Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: A Semi-Great Year in Review

Cartoon showing baby representing New Year 190...
Cartoon showing baby representing New Year 1905 chasing old man 1904 into history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I detest the sort of “my year in review” columns in which the writer looks back and praises himself for his accomplishments or wallows in self pity for the things that didn’t work out. 
Like most writers, I have a propensity to do both and so I don’t like to reflect overmuch on my writing career. I’d rather let others do that if they are so inclined.

If writing is a form of communication (and it is), then it becomes more meaningful to the writer if it is sharedthat is, if it comes back to me in some form (sales, feedback, reviews, and did I mention sales?).  

Nevertheless, something needs to be said about 2013 because it was a year in which I met two very important writing goals: publishing my first novel and taking a full-time teaching position. 

Both goals were realized after several years of hard work, learning, and faith. And both experiences have turned out far better than I could have hoped. 

But whenever one attains a goal (let alone two), there’s a need to sit back on that lofty perch and ask, “What’s next?”   

Well, what is next?

Fortunately (?), I don’t have the time to luxuriate in much indecision. My teaching job keeps me very busy, which is good: I have the privilege of teaching online English courses to students who otherwise might not get to go to college at all, as well as members of our armed forces, many of whom do their assignments while being deployed. 

If writing is communication, then teaching is service. I get to communicate and serve, passing on subjects I’m passionate about and which may help others find their passion.

However, some things have fallen by the wayside due to my busyness, including my next novel. I had begun work on a sequel to The Power Club, but put it on the back burner after members of my writer’s group pointed out, rightly so, that it read too much like the first novel.

I'm simply not ready to tell the next step in Damon's storyor perhaps he's not ready to tell me.

Instead, I wrote a book which departs drastically from the concept of teenagers with super-powers. It is very different than anything I’ve written before, and, as of right now, it exists in one complete and very rough draft. I’m getting feedback from my writer’s group and revising it at a snail’s pace. It's been slow going as I take stock of what I have and decide what to do with it.

Living the writing life

Writing does not happen in a vacuum.Writers live lives—or they should if they hope to write stories that resonate with readers who also have lives. I’ve pretty much avoided discussing my personal life in this blog as I prefer to keep the focus on writing and the journey of writing. 

But writing and living are intertwined; when one suffers, the other usually suffers, as well. While I wouldn’t describe my personal life as “suffering” this year, it has be tumultuous. I won’t go into details; let’s just say that I enter this Advent season in sort of a lull, and that’s okay. Advent is a time when Christians look forward to the coming of Christ, metaphorically or literally (or both)—a time when new things can happen in our lives.

So, as I enter 2014, I have no idea what my life or my writing holds in store. I’ve never really had a plan for my writing career, just an ever-changing dream. Someone recently told me that the difference between a goal and a dream is that, with a dream you have no idea how you’re going to get there but that’s what makes the dream worthwhile.

My writing journey in 2013 has proven this to be true.

Happy 2014 to all my readers! Thank you for stopping by, and may your own dreams be worth dreaming.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

What Writers Can Learn about Inspiration from Lorde’s “Royals”

I don't keep up with popular music these days, so it takes something unusual for me to take notice. One of the most popular songs in the country is “Royals” by Lorde—a song which qualifies as unusual for several reasons. First, the song was written and sung by a 17-year-old girl from New Zealand, a remote country not known as a hotbed of musical activity. Second, its lush vocal arrangement makes "Royals" an energetic confection with a timeless quality.

What made me take notice, however, were the enigmatic and somewhat pointed lyrics:

                And we’ll never be royals
                It don't run in our blood
                That kind of lux just ain’t for us
                We crave a different kind of buzz

Such lyrics made me think the song was an intentional jab at Britain’s Royal Family and/or the media’s obsession with them. The last thing I expected was for the song to have any connection with Kansas City’s hometown baseball team, the Royals.

Yet a Kansas City Star article today revealed otherwise. 

It turns out that the song was inspired by a National Geographic photo of the Royals’ celebrated third baseman, George Brett, signing baseballs for fans during the 1976 season. The team logo was, of course, emblazoned on Brett’s jersey.

“It was just that word [Royals],” Lorde is quoted in the article.  “It was really cool.”

Leaving aside the notion that the song may be a jab at anyone, this story illustrates how writers can find inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources. It also illustrates how new creative works can be made by drawing connections from seemingly unrelated ideas across the globe.

Inspiration is a tricky thing. It is often compared to a muse—the mythological beings (usually female) who inspired men to do great things. On the other hand, inspiration can be compared to genius, which, in the words of Thomas Edison, involves 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. The first attitude treats inspiration as a magical quality over which writers have no control. The second attitude treats it as nothing special.

To me, inspiration is indeed special. It often comes unbidden when I’m not ready for it (usually when I’m driving), and yet it also comes from hard work. Lack of inspiration, in other words, is not an excuse to stop writing. Inspiration, I’ve found, often returns when I’ve made it clear that I intend to plow on ahead with or without its assistance. Perhaps inspiration doesn’t want to get left behind.

But, returning to “Royals,” the story of its beginnings reveals three important points about inspiration for writers:

1. Don’t dismiss any idea, no matter how trivial it may seem.

According to Lorde, it was the word “Royals” itself which got her creative wheels spinning. Words can be enormous sources for inspiration—they carry meanings which are both denotative and connotative. Words suggest other words. Words suggest ideas and connections. Go with it.

2. Be receptive to inspiration from unusual sources.

How a teenager from New Zealand got hold of a 37-year-old National Geographic is still a mystery, according the Star article, but it doesn’t matter. Creative inspiration can be found in anything. The legendary ‘60s band Buffalo Springfield took their name from a sign on a steamroller. Starbucks, the coffee chain, took its name from the first mate in Moby-Dick. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry drew inspiration from his own experiences in World War II and as a police officer, and from the TV series Wagon Train. 

Finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas is what creativity is all about.

3. When inspiration comes calling, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

“Royals” may have begun with a photograph, but it didn’t end there. At some point, the song had to be written, rehearsed, recorded, sold and marketed.

This is where many would-be writers run out of steam. The initial feelings of wonder and excitement generated by inspiration disappear, leaving them with the cold reality of hard work. The sad truth for some is that inspiration alone does not make dreams come true. 

Anyone can be “inspired.” Perhaps the ultimate lesson of “Royals” is that ideas are not enough. It’s what you do with an idea that counts.

Work Cited:

Liu, Kathy. "Yup, George Brett is Her Inspiration." The Kansas City Star 7 Dec. 2013: C3.

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

3 Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters from Are You Being Served?

Before I recently cancelled my television service, one of my delights was watching the British comedies which air on public television. My stand-out favorite has always been Are You Being Served? Although the series has not aired on PBS in some time, episodes, documentaries, and interviews can be found on the modern miracle known as YouTube.
And, for a writer, that’s a good thing. AYBS has a lot to teach, particularly how to create memorable and enduring characters.

AYBS, which ran in the UK from 1972-85, produced only 69 episodes. But they have been repeated ever since and the series became popular in other countries—the U.S., Canada, Australia, and even non-English speaking countries such as Israel.  Not bad for a sitcom which follows the antics of a sales staff in an old fashioned department store and got much of its humor from innuendo and double entendres.

But, even more importantly, the show owed its longevity to the characters. Who could forget Mr. Humphries, the charming, is-he-gay-or-isn’t-he? sales assistant in men’s wear? Or Mrs. Slocombe, the overbearing head of the ladies department whose hair changes color every week? Or Captain Peacock, the autocratic floorwalker whose only job is to direct customers to the appropriate department? (In the U.S., he would be the equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter.) 

But what made these characters so special? And what can you learn about creating your own unforgettable characters?

Here are three tips:

1. Plot is not as important as character.

Jeremy Lloyd, who co-created and wrote the series (with David Croft), has said in interviews that the plots weren’t especially important. What mattered was the characters—particularly the conflict generated by any two characters:  
  • When the ladies’ department moves to the same floor as the men’s department, territorial sparks fly between Mrs. Slocombe and Mr. Grainger, the fussy head of men’s wear. 
  • Captain Peacock remains polite and deferential toward his boss, store manager Mr. Rumbold, but one senses his seething resentment every time Rumbold undermines his authority.   
  • When the sales junior, Mr. Lucas, tries to chat up sexy Miss Brahms in the ladies department, she lashes out at him with her Cockney accent because she knows he's chased other women.
  • Mr. Humphries, who generally gets along with everyone, still bristles when someone innocently mentions terms such as "queen" or "fairy."
  • The store's maintenance workers, Mr. Mash and Mr. Harmon, continually defy orders that they stay off of the sales floor during shopping hours—and they always find ways to get around the rules.
As the above examples illustrate, the plots often came from the characters—or more specifically from one character’s conflict with another character.

But if conflict were all AYBS had to offer, the characters would not be terribly memorable or even likeable.

2. Create a sense of family among the characters.

AYBS created a dysfunctional family, to be sure, but a family nonetheless. Everyone knows an authoritative father figure such as Captain Peacock or a mother figure such as Mrs. Slocombe, who never quite understands how her words come across, particularly when she mentions her cat.

In short, these characters are memorable because they are familiar to most viewers. Their familiarity makes them loveable in spite of (or because of) their flaws.

Most long-running TV series—from M*A*S*H to Star Trek—generate a sense of family among the characters, who put up with each others’ idiosyncrasies in the way only a family can.

3. Write what you know.                               

The verisimilitude of AYBS came from Lloyd, who spent three years working at a department store similar to the fictional Grace Brothers on the series. Lloyd drew his characters from people he interacted with. Though he exaggerated their qualities, those qualities were based on truth. 

More, Lloyd observed the strict pecking order and tricks of the trade (such as "kneeing" a jacket) that kept AYBS grounded in reality.

Whether you are writing a comedy or any other kind of story, creating memorable characters is a must. Drawing characters from real life, emphasizing character conflicts over plot, and creating a sense of family are three ways to make sure your readers never forget your characters.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

8 Tips for Overcoming Writing Roadblocks

The dreaded deadline is upon me, but that can be a good thing.  Sometimes writers need to revisit previous ideas about writing.  Here's a favorite post from March 2012:

Writing is a lot like embarking on a journey with an incomplete roadmap.  You think you know where you’re going, but the map doesn’t show the unexpected detours, the places where the road suddenly ends, and the new highway that’s under construction.

Also, you entrust your car (the story) to a driver (your main character), who has a mind of his own, is often distracted by shiny objects on the side of the road, and wants to stop occasionally to take care of bodily functions (sleeping, eating, going to the restroom).

You, the writer, want to keep your story moving forward in a predetermined direction, but the incomplete map and willful driver get in the way, creating writing roadblocks that threaten to derail your story.

It’s enough to make a writer give up on the journey and start over (e.g., rewrite the story from the beginning or start a new story) or even stay home (e.g., give up on writing altogether).

But don’t be hasty.  Sometimes roadblocks take the story in a new and exciting direction.

Writing roadblocks come in many forms.  Sometimes your character is faced with a decision, and you have no idea how she will decide.  Or another, unexpected character shows up, and you don’t know what to do with him.  Or the plot twist you thought was going to be brilliant turns out to be lame.   

What do you do now?

Coming to a writing roadblock is not pleasant, but it can be the best thing to ever happen to your story.  Here are eight tips for working with your roadblock instead of fighting it:

1. Begin with your character. Your character must want something.  What is it?  How important is it that she gets what she wants?  You do not have to determine up front whether or not your character succeeds – the fact that she wants something gives your story purpose and direction.

2. Determine what’s at stake.  What will happen if your character does not get what she wants?  Will she lose her last chance at happiness?  Will the murderer get away?  Will the world come to an end?  Again, you do not have to know up front if your character will win.  You only have to know what will happen if she doesn’t.

3. Be prepared to accept the worst. Writers can hold themselves back if they fail to address this question.  And it is a hard question.  After all, we like to think of our main characters as winners, and much of popular fiction teaches us that the hero always wins.  But doubt and uncertainty can paralyze us as writers if we don’t face the hard questions.

So what if your character loses her last chance at happiness?  What if the murderer gets away?  What if the world comes to an end?  What then?  (And there is always a “What then?” even if the world ends.)

4. Determine the steps your character will take to reach her goal. Once again, you don’t know if she’s going to succeed; you only know what she’s going to do next.

5. Determine the obstacles in your character’s way.  If you’re like me, creating obstacles for your character is tough.  It’s like tripping your own child while he’s carrying a tray full of expensive china across the room.  My advice: Don’t stress too hard in dreaming up obstacles.  Your character will trip on his own at some point, which leads me to . . .

6. When an unexpected roadblock occurs, see it as an opportunity for growth – for both your character and yourself.  This is where you truly test your mettle as a writer.  This is where both you and your character discover hidden strengths.  Just as adversity in the real world can bring out hidden talents, forgotten skills, and surprising character traits in people, so too can roadblocks reveal aspects of your story that keep it fresh and exciting.

7. Keep forging ahead. Go around the roadblock.  Fly over it.  Dig under it.  Heck, it’s your story: drive straight through the roadblock if you wish.  Whatever you do, keep writing.

8. Don’t start over.  If you do, you deprive your character and yourself of a chance to grow.  Instead, have the courage to keep going forward, wherever the story takes you, even if the outcome differs from what you originally expected.

Writing is discovery, but not all discoveries are pleasant.  When a writing roadblock threatens to derail your story, seize it as an opportunity to trust in yourself and in your story.  After all, a roadblock may just make the entire journey worthwhile.

What do you think?  How do you deal with writing roadblocks?

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

How Do You Deal with Your Writing’s Growing Pains?

Writing can be like unruly children. Just when you think they're ready to grow up and do you proud, they throw fits, stop cooperating, and make you wonder why you wanted to have kids in the first place.

So you have a book or two (or three or four) under your belt. You have your writing process down pat.  You’ve mastered the art of fiction and the science of winning over audiences. Through a long, painstaking process of trial and error, you’ve devised a formula for success and it works every time.

And then it doesn’t.

The new work in progress doesn’t quite gell. After writing twenty thousand words, you realize you don’t know the characters well enough to know what they want. The complicated back story fascinates you more than what they are doing now. Your beta readers complain that this story reads just like your last, or it reads like an outline. Or both.

You, my writer friend, are experiencing growing pains.

Or, to be more precise, your writing is. 

Writing, like a child, grows in fits and starts. It constantly tests its boundaries. It seems happy one minute and hysterical the next. It is no longer pacified by the routine that worked last year. And, like any beleaguered parent, you can’t understand what to do with your six-year-old who has overnight turned 15.

Growing pains are uncomfortable and scary for writers. They force us out of our comfort zones and into unknown territory. They cause us to question everything we do and everything we’ve done. 

They may even force us to reevaluate why we wanted to be writers in the first place. Where’s that untold wealth and fame we’re supposed to get? Why isn’t writing getting easier? 

Does parenting ever get easier?

Yet growing pains can be positive and necessary for writers. They could be a way for our subconscious minds to point out things to us we don’t want to face. Maybe they are calling attention to areas in our writing or our lives (which often are intertwined) that need more attention. Maybe they're trying to tell us we’ve crossed one bridge and it’s time to do something new.

While we try to figure out what our unruly writing-child is telling us, here are three tips for dealing with growing pains:

  •  Take a break.  Stepping away from writing for awhile may be the best thing.  We all need a time out to gain a new perspective.  The catch, though, is that you must come back to writing at some point.  Giving yourself a vacation from writing may be all you need to come back to it fresh.

  • Write something else.  If you’ve worked hard at building your brand in a specific genre or with a certain cast of characters, there’s a tendency to think that’s all you can or should write.  But forcing yourself to write the same kind of stories over and over is like forcing your kids to eat only  meat.  Without veggies, fruit, bread, and desert, they will become surly, lose focus, and unhealthy.  Writing something else helps you grow as a writer and bring something new back to your main project.

Whatever you do, don’t give up.  

How do you deal with your writing’s growing pains?  Share your tips below.

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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...