Four Thoughts on Writing

So you want advice about writing?

What do you do? Get a self-help book? A how to guide to being a better writer? There are tons of those out there. The best, I think, is Stephen King’s On Writing, not because he tells you how to write, but because it’s kind of autobiographical and in that bit of life we are told about, we also see how to write. It’s a very unique way of teaching or advising. There are plenty of other books out there, but none I really care to mention here.

You can ask other writers their thoughts. Some of them will give you good advice, while others will completely steer you the wrong way. You will get don’t do this, but do this. Or you have to do it this way and don’t do it that way. That way is always wrong. This way is always right. You should never write in this perspective or in this tense. Always have lots of action. Don’t use too many descriptors, but make sure and give enough that the reader can somewhat picture it. My favorite is ‘show, don’t tell,’ but so many people can’t explain what that means. Ask for examples and often you don’t get them.

[Side Note: there are some very good authors out there who can give you examples of what they are explaining. Those people ‘get it.’ End Side Note]

There are so many different things that you should or should not do, depending on who you talk to.

If you are a writer, feel free to disagree with me. It won’t bother me at all, unless you are rude and disrespectful.

For anyone out there who may care (and there are about twelve of you that I know of…I think), I do have some advice for you. No, this isn’t a self-help kind of thing. This isn’t even a technical kind of thing. You won’t see me telling you to be grammatically correct or to condense your sentences or whatever. This stuff…this stuff is mental. As Yogi Berra once said about baseball: “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.” Well, I think it’s the same with writing.

Are you ready?

Okay. Here we go:

Be yourself.

Oh. Whoa. Wait. What?

Be yourself.

Be who you are when you write. Don’t try to be Stephen King or James Patterson or William Faulkner or Edgar Allen Poe or anyone else. By yourself. Write the way you are. Write what you want to write. Why do I say that? Because if you try to be someone else, you might miss out on what you can actually do if you were just yourself. You might miss out on finding your own voice.

I tried to write like others. I experimented with a lot of different voices, a lot of different styles. I tried going all action and not so much descriptions. I tried using a ton of dialogue and then as little dialogue as possible. I tried in the first, second and third points of view. I tried in past and present tense (and even something I played with trying to create a future tense).

Guess what? Until I stopped trying to be everyone else, I couldn’t find my voice, my style, the way I wanted to write. I was kind of all over the place and nothing really fit.

So, first and foremost, be yourself.

Next: Read. Don’t just read the writers you like. Read other writers that don’t fall within your normal reading tastes. While you read, make mental notes on styles and how the story develops. If you want to keep a notepad handy so you can jot down something that strikes a chord with you, then do so. You don’t have to analyze the story, but when you’re done, think about what you liked and didn’t like about it. Read—it may be the most important thing you can do for your writing.

Third, and this is a big one: You need to develop thick skin. By thick skin I mean you need to have skin as thick as an elephant. If you get your feelings hurt easily, this is not the business for you. This is a tough gig, folks. There are those who will help you—and they are good people who will do what they can for you. Then there are those who would just as soon break you down to the point that you would give up. Editors and publishers are tough and some of them aren’t very nice when they reject you. The publishing world is difficult and sometimes publishers screw over the writers. If you carry your feelings on your sleeves then you will get eaten up and spat out.

And, for the most part, readers are totally cool. But sometimes you get one that just doesn’t like your work and they attack the story and you, personally. If you can’t handle that with a level head, then putting your work out there may not be the best idea for you.

Though there are many more things I can put on this list, I will stop with this last one. It’s important: Enjoy what you do. I’ve heard people say they suffer for their art. Really? Suffer? Not me. There is an old saying: Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day of your life. It’s the same with writing. If you love it, it’s not work and you’ll never suffer for it.

Writing—telling stories—can bring so much enjoyment and personal fulfillment. For me, I get a sense of accomplishment that nothing else brings me. To quote another source, this time Twisted Sister: There’s a feeling that I get from nothin’ else and there ain’t nothing’ in the world that makes me go… Creating a world my characters live in, giving them situations to deal with, seeing how they resolve those situations, is such a rush. It’s better than any drug. Really. It is. Drugs are bad. Don’t do drugs. Write. It’s much better for you.

Let’s recap:

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Read.
  3. Develop a thick skin.
  4. Enjoy writing.

If you will take notice, I didn’t tell you how to write. That’s not my place, and I don’t feel I am qualified to tell anyone how to write. And if I was qualified, I still don’t think I would tell anyone how to write. One of the parts of writing that can be so enjoyable—or any activity, for that matter—is practicing at it, learning what you need to do to get better and then learning how to get better. It’s those ‘Ah ha’ moments where the light turns on and you ‘get it’ that is so exhilarating and that makes writing fun.

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

 

Thoughts On Things

My daughter has a great smile and her laugh is contagious.

My son is a comedian/Batman/ninja turtle/Sonic the Hedgehog/Jedi Warrior/Lego Maniac ball of energy.

My wife is beautiful, my heart and my center. She grounds me.

***
Life is short.

Some may argue that point, but for most people, life is entirely too short. There are things we want to do–the bucket list, so to speak–that we have never been able to do. There are places we want to go that we have never been. There are things we want to accomplish with our lives that we haven’t had the chance to accomplish.

Why? Why haven’t we accomplished some of those things we want to? Money? Okay, I get that one. Time? Meh. That is a point that is mute for the most part. Do you watch television? Play video games? How about that great time sucker, Facebook? Do you surf the internet? There’s your time, slipping, slipping, slipping through your fingers.

We take for granted the time we do have. We don’t use it wisely enough. Sure, I understand watching television and playing on the computer and Facebook and videogames and a whole host of other things, but the truth is we don’t use our time wisely.

Wait. It’s not just about being more efficient with our use of the time given us, it’s also about motivation. How many of us are just plain lazy? Or maybe we’re too tired when we get off work. Maybe we’re a little–or a lot–of both.

I’m just going to sit here and drink one beer (or in my case, a Strawberry Kool-Aid) and watch one television show and then I’ll get up and go write or go do that thing I want to do. How often do we say, or at the very least, think that? That one drink turns into several and that one television show turns into three hours and by the time we realize it, it’s time to go to bed.

I guess I’ll just do it tomorrow.

Mmm-hmm.

Good intentions and all that jazz.

[[Side Note: Before I go any further, if you have children, they are–or should be–a dominant part of your life and I can understand if you don’t get to some things you would like to do. Still, making the time is an effort worth pursuing. End Side Note.]]

The truth is if you want to do something YOU have to pursue it. If you want to climb the mountain, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. If you want to publish that great American novel, well you have to write it first and that starts with penning the first word.

I know this is cliché, but you only get out of life what you put into it. If your efforts are centered around doing very little, then life will give you very little in return. If your efforts are centered around what it is in it for me, then you miss out on the joys of giving and helping others. If your life is about work, work, work, sure you may have riches and material things. But life isn’t just about money and material things. The Rolling Stones made note of that in their song As Tears Go By.

Life is about living and happiness and worth. Remember that.

By worth, I mean self worth. How you view yourself. Your self worth is more valuable than what anyone can ever think about you. I’ve always been the type to say, you don’t like me? Your loss. I still feel that way. Again, I use a cliché here, but in order for most folks to find their worth, they must love themselves first. Love yourself. It’s the best thing you can do for you. If you love yourself, then you will have that to fall back on when people disappoint you (and they will disappoint you). You will always be able to bounce back when you love and believe in yourself.

I’ve strayed from my original thoughts, but that’s okay. I do that in real life, so why not in my stories and blogs? It is who I am. Honestly, I rarely know what it is I want to write about when I sit down, but I know that life is short.

Be all that you can be. In order to do that, you have to put forth some effort. Give it the old college try. Swing for the fences and all those other clichés. You have to be willing to live and push fear aside.

Part of those swinging for the fences attitudes are goals. No, this is not some New Year’s resolution thing, just thoughts.

Goal setting is literally focusing on something you wish to accomplish. Those things can be long term and short term. I find it easiest to set a long term goal with several short term goals as stepping stones toward the main objective. For instance:

I have a long term goal of submitting 52 stories to various publications in 2013. That may seem like a lot, but that is far beneath the 147 stories I submitted in 2010. How am I going to achieve this goal? Let me see. There are 52 weeks in a year, so it makes sense to set short term goals of one submission a week. So in seeking my 52 submissions in the calendar year of 2013, I have set for myself 53 goals to achieve it (yes it is 53: One for each week and the final goal of 52 for the year).

I also wish to write twelve stories in 2013. I know, that is not many at all, but considering my other goals for writing and considering my stories aren’t typically the under five thousand words variety, twelve will be a significant accomplishment (especially if you factor in that at least one of those will be a novel). So, how am I going to achieve that goal? Right: One story a month for twelve months will help me accomplish my objective of twelve stories for the calendar year. So, as you can see I currently have 66 goals that I wish to accomplish for 2013.

But wait, there is a 67th one in there already. Did you notice it? That’s right. I want to write at least one novel-length story. This goes into the major goal category, to which I now have three of them: 52 submissions, 12 short stories and a novel.

I would like to accomplish something I think is a little more difficult than all of those previous goals. 365 thousand words in one year. It’s daunting, but could be simple if I break it down into daily goals: 1000 words (or more) a day every day. Not too ambitious.

There was a stretch of several months where life, and more specifically, my job got in the way of doing much of anything when I was done at the end of each day. The one area that suffered because of the exhaustion (both physically and mentally) was my blog. One of my goals is to write 52 blogs (including interviews) for Type AJ Negative. You guessed it: that would be one a week. I also want to put the humor back into them. I feel like I became entirely too serious this year (the real world has a way of doing that to you).

Those are not the only things writing or personal-related that I want to accomplish this year. There is significantly more, but I wanted to focus on short term goals leading to the completion of long term objectives

More importantly, I want to achieve something this year. I want to feel like I have accomplished what I set out to do. To use yet another cliché, you can do anything when you set your mind to it. How seriously are you–am I–at setting your mind to do something?

What’s the thing I want to achieve this year (and every day for the rest of my life, for that matter)? I want to teach my children to value themselves, to value their time, to believe in their abilities, to reach for the stars and don’t settle for the tree tops. I want to teach them to use their imaginations, to broaden their way of thinking. In order to do that I have to reach for the stars as well, and not settle for the tree tops and set goals for myself.

I guess this turned into one of those New Year’s resolution blogs after all. Not my intention. But, as I mentioned earlier, I usually don’t know what I’m going to write when I sit down, so I’ll take it.

***

On Christmas Eve me and The Boy spent most of the day together. We went to the theater and watched Rise of the Guardians and then went to get something to eat. He went to McDonalds. I chose Taco Bell. Not that I really wanted that, but it was right next to the McDonalds and since it was pouring down rain I didn’t want to drive anywhere else.

As we sat in the Taco Bell waiting for my food, I grabbed The Boy’s head and noogied him. Then I acted surprised, like I had found something mysterious in his hair.

“Oh no,” I said.

“What?” He responded.

“There’s something wrong with your hair.”

“What?”

“I need to shave it off.”

He pulled away from me, hands out in front of him and waving frantically. “No, no, no. You can’t do that.”

“Why?”

He gave me a look of, what? Indignation? Yeah, that was it. He looked at me as if I should know the answer to that question. Then he said, and I’m not sure how serious he was, “Because I’m too beautiful.”

There is no conceit in my family. The Boy got it all.

Until our paths cross again, my friends…

First, Do No Harm

Recently I was in a staff meeting at work. Those things are never really meetings—mostly we sit and listen to a speaker. You know how meetings can be when there are speakers. Sometimes you like them, sometimes you don’t. This last meeting was no different. I listened, not only because I was at work, but because every event in my life is a setting for a story, even if I’m not really into the subject.

Close to the end of the speaker’s speech, he said something that caught my attention. It’s the only thing I wrote down.

What did he say?

Simple: First, do no harm.

The rest of the meeting went by and I barely heard another word, because I was thinking about that statement. I think he went on to say something about not harming the workforce or causing harm to the way we do our jobs. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter, really.

First, do no harm.

I started thinking about how that could be applied to the writing world. It could go a long way in our business.

Have you ever had someone say something about your writing about you in a review? Have you ever had someone say something negative about you in a review? Have you ever had an editor or publisher tell you to stop writing, it’s not your thing? Have you been rejected?

Hmmm…

You ever workshop a story with a group of folks and have them just tear your piece to shreds? I have a rule when it comes to workshopping: If I can’t say something positive to go with the negative, then I don’t comment at all. Some of you are saying, ‘oh, but how can someone learn if you don’t tell them what’s wrong with a manuscript?’ I didn’t say that. I said if I can’t say something positive to go with the negative, I don’t comment at all. That means I want to make sure and give the writer something good to hang their hat on, while also giving them constructive criticism in the process.

You see, all negatives and no positives can be discouraging for anyone, but in writing it can be brutal. Writers tend to think that if people don’t like their work, then as an extension, they don’t like them. It’s not true, but that is the way a lot of new writers think. Negatives can also be the difference between someone continuing the pursuit of a writing career or giving up. Ask any of the writers I’ve worked with over the last couple of years: I can be tough and sometimes an ass (gasps, am I aloud to say this on here). However, I like to give folks something to build on, give them a positive to feel good about. That way I’m not a complete ass. Just half of one.

It’s a building block. Negatives and positives get results. All negatives and all positives don’t–especially the all positives.

I’ve told this story before, but:

A few years ago, I had an editor tell me that I should quit writing. It wasn’t my thing. I was no good at it.

Do you see anything positive in those statements? Me neither.

Were those comments necessary? I don’t think so. I had just started writing and, for a short while, my ego was bruised. You see, the editor said nothing about the story, but about me—I took it as a personal attack. He didn’t say ‘hey kid, keep trying’ or ‘this could be better, maybe you could try this.’ No, he said I should quit writing. I was no good at it.

I was no good at it…

Wow. If I didn’t have a strong personality and good self esteem, that could have been detrimental. It could have led me to giving up. That editor did some harm.

After that short pity-party was over, I got angry and I said I was going to prove him wrong. He pissed me off. What a prick. How could he say those things? How could he crush someone’s dreams without so much as an ounce of compassion? He was my Simon Cowell.

What about book reviews? I see so many people complain about getting bad book reviews or one star reviews. When asked, most of them say that the reviewer didn’t understand or reviewed something they wouldn’t normally read. And?

Listen, as long as the reviews aren’t malicious, aren’t clearly from someone who didn’t read the book and aren’t personal attacks, there is no issue. We have to remember that each reader is different and each reader likes and dislikes different things. It doesn’t necessarily make it a bad review. It just wasn’t their thing. Granted, if someone likes romance and they read horror, there is a good chance they aren’t going to like it, so reviewing that story/work might not be fair for the writer. Unfortunately, that comes with the territory when you put yourself out there. However, when the reviewers attack the writers or assume something about the writers, that’s wrong it could be hurtful.

Remember, first, do no harm.

I read one review on Amazon the other day that said: The author of this book obviously has some very disturbing issues.

Really? Why? Just because someone writes something disturbing doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.

Another review:

This book was good but not great. I hated the ending I had no idea what happened or what/who was after them. I didn’t like it very much.

It’s a good book, but you didn’t like it very much? Then wouldn’t that make it a bad book, in your opinion? The book received a one star and I have no issues with that, but with the way the review was done, it makes me question if the reader actually read the story.

A friend of mine told me that someone questioned his parenting abilities because he writes horror.

Really? Can we not separate the person from the fiction?

This is going to come off bad, but: People who are too narrow minded to separate the story from the writer cause more harm than good when they post reviews blasting, not the work, but the author.

I think it’s great when a person says to me, ‘where did this dark side of you come from?’ The truth is simple: it’s always been there, but I separate who I am as a writer from who I am as a person. Unless someone knows me well enough to be a friend, then they don’t know I’m a writer and they certainly don’t know that I write horror. I guess that’s why it comes as a shock to a lot of folks.

However, writers, don’t argue with the reviewers. It can make things much worse for you and can lead to a lot of other reviewers doing more harm than you can recover from. A couple of years ago a woman who had received a pretty good review didn’t like something the reviewer had said and instead of thanking him for the review, she blasted the person on his review site.

The reviewer politely explained his thoughts to her and she became irate–and yes, that is the right word–and cussed the reviewer out—no, that’s not an exaggeration. There were F-bombs galore in her rebuttal. Welllllll, the next thing you know this goes viral and what had originally been a book that had about seven reviews, all of which were decent and none of them below four stars, became a book that had about two hundred reviews and most of those reviews attacked the writer, as a person, because of how she responded to the reviewer.

In my opinion, the moment she cussed at the reviewer, she committed literary suicide. She may not have said, ‘hey y’all, come on and rip my story and me a new one,’ but she may as well have by her reactions. Does that make it right for all the people who clearly didn’t read the book to bash her? Not in my opinion.

Harm was done, by both the writer and the reviewers in that instance. Thankfully, those cases are few and far between.

Editors. This is the group of people that us writers try to impress the most. Sure, we want our work to get to the readers, but if editors don’t like our work, then there’s a good chance it’s not happening, at least not in the traditional publishing sense of things.

I’ve done my share of taking subs for publications and, writers, let me tell you, it’s tough. Sometimes you get so many good stories you have no choice but to let a few of them go. However, I rarely ever sent out a form rejection. I hate them. The only times I ever sent a form rejection was when I had nothing really positive to say about the story, but I always added the sentiment to keep working and don’t give up.

Most editors don’t do that. They are pushed for time. They have lives, after all. They are often forced to send form rejections. It’s part of the business. Most editors are truly gracious and appreciative that writers take the time to submit to them. Yet, there are a handful of them that took notes from the aforementioned Simon Cowell. If you don’t know who Simon Cowell is, watch the next video.

There are those editors out there who do this to writers. I say this: If that’s how they are, then so be it, but by doing this, by acting like Cowell, damage is done. Sure, maybe someone can’t write, maybe someone can’t tell a story, but that’s no reason to not encourage someone or offer them a little bit of advice on how to better themselves. And no, telling someone to quit because you’ll never be any good is not the advice I’m talking about.

I have a saying (yeah, I know, I have a bunch of those) that goes something like: There is a minimum standard of how you treat people. This includes the homeless and people you don’t like. You treat people no worse than how you wish to be treated. That can be applied to writing as well. There is a minimum standard of how we should treat our fellow writers. If you don’t want someone to be rude about your work, think before you bash someone else’s.

What we have to remember is that someone took the time to write a story, hopefully edited and cleaned it up and then sent it off. Someone is waiting on pins and needles for a response and hoping it’s favorable. A rejection is bad enough on its own so no need to add insult to injury.

Be honest, but be fair in your reviews.

And, writers, be gracious and thankful if someone buys your book, reads it and takes the time to offer a review. I just recently found out that we can leave comments to the reviewers over at Amazon. Currently, I’m going through them and thanking those who took the time to read and review my work. It means a lot to me and I appreciate it.

First, do no harm. Words to live by.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Write 1 Sub 1, Bradbury and Other Thoughts

I will try to be brief today–I know longer blogs can be a pain to read, but I’m a talker, so… no promises.

Two things, maybe three:

Write 1 Sub 1. I just recently found this website/blog. I wish I had found it sooner, like maybe last December. Since I clearly can’t start this in January, I’ve decided to attempt this beginning in July. Once a week starting on the 1st of such a glorious month, I’m going to write one story and submit one story. More than likely not the same story. Once a week I will update the blog with how things are going.

On the Write 1 Sub 1 site is also a video clip of Ray Bradbury titled Ray Bradbury on Persperistence. I watched the video and, honestly, it’s not much different from what I did in 2009 when I subbed out 155 stories. Interestingly enough, that was the year I had the most acceptances and rejections (49 accepted, 91 rejected). If you do the math, that’s a fairly good acceptance rate (31.6%). If you take out the places I never heard back from or that folded, the acceptances rate jumps up to 35%. Not too shabby.

As I listened to what Bradbury said, I realized something that is so horribly wrong: I’ve never actually read anything Bradbury has written. I hang my head in shame. This I plan to rectify as quickly as possible.

***

I have a story I want to write. (Duh, right?) However, with this story I feel like I’m on the cusp of something… a break through, maybe. I see the images, here the sounds, feel the horror, but this is different… For the first time in my writing life I feel the trauma of the words and that trauma I want the reader to experience. I want them to feel the pain of the main character like nothing that I’ve ever written before. No details will be given–I’m still working on figuring out all the finer points.

***

Though I haven’t submitted to Machine of Death 2, they wrote a tremendous article on writing and how to get editors to love your work:

6 Ways to Keep Your Armor Intact

This isn’t just for their anthology–you can apply this to any story you write. I’ve printed it out and it’s gone into my Great Big Book of Wisdom and Things I Never Knew. I owe a big shout out to Michael Louis Dixon for passing this along.

***

Did I say I would keep this short and that I only had two or three things to say? I lied.

I’m thinking of starting a Facebook Fan Page. I’m not sure if it’s going to be worth all the effort, but hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

***

A couple of stories have recently come out in various publications. I call my stories The Prostistories. That would make me their Pimp Daddy. The prostistories out there doing their jobs are as follows:

Flowers In Her Hair at Liquid Imagination Online.

The artwork was done by Jack S. Rogers and if you want to sit back and close your eyes and listen to an audio version of it, Bob Eccles takes you on the short journey into one of my worlds. While you’re there, browse some of the other really good stories selected for issue nine.

Summer Jumpers at The Gloaming.

There is a history behind this story. I wrote this back in 2008 after listening to a song by a local group called American Gun. The song was titled, Man Verses Machine and the lyrics, sung by Todd Mathis, struck me as extremely powerful:

Concrete and steel,
Bricks and flags
Everything gone
Will be replaced . . .
Down below us children play.
Old men go about their day.

That may not have an impact on you, but it conjured up images of the events that occur in Summer Jumpers.

There’s a little more to this story. Rewrite after rewrite and sending it out over a dozen times, having it short listed several times and accepted twice only to have the publications fold before the story came out, it was nice to finally find a home for it. The folks over at The Gloaming, Ludmila Rishkova and Angela Roberts are super nice and awesome to work with. I will definitely submit to these folks again.

My 5X5 story, Prank is at Angel Zapata’s 5X5.

Click on the Issue Two link and go check out all of the five word, five sentence stories.

I’ll pimp out one more set of stories: Dredging Up Memories, Parts I-IV at Tales of the Zombie War.

These are the first four installments to what I hope is a long running series. Parts five and six are completed. I’ve written this series at a slow pace on purpose and I find that the horror isn’t in the mass amount of zombies and their hunger, but in the tremendous despair of Walker, the main character, as he deals with the world as it is, memories that haunt him and the truth about the living dead. For those who have read these four already, in part five the action picks up nicely and in part six… well… you’ll just have to wait and see. (Don’t you just hate being teased?)

Okay, I guess I should wrap it up. Look, under a thousand words. That’s pretty good for me. Thanks for reading. I’m AJ and I’m out.