Next Year I’ll…

This is the time of year when every gym in the country has a sign-up special. Be it 30 days for 90 bucks or whatever, gyms know now is the time that people decide they’re going to get in shape. Crunches, weights, running, cycling, burpees, you name it, it’s gonna get done and it’s gonna get done better than ever. They’re going to hit it hard, get swoll, get the body of their dreams and finally put Jason Momoa’s pecs to shame.

momoa

Ladies, you’re welcome.

Then, in about two weeks, if they haven’t pulled every muscle in their back or broken something important, the soreness kicks in and gyms across the country turn back into all the regulars quietly working out. Because the fact of the matter is getting back into shape is hard and staying there is even harder. It takes a certain mental toughness to go ride in 25F degree weather or drag your ass to the gym when the house is nice and warm and it’s way easier to make excuses than toss on some clothes and beat the snot out of the heavy bag for a while.

But those excuses won’t get you where you want to be.

badform

Earlier in the year, some of us were shooting the shit after Kenpo class and the subject of winning the lottery came up. That’s the ultimate in easy living: Someone hands you a check for eleventy million dollars and you’re on easy street for the rest of your life. You can roll up to work in a gold-plate Lambo, flip off your boss, and tear off into the sunset without a care in the world. Anyway, our instructor was listening and he said something to the effect of “If you want to do something, go do it.”

I told him I wanted to buy a senator and that took a lot of cash. Actually, apparently it doesn’t, but the sentiment stuck with me. The chances of winning the lottery – let alone buying a Senator – are infinitesimal. But the chances of trying to do so something and succeeding at it are much higher. And that, more than anything, is why I’m not doing New Year’s Resolutions anymore.

The problem with New Year’s Resolutions is they’re an effective way of putting things off. I’m going to get in shape…next year. I’m going to write a book…next year. I’m going to become rich and famous…next year. I’m going to take over the world and enslave the planet…next year.

Why wait? It’s not going to be any easier next year than it is right now. The weights will still be as heavy, the road will still be as long as cold, your ass ain’t gonna look any better in cycling tights, and that blank page is still going to be staring at you with its cold, dead eyes. But the sooner you start it and the more you do it, the less the weights will feel, the more the road will become your friend, and the more words you’re gonna see on that page. If you’re anything like me, your ass ain’t gonna look good in cycling tights, but so what? You can still enjoy the process.

If you want to do something, go do it. Don’t wait, don’t put it off, don’t wait for the perfect time, just go do it. You don’t need to wait until January 1 to make things happen. And if throughout the year you find yourself slipping, don’t fret it. Take some downtime and get back into like a boss. If it’s important enough, keep making it happen.

treadmill

There will never be a perfect time to write. There will never be a perfect time to get into shape. There will never be a perfect time for anything. There’s only regular time, so take advantage of it because all this stuff takes time to do. And, if you just got your gym membership or started your book, please, keep going. It’s easy to get burned out and decide to quit, but the rewards for continuing are worth it. Trust me, you can do it. And you won’t even have to wait for next year to start it.

portate

Feel like motivating someone? Comment it. I love comments.

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How Twitter Became a Haven For Writers

Everyone knows Twitter, that bastion of toxic bullshit that’s driven people off its platform in droves. We’ve all heard the stories about gangs of roving assholes that attack anything they don’t like and relentlessly gnaw at it like a burlap hood filled with hungry rats. Or how it gave a voice to extremists and white nationalists and idiots of all stripes.

While all of those stories are true to some extent or another, there is another side to the platform that Dorsey and crew would be wise to publicize: It’s become a haven for writers to share snippets of their work and interact in a world that’s not actively spying on them like, say, Facebook. Or, at least if it is, it’s not as overt as the clowns running Facebook.

When the Internet first started gaining ground, there were all sorts of wild rumors floating around about how terrible it was going to be for everyone from children to moral adults and everyone in between. There was porn! There was violence! It was a haven for all kinds of bad behavior and you couldn’t turn it on with getting hit in the face with titties! What people failed to realize was while all those things were there – except for getting hit in the face with titties, that’s hard to do over a monitor – they were things you had to seek out. You didn’t just turn on the Internet (whatever that meant) and see naked chicks doing thing that would make the Marquis DeSade blush.

In the early days, the Internet was a lot of Geocities pages about The Simpsons and pilfered Star Wars scripts. It was cheap ani-gifs, dial-up 14.4kbs access, cybersquatting, and chat rooms. Yes, there was porn and stupid shit, but it didn’t bring down the Republic and turn us all into Satanists. If you didn’t look for it – and searching was a dicey affair back in the late 90s – you wouldn’t find it. It wasn’t like you just opened Netscape Navigator and bam! titties in your face.

Twitter’s a lot like that. What you see is largely dependent on who you follow. Somewhere along the line, artists, writers, and other miscreants started flocking to the platform and creating little communities. This is the kind of thing that needs to be shouted about. Fuck the Nazis, screw the incels, take all those worthless hatemongers and toss ’em in the trash heap of history where they belong; this is our time now.

Sure, there’s a bunch of crap out there, but there’s also an amazingly supportive community of writers and artists and an opportunity to branch out and see what other people are up to. There are daily writing games that let you explore and expand your own skills. There are people you can bounce ideas off of and get honest responses.

If you want to start out, start with Steven Viner. He’s the guy that’s pushing the #writerscommunity. Meet people, follow people, retweet people. Explore and expand. It’s that simple.

From there, start checking out the daily games like #musemon, #martialmonday, #btr2sday, #tuestell, #1linewed, #talesnoir, #thurds, #thurspeak, #fictfri, #satsplat, #slapdashsat, #saidsun, #sunwip, #seducemesunday, and the ever popular #vss365. Don’t expect immediate fame and glory, that’s not what this is about, but it is a great opportunity to meet some cool people from the comfort of your couch.

And now, since I’ve been talking about titties in your face, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put up a pic of a nice pair of tits.

tits

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter here.

Got any other good places or people to follow? Drop ’em in the comments.

No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

My first book was easy. That may or may not be the case for everyone and doubtless Henchmen could use some rework. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll go through the whole series and do some big ol’ honkin’ revisions. The bones of the books are good and some of the flesh is even tantalizing, but there are things that need work.

That said, I’ve learned a lot over the past five years or so; enough to make me realize I wasn’t the mad genius I thought I was. Five years from now, I’ll probably be saying the exact same thing along with words like “dumbass” “egotistical brat” and “no-talent ass-clown”. Such is the nature of the growth and change.

The more you work on something, the better you’re gonna get at it, especially if you pay attention to the feedback you’re getting. Yes, even the stuff that says you suck and should go back to giving handjobs for meth or the ones that say you should have your tongue cut out because you curse too much. Okay, I haven’t had anyone tell me the first one (yet), but the second definitely happened.

I tend to take valid criticism to heart. If there’s something actionable (get an editor) and enough people say it, it’s worth listening to. If there’s just that lone nut griping about something, it’s probably okay to pass it by. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Anyway, I stumbled across this image that I thought summed up the artistic pursuits nicely.

I-wish-I-was-born-with-Talent

All too often we assume we can’t do something just because someone else is already doing it better. When I first started Kenpo, the white belts stood in the back of the class and our instructor told us – first day – the only thing that separated us from him was time and practice. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you and it’s the kind of life lesson that only sinks in after a while. What do you mean I’ve got to wait? I want it now.

Sorry. Can’t have it now.

Neil Gaiman has also said the first million words or so that come out of a writer are shit, but they’ve got to come out so you can to the good ones. It’s like a pipe stuffed full of bad ideas, anxious alliteration, and trite jokes. Push all that crap out and get to the good stuff. Hell, there’ll probably be some real gems floating around in the first million words or so, too, so polish them up and save them.

Now, I’m not saying your book sucks. I’m saying it’s not as good as it could have been if it was your fifth instead of your first. But guess what? You have to write the first through the fourth to get to the fifth.

Like anything else, writing takes time to come to grips with, time to find your voice, and time to get good at it. It can be a hellish journey, but that the end you’ll be able to experience the absolute terror of trying to explain to someone what your book is about without sounding like a babbling lunatic.

If you’re writing – keep writing.

If you’re feeling down about your writing – keep writing.

If your sales suck – keep writing.

Do it until your soul bleeds and you never want to see another word again. Then write some more.

But above all – keep writing.

Information Density

Information density refers to putting more information into a single statement than is readily obvious. Think of it as a process of layering key pieces of a story on top of, or underneath, other things that are happening. Oftentimes it gets revealed through dialog, but there are other ways to accomplish it.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Show, don’t tell.” In fact, you’ve probably heard it enough that it makes you want to strangle a manatee in the nude every time someone says it.

It’s a bit of cryptic phrase. This is, after all, writing we’re talking about, not cinema; showing stuff in prose seems like the antithesis of telling a story. I’ll admit, I struggled with getting my head wrapped around it. But, like all things, once you come at it sideways, it makes a bit more sense. The path to understanding was a long, strange trip, but I finally had an epiphany that made it click into place.

Supposedly, Anton Chekhov once wrote “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.

This is all about scene building and adding poetic license to the grim details of monkey knife fighting in dimly lit alleys surrounded by drunken, toothless rabble chanting broken prayers to empty gods. Imaging the scene in your head. Freeze the frame. See the guy with the eye patch and his fist raised in the air. He’s screaming, lost in the ecstasy of the moment while the woman in the tiny dress leaning on his arm is staring at her phone. She’s focused on a single text and smirking.

The monkey on the right is in the air, about to ram a narrow gleaming dagger into the skull of a gray and black beast with wide eyes and his arms crossed in front of his face.

Now, read between the lines and see what’s lurking in there. The guy with the eye patch bet on the monkey that’s about to kill. He’s happy because he’s gonna get some soda water money. His girl has someone else on the side, someone she’d rather be with. The monkey about to get stabbed knows exactly what’s about to happen because he’s done it to others before.

That’s information density. That’s showing not telling. In a nutshell, you don’t have to be explicit about every little thing. Let the reader make up their own mind about the detail. Give them just enough extra information beyond the scene taking place that they can fill in the details.

The first thing to understand about showing not telling is it doesn’t have to all-encompassing. There are plenty of places where simply saying, “The damned light was blue” is all it takes and there’s no hidden information you need to divulge beyond the blueness of the light.

So, how about some examples?

In 1986, Aliens was released. Some people will disagree, but I still think it was the best in the series and set the tone for everything that came after it. If you’ve ever read the novelization, one of the things that gets brought up is how the aliens are showing signs of growing intelligence, probably due to the age of the hive. In Alien, the critter wasn’t too bright. It was in pure survival mode and, of course, hopelessly outclassed its prey so it didn’t have to be too smart. In Aliens there was more at stake, there was a hive and a queen and relative safety and the aliens had the luxury of moving beyond pure survival.

Even though the movie never explicitly states this, it hints at it in two places. The first is the fact that aliens found a way around all the locked doors and security and generally showed they had an intellect beyond pure animal instinct.

The other place, and the one that should have stayed in the final cut, was more obvious. Unfortunately, you’ll have to scrounge up the director’s cut to see it. In that cut, there’s a scene where the marines set up automated sentry guns. The first gun runs out of ammo and the aliens overrun it with pure numbers. The second gun, however, stops firing before it runs out of ammo. The aliens recognized the threat and retreated to find another way around. That way turned out to be crawling through the ceiling and dropping on their unsuspecting prey. Clever bugs.

Again, information density. Even though both scenes moved the story along and were pretty damned fun to boot, there was another layer that wasn’t as obvious. Even though that layer didn’t necessarily serve to push the plot along, it added something important to the characterization of the antagonists and also ramped up the tension. Now the marines weren’t just fighting a horde of killing machines, they were fighting a horde of smart killing machines.

In the beginning of this post, I alluded to the fact that information density is often revealed through dialog. Imagine a character with a recurring drinking problem. He’s trying to get his shit together, but has a long and storied history with alcohol. At various points in the past, he’s gone so far into the arms of mother booze that he’s made up crazy stories. You could spend a paragraph or so detailing his many times on and off the wagon, or you could hit in one line.

“Are you back on the sauce again, Colton, because that story doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Your readers are smart. They don’t need everything spelled out for them. Don’t just let their imaginations soar, encourage it.

Got any other tips, drop ’em in the comments. I love comments.

But What If It Was Real?

Stephen King once said that the impetus for The Mist came from a trip to grocery with his son and wondering what it would be like if there were prehistoric insects in it. From there, he no doubt wondered what they’d be like, how they got there, and what it would be like. King, being King, imagined a worst case scenario involving monsters, people losing their shit, and no end of mist covering the land.

It was kind of like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only with more monsters and less hope. And, of course, it predated The Road by almost three decades.

This is how it is to be a writer. It’s all imagination. It’s like the games we used to play as kids, pretending all manner of adventures with talking rabbits, dogs with machine eyes, and Farmington’s vast wasteland behind my house that became any number of terrifying things. Are those flashing lights in the sky satellites, planes, or something more sinister? What if that noise you heard in the night wasn’t just the cat knocking things off the counter because she’s bored?

In other words, what if it was real?

Not real, but for a moment, before you saw the pole, you had a spark of belief, didn’t you?

We recently took a trip up to Edwards, CO – a small town close to Vail, but without the associated snobbery. The road took us up through Alamosa, CO, and onto a long, empty stretch of highway that cut through the Colorado plains like a knife. Just north of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park (yes, it’s real. You can go see live gators living in the natural, snowy habitat) lies the UFO Watchtower.

The UFO Watchtower is an out-of-the-way place dedicated to, among other things, documenting UFO activity in the area. You can stop and visit for only $2 a person or $5 a carload. It’s not a big place and in the bright sun it’s not much to look at. But remember, this isn’t about what it is, it’s about what it could be.

There’s something eminently creepy about this.

At night, you’d be able to see for twenty or thirty miles in every direction in a place where light pollution simply doesn’t exist. In the pitch black, standing on the roof of the watchtower, you’re likely to see all manner of amazing things.

That’s neither here nor there, though. UFO watching is an American pastime and there are more spots dedicated to watching the skies than you can shake a stick at. What made the UFO watchtower interesting wasn’t what was happening in the skies, it was what was happening on the ground.

You see, according to the woman who was running the place that day, there are numerous energy vortexes in the area where you can talk to the spirits or even, I suspect, travel to other places. To a casual observer, it looks like people have dropped off rubbish, bits of things, and the odd bra, and it was all left in situ to create some monumental bit of performance art – a modernist ode to the disposable American spirit, if you will.

It looks like a field of trash, but look a little closer.

That, however, is not the case. The ground is dedicated to small plats where people have left offerings to the spirits, hoping for a little goodwill or help with terrestrial problems. There’s a certain organized chaos to the place, like this wasn’t the ramblings of a diseased mind so much as one that had seen something beyond the pale.

Of course, that could all be marketing and a lot of available free time.

The point is, there’s mystery there. It’s something odd and unique. It may or may not be real, but what if it was? What a story that would make! The UFO part can be interesting on its own if it’s handled well (the X-Files did a marvelous job with it), but the addition spirits and energy vortexes adds a whole new dimension.

All the detritus out there is something that was important to someone, something they felt was worthy of handing off as an offering in exchange for some help. It may look like trash from the distance of Internet and time, but in the heat of the moment, that might have been a powerful experience for someone.

Now take that feeling, and turn it into a story. Then take it a step further and ask yourself what if it was real. Or, at the very least, start wondering. If you want to write, you need to look at things not as they are, but as they could be. And don’t be afraid to be amazed at things.

An Interesting Note About Twitter Writing Tags

When I was learning to program, I didn’t really get coding until I had to do it for a living. It’s all fine and good to understand how variables work or what LINQ does or how to stuff data into a database and get it back out later, but until I was given a task – write a program that will do this thing – I didn’t fully get coding. It was the act of being given a set of requirements and having to figure out how to convince a program to make those requirements work that taught me more than any class ever could.

The same thing happens with martial arts, or digging ditches, or writing blog posts. The theory is one thing, the actuality is something completely different. You can’t learn to dig ditches from a book, you learn to dig ditches by digging ditches. And if you want to get better at digging ditches, dig a lot of ditches.

martialshovels

Ditch digging martial arts. Yes, those are shovels. Trenching shovels have been used as weapons almost as long as they’ve been used as shovels.

It’s a common theme among writers that if you want to get better at writing, write a lot. Practice, after all, makes perfect. As long as the practice isn’t just further encoding bad habits like ending every sentence with “motherfucker”. Unless you’re Samuel L. Jackson, you don’t get to end sentences with “motherfucker” motherfucker.

Writing is supposed to be this free-form exercise of expression – and it is that to a certain extent – but it’s still nice to make some money doing it. To do that, you have to write things that people want to read. There are writers out there that refuse to sacrifice their artistic integrity to make a buck. It’s all fine and good to put on your black turtleneck, grab your ultra lightweight Mac laptop, and sit in a coffee shop all day writing wry observations about things, but if no one will read what you’ve written you’re just wasting time and turtlenecks.

That means writers need to be flexible enough to write things that people want to read, but clever enough to do it their own way. Because unless you’re Sean Penn, your book had better not suck if you want someone to read it. And sometimes that means you need to write something that doesn’t consist of wry observations or an awful lot of anxious alliteration, or , in my case, witty banter and explosions.

This is where breaking out comfort zones is a good thing and one great way to do that is to just do it. Just like with me and programming, sometimes you have to be given a task – write something – and not be able to write what you want about what you feel like writing about. There are writer’s groups out there that emphasize exactly this kind of task. Or you can go a different route and try playing some of the Twitter writing hashtag games. The writer’s group will give you better feedback, but you can play the Twitter games stone drunk in your underwear if you want.

The way all these games work – and you can usually just check Free Writing Events for up-to-date info – is there are daily hashtags that let you write something up and tag it for other people playing the game. Then everyone goes through and checks out the Tweets. Sometimes the themes are tricky to pull off creatively, sometimes they’re just fun. For instance, this morning’s #Thurstale theme was just “Favorite Line”, so Tweet out whatever your favorite line is. This is one of mine from 06/07/18.

#ThruLineThurs, on the other hand, had a distinct theme: Red Herring. There are a lot of ways that could be interpreted, so I decided to have a little fun with it:

Most of the games will have a theme that the Tweet should adhere to. Ideally, you’re supposed to pull a line or two from whatever book you’re working on, but that’s not strictly a requirement. #SlapDashSat is one of the few that’s completely theme-free.

As an added bonus, Twitter writing games are an excellent opportunity to gauge how well a particular line will be received. I’ve had a few lines that I thought were brilliant, but they just laid there like a bored hooker when they hit Twitter. On the other hand, a few throwaway lines like the one about Jennine above, did pretty well and this morose bit of dark humor did great (by my standards, anyway):

The point is, there are very good reasons to play these games. You might not win anything, but the chance to stretch your writing legs and test a few things out is priceless. Do yourself a favor and try ’em out. Let me know and I’ll even retweet you.