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.

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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.

So, You’re a Writer, eh?

One of my great fears is trying to explain the plot to whatever book I’m working on. The latest – Roadside Attractions – was built off the Satanic paranoia of the 80s and 90s and tosses together a renegade devil, the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him, a ghost, and a pair of ghost hunters who find themselves stuck in the middle of a power-struggle straight out of Hell. It’s not the easiest thing to explain.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description. Needs work, but doesn’t totally suck.

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Note: not the actual cover.

I’m currently actively working on the 4th Henchmen book and that gets even more difficult to sum up succinctly because it’s the 4th (and final) book in that series and it’s still too early to tell exactly where the plot will take me.

I’m not a good plotter. Other writers have sketches and timelines and plot-points all neatly laid on beer-soaked cocktail napkins or Chinese Excel knock-offs. I just keep all that in my head. The closest I’ve ever come to successfully plotting out a book was Greetings From Sunny Aluna and even that ended quite a bit differently than I’d planned. Originally, Huizhong was going to kill Kevin and then kill herself. It didn’t turn out that way and now I’m stuck figuring out where to take the next book.

Anyway, back to the original task at hand: What’s the book about? I’ve done a bunch of posts on blurbs and even took a shot at loglines (Sean Carlin’s post on loglines is still the gold standard), but I’m still extremely weak at the punchy descriptors. Usually when someone asks me what the book is about, I change the subject and then pretend I don’t speak English.

smoke_bomb_archer

That’s not an adult way to handle things, especially when it comes to something I’d really like to do for a living. If I can’t talk about what I’m writing, there’s no way anyone’s going to be interested in reading it. Saying, “Trust me, it’s really, really good” doesn’t cut the mustard. In fact, it cuts the cheese.

I think it all stems from that deep-down insecurity everyone has. There’s that nagging sensation that someone you work with will say, “I read your book. It sucks.” Then you’re stuck at work with everyone knowing you’re the guy who writes shitty books. And that can’t be good for the ol’ ego.

I’ve met plenty of other people over the years who have zero problems talking about their books. I’ve even met people who will happily tell you they’re taking a year off work to write the next great American novel and it would be really great if you could give them some money to do that. To those people – the ones that want help funding their yearlong vacation in South France – I say, “Just write the fucking thing. You can do it in your living room and you don’t even have to take off your pajamas”.

I’m good at the “just write the fucking thing” part. Over the years, I’ve gotten disciplined to where I write something every night, usually 500-1000 words or so. Now I need to get better at getting people to “just read the fucking thing”.

If you have any tips on that, leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and what was a waste of time and money.

ghostintheshelltyping

Now if I could only get my hands to do this.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve always been curious about my typing speed. I code all day and write at night, so I’m used to a keyboard. I can type reasonably well with my eyes closed. In fact, I’ve even fallen asleep and kept typing (that generated some…interesting text), but I’ve never tested my typing speed. According to Live Chat’s free online typing test, I type about 64 words/minute with 100% accuracy. Crunching the numbers, that means 3840 words an hour. Theoretically, if I didn’t need luxuries like food and sleep, I could write a ninety thousand word book in under 24 hours. That’s way faster than my usual six to nine months.

No, Seriously. You Can’t Do That

My son is nearing his test for his Junior 1st Black in Kenpo. This summer, after years of training, he’ll be at that first plateau that we look at as the really the first step in a life-long journey.

Of course, being steeped in the martial arts these days means you have to wade through a ton of crap and lies that have sprung up over the centuries. Recently, on the drive home, he told me it was possible to hit someone’s nose so hard it sends shards of bone into their brain and kills them instantly. The trick, he assured me, was to use an upward palm strike so that you blast that nose with everything you’ve got.

In case you’re wondering, it looks like this:

Ninja hoods and Marines shirts add +5 to your strikes. But don’t tell anyone I told you that.

This exact strike – and the killing theory behind it – has been the stuff of martial arts legends for as long as I can remember. We talked about it on the playground when I was in school and everyone knew someone who knew someone who totally swore it worked and back off or I’m gonna test it on you and then you’ll be dead and no one will care.

It’s been used in books and movies. This was the strike that got Nicolas Cage busted at the beginning on Con Air. It seems any time someone needs to die from a single strike, this is the tired old trope that gets trotted out. Unfortunately, it’s utter hogwash. Pushing nose bones into someone’s brain falls into the same category of fighting nonsense as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique and the Hurticane. Simply put, the human body doesn’t work like that. Your nose is mostly cartilage (sexy cartilage, in my case) and there’s another layer of bone behind your sinus cavities that you’d have to pierce into order to shove bits of nose into someone’s brain.

That’s not to say it’s not going to hurt like hell. The nose is always a good target in a fight because it’s so close to everything else on your face. I’ve been popped in the beak a time or two and I can assure it’s no fun. Your sinuses swell up, your nose starts leaking fluids you’d rather it didn’t, and your eyes leak water like a comic book fan watching someone burn the original X-Men. In other words, it’s a great place to hit someone if you want to take the fight out of them quickly. It’s not always an easy target to hit, but it is effective. It’s just not deadly in and of itself.

What about all that anecdotal evidence about people getting killed with one punch? Is that all bull, too? Well, yes and no. It has happened, but in most cases death comes from someone hitting their head when they fall down.

I guess the takeaway from that is if you want to kill someone with one strike, make sure they hit their on something hard on the way down.

So, if you’re writing about a fight scene and want to have your main character kill someone with a single blow, choose something realistic. If you want to have your character do some really crazy stuff, look into Dim Mak. On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of a fight and are worried about killing someone with a palm strike to the nose, don’t fret. Just fire that sucker and get the heck out of Dodge.

This gif cracks me up. Fun fact about Bolo Yeung: he swam from China to Taiwan to escape oppression. Fun fact about VanDamme: he can do the splits.

Just make sure your opponent doesn’t hit their head on the way down.

Writing Process

 

I type like the wind.

Stephen King has repeated said he writes every day. I saw him when he was in Albuquerque being interviewed on stage by George R.R. Martin. Martin, at one point in the interview asked, “How do you write so fast?” Or words to that effect. I seem to remember him asking “How do you write so fucking fast?”, but that may just be my unrequited love affair with the word ‘fuck’. Either way it was asked, King’s response was “I write six good pages a day. Every day.” Again, words to that effect. I don’t seem to remember King saying, “I write six good fucking pages a day”, but he might have.

At any rate, this was not new information. I think everyone knows Stephen King writes every day. He’s been forward about that for years. After all, it’s his job and you don’t blow off work just because you don’t feel like doing it. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin is famous for taking years to knock out a new novel. In Martin’s defense, let’s face it, A Song of Fire and Ice is some crazy complicated shit and each scene has to work with every other scene that has come before it. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the TV series will likely end before the book series.

So, what does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? I’m of the opinion that writing every day is a good thing. It could be a couple lines, it could be a few hundred, but I write something every day almost without fail. For me, it’s just become something I do out of habit and I feel bad if I don’t do it. Writing is my way of unwinding and I feel a bit lost if I don’t get some in every night.

House is on fire, but I’m almost done with this chapter.

But that’s not necessarily for everyone. A couple days ago I came across a Twitter thread about exactly that thing. The general gist of the thread was that feeling like you have to write every day is bullshit. Life, it seems, oftentimes has other plans for our free time. Be it work, play, or a new Star Wars movie coming out, sometimes you simply can’t find time every day to put words on pages.

Besides, as I’ve repeatedly said, I didn’t start writing to follow everyone else’s rules. The world is already full of people following everyone else’s rules. My rule is trying my damnedest to write something every day, but it’s not for everyone. Rules are for suckers, anyway. Make your own rules.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post about the magic of writing. Now that the year is coming to a close, I’d like to reiterate what I wrote then: If there’s something you love to do, find time to do it. It doesn’t matter how far you go. It doesn’t matter how fast you go. It matters that you go.

So, get out there and go.

What about you? Got any thoughts on writing every day? Drop ’em in the comments; I love comments and am usually fairly good at replying to them.

And now, your moment of Zen.

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Expert Shmexpert, Just Write The Freakin’ Thing

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This picture has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but it is pretty awesome.

There’s a theory out there that states in order to become an expert at something, you have to have 10,000 hours of practice at it. This theory was shot to the world by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. The general gist of Gladwell’s book was there are people who are exceedingly good at doing stuff and what did it take for them to get really good at it? He did some research and used (or misused, depending on who you talk to) the research Anders Ericsson did into what makes people masters of stuff.

Gladwell theorized that at 10,000 hours of practice of doing something, you hit this magical tipping point of greatness and automatically became an expert it by virtue of having done it a whole lot. Outliers became a huge best seller. It’s still sitting at #664 in Amazon’s best sellers. That’s not in a particular category, either, it’s #664 in all of Amazon.

Not bad for a nine-year-old book. Especially one based on a faulty interpretation of what Anders Ericsson’s research actually said. You see, Outliers had some flawed logic in it and that magical 10,000 hour tipping point to greatness isn’t quite so carved in stone as Gladwell would have us believe. In fact, Ericsson’s research didn’t show a 10,000 tipping point and it showed some people could become masters in significantly less time than 10,000 hours, while others could take upwards of 25,000 hours to become masters. A lot of it comes down to not only how much you practice doing something, but how you practice doing it. In other words, quantity of practice isn’t as important as quality of practice. 10,000 hours of doing something wrong will just encode that bad behavior. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Now, I’m not trying to dog on Malcolm Gladwell or in any way diminish his work. Not that he gives two tugs of a dead dog’s dick what I think about him, but even though his logic may have been on the flawed side – something even Anders Ericsson has said – Gladwell was absolutely correct about one thing: if you want to be good at something, do it a lot.

When I first started this blog, I got a comment from someone who said he really wanted to write a book. My response was, “Go write it.” Whoever it was, and I apologize for forgetting his name, replied that he wanted to get better at writing before he tackled writing a book. Or words to that effect. Someday someone will dredge up that comment and prove me wrong, but work with me for now and pretend I’ve got the kind of eidetic memory I like to pretend I have.

The thing is, especially looking back at Ericsson’s research, you can’t get better at something if you don’t do it. Sitting around all day, pondering the ins and outs of that story you want to write is worlds away from sitting around all day actually writing that story you want to write. And guess what? You don’t need permission, you don’t need a year off to kick around Europe (or America, if you happen to be from Europe) looking for inspiration. You only need two things to write: a story to tell and some way to write it.

If the story is already circulating inside your skull, great. Write it down. There are tools galore for writing a book. Technically, you could do it with purloined Bic pens and a lot of cocktail napkins, but if you want to enter the modern era, all you need is a cheap computer and a copy of Open Office.

Don’t expect magic. Don’t expect to blow the doors off the literary world with your first cut. Do expect to spend time writing. Lots of time. Like more than you expect. Henchmen took a few months to write. Transmute took about six months to write. Greetings From Sunny Aluna was around the same. That’s part time, of course, usually an hour or two a night. None of those have blown the doors off the literary world.

While it may seem daunting to gaze at the idea of spending months (or years in some cases) writing a book, this is where you get to employ Ericsson’s research. Every minute you spend makes you better by a minute amount, especially if you’re trying to write well. While you may never hit a tipping point at 10,000 hours and suddenly find yourself the greatest writer, like, ever, you will get better at it.

I guess my point is this: if you want to be really good at something, you have to do that thing. It doesn’t really matter what thing is, you have to actually do it before you can get better at it. Once you start doing it, you’ll naturally find it easier and easier to do, especially once those reviews start coming in and you find yourself wondering why “just” was such an important word that it was in the manuscript 400 times. Edit and move on.

If you want to write a book, go write it. Don’t wait to become an expert writer before you write a book, because the only way to become an expert book writer is to write a book. Just like the best way to become an expert on punching is to hit something, or the best way to become an expert at cycling is to ride a bike.

Of course, after it’s written comes the really scary part: letting someone else read it. But kick the emotional attachment to the curb and listen to what people have to say. That’s the quality of practice portion of doing stuff a lot.

Thoughts? Comments? You know where you can put ’em. Just below in the comments field.

Kung Fu Theater

When I was a kid, I used to live for Kung Fu Theater. It was a show that popped up from time to time on one of Farmington’s minimal stations, usually at odd hours and oftentimes without warning. Kung Fu Theater wasn’t a show so much as a clearing house of old Kung Fu movies. This was where I first met Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sonny Chiba and experienced the horror of The Master of Flying Guillotine.

They were all old school Kung Fu movies, written, produced, and filmed in China. They were all also overdubbed, usually poorly.by voice actors who were phoning it in to get a quick paycheck. To be fair, though, most of those movies were big on talking. The golden rule of classical Kung Fu theater meant fists flew and kicks smashed things. It was world of animal styles where Tiger Style and Crane Style clashed with monkeys and dragons in a cataclysmic orgy of fighting prowess.

I’ll confess, I still have a deep and abiding love for watching a good fight scene and there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there right now. The Raid, the current crop of amazingly artistic kung fu cinema, Tony Jaa’s elbows and knees putting Thai boxing firmly on the cinematic map, and Donnie Yen’s ability to calmly destroy his opponents (even if they’re stormtroopers) are all good stuff.

The only thing that’s lacking now is my ten-year-old imagination and blind faith that with enough training I, too, could jump thirty feet in the air or master the Buddha’s Palm technique.

Unfortunately, the more I’ve trained in martial arts, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing magical about them. The martial arts, as a collective, tend to be about practicality more than flash. That doesn’t mean modern martial arts aren’t worth studying, they very much are and I heartily recommend that everyone try out one of the many arts lurking around out there.

Martial artistry is a fascinating study – and damned good exercise – but it bears so little in common with the Kung Fu Theater I grew up with it can be hard to reconcile what I’m learning with what I thought I’d learn.

Oh, ah. What are you gonna do?

The answer, it turns out, was to write my own martial arts book: Greetings From Sunny Aluna and write in plenty of fight scenes and general badassery. It’s my love letter to the old-school Kung Fu movies I grew up with.

And the cool thing is it’s on sale right now and for the next couple days.

Go get a copy!

Guest Post – Writing Without Fear

Ashley Holzmann is a horror author by trade and a generally cool person overall. The irony of a horror author writing a post on writing without fear isn’t lost on me, but he makes some excellent points and it’s always great to hear someone tell you to not be afraid of your writing. There are some links at the bottom of the post if you want to find out more about Ash, but without further ado, I’d like to turn the stage over to the amazing Ashley Holzmann.

Hello, my name is Ashley and I will be your guest blogger this evening.

This post is for the writers out there, but will also hopefully interest the readers and other creators alike.

Why is that? Because some of the biggest hindrances to creativity are the self-imposed fears we carry with us.

I’m normally a horror writer, though I dabble in various genres, and I’m going to be putting on my writer hat to tackle this from what I believe to be some interesting perspectives. My goal is to discuss the fears that hold creators back and methods to get beyond those fears.

Creation For The Sake Of Creation

The pure artist, as can be found discussed in great detail in Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, would state that the purer forms of art and creation are performed for the sake of the creation itself.

On some level, they are performed for the sake of the creator, but the more any single creator decides to push their art into the world and display it for others, the less pure it becomes.

I struggle with the purity of this idea.

On many levels, I love the romanticism of it.

The unfortunate counter argument is that it’s terribly convenient to have such an opinion of art for art’s sake, but what of us who were not the creators of War and Peace?

Tolstoy formed many of his important ideas and wrote many of his important essays concerning art after he was already an established personality. This is unfair of me, I know, as the argument is supposed to be separated from the man making the argument, but it’s hard to. Purists are not often in a position of vulnerability

Purists are often not in a position of vulnerability.

What of the artist who is only able to work on their art once a month because of the costs associated with it or the time constraints?

While art may very well be more pure when done for the sake of the creation of it, I would argue that a free artist is one who has enough support to function as an average member of society and concentrate wholly on their creations.

This, too, adds complications to the argument. As famous artists such as Michelangelo were given such freedoms, but were also constrained by the Medici family who paid his bills growing up, and then his commissions throughout his life often being from churches.

Who knows how great Michelangelo’s art could have been if he was given the financial freedom, but also the political and creative freedom to experience his art simply for the sake of it—allowing his mind and hands to take the work where it would go.

Tumbling around these arguments, I find myself settling into a middle ground as an artist, myself.

I create for the sake of creating. Most of my drawings are shared only briefly with family, and sometimes never. My writing is shared as widely as I can get it to be shared, though, and I am actively pursuing that lifestyle.

Maybe it is selfish of me to desire to make enough money off of my creative work to finance my lifestyle and allow me the freedom to leave my day job.

But if the result is more art, then is the world a lesser place?

The interesting aspect of modern times is the self-financed artist. Self-publishing for books, websites like Fiverr that allow for creative people to directly be sourced: the freedoms given to creative people are amazing these days. I sometimes wonder how modern platforms would inform Tolstoy’s opinions, if at all.

All of this brings be back to the title of this section: creation for the sake of creation.

Any artist must start somewhere, and in practicing the craft there will be many works that are never shared. That honing of skill is important, but also something I would argue is so important that it must always be returned to. While I personally believe that artists should strive for freedom in order to actively pursue their art as a career, I also recognize that some art should be kept to ourselves.

That art is both pure, but also important because it teaches us to discern between what we place of ourselves into the world and what we place of ourselves only in those closest to us. Because, at its core, most art is in some way a reflection of ourselves.

Because, at its core, most art is in some way a reflection of ourselves.

When You Are Afraid, Your Art Suffers

The freedom to create anything is not often give to artists. This is not always the choice of an artist, either. I already referenced one of the Renaissance masters. While the great awakening of artistic value occurred during that period, most of the people financing those efforts were the elite. It was not easy to be completely free and still tailor one’s work to the holder of the money purse.

These days we are in may ways more free, but if we are pursuing careers in creation we still have to play to an audience somewhere. This holds back a lot of creators, who feel like they must create to appease the people.

Stroll to the local movie theater and you’ll be given plenty of examples of the fear of creators. Held by by either themselves or by the financiers in order to appeal to as many people with wallets as possible. Being a creator isn’t an easy experience.

Being a creator isn’t an easy experience.

I would argue, however, that it is the artists who fall for this fear that create the lesser versions of the art they hold within them. And while it is financially safer to sometimes tackle the easy victory, the mass market appeal, many artists may surprise themselves when they take the risk to be themselves.

There is a happy medium between the artist who pursues their art in order to achieve financial stability and the artist who wishes to have the funding to be free to express themselves.

The Lack Of Fear

The irony of the fearful artist is that the un-fearful artist is often the one who stampedes through the cliche and lands themselves in the record books.

Every actor who has taken a performance and turned it up to eleven is hailed for their bravery. It is not easy to go through a fight scene completely naked like Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. Or Michael Fassbender in Shame.

Stanley Kurbrick defined most of his career by his lack of fear. He often took so many risks with his work that a large part of his filmmaking experience was ensuring that he had the financing and creating his amazing work on as low a budget as possible. He found a way, though, and he stuck to his artistic guns and remained as pure as he could.

Lolita is another excellent example of a lack of fear. Like Catcher in the Rye, both star a likable, yet unlikeable, unreliable narrator tackling subjects that the writers themselves have stated are not pure to them as creators, but they had a vision and executed it masterfully.

When you work without fear, you are able to work in that middle ground between the extreme of the hermit creator and the opposing side of the sellout.

Pure Art Creation

We can all identify beautiful art. Many of us agree on certain aesthetics, but we will also disagree on many things as well. That’s understandable. What matters when it comes to any form of creation is for the creator to express themselves fully. If an artist is unafraid, then this is the next step they must take: being true to themselves.

This often means that artists true to themselves are exposing some of their inner-most demons to the world. They are allowing themselves to be vulnerable in front of the masses. This is almost always difficult. Crying in front of thousands of people is something that takes training.

Writing about secret childhood experiences can bring back horrible hurtful memories. Exposing one’s character flaws leaves us open to criticism that we may not be fully emotionally prepared for.

Exposing one’s character flaws leaves us open to criticism that we may not be fully emotionally prepared for.

Let Go

The reason we do allow ourselves the freedom of pure expression is because while we do expose ourselves to the voices of critics, we also expose ourselves to inclusion and acceptance.

I’ve often told myself that my friends and family will never read my work. This is not true, but the thought of showing my stuff only to strangers has a freeing quality to the creation.

Another simple tactic to use is to create things you would only want yourself to see. Then leave those things for a time. Come back to them. Refine them. Then either force yourself to release it out into the world, or have a trusted friend or loved one do it for you.

Tell yourself that you have not created such a work. Or use a pseudonym to hide your true identity. Create the double life that is necessary to spread your work. Justify your work to yourself any way that you can.

It is not easy to be true to one’s self, but the more often you are, the more often you open yourself up to surprising revelations. More people may fall in love with your work than you think. More opportunities may open the door for you as an artist because you are known to not have fear.

More people may fall in love with your work than you think.

You may also be surprised to find out that many artists will also look up to you. They may reach out to ask how you were able to be so honest or brave with your work. You may be surprised to find that being true to yourself opens yourself to just as much awe as it does to judgement.

It has been my experience in both creating and in enjoying art that the awe of admiration is more often gifted toward artists than judgement.

-Ashley Franz Holzmann

About The Author

Visit asforclass.com for more from Ashley.

His new book is available on Amazon. Get your copy here.

Ashley Franz Holzmann bio:

A Boy Named Sue, named Ashley, who goes by Ash around his friends. Ashley grew up overseas on Air Force bases. He once bought a 70s VW bus so he could drive it across the country. He married his first love—they were long distance for seven years. He reads poetry constantly; believes experiences define a life, and pursuing art is the purpose behind his existence. Ashley kept all of his Legos growing up and plays with them with his three kids. He’s in the Army. He likes big dogs.

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Final Covers & Blurb

There’s an old image of an iceberg that’s been floating around for a while that likens writing to ‘bergs. Of course, as everyone knows, most of the iceberg is underwater; hence the saying “tip of the iceberg”. The gist of the image is what people finally read is only a small portion of the whole process of writing the book, editing it, rewriting, more editing, beta reads, more editing, formatting, cover design, the hated blurb work, blah, blah, blah, blah. Blah.

My take on it is, sure, the final product is only the tip of the iceberg, but each part can be fun in its own way. Except writing blurbs; that just sucks.

Writing can be a slog sometimes, but I generally enjoy creating and telling stories. Editing can really be a slog, but it’s nice to go back and read what you’ve written and make it shinier. Formatting and cover design have always thrilled me, too. But, maybe I’m just weird that way.

Greetings From Sunny Aluna – the book I’ve been Tweeting snippets from for the better part of a year now – is almost done. It’s been written, re-written, edited, read, re-written, designed, and blurbed. All that’s left is to add my thank yous to all the people that helped out and do the formatting. Then it’s out the door and onto the marketing phase while I restart work on dysRupt.

It’s never easy to say goodbye to a book. I’ve heard people talk about how hard it can be when a book is over and they really got into it. Lord knows I’ve been there many a time, myself. Now, imagine being neck deep in that book for months and being done with it. It’s both terrifying and a relief. But it’s also sad to see it end because it’s almost like losing friends to moves or dropping your kid off at college – you know it has to happen and it’s for the best, but it still hurts.

That said, Greetings will likely be available sometime this week, depending on when I get off my ass and hit publish. For those of who’ve been wondering what the heck the book is about (other than badassery; that’s a given), here are the final print and digital covers, as well as the blurb.

Keep your eyes peeled for the buy link, which should be along soon.

Blurb:

Alunans say The Beast is a myth, a tale told by criminals to their kids about what can happen if they get too far out of line. Almost no one knows who The Beast is and the few who do refuse to talk for fear of repercussions.
Now The Beast has upped the ante and is seeking out a young boy from Earth with magic unlike anything else on Aluna.
In The Beast’s way is an alcoholic ex-cop, a famed Wushu master, and a young woman sent by a dragon. Together, they’ll navigate a city run by crime to find out who The Beast is and put a stop to him.
Unfortunately, they’re about to find out the war never ended.

Print Cover:

Digital Cover: