Monthly Archives: September 2010

What is more important than talent?

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

~ Calvin Coolidge ~

So, how do we get ourselves to the place where we rise above our limitations of talent, education, and genius? How do we instill persistence in our writing and other pursuits.

In three words made popular by Nike, “Just do it.”

I think we often talk ourselves out of more things than we talk ourselves into. Negative self-talk is a huge demotivator because it lowers our resolve in the face of obstacles. I don’t have the numbers so I’ll let you imagine the ratios in my next example:

Imagine how many people in the world want to write. Of that group, how many actually make an attempt? Of the percentage that attempt to write, how many of them actually finish a story or novel? What percentage of those who complete a story actually revise and perfect that story? From there, what fraction of writers then find a market for their completed work? I think we can all agree that the percentages drop drastically with each step we get away from wanting to write and actually completing a work for which a market exists.

What is the difference in each of the stages of the example above? Do some have more writing talent? Have some attended more creative writing classes or workshops?

From my perspective, the only difference is in determined effort to move through each stage of the process from idea to completion. The writers that completed and found a market for their work “just did it”.

Is persevering in the face of self-doubt, rejection, or critiques from instructors and peers easy to do? Of course not. But the decision to proceed despite whatever may come is often the real difference between success and regret.

In my own writing, I spent fifteen years in the part-time pursuit of what I thought was a great script idea that I developed back in 1994. I knew nothing of script format and structure, the market, or the craft. So, rather than stop at those limitations, I went to two workshops, bought or borrowed from the library every book on the subject I could find and then just wrote. The first years and drafts were written with a good friend of mine and we registered a final draft with the Writer’s Guild and began submitting to Hollywood and some of our network connections. The feedback came back that the script was 90% there and had good writing style, but the plot was too episodic. In other words, that version of the script wasn’t yet marketable.

I could have given up there and began telling myself that I didn’t have the talent or skill or connections to write scripts. I could have quit. I wanted to return to writing fiction and I had some new ideas for an epic fantasy series. I also knew that the script idea was good but not yet fully realized. I told myself I would not begin another writing project until the script was finished to my standards. So, after moving and working on the script here and there by myself. I partnered with my wife to strengthen the female characters and ended up making significant corrections to many story flaws. Several years of occasional pursuit, edits, and my wife’s encouragement ensued and a final draft was again reached. This was a 100% better version of the story kernel I’d had over a decade earlier. I re-registered and submitted this version in 2009 to several script contests. Alas, the script neither won nor placed. But, for me it was completed. I executed the story idea to the best of my ability with the knowledge, talent and resources I had, with two different writing partners and I’m satisfied that it is a complete story. As of today, it has garnered neither awards nor a sale, but I consider the completed work a success and a valuable lesson. My only regret is that it took me fifteen years to finish.

So, I now know within myself that I have the capacity to finish a project. I have the patience and determination to stick with a story idea for fifteen years. I now apply that precedent to my current epic fantasy novel. In many ways writing a 200,000 word novel is more difficult than a 110 page script, but I have survived the first year of research, world-building and first draft writing and I still write on average five days a week on my story.

My only hope is that this project doesn’t take me fifteen years to finish. Realistically, I intend to finish early next year. Check in periodically to this blog and we’ll all see how and when that happens.

What are your strategies for overcoming obstacles and completing tasks or goals, especially big ones like writing a novel, learning to surf, or returning to school for an advanced degree?

What is it that you’ve always wanted to accomplish but haven’t yet started? What is it that you’ve started but haven’t finished?

Just do it.

–Mark

Advertisements

Novel Update #1

This blog started as an account of my pilgrimage to write and publish an epic fantasy novel.  The past several posts have been focused on aspects of writing fiction.  Today, I will speak a little about the first half of The Tower and a summary of the activity to date.  I will include no spoilers since I am writing a first draft and any aspect of the story could change in subsequent drafts.

As currently conceived, The Tower (working title only) is the first of a trilogy entitled King of the World (working title).   The founders of civilization, an ancient race of superior, magically endowed beings long ago descended below the surface of the earth when a portion of their society grew corrupt.  Those that remained on the Earth’s surface lost much of their magic, called lithomancy, and became the race of mankind.  For almost six thousand years, the memory and influence of the Old Ones or the Elder Race, has been kept alive via religion, myths and legends.  Shrines of worship dot the land and it is an important rite of adulthood for young worshippers to spend a year seeking the shrines to commune with the Old Ones.

However, signs of change are upon the land and the ancient prophecies are being interpreted as a return of the Old Ones to once again rule the surface of the Earth.  Who supports the return of the Old Ones and who opposes it?  In a world of peace that hasn’t known armed conflict in centuries, the citizens of the countries of Laurentia are not prepared for a possible war that would enslave all of mankind.

The Tower is the introduction of a  small group of uniquely skilled and chosen travelers who are invited on a pilgrimage they don’t fully understand but will ultimately have far-reaching consequences to the future of civilization.  Also introduced are those who know what is prophesied to happen and are working very hard to ensure preparations are made for the ascension of the Elder Race, the Old Ones of religion and legend.

So, my progress on this story is as follows.  I’ve written just over 80,000 words (which is the average length of a mystery novel).  For fantasy, however, this is more like only half a novel.  80,000 words translates to about 275 pages.  Readers of fantasy will note that many of your favorite books are 500+ pages and some are close to 900.  I may be closer to 1/3 than 1/2 half.  We’ll see.

To help me in my writing pilgrimage, I’m in a writer‘s group where I submit a complete chapter online each week and two other writers provide a critique a week later.  I’ve already had the Prologue and Chapter One reviewed and I’m quite grateful for the feedback because quite a few errors were found.  Apparently I have a tendency to write in passive voice which is where things happen to characters, rather than characters taking action on things or events.  Only 2% of my sentences had this flaw, but now that I’m aware of it, I intend to purge it completely.

I also used the thesaurus a bit too much early on and used a few words that if you didn’t know the meaning, would stall the story and cause you to have to look it up.  Not good for a smooth flowing story.

Some of you may be wondering where or how I came up with a story idea about ancient races living underground and rising again.  I was inspired by some research I did about some ancient Buddhist myths.  In a future post, I’ll post more about research and how it benefits writing.

For now, I carry on in my writing and will update on my progress again soon.

Mark


Write smarter, not harder

I learned a valuable lesson today when changing the fuel pump in one of our cars. I had help from an experienced car guy and even with an extra set of eyes, hands, and skills, we got stuck in the middle of the repair. We spent over an hour attempting to disconnect a part that would not cooperate. We even had the specialty tool required for the job. Alas, it wasn’t working. So, rather than breaking something, tool or part, or simply giving up and taking the kids to the pool, we took a break and ate some lunch.

I called someone with experience in this type of repair and got a tip on something we hadn’t been doing. I also did some research online to look for more info or diagrams to aid our next attempts. After letting the frustration dissipate, feeding my stomach, and enlightening my mind, I was ready to try again. I knew we had to do something different because after all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

So, I worked smarter. By the time my 2nd joined me, I had discovered three things we hadn’t disconnected first, which allowed us to remove the whole fuel tank from the car. That done, the uncooperative fuel pump was removed and replaced in a matter of minutes. Smarter, not harder.

What does this have to do with writing?

I have found that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that time + energy = success. If some aspect of your story is frustrating you and you keep rewriting the same plot point or narrative or dialog to force it into cooperation, you may be disappointed. Often, all you’ve managed to do is dig yourself a rut that further confines your story thinking. Spending hours on one scene and agonized over every word is not always going to make the prose glisten like new fallen snow. Sometimes you need to work smarter.

How?

Well, since I fall into this trap all the time I have worked out a few techniques that I use.

First, don’t panic. A bad word, sentence, paragraph, or chapter doesn’t make you a failed writer. Give yourself permission to write crap and remind yourself that even diamonds are ugly lumps of coal before they made to sparkle.

Second, don’t beat your head against the wall. If you get stuck, it is okay to save your file and do something else, or if you are still in the middle of a writing session, move on to the next part of your story. You are not obligated to write perfectly in sequence. Make a note to yourself in a different colored font (I use red because it means, “Stop, fix me”) about what you are stuck on and move on in the narrative.

Third, research. If you don’t like the way your magic system is working. Get online and research magic in different countries or eras of history. Enrich your mind with new ideas and you may find the jump start you need.

Fourth, brainstorm. I do this often when the plot or characters aren’t working for me. Instead of sitting and staring at my screen, I brainstorm at least five or six new ways to tell the scene, or handle a motivation, or what to name a character. Brainstorming frees your mind of barriers and allows new ideas to bubble to the surface of your thoughts.

Five, read. Read some of your favorites and see how other authors solved the same or similar story problems. Imitation can lead to inspiration.

Six, ask a writer friend. If you are fortunate enough to have a writers group or other friends in the fiction world, call them up. Tell them your problem and ask for advice. It is possible they’ve faced and solved this issue before. Their advice may give you only part of the answer you need, but that is always better than no answer.

Ultimately, we aspiring writers have limited time to write with families and day jobs. We can’t afford unproductive writing sessions. We don’t have the luxury of spending over an hour trying to force an uncooperative part (except maybe on Saturdays). It is far more productive to stop, take a breath, identify what you are doing wrong and gain some new insight into what you can do differently. When you do this, the solution will become evident and you’ll be grateful and slightly awed that it really wasn’t that hard.

It sometimes takes working smarter, not harder.

–Mark


When to leap before you look

It is conventional wisdom that in most situations it is wise to look before you leap. Imagine hiking along a trail and coming to a gully filled with a swift moving creek. If you simply kept stride and jumped across, you may only make it halfway, or you may land on a river stone, twisting an ankle, or the opposite bank may be sloped and muddy causing you to back slide into the water. Now if you pause at the edge of the trail and assess the distance, the conditions, and the landing zone, you would be able to make the best decision possible on how to handle the situation, be it turning back, finding a bridge, or running and long jumping the creek and landing in a reasonably safe spot. In this example, common sense should prevail to prevent delays, wet clothes, injury, or worse.

However, when is it not only permissible, but recommended that one approach a situation in a less cautious manner.

When is it a good idea to take that leap with little or no thought or preparation?

What we are really talking about here is taking risks. And what type of risks do readers and writers take? Well, not usually the physically dangerous kind. Although our characters may charge headlong into battle against a mighty gorgon wielding only a longbow and twin dirks, we typically do not. If you have done this, please let me know how it turned out.

I suggest we look at risk taking not as a blind leap but more of a calculated effort. Writers by nature tend to be thinkers and often think so much that indecision creeps in like a scorpion, stinging us into a paralysis of sorts. So let’s look at the usual writing risks and discuss how to overcome them.

1. Writing – The risk here is that you will spend time writing fiction that could productively be spent elsewhere. My advice, don’t write instead of working to provide for your family. Write in addition to working to provide for your family. If you have important obligations within your family, don’t neglect them to write. Most aspiring and many published novelists keep their day jobs and still produce and sell. Reduce the risk and find a good a time to write that doesn’t interfere with the other important aspects of your life. Warning, don’t rank writing so low on the priority list that you’re not writing at all because you are trying to stay current on seventeen TV shows.

2. Writing well – The risk here is that the writing produced isn’t very good. And for most beginning writers, that will be true. As with any skill, it must be used and developed with mistakes made to get any better. I read somewhere that it takes approximately 1 million written words for a writer to achieve a level of expertise that is considered professional and publishable. Reduce the risk of poor writing by writing a lot and persisting through the challenging learning curve. Expect obstacles and frustration but work through them. If not, you risk giving up on writing and that would be unacceptable.

3. Selling/Publishing – This is where the risks for a writer create the same type of fear or exhilaration that a physically dangerous situation may create for an extreme sports junkie. For writers, the risk is facing rejection and that is one of the hardest things to bear. We may take it personally and question our writing ability and our place in the literary world. How to overcome? If you have achieved a level of proficiency to where your work is of high caliber, has been edited and beta read and is the best possible version of your story, then the bigger risk is that it will collect dust in your office, or remain a file full of bytes, never seen by anyone. Again, after tens of thousands of word and countless hours, would you be content to let your story mothball? Unacceptable. So, the lesser risk is facing rejection. We all know the story of how Sylvester Stallone faced hundreds of rejections for the Rocky script before finding a home where he would also be the lead actor. His career took off from there and it was because of persistence and believing in his work. This is the key, believe in yourself, learn to write at a professional level and the risks are minimized.

Now let me share two recent writing risks I’ve taken to prove that I take my own advice. First, this blog. I had never considered starting a writing blog until I read a post at Suite101.com explaining why novelists, even aspiring ones, should start a blog. I read it, thought about it a bit, and then one Saturday, logged onto WordPress.com and started posting. For those of you who know we well, this was definitely a leap. I didn’t research for weeks on blogs and blogging and what I would say and would it be worth anything. If I had looked first, I may still be researching the best approaches to blogging, getting lost in the sea of endless tips available on the web.

My second leap, if you will, is joining an online writer’s group. I subscribe to a newsletter from a prominent fantasy author who is sponsoring a forum for virtual writer’s groups. My instinct was to wait and see, watch and learn, think about it, blah blah blah. But, my awesome wife, who knows me too well, said to just sign up and do it. So I did. And I’ve found myself a very active member of the group and have made some new acquaintances in the writing world. Is this a real risk? It is only a risk it that I’m facing the unknown and stepping into the darkness. This is my first writing group of any kind and I have no idea what to expect. But, I think the greater risk again is missing out on the feedback and the camaraderie that comes from working with peers to support and guide writing careers. Writers may work alone, but we do not and should not dwell on an island.

It takes discretion and good judgment to know when to look first and when it is okay to leap first. It is my belief, that as writer’s we can and take more risks with our writing and our careers. We should not vacillate or hesitate too much or we risk missing opportunities to learn and grow as writers and eventually to match our stories with an eager reading audience.

–Mark


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.