Friday, July 29, 2011

Fear of Failure = Fear of Success?

What truly inhibits writers from fulfilling their dreams?  Is it fear of failure?  Fear of success?  Or are those two fears the same?

Speaking only from my own experiences, I think they are at least intertwined.

Fear of failure is easy to understand.  Any endeavor requires risk, and risk always means the possibility of failure.  When one fails, one risks looking foolish.  One can also incur personal and financial losses and lose credibility and self-esteem.  These risks alone can inhibit writers from following their dreams, yet many of us accept the risks and forge ahead anyway – only to stop when we come close to achieving our dreams.

Why?  Fear of success.

But success means accomplishing your goals, right?  It means solving your problems and having nothing to worry about, doesn’t it?

Most of us know deep down that that’s an unrealistic view of success, even if we want to believe otherwise.  A look at any celebrity who has “made it” to the top of his or her profession can show us the pratfalls that go along with success.  Does the name Lindsay Lohan ring a bell?  How about Tiger Woods? 

Writers, granted, tend to be more low-key personalities who don’t get as much attention when they go into rehab or have affairs.  But that does not mean they get off scot-free.  Ever hear of a writer being sued for plagiarism?  Or being dropped by her publisher when her last book bombed?  Or having to deal with bad reviews or hateful blogs set up by disgruntled fans?  Success, alas, does not mean you never have problems.  It simply creates a new sphere of potential problems.

Some of us do not aspire to being the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, however.  We’d be satisfied with only a modicum of success – which usually means that we want to earn our living as writers and not have to deal with conventional bosses at conventional jobs.  Fair enough.  But can fear of success stop us from achieving even this seemingly modest goal?

Yes, it can.  Again speaking from my own experience, this dream of modest success – or “under the radar” success, as I call it – is built upon the unrealistic expectation that one can get all the benefits of writing (some money, some fame, some freedom) but none of the drawbacks, if one settles for a lesser goal.  That’s like going into a five-star restaurant, ordering a hamburger, and expecting not to have to pay for it.

Even “modest success” means we have to do the work:  write the book, make the contacts, create the social marketing platform . . . in other words, take the risks.  And if we take those risks knowing that our goals are unrealistic in the first place, following through becomes difficult.  This is why you many writers give up when they are close to achieving what they thought were their dreams.

Fear of success may stem from the realization that, sooner or later, we will have to commit ourselves to The Dream, and that commitment requires not only risk but sacrifice.

And for some, that realization kills the dream.

After all, once you bring that dream into the world, it’s no longer a dream, is it?  It becomes a job with bills to pay, people to answer to (be they publishers, agents, or fans), and a lofty set of expectations placed on you by both yourself and others.  And success isn’t a mountain peak from which you can never fall.  The success of your first book means the next one must also be a success, and the next one . . .

When slapped in the face by cold reality, some of us simply decide that failure isn't so bad after all.  Failure, at least, is comfortable and familiar.

How do you confront fear of success?  First, make sure you know why you are writing in the first place.  Do you see writing as a quick ticket to fame, fortune, and the good life?  (If so, wake up!)  Are you prepared to keep writing even if all your hard work leads to a series of rejections and a book that bombs?  Are you prepared to do what it takes to succeed (e.g., write the damn book, make the contacts, do the social marketing platform, etc.)?   

And, most importantly, can you see yourself as a successful writer?

Tell me your opinion: How do you deal with fear of failure and/or fear of success?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Super-Power Would You Choose?

If you could have any super-power, what would it be?

My novel-in-progress, The Power Club, is built on the premise that people who have powers do not get to choose them.  You work with what you’ve got.  You either develop your abilities, or you bury them.

But a member of one of my critique groups recently suggested that I ask readers of my blog what power they would choose.  So, here it is:

If you could have any one super-power, what would it be and why?

For our purposes, a super-power can be defined as any ability that is physically or mentally impossible for a human being to do without the aid of devices, weapons, or machinery of some kind.  Thus, flying in an airplane is not a super-power, but flying on your own (a la Superman) is.

And, just to make it harder, you can pick only one power.  So, no fair saying "Superman's powers."  You can pick only one (flying, x-ray vision, super-strength, invulnerability, etc.).

In fact, the ability to fly like Superman was my first choice.  The idea of soaring over houses and trees, feeling the wind brush my face, and being able to exercise my body with the currents of the air was enormously appealing to me as a kid (and still is).  And Christopher Reeve made it look so easy!

When this question has come up in more recent years, I’ve said I’d choose super-intelligence so I could figure out how to have all the other super-powers.  But even intelligence has its drawbacks.  (In comics, brainy heroes are the ones most likely to go insane!)

Even more recently, I’ve coveted the ability to radiate heat and light, a la Sun Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  This versatile power can be used offensively, but it’s also very practical.  I’d never go cold in the winter.  I could light up any area to change a flat.  And the power of sun just radiates positive energy!

Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the power my main character has.  Damon creates darkness, not light.  But darkness itself is not evil.  It’s what you do with it that counts.

What about you?  Leave a comment describing what super-power you'd give yourself and why.

Monday, July 25, 2011

7 Things I Have Learned About Revision

Last month, I completed the first draft of my novel-in-progress, The Power Club.  I have spent the last three weeks revising it, and I figure I’m about two-thirds of the way through.  Here’s what this process has taught me:

1. Write every day.

Writing every day builds momentum.  It keeps you from starting, stopping, starting, stopping . . . a process of cold starts that is bound to kill creativity. 

2. Keep a regular schedule.

A blog post I read recently said that you can become a professional writer by writing for three hours a day.  I decided to test this theory by revising for three hours a day.  This means that for most of that time (see below), my butt is planted firmly in my chair, my computer is on, and the latest chapter is up.  If I’m not actively working the keys, I’m either re-reading what I’ve written or reading comments from my critique groups.  I AM NOT doing the laundry, fixing lunch, checking email or engaging in other time wasters that kill writing.

3. Write at the same time every day.

I haven’t always kept the same schedule, but most days I’ve started writing at 10 a.m. and finished at 1 p.m.  Sometimes, I’ve begun early (and finished a corresponding amount of time early); once I began and finished an hour late.  But writing at the same time every day forces a mental discipline on me: that time is set aside for writing and nothing else.

4.  Use an egg-timer to take scheduled breaks.

I’ve discovered that, after 45 minutes of continuous writing, I begin to revise the same sentence or passage over and over.  Having a consistent break time means I don’t have the luxury of niggling.  When that egg-timer goes off, I stop typing for ten or fifteen minutes.  THEN I get to fix lunch.

5.  Revising is not drafting.

You’ve already written a rough draft to get your ideas down on paper.  Now it’s time to look at it again and see how it hangs together.  Revising may very well mean that you will be rewriting huge chunks, as well as adding and deleting material.  But it could also mean that you got certain passages right the first time.  In other words, resist the urge to rewrite EVERYTHING.

6. Treat writing as a job

. . . which it is, even if you’re not being paid to do it (yet). 

7.  Keep track of your progress.

Keeping track of your word count or page count can actually encourage you to keep going as you see how much you’ve already accomplished.  I’ve revised an average of six or seven pages per day, which does not sound like a lot, but, over three weeks it’s built up to about 135 pages or 30,000 words.

The process I’ve described above may or may not work for you.  I’m not even sure it works for me.  As I become more proficient at novel writing, I may spend more hours revising.  (And, if you don’t have other considerations such as a regular job, a family, or a life, you may want to work even longer.)  But for right now it works for me, and I’m pleased with how my novel reads.

You’ll figure out the revising regimen than works for you.  The important thing is to begin and don’t stop until you’ve finished.

What is your revising regimen?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Your Story Really About?

Image via Microsoft Office
What is your story really about, anyway?

This question can scare writers, particularly if we’ve finished a draft and we’re still not sure what we’re trying to say.  While there are many reasons why a story does not feel complete to us, one common problem stems from the writer's difficulty with two very risky but fundamental aspects of writing: self-discovery and self-disclosure.

Writing as Self-Discovery

Every time a writer puts fingers to keypad, she reveals part of her soul, her mind, what makes her tick.  This can be scary since most human beings don’t really have a clue what makes us tick and discovering truths about ourselves can make us uncomfortable.  

Sometimes, we’re not ready to address aspects of our own lives, so it’s hard to get our characters to do the same.

Yet self-discovery is one of most valuable reasons to write.  If we can illuminate ourselves as well as our readers, then we've more than done our job. 

Writing as Self-Disclosure

Most writers resist revealing too much about ourselves even to our closest friends, let alone to strangers who may read our work. However, even if the story is pure fiction, it can say a lot about you, what you think, and how you see the world. 

Yet self-disclosure is often what makes stories memorable.  Stories connect with readers when they touch on universal human experiences – those that show us how, despite our individual foibles and quirks, we’re not so different from each other after all.
While it’s good not to disclose too much of yourself to the reader, all writers should be willing to afford readers at least a pinprick glimpse into their souls.  If you are afraid of self-disclosure, you may be preventing your story from revealing the truths it needs to address.

Embracing the Journey

Here are five suggestions to help you on the journey of self-discovery and self-disclosure:

1. Don't begin your story with a “Big Idea.”

Most ideas have been done before anyway.  Instead, begin with some deep-seated need, question, or desire of yours.  Something unresolved from your past is always a good starting point, but it doesn’t have to be a traumatic event.  Write down ten things you remember from your childhood, for example, then pick one or two and play “what if?”

2. Let your story begin with you but take on a life of its own.

Writing fiction is different from writing biography.  You don’t have to be accurate.  You can let your imagination wander into the territory of Might Have Been.

3. Be willing to expose part of yourself to the reader.

Get your mind out of the gutter.  I don’t mean "expose" in that way.  Be willing to be vulnerable, to be taken as silly, or even to embarrass yourself.  Honesty wins over readers more than feigned super-competence.

4. Weigh the risks.

What is to be gained by revealing yourself?  What will you truly lose if reader thinks you’re nuts?  Chances are, you won’t lose anything but you’ll gain devoted followers.

5. Find a role model.

I often find my role models in fields outside of writing.  In his book, Flowers in the Dustbin, for example, James Miller describes how The Beatles refused to release a surefire hit, “How Do You Do It?” as their first single, preferring instead to be known for their own songs.  This was a gutsy decision for four lads from the sticks (e.g., Liverpool) who had just signed a recording contract – a decision that could have backfired and sent them back to the sticks with nothing.  Indeed, when their first single, “Love Me Do,” reached only # 17 in the UK charts, it looked as if they should have listened to their experienced elders.

But The Beatles’ gambit paid off when their second single, “Please Please Me,” topped the UK charts and set them on the course of reinventing music history – all because four English lads weren’t afraid to look foolish.

Determining what your story is about can be daunting, but give yourself the fearless courage to embrace both self-discovery and self-disclosure.  Only then can you determine what the truth is that both you and your readers need to know.

What do you think?  How do you know when your story has revealed itself to you?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Does Your Reader Really Need to Know This?

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As writers, we are often bursting with ideas we want to share with readers.  If you have a particular specialty or skill, or you find ancient history fascinating, you might be tempted to tell the reader everything you know about the subject. Even if you’re writing a story drawn from your own personal experiences, there’s a temptation to put in every detail, whether it advances the story or not.

And, on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with educating the reader as well as entertaining her.

But before you launch into your dissertation on the proper way to load a hunting rifle, ask yourself one very important question: Is it necessary?

Just because the information is fascinating to you does not mean it will be fascinating to your reader.  And information that does not advance the story in some way is dead weight, dragging the story down and giving the reader an excuse to nod off.

Back in the ‘90s, when I was in grad school, I wrote a screenplay about a rock band that had been around since the ‘60s.  I took as inspiration bands like Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Fleetwood Mac—groups whose real-life stories make fascinating soap operas.  I fictionalized a lot of things, of course, but my story had all the elements of classic rock groups: band members coming and going, romantic entanglements, drug overdoses, clashes between people who had once been friends and were now enemies.  A surefire formula for success, I thought.

But, after reading several scenes, my professor told me the only people who would care would be fans of this particular group.

The group, of course, did not exist—except in my head.

The lesson I learned was to read my own story as a reader—someone who knows nothing about the subject matter and has no reason to care, a reader who is interested in the story and not in the minutiae.

This is not to say that all information is extraneous.  Sometimes, the reader needs a detailed background to fully understand the context of the story or the actions of the characters.  Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is loaded with details of pre-Roman culture, spiritual beliefs, and politics, all of which are necessary to understand the setting, character motivations, and events of the story.

How do you know if the reader really needs to know this information?  Here are five questions and suggestions:

1.  Would your main character(s) know or care about it?  

The reader is always with your character, caring about what happens to him and following him along this course of adventure.  Therefore, if the character isn't likely to know or care about events that happened before his birth, neither will the reader.  Unless your main character is a scholar who just happens to know this stuff, let him discover it instead of telling it to the reader.

2. Is the information relevant to what’s at stake for your main character? 

An unoccupied, creepy room may make your character feel scared, but unless something happens in that room, it does not need to be in the story.

3.  Are you able to sustain tension while giving the reader this information?

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has another character give his two main characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, a lot of historical and rumored information.  But while all this is going on, we never lose sight of the fact that the French police are chasing Langdon because they suspect him of murdering Sophie’s grandfather!

4. Does the information move the story forward?

If your main character cannot proceed to the next step in the story without the information, then, rest assured, it’s vital.

5. Can you show the information instead of telling it?

Many writers struggle with the concept of showing versus telling.  Sometimes this is because we’re anxious to get to the “meat” of the story, so we gloss over scenes or ideas we deem to be less important.  But readers do not experience the story the same way you did while you wrote it.  They only know what’s important by what you choose to focus on, and they will remember vivid details and actions better than a summary of information.  Therefore, if the information is vital to the story, find a way to dramatize it.

As fun as it is to write about information we’ve learned or that is personally relevant to us, remember that we are not writing strictly for ourselves.  Always keep a reader in mind and ask yourself, does she really need to know this information?  If not, get rid of it.

What do you think?  How do you determine whether or not information is necessary to your story?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Star Trek Can Teach You (Not to Do) About Keeping Your Characters Consistent

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Spoiler warning: The following post discusses plot elements of the films Star Trek III, V, and VI.  Read at your own risk.

Last week, I discussed Mark Twain’s advice that characters in a story should behave like real people.  I thought I’d said everything I had to say on the topic and was ready to move on.

Then I watched a marathon of Star Trek movies on the Syfy Channel.

I’m a Star Trek fan from way back.  Like most fans, I was thrilled when the original cast reunited for six feature films from 1979 to 1991.  And, like a lot of fans, I was willing to overlook certain flaws in the writing of these films.

But time has made me wiser, or at least pickier.  Although these movies are still enjoyable and feature all of the elements that made Star Trek the enduring franchise it still is, I couldn’t help but notice the inconsistency in the portrayal of ST’s iconic hero, Captain James T. Kirk, in the fifth and sixth films.

For some reason, Syfy aired the films out of sequence.  I came in during the middle of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (released in 1986 and perhaps best known to non-fans as the movie with the whales).  Then came Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (1991; the last film to feature the original crew of the USS Enterprise) and, finally, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989; known derisively by some fans as Star Trek V: In Search of God).   I can only guess that someone in programming was not paying close attention and took the title of the fifth film literally, assuming it to be the last movie with the original cast.

In any case, showing the films out of order made the inconsistencies in Kirk’s character stand out like a Democrat at a Tea Party rally.

The Only Good Klingon . . . 

Some background information:  In the third film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Kirk’s grown son, Dr. David Marcus, is murdered by a Klingon—a member of the warlike race that served as the original TV series’ primary antagonists.  In Star Trek VI, however, a Klingon moon has just exploded, threatening the Klingons with extinction unless they sue for peace.  Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned to escort the Klingon chancellor and his delegation to a peace conference.

This poses a significant problem for Kirk, who is so angry over the death of his son that he blames all Klingons, calling them animals and shouting to his first officer and best friend, Spock (who supports helping the Klingons), “Let them die!”

Kirk’s animosity, though deplorable, is understandable and very human.  It also gives him a starting point to grow from as a character.  This is all well and good—except that such attitudes are totally absent from the previous film.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

I'll grant that Kirk has minimal interaction with Klingons during ST V (and none at all in ST IV; hence its exclusion from this discussion) ; however, Klingons are present in the fifth film, and the only time he expresses any sort of emotional reaction toward them is when he thinks he’s about to be blasted by their battle cruiser.

Furthermore, once hostilities have ceased, Kirk and crew welcome the Klingons aboard the Enterprise for a celebration.  There is no mention of David Marcus’s death or Kirk’s embittered feelings.   However, when Kirk invites the Klingon delegation aboard the Enterprise for dinner in the sixth film, he does so with reluctance and palpable hostility.

(His inconsistent attitudes, by the way, are mirrored by some members of his crew.  Watch how Chekov and Sulu follow a female Klingon warrior around in ST V.  Then listen to Chekov utter the infamous, bigotted line, "Guess who's coming to dinner" in ST VI).   

All in all, the fifth film ends with the crew of the Enterprise exhibiting a cordial if wary attitude toward Klingons.  This cordiality all but vanishes in the sixth film.

Why Inconsistent?  Because the Plot Demands It. 

So, how was Kirk able to put his feelings aside in Star Trek V but not in Star Trek VI?

The answer, of course, is that movies are self-contained universes even when they are part of a series.  The filmmakers of ST V chose to focus on the story at hand and not bring in extraneous bits of continuity from past Star Trek films. 

Most of us, however, don't have the luxury of feature films with a built-in audience that may "forgive" us for such transgressions.  Inconsistent characters can throw readers right out of the story.

What do you think?  Do your characters behave consistently?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mark Twain Rule No. 3: Make Your Characters Act Like Real People

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More words of writing wisdom from Mark Twain:

. . . the personages of the tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and . . . the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

This is Twain’s way of saying that your characters should behave and talk like real people.

Sounds simple, but it isn’t.  As writers, we sometimes have bizarre ideas of how human beings behave or talk.  In an attempt to impress readers with our wit, style, or intelligence, we may end up with characters who do things no real person would do or say things no real person would say.  Instead of impressing readers, we leave them with the impression that we’ve never seen or talked to another human being!

 My Cousin, My Unbelievable Lawyer

One of my favorite examples of characters behaving in unbelievable ways is the film My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci.  The movie goes to great lengths to establish Vinny (Pesci) as the proverbial fish out of water.  A lawyer from New York who has only recently passed the bar (after six attempts!), Vinny tries to defend his cousin against a murder charge in the Deep South. 

While the film is entertaining at times, the first half drags along with scenes that establish Vinny as an inept boob.  He gets his car stuck in mud and ruins his only suit, he’s held in contempt of court for careless infractions, and he doesn’t know basic court procedures.  We get it that Vinny’s not the best choice to defend a client from a parking ticket, let alone murder.  But credibility is stretched past the breaking point.

In fact, the only way Vinny emerges as a credible lawyer is to be pitted against a southern judge, prosecutor, and witnesses who are equally inept.

The characters in My Cousin Vinny are drawn as broadly as possible for maximum comic effect. While this was a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, it prevents me from getting fully lost in the story because the characters are too unbelievable.

You Can't Handle the Truth (But You Can Handle Characters)

For comparison, check out A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise.  This film is also about an inexperienced trial lawyer who takes on a murder case, but the characters behave like real people. 

Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee is cocky and self-involved and does not believe he can get his clients off, regardless of whether they are guilty or not.  However, he demonstrates a wily competence and even brilliance in cross-examining witnesses and outwitting the prosecution.  This combination of good and bad traits, of brilliance and self-involvement give Kaffee a degree of credibility as a character.

That credibility pays off huge story-telling dividends in the end when Kaffee goes up against the imposing Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson).  We understand what's at stake for Kaffee and his clients if he does not win.  More important, the outcome is believable because Kaffee is believable.

It may be unfair to compare a comedy to a drama, but Twain’s advice holds true either way.  A Few Good Men shines because the characters behave like human beings.  My Cousin Vinny is only passably entertaining because its broadly drawn caricatures serve the needs of the plot.

What do you think?  What’s your favorite example of characters acting or not acting like real human beings?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Mark Twain Rule No. 2: Each Part of a Story Should Be Necessary

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More writing advice from Mark Twain's seminal critique, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":

 . . . the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help develop it.

As with Rule No. 1, this rule sounds obvious, yet many writers violate it.  One reason is because much of popular entertainment—comics, TV shows, some films—consists of ongoing serials in which plot lines lead to tangents or unresolved conflicts or characters who contribute nothing to the overall story.  I was never a fan of Lost, but when I listen to friends discuss the series, it seems to typify this approach: Make it up as you go along and keep the audience coming back for more.

The problem is, the audience feels cheated if the story doesn’t actually lead somewhere or if the various episodes of the story contribute nothing to its advancement.  

Fans who feel cheated either abandon the series or take out their wrath by blasting the story (and the writer) on message boards!

It Doesn’t Matter How Cute It Is.  Does It Fit?

One of the challenges writers face is that we often don’t know at first how a scene advances the story.  We write character bits that we think are cute, insightful, or funny.  We introduce an ominous character who we’re certain will become a major antagonist later on.  Or we bust a gut to write a difficult scene, so we want to keep it.  And we delude ourselves into thinking that because the scene is cute or insightful or funny or because the character is ominous or because we’ve busted our gut the reader will forgive us if it doesn’t exactly go anywhere.

But extraneous scenes or characters can slow a story down, derail the plot, and leave even the most faithful readers scratching their heads.

Beware Elves with Guns

Back in the 1970s, writer Steve Gerber introduced a subplot into the Marvel Comics series, The Defenders.  Known notoriously as “the elf with a gun” subplot, it involved—over the course of several issues—an elf ambushing ordinary people and murdering them.  Gerber apparently meant for this subplot to build into a confrontation between the elf and the titular heroes of the book, but it never happened.  He departed the series, and it was left to his successor, David Anthony Kraft, to (humorously) dispose of the elf—who never even met the Defenders!

(And, yes, I know that several years later, the elf storyline was revisited by a different writer and resolved.  Let’s just say that some things—even dangling subplots—are best left alone.)

Most of us don’t have to worry about leaving a series before we get a chance to develop our subplots.  Our characters begin and end with us.  Still, writers sometimes write a scene that seemed necessary at the time.  Only later, when we revise the story or when our critiquing groups read it (or, heaven forbid, when our audience reads it) does the scene lay there like a puppy that's forgotten how to perform a trick.

Building a House of Cards

How do you know if a scene isn’t advancing the story?  

If you find yourself repeating information, or if the characters are doing the same thing they did in an earlier scene, it's usually a tale-tell sign that the scene is going nowhere.  (There's an exception: Sometimes you want the characters to repeat the same actions to show that they are in a rut.)

Writing a story is like building a house of cards.  Take out one card and the entire house falls apart.  If you can take out a scene without hindering the story's progress, leave it out.

What do you think?  Have you ever written a scene that went nowhere?

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...