As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we enter a time of traditions. The holidays are soon to be upon us, the stores are filling with decorations, people are starting to complain about the fact that Christmas shopping season “seems to start earlier every year”. For writers, this is the time of year when people new and old take an opportunity to challenge themselves by trying to write a novel in one month’s time. National Novel Writing Month is so ingrained into the culture that I do not personally know a single writer or writing enthusiast in my life who hasn’t taken a swing at the challenge at least once. And, while I myself tend to avoid rushing through word counts to meet these sorts of challenges, I’ve always had a tradition of my own.
Though I was hesitant at first, I’ve made a point in years prior to throw out some writing advice in November and editing advice in December. Though it’s often joked that everyone becomes a “guru” on the internet, it was never my intention to do this. Only after being nudged by friends did I even try to. Hopefully, over the years, I’ve said something useful to someone who was just taking their first steps into writing novels. If not, at least I hope it was entertaining to watch me try. Given the projects I need to get done before January, I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do this year. But, at the very least, there’s one lesson to be shared that I’ve been pondering lately.
There are times when trying to articulate what I’m saying can be a little harder than others. I know what I want to convey but that’s sometimes more grey than people would like. It’s so easy, especially in the modern era, to be labeled as the enemy by everyone because your nuanced position happens to be neither firmly in the black or the white. Too often, the two sides are unable to see that there are a lot more people who stand somewhere in the middle. And, a little over a year ago, I walked right into one of those conversations accidentally while in search of something to post to my blog. Before I knew it, I was receiving a swath of comments and messages regarding copyright and the legality of fan-works.
As a result of the conversation, I’ve spent the last year writing a series of posts responding to a litany of polarized views. But in responding to so many varied opinions not everyone actually understood what points I was making at the time I was making them. From addressing the moral superiority some people thought they had, to pointing out that fair use isn’t quite as sturdy as people on the internet hope it to be – I’ve been trying my best to respond to everything while keeping my own position as clear as I could. And, frankly, despite my best efforts I know that something this complicated is almost impossible to keep clear in short order. In fact, I’d even go so far as to argue that’s by design.
One of the hardest parts of being involved in a creative profession is dealing with the forces that drag down your productivity. I’ve talked about it often enough in the past because, frankly, that’s what all of us do at some point or another. But generally when we talk about these things we talk about how to make sure you “stay motivated” and keep working even if it’s only a little at a time. We talk about the idea of taking regular breaks to keep fresh and not be frustrated. We talk about setting a reasonable word goal for the day. And this is all good… for the first draft. But the fact is that if you intend to go beyond simply a hobbyist and into making it a successful career (with luck) then there’s more to it than simply staying motivated throughout the initial writing – because the time in between those efforts is going to be taken up by other tasks you’re not too thrilled with either.
And this is the part where neurotic natures that slow your creative process can become downright damaging to your actual results. Sure, in theory the hardest part is to actually get something to the page because that’s a lot more complicated than most people acknowledge it to be. That part can be tiresome and ugly and leave you feeling exhausted and frustrated. But the thing about it is that writing and editing your work is only the first step and, sadly, is still miles away from actually getting it all where you need it to be. Even after publishing you’re not actually “done” and there is still a mountain to climb ahead of you before you reach anything resembling a peak. That mountain’s also pretty much the reason why writers fail, btw, so you better be ready to find a few bodies along the way.
As someone still climbing that mountain, I can’t tell you how to do all of the things that you need to do to get to the top. I can, however, tell you what I’ve learned about the pitfalls behind me and the ones I’m learning to cross right now. Every day I find myself learning something that I realized would have been a life saver years before, sometimes even downright messianic. I have, to put it lightly, learned everything I have through trial, error, and hilarious misfires. How bad were these misfires? I released my first book in the same month a well known bestselling author released one in the exact same genre. Lesson learned? Figure out what the big fish is doing in the pond before you jump in.
So know when I pass on today’s advice I’m not talking from a position of authority or judgment, I’m talking as someone who has done really stupid things and has learned in the process. And recently as I was trying to learn how to fix one of my problems I saw someone struggling with the same issue I was. Both of us had been struggling to keep up with the schedules we had set for ourselves, even adjusting for my recent misfortunes, and I’d just learned why from a third party. To put it bluntly, if you struggle with keeping up with your schedule… Continue reading Schedules and Valued Time→
There’s something I don’t talk about very often but is well worth mentioning right now: I am a fan of Shark Tank. Yes, for some weird ass reason I really like watching startups and entrepreneurs try to get money. It started during one of my trips to Canada when I realized how amused I was by their version, Dragon’s Den, and I’ve been watching it ever since. And it’s not just Shark Tank, I’m into similar shows about getting an investor on board too because I like to see people come up with ideas, business models, and strategies and see if they can get someone to buy in. I’ve long mentally registered it as a form of research because someday, theoretically, I hope to leverage my work into a more complex business and, as an independent, I’m basically a business unto myself. But the reason why I bring it up is because of one of the things that often gets cited as a reason why this guy decides not to invest in certain businesses.
Keven O’Leary is the designated asshole of the series in two countries, both as a Shark and as a Dragon. And generally the reason why is because he’s the most brass tax of anyone in the show. It doesn’t matter how good your life story is, it doesn’t matter if you cry, it doesn’t matter if you’re helping hungry children in a third world country – Kevin wants money, Kevin is going to get money, and Kevin will shit on you if he doesn’t think you can make money. It’s really kind of ironic that he’s basically the public representative of a mentality that drives most financial markets and yet we only hate him because they set up a production and cameras. Mitt Romney basically did the same thing through most of his life and he was a successful politician right up until he got caught calling half the country worthless. But one thing that Kevin has said about certain businesses really rings in my head today.
You see, Kevin doesn’t invest in things that center on a single person’s talent. He doesn’t put money behind the efforts of one person. If it’s not something that can be replicated without that person, he doesn’t give a shit. And, he explains it in the typical fashion of a reality TV villain: “You could be hit by a bus tomorrow and I would lose my investment.”
Creative professions are infamous for being full of people who are wrought with self-doubt. Though it’s easy to overlook it in others, I’ve rarely encountered someone who doesn’t have at least a little bit of doubt. Even the most famous of us will admit to having touches of imposter syndrome and a need to constantly reaffirm that they deserved to be where they are. We all know this on some level, so it’s not news to anyone. After all, if you’re here, it’s likely you followed a link about writers and you’ve felt it in yourself from time to time.
Frequently the advice that we get is about trying to simply be “okay” with the fact that voice exists and remember that the only way past it is to just keep going. The longer you keep doing what you’re doing, the more your chances of overcoming it will become. And that’s not terrible advice, you shouldn’t let it stop you even if it’s always there. But what I’ve long felt is that there’s something else that we really need to do with that voice to take ourselves to the next level… Continue reading Owning Your Doubts→
One of the interesting aspects of being a writer online is that you get to see a lot of other writers from all walks of life and philosophies. There are a lot of successful writers that everyone follows, of course, but beneath the big names you have a wide variety of people who have seen every level of success and have taken just as many roads to get there. And these people network a lot: having conversations and following each other on social media all the time. So one of the things you can really see if you follow enough people is how the writer community divides across certain lines. One of the lines I’ve noticed is pretty clear between three big schools of thought is just how likely your work is ever going to succeed.
The first school of thought you’ll find without much effort is the group that wants to cheer each other on. Being in a creative industry isn’t easy and a lot of people get discouraged, so there are people who will constantly be doing what they can to let you know you’re not alone. The second group, not pessimistic, will focus more on the grind of it all. These people will tell you can make it, but it’s uphill battle, it’s going to be exhausting, and you’re going to need a plan. Meanwhile, the third group is the one that says it’s basically pointless to try unless you get damn lucky or you’re supremely talented. And, of course, the people in the third group tend to think they’re among the chosen – even if the numbers don’t bear it out yet.
The third group is just a fact of life. I have a friend of mine who does script coverage who has had to deal with quite a few of them already in her young career. But one of the things I’ve noticed trending among several of these people lately is the idea that self-published authors were just too immature to follow the traditional publishing route. In their eyes, clearly, if your work was worthwhile then you would have gone to the publishers instead of trying to do it on your own. Either you weren’t confident enough in the work, were too arrogant to accept edits, or just weren’t patient enough to let the system do its work. According to this meme floating around, traditionally published works are better than self-published works by default. And at first I was just going to brush it off as their standard MO and not comment on it, but then a thought occurred to me:
Years ago, when people were still feeling out the eBook market, I had what we would call a “rough year” and made a couple rash decisions. The first was that I was going to self-publish a book because I’d seen numbers suggesting that my chances with and without a publisher were roughly about the same. This was during that hazy time back when the economy was crashing and no one was confident about anything – advances were down, advertising was shaky at best, and Amazon was starting to eat enough of the market to kill Borders (ironically thanks to a deal they made with Borders). So, of course, I wanted me a piece of that action.
But self-publishing lead to my second rash decision: I was going to start trying to promote myself – something that anyone who knows me can tell you was probably the bigger mistake of the two. My personality, in real life, is fairly conflict driven and yet introverted. For those of you doing the math, yeah, that generally means I’m my own worst enemy. So the idea of trying to be my own hype man is a bit like having Moriarty give the elevator pitch on Sherlock. Sure, he’s well aware of Holmes’ strengths, but he’s also invested in ruining the guy.
Still, I went about making content on a fairly regular basis by starting this blog. It wasn’t a vanity project as some critics have suggested, but an attempt to look like I know what I’m doing. Perhaps, with enough effort, I can find my audience and make those efforts worthwhile. And, despite everything, there is a benefit to the fact I second guess every move I make: I am constantly using this blog to do a self critique.
As such, I occasionally go back through old posts, old work, and old concepts to find new ways to hate on my younger self. It’s beneficial, despite how I make it sound, to take stock of what mistakes I made in the past and then learn from it. I know I’m not perfect (something we should all keep in mind), and that I have to constantly improve to progress. So I’m willing to give myself an honest performance evaluation every once in a while. There’s just one thing I tend to regret about these evaluations: I end up re-reading or remembering comments I’ve gotten on the internet.
Speculative fiction, being that it is purely speculative, is an evolving set of genres. Science fiction and fantasy are generally meant to be fluid and will reflect the times they were made in quite often. And because of this a great many variations will appear within the genre for things that everyone happens to share. What are the differences between Orcs and Orks? How many kinds of vampires are there actually? How distantly related are Legolas and the Keebler Elves?
Sometimes these differences are pretty profound, other times they’re almost non-existent. But what I’ve found most often is that the differences are generally discouraged if a specific work has reached an iconic status. Vampires have had dozens, if not hundreds of variations over the years, but many of the traits which are accepted as “canon” were originated either within Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the movie adaptations to follow. This is strange, because it means the original source material, the folklore, is generally forgotten in favor of variations on a theme of Dracula. It’s because of this that I personally went out of my way to include several variations of vampire in my stories and bring back old bits of lore that are often forgotten – like the fact a vampire can’t cross certain materials without counting every grain in their path.
The funny thing is that, in my world of sci-fantasy reinterpretations of the mythological as biological creatures, I’ve had a few run-ins with people who felt that I had somehow been “wrong” to change the lore. As one person said to me very early on, “I prefer my version”. It’s not the only feedback you get, but it’s one that you realize is quietly prevalent. Though some books and movies get away with it because they’re popular, if something has flaws, it will be immediately criticized for getting the lore “wrong”. Hell, at one point even I took part in doing this before realizing the flaw in my thinking.
Over the years on this blog I’ve said some things I later came to second guess. It’s not so much that I lack confidence but I’m not a person who rejects evidence against my opinion just to soothe my ego (profound as that ego may be). I’ve long felt that writers need to be able to admit when they’re wrong so that they can take criticism and learn from their mistakes. So every once in a while, I have to question previously held opinions and see if maybe they were wrong. Sometimes, I review the opinion with the new evidence, find that the original opinion was right, and move on with my life, and other times I find that I missed something and needed to revise my stance.
One of the opinions that I’ve had to review in the last year was my stance on the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters. For those who have been long time readers you may know that when the first cast photos were released I wrote that the direction of the film was probably for the best. I argued that Ghostbusters 2 (an “okay” movie) had shown that following the same characters again was probably a bad idea, that no one really wanted to make the third, and that no one was really serious about wanting to see a third either. In my estimation, at the time, a fresh start with a new direction was the way you could revitalize the franchise and that what I was seeing was an effort to breathe new life into an old property. But, over the course of the next year I started to hear things from behind the scenes that made me wonder if I’d missed something.
It got worse as the film released and I came to see the reviews. Though critics were generally positive towards it, the positive reviews were lukewarm. Time and again, I saw positive reviews that said the movie was average – “good” but not “great”. One article I read even stated that being average was a good thing, possibly even better than being a smash hit, because it paved the way for women to make more “okay” movies. Suddenly, thanks to information I’d learned over the year and the arrival of the reviews, I started to have a sinking feeling.
People I knew who were enthusiastic for the film started to lose interest and it just kind of fell off the radar. While some people were still excited about it, the reviews, the box office, and the general energy after release were clear: this wasn’t quite the big deal it should have been. So, I have to admit, I didn’t watch it right away. But now, two years after writing that post and a year after the film hit theaters, I have actually seen it and I have finally come to a conclusion:
Throughout speculative fiction of all genres, be it fantasy or sci-fi, we have certain tropes that are universal. There’s generally an ancient forgotten civilization, a more war-like race, some benevolent watcher species, and a species or individual with some sort of supernatural power. These supernatural powers have a variety of manifestations and uses, but some of the most common across all genres are powers of the mind. The ability to hypnotize, read minds, or see into the future are in almost all branches of these genres and will likely be there until the future they claimed to see finally comes to pass.
And why wouldn’t they be? The concept is fascinating on so many levels. We’ve even tried to see if it was possible in the real world, and found that it probably wasn’t (at least on this world). People still insist that they can do it though, often using cold reading techniques and research to try to fake the talent, and continue to keep the ability right on our collective minds. For every story where someone claims to be able to speak to the dead there are at least a dozen or so real world people who are claiming to do exactly that. And as a result these concepts are an inexorable part of our culture and will be for some time to come (maybe even forever).
But on a writing level, there are problems presented with such powers, problems which often result in a whole other set of tropes that are used as a compromise. It wouldn’t take very much effort to find episodes of shows where the psychic cast member has somehow been stripped of their powers or are somehow nullified. The entire point of Minority Report, both the movie and the original story, was whether or not these perceptions should be trusted. And almost every one of the X-Men movies has found a way to completely remove Professor X’s powers from the equation.