain troll? I call this Mountain Troll Rule. Relationships take work, since the most important ones usually start off on the wrong foot.

Giving characters oppositional attitudes and dispositions means you’ve given them something to squabble over. Divisions to impede their ability to work together. Differences they’ll have to work past in order to win at the end of the book. Reflecting the complexities of interpersonal communications in the men and women you create makes for good reading, so pile on the dysfunction.

I often purposefully design oppositional characters. For instance, I wrote an ultra-religious character specifically to conflict with with another character who is, at best, a pessimistic agnostic. Or, another time, I wrote a very duty-bound character in opposition to a flippant opportunist. Life and literature are regularly filled with binaries since people rarely trust one another at first sight, and would sooner argue rather than consider the opposing viewpoint. I try to reflect this in my writing as often as possible. In my experience, I’ve found that it adds multiple layers to the ending my stories, whether they end in the highest triumph or the lowest defeat.

4. Take Breaks. Lots of Them.

Know when you need a break from writing. I believe that being exhausted is the kiss of death to your creativity, so learn to recognize when you need to take a step back and do other things for a while. During these breaks I highly recommend daydreaming. Seriously, I don’t know how I’d survive if I couldn’t daydream. I let my creative impulses go on safari for a few minutes, brainstorming all the stuff I’ve yet to try but long for the opportunity to do so. Oddly enough, this tip relates directly to the first, which was to plan. Keep in mind that planning is great and all, but remember that an idea that just pops into your head is worth as much as one that you’ve already written down.

5. Have Fun.

If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. There will be times when you write something that you don’t like. It’ll feel clunky and awkward. Your general opinion of it will be that you don’t like it but it’s necessary to the plot, to the characters, or to some other broader excuse. It took me a long time to figure out a good answer to these conundrums, but I’m proud of my simple-yet-amazing solution: toss it out.

If you don’t like what you’ve written you need to rework it. Revise it. Redo it. Rewrite it. Do whatever it takes to make what you’re writing something to be proud of. Something you can’t wait to share. Readers can spot passages and chapters that the author obviously felt the need to grind through. Don’t let that happen to you. I’m not saying it doesn’t still happen to me, but the sooner you get comfortable with trashing something you don’t like, the sooner you’re writing something you love.

As always, I appreciate your attention and readership. Feel free to drop me a line or post in the comments with any questions!

Brendan