Brutal PIXELS Review (NSFW)

I’m stuck at the dentist’s office, waiting for my gums to stop spurting gouts of blood long enough for the dentist to get back in there with her scalpal-ice-pick toothbrush thingee and finish the job. In the meantime, enjoy this absolutely scathing review of Adam Sandler’s new movie, PIXELS.

To be fair, I haven’t seen the movie (nor do I have any intention to), so I can’t judge whether this review is on base or not. But that hardly matters, because this is one of the funniest–though admittedly raunchy and vicious–reviews I’ve heard in a long time. Typically I’m against one star reviews, but hey, when the writer puts in as much effort as this guy clearly did, I’m gonna make some exceptions.

*Warning: Not Suitable For Small Children, Big Children, Small Adults, or even Big Adults. Not Really Suitable For Anybody Of Any Age Or Size. You’ve Been Warned.*

Time Heist and Parallel Get Reviewed!

I don’t like using the One Lazy Robot blog to tout my own books too much, but every now and then I get a review that makes me smile and I have the irresistible urge to share with ya’ll. This week I had two such reviews.

First came a review for Parallel from loyal reader, and author of the Agatha Christie’esque murder mystery, Death in a Red Canvas Chair, Noelle Granger. Noelle is one of my most favoritest (that’s totally a word) people to interact with on OneLazyRobot. Go check out her review and you’ll see why. (Hint: it’s because she’s awesome.)

Parallel - High Resolution

Click the Pic!

The other review came from Ted Cross, author of one of my favoritest (see, told you that’s a word. I wouldn’t use it twice if it wasn’t.) debut novels of 2014, The Immortality Game. Way back in December I did a review of TIG and Convergence from Michael Patrick Hicks. CLICK HERE to see why you should pick up these books. (Hint: it’s because they’re awesome).

Anyways, Ted reviewed Time Heist which is incredibly similar to his own book. If you like one, you’ll probably dig the other. Might as well do yourself a favor and pick both of them up. But don’t take my word for it, check out Ted’s review.

Time Heist

Psst.. also, did you know for a limited time only you can pick up your very own copy of Time Heist or Parallel for the low, low price of FREE? It’s truth. Pop on over to Barnes and Noble or Kobo and grab a copy.

Parallel Barnes and Noble Link!

Parallel Kobo Link!

Time Heist Kobo Link!

Time Heist is actually $.99 on Barnes and Noble ’cause they are slow to price match, but here’s that link anyways. LINK

You’re Telling It Wrong (Writing Workshop)

Do you ever find yourself just slogging through a story that, on the surface, you’re really jazzed about? You have a great concept with compelling characters, but for some reason you’re going through the motions, trudging towards an ending that’s somehow lost its luster? I see you over there hands in pocket, staring down at your feet pretending all “Shucks, no not me.”

But you’re lying, and you know what they say about lying. “It’s really fun unless you get caught. So don’t get caught.” Those are words to live by, my friend.

Yes, yes I do.

Yes, yes I do.

Anyways, you’re drifting down the Blue Danube on a story raft that simply doesn’t want to float. You’re taking water on from all sides. The more you struggle, the more you bail the water out, the faster the raft goes down. At the end of it all you’re left with wet britches and the burning question “Why isn’t this story working?”

There are a lot of reasons you’re story might be fizzling. Getting a spot on diagnosis, especially when you’re new to the game and haven’t really developed the editorial gaze of death to discern the fluff from the chuff (Chuff is good. Don’t know what it is, but I needed something to rhyme with fluff, so there ya go. Deal with it. Please) can be difficult.

This is where beta readers, editors, friends, and family members come in handy. The problem is, being only halfway through a story (and struggling towards the ending) is not a good time to dump your word vomit on a friend or enemy.

Self-Diagnosing your story problems is one of the best skills you can develop in your writing. To make it easy, and accelerate your learning curve (or just serve as a reminder to those of you who’ve been in the game for a long while and have simply forgotten ’cause you’re old and stuff), I’m going to lay out some of the most common ways I see stories stalling out midway through.

1) Wrong Main Character

It’s stupid how often this one crops up. We’ve all been there. You start with a good lead character, but a great sidekick. Part way through the story you realize the sidekick is way more compelling than the main character, which is an issue. Your MC doesn’t have to be the swellest gal around, but preferably she has the most at stake in the story. If not, then you might be crossing your streams.

To catch this, read through your story and figure out who the story is about. Is it really about the MC or is it actually about her best friend Suzy? Sure you might have started off the story thinking it was about the MC, but sometimes these things grow out of our control. You start off telling Story A, digress into the scummy boulevards of Story B, and then find yourself in the cardboard city of hobos that is Story C.

what am i doing here

It happens.

You can do a couple things at this point. Change to a new MC and start over, or tweak your MC to make her unmistakably the protag. Neither is an easy fix, but if you make the right correction, you’ll find the story flows much better and more naturally. And after all, whether inside the bathroom or out, isn’t better flow what we’re all looking for?

2) Wrong Point of View (POV)

I struggle with this one a lot. It’s my nemesis.

Here’s why: I love writing in First Person. It’s my bag. Ostensibly it plays to a lot of my strengths as a writer.

Here’s the problem: First Person doesn’t really work in a big sprawling story with multiple POV’s. You can maybe maybe maybe have two First Person characters alternating chapters, but you have to work damn hard to distinguish your character voice otherwise they start blending into each other. Most people, unfortunately, don’t have the chops to pull this off (I might be one of them. Shh, don’t tell anyone).

Often what happens is I’ll dive into a story in First Person, because that’s my default. I’ll get a good chunk of the way through and realize I’ve chosen the wrong character to chronicle through First Person. Whoops.

If it’s a big story with diverse cast I’ll usually alternate chapters between characters using 3rd person limited while returning more often than not to that First Person POV MC. If you’ve chosen your characters wisely, and structured the story appropriately, you’ll get to the end of the story and your Gordion knot of interweaving stories will have untangled itself. If not, you’ll get to the end and not only will that knot still be fully intact, but now it’s covered in sticky honey.

gordion knot

Great.

How to fix this?

Uh… There’s not always an obvious solution. It’ll take some fiddling with your story bits to figure out what’ll work best. Also, unfortunately, what worked best to fix your last story might not be worth beans on this story. So there’s always that. Good luck.

3) Wrong POV Character

Most of the time your Main Character (within a scene) will also be your POV character. It’s a good rule of thumb that, regardless of the scene, we want to be in the mind of the character who stands to lose the most. This is a moot point in stories that simply stay behind the lens of a single character throughout the story, but you should be conscientious of how this will limit your storytelling.

For instance, Watson (in the Sherlock Holmes’s books) is our POV character, but Sherlock is the Main Character. Everything we see and learn about Sherlock is through Watson’s eyes. This works really well for Sir Doylie, but might not work for you and your tale.

Ask yourself, is my POV character the Main Character? If the answer is no, you better have a darned good reason for it. If you find yourself struggling to come up with even half-assed justifications, then the fix is simple: make your MC your POV character.

4) Wrong Structure

This is one that is tripping me up on the story I’m working on right now. To give you some background on the project, it’s a collection of three novella’s forming an overarching narrative called Augment. The individual novella’s link together loosely, but it’s not until you reach the end of the last novella that you really see how they all fit together. That last novella, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, is the one giving me fits, and rightfully so. It’s the one that has to neatly wrap up all the loose ends, connect dots that the reader didn’t even know needed to be connected, and offer a satisfying conclusion not only to it’s story, but to the two preceding stories as well.

In short, it’s pulling more than it’s fair share of weight. Which, if done correctly, will be cool. But, if done incorrectly (which is likely what will happen considering how unwieldy a little bitch it is) it will leave the reader incredibly unsatisfied.

I don’t want to leave ya’ll unsatisfied, so I’ve been tooling over this story for a week or so trying to figure out why it’s not quite coming together and finally I realized that I’m telling the story with the wrong structure.

Here’s what I mean by that. I’ve been working so hard to wrap up all the loose strands, that I lost focus on the individual story taking place in The Watchmaker’s Daughter. Instead of being a standalone story about a mother losing her daughter, I sped through the emotional bits from a pulled out bird’s-eye-view, and robbed the story of all its emotional impact.

This is a problem. Fortunately it can be fixed.

Learning that the structure of your story is flawed sucks, but it’s better than wallowing in the muck of “Why?”

How do we fix a broken structure? You go back to the beginning and relay the foundation. For The Watchmaker’s Daughter I’ve reoutlined the story based off what I now know about it. Fitting in the emotional landmarks that the first version lacked and cutting out the parts that skim over the pain.

This is one of my least favorite sorts of fixes to make, because it amounts to a lot of work and throwing away many already written words. But hey, we write until the story is right.

NOTE TO NEW WRITERS!

Listen up. I’ve outlined some of the ways your story might be going off track, but ignore all of this advice until you’ve actually finished your first draft. As a new writer it is more important to take the editor cap off and simply write to completion. Everybody hits the 1/3 mark in their story and thinks “This is absolutely horrible.”

That’s normal. You have to get comfortable in that zone and learn how to push past it. If you stop mid-way through a first draft to go back and fix it, you’re unlikely ever to actually finish it. So, finish that first draft no matter how horrendous it is, then go back and tweak and revise, but not a moment sooner.

NOTE TO ADVANCED WRITERS!

You should also finish that first draft before going back and implementing the tweaks I’ve laid out. Why? For the same reasons I gave the new writers. Nobody, regardless of skill, is immune to the stalling out point. I don’t care if it’s your first short story or thirtieth novel, finish that first draft before going putting the editor cap back on.

Stop arguing, just do it.

Here’s a picture of a cat to make it all better.

cat

Cheating Your Way To Likable Characters! (Writing Workshop)

Some of you may remember that I’ve already talked a bit about writing likable characters. If you don’t remember that post, don’t worry, it’s probably just your early-onset Alzheimers cropping up again.

Here’s a link over to that post, by the way. I’M A LINK! CLICK ME!

Now, in that post, I spend a lot of time talking about writing likable villains. Why? Because if you can make your bad guy both despicable and likable, then writing a likable hero is a cake walk.

*Quick Aside*

What the hell is a cake walk? In my mind I imagine one of two scenarios:

1) Like walking the gauntlet, but instead of getting spanked with leather straps and pelted with beanie babies, the person performing said cake walk is getting cakes of all sizes and flavor Frisbee tossed at his or her face.

2) The ground has turned into one massive cake, sort of like those games children play where they pretend the ground is hot lava.

Anyways, that was a huge digression. My bad. Let’s get to the reason ya’ll stopped over today. I want to give you five easy-peasy ways to make your characters more likable. Let’s stop beating around the bush and hop right in.

1) Relatable

We enjoy stories because they let us live vicariously through other people as they experience dangerous, novel, embarrassing, awkward situations without ever leaving the comfort of our couch and underwear. Now, with that said, we don’t want to live vicariously through somebody too different from us. There’s a barrier to entry if we can’t pinpoint something in your characters that feels somewhat familiar and relatable. If that happens, we’re likely to put down your story.

Rule of thumb: have a range of traits from really broad/generalized (Suzy is a girl), and some specific ones (Suzy loves soccer).

For instance, Mgroda, the thirty-two thousand year old sentient fart floating around the Oort Cloud with the rest of his gaseous brethren is not even remotely relatable to most humans. Namely because the idea of a sentient fart is just so weird and outlandish, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make him relatable. We just have to work harder at it.

For instance, did you know Mgroda has been living in the stinky shadow of his older brother, a gaseous emission that everybody, Mgroda’s parents included, just think is the coolest flatus (singular of flatulence) around? This is something most people can relate to, even if they don’t have any siblings.

We can go deeper.

How about the fact that Mgroda dreams of someday gaining financial independence from his over-powering father by opening his very own cheese and ice cream parlor? Perhaps you don’t share the same entrepreneurial ambitions of young Mgroda, but you can understand what it’s like to have goals, ambitions, and dreams.

2) Kindness

Nobody is a dick all of the time. Even House, that curmudgeonly irreverent doctor we all love to hate, isn’t always a dick.

There are two ways you can play the kindness card in your story. (Actually, there may be more than two, but these are the first ones that come to mind so I’m going to pretend like they are the end-all-be-all.)

1) Show your character doing something nice early in the story.

Mgroda steps outside and sees young Billy Ryder, so excited by his new ice cream cone, trip on the curb. He falls, skins a knee and loses his ice cream (along with what remained of his pride).

Mgroda’s reaction tells us a lot about his character.

“Ah, Billy,” Mgroda said, offering the boy a hand. “Are you okay?”

Billy snivels something barely intelligible about his ice cream.

“Here,” Mgroda said, flagging down the ice cream truck before it could pull away. “Let’s get you another one.”

“Gee whiz,” Billy pogo-sticked back to his feet like a gopher on Adderol. “That would be great.”

We end up liking Mgroda a bit more than if he’d simply kicked Billy in the face.

That goes for most of us, at least. There are a lot of sick jerks out there.

dog died

See? That’s a jerk nobody likes.

2) Show your character grow

The other way you can use kindness in your story is a bit different. In the above example Mgroda starts the story as a good person–this means we’re likely to root for him as the story progresses–but let’s say he didn’t help Billy. Perhaps he didn’t go so far as to boot him in the face, but maybe he’s so wrapped up in his own issues that he blows right past the crying boy without a backwards glance. Well, that seems pretty heartless, but it gives his character a lot of room to grow.

This is the classic Christmas Carol/Scrooge progression.

Watching characters grow gives us warm and fuzzy feelings because it gives us hope that we too can grow.

3) Real Life Concerns

If Mgroda walks right past Billy because deep down inside he’s a Hitler loving cloud of gas then we’re probably going to hate him. On the other hand, if he walks past Billy because he just got a phone call from the police department saying his Mom was in a car crash and they need him to get to the hospital ASAP, well, then it’s forgivable.

We’ve all been there (perhaps not getting tragic calls from the police), but we have all been so wrapped up in our own thoughts and concerns that we failed to notice the world/people around us.

Let’s go deeper:

Before Mgroda gets the phone call, he just gets off the phone with the bank who denies his small business loan. Oh no, now he’ll never get his very own ice cream and cheese parlor.

TIME OUT!

Let’s take a second and reflect on a couple things.

One: Mgroda is a peculiar character operating in a world I’m too lazy to really sit down and figure out. He’s a sentient fart, but we’re pretty much treating him as though he were human, sort of like Alf, deal with it.

Two: Based off what we have so far, we don’t really know what the focal point of Mgroda’s story is. Is it his relationship with his brother? His dreams of owning a business? Is this going to be a tragic drama following the death of his mother?

Nobody knows, least of all me. And that’s okay.

When you start your story, you want to get to the point of it all really quick. Your readers need to have a good idea where you’re taking them, but remember, your story is not happening in a vacuum (unless you’re really basing it in the Oort Cloud in which case…). Your characters did not spontaneously spawn into existence the moment the story began. They were alive yesterday, and the day before that. Presumably, unless you’re writing an apocalyptic tale, that world will keep on spinning tomorrow.

What this means is that the world, and all its problems, do not magically disappear once your story gets going. Maybe Mgroda’s story has nothing to do with any of the things we’ve talked about thus far. That’s fine, but those things we’ve already talked about–his strained relationship with daddy fart, his mom in the hospital, bawling Billy Ryder, and a no-go on the business loan–don’t magically disappear.

Keep those elements playing in the background and you’re character gains a layer of reality.

Readers like real characters.

4) Give Them A Friend

The title of this blog post references the fact that you can cheat your way to a likable character. So far there hasn’t been anything sleazy about the previous tips. This tip (and the next one), however, are sort of like writing an escape hatch into your story. They may feel a bit contrived, but listen: writing, by it’s very nature, is contrived.

As the god of your story world, you are constantly cheating. Conveniently manipulating people to your whims. This is no different.

Give your character a friend. Even if you’re writing a loser loner type, still give him a friend.

Why?

Because everybody out there has at least one friend. If you’re character is absolutely friendless, then you’re reader is probably correct in assuming there is something wrong with your character.

There are three types of friends/relationships (probably more, but again, I’m lazy):

Superior Friend: The friend is way super-cool and it seems like she’s slumming by hanging out with your MC. Your character can have self-doubts about why her friend is there in the first place, but you as the writer need to make it clear she’s there because she sees something in the main character that nobody else does. This gives our MC social proof, an incredibly important concept for our little monkey brains.

Best example of this I can think of is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The books are told from Watson’s perspective, so he’s our POV but perhaps not our MC. Maybe a better example is Fonzie and everybody else. *shrug*

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Oh yeah, the Fonze is way cooler than you!

Equal Friends: This is the idealized friendship we all seek out. A great example of this might be Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermoine Granger. They all bring something different to the table. Though the story is ostensibly about Harry, you’d be mistaken to think that Ron and Hermoine aren’t equally as important.

Inferior Friend: This is the sort of relationship where our MC is drastically cooler than his friend. Great examples of this are Jon Snow and Sam Turley from Game of Thrones, or even better might be Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it's the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Guess which one is the cool one. Hint: it’s the one with nicely quaffed hair.

Anyways, friends are great because you can learn a ton about a person by watching how they interact with people they trust/like. Do yourself a favor, give your character at least one good friend, it’ll make your job so much easier.

5) Underdog

We love underdogs. It’s the reason Rocky did so damn well. There’s something about the David standing up to Goliath that sets our hairs on end. We root for the little guy because we all see ourselves as that little guy. The world is big and scary and mean and we are small, poor, weak by comparison. When we see a character personifying all these traits, we instinctively relate to them and therefore root for them.

Now, that’s not to say you need to write a story where your MC is fighting impossible odds at every turn (though, personally that’s precisely the sorts of story I like to tell). But you should go out of your way to make us sympathize with your MC. A great way of doing this is by showing us your character in those situations where she is inherently powerless. Whether that is a teenager dealing with her parents, or a middle-aged businesswoman confronting her boss, or even a little old lady going up against the City Council who are trying to evict her from her home of fifty years so that they can build a spiffy new condominium.

Show us your character being powerless. But then show her taking back that power bit by bloody bit.

That’s the sort of character we get behind. That’s the sort of character we like.

Alright, get down to the comments and tell me about some of the characters you like most and why. Then, if you’re feeling really spunky, tell us about the characters you don’t like and why.

Ambition

Here’s a nifty little video starring Littlefinger from Game of Thrones for your viewing pleasure. The CGI is top notch, the story is…uhm…*shrug* I don’t really know what to make of the story actually. It could be the kickoff of a really interesting story world, but this particular vignette seemed “dramatically forced”. Still entertaining from a visual effects stand point, however.

How To Be A Better Human (in theory)!

Between unannounced projects cropping up like hydra’s and a trio of computers cahooting to end the tyranny of their human overlord by committing near simultaneous suicide, the last month or so has been wonky. Which is why ya’ll haven’t seen me in a hot minute. But now I’m back and I’m gonna do a blitzkrieg styled post to get everybody on the same page, so without further adieu, buckle up and grab the ‘Oh shit’ handle, we’re going to lightspeed.

Wait, what do you mean this thing doesn’t go to lightspeed? How ’bout the speed of sound? Uh… as fast as a Fiat rolling downhill? Rollerblading downhill? Somersaulting downhill?

panda roll

Ah, there we go. Alright, let’s try this again: Buckle up and grab your “Oh shit” love-handles, we’re going to somersaulting-down-a-hill-speed. Boy, that sounds way less cool.

Anyhoo, first up on the agenda, I turned 31 this month. Woot woot. I’m officially old, right? Well, perhaps not. If current estimates of life expectancy are correct I suppose I’m only at about a 1/3 life crisis, so still young at heart, though the body seems to be breaking down more than ever these days.

Now that I’m considered a village elder (of some peculiar village out in the rain forest that you’ve never heard of, don’t bother fact checking me, just trust that I’m not lying. I’m totally a village elder, promise), I’d like to share with you a couple knowledge nuggets I’ve accrued over the past thirty years.

1) Put Other People First

We are all the centers of our own Universes.

World Revolves Around Me

But the world, as a whole, is a better place when we remember this fact and yet actively try to disprove it. We never fully can, of course. Self-preservation is hardwired into us humans, it’s part of what makes us so successful as a species. But there’s a lot to be gained by putting other people first and, for a time, allowing yourself to be sucked into the gravitational well of their lives.

*I am incredibly bad at this.*

2) Take Care Of Yourself

A good argument could be made for putting this one on the top of the list. If you can’t take care of yourself, then it’s impractical to think you’ll be of much help to others. But it’s too easy to fall into the trap of, “I’m not ready,” especially for people floating around my age, or a bit younger. We’re so focused on our own futures and outcomes that it’s difficult to see how we can be of much use to others until we’ve firmly established ourselves into the world. If you keep waiting for the day you feel grown up and ready, however, then chances are you’ll spend your entire life waiting.

Here’s the quick and dirty list to taking care of yourself:

-Exercise: I don’t care how, but make sure you’re doing it. Whether it’s jazzercizing in the park, excessively vigorous sexual escapades, or just doing 5,000 jumping jacks every morning, get that heart pumping. Don’t put it off for tomorrow, do it today.

-Eat Better: Be conscious of what you’re putting into your body. As a general rule always ask yourself “Why am I putting this in my mouth?” Listen, you don’t need to follow some fancy new-fangled diet, ’cause quite frankly, they don’t work. All you need is to exercise some critical thinking and conscientious eating habits, the rest will probably take care of itself.

-Brush Your Teeth and Wear Sunscreen: This is one of those classic “Do as I say, not as I do” moments.

-Get Your Finances In Order: Again, I’m a creative type, and we’re not always known for our long term thinking/planning skills. Money in particular is one of those things most people don’t “like” thinking about. But not thinking about it isn’t gonna make it go away. As my Dad has told me since high school, “Make a budget, have a plan.” It’s that simple.

Do these things and you greatly increase your chances of a somewhat happy geriatric experience when you finally get there (or so I’m told).

3) Plan For The Future, But Live In the Now.

Young people, in general, are much, much unhappier than old people. Why? Studies show that old people spend less time stressing out about the future. Faced with their own mortality, they realize there’s not much point in fretting unnecessarily about the far future, this frees them to focus on the things that really matter, such as the present.

It takes some mental gymnastics to juggle these competing mindsets. On the one hand, for a guy like me, statistics show I have about another sixty years to live. But on the other hand, there’s always the chance I get smooshed tomorrow by a semi-truck driven by a super intelligent chimpanzee recently escaped from the black ops government research facility just down the road.

So I mean, shit can go sideways at any moment. Try not stressing on that too hard.

But do stress a little bit. Hedge your bets and have a contingency plan for old age. Once in place, stop worrying about it.

4) Have Goals

I’m a very goal oriented person. Part of that is related to my ADHD. Goals help us focus on the thing we need to do to accomplish the things we want to do.

Let’s unpack that a bit. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you come from a socioeconomic background that affords you the ability to do pretty much anything you want (given enough time/effort/skill/talent/money). The important question you have to ask yourself is: What do I want?

It’s a consequence of my age and geographical position in the world that everybody I currently know could conceivably do *anything* (within certain limits, of course. I’m using hyperbole to make a point, suck it up) they set their minds too. The problem, and this goes across the board, it’s hard to decide what we want when faced with so many options. Compound that with the fact that we won’t be the same person tomorrow as we are today, and setting any sort of reasonable goal to guide our life for twenty years down the road seems a crap shoot at best.

A lot of my close friends are (and I used to be) paralyzed by this fact, instead choosing to ride the winds of destiny wherever those gusty zephyrs might blow. Which is fine, up to a point. We all need a moratorium period to really figure out who we are and what we want out of life (lord knows I did), but eventually you’ve got to move out of that mindset. Consequently, once you have goals in place, life becomes a bit less stressful and a lot more fulfilling.

So how do we set goals? I think I’ve done a blog post on this before, but I’ll rehash the nitty-gritty.

A speedometer with red needle pointing to Reach Goal, encouraging people to get motivated

-Set long terms goals. Example: In ten years I want to be a full-time author.

-Set medium term goals. Example: In five years I want to have published *such and such* many books.

-Set short term goals. Example: Write everyday.

These are intensely oversimplified, but they give us a framework. Long term goals are hard, but conceivable. For example: “Become NBA superstar” is unfeasible for me at this point in my life. That’s not a goal, it’s a dream.

goals are dreams wiith deadlines

Sorry to say, but I missed the “Become NBA superstar” deadline.

Long term goals can be nebulous things, but the more you nail them down in specifics, the better. Instead of saying “full-time author”, figure out what that actually means. Is it tied to financials or publications? If it’s tied to money, how much constitutes full-time to you? Figure this out at the beginning and understand that the details will likely shift along the way. That’s okay. It’s a good idea to annually revise your goals as life and circumstance change.

Medium term goals are the bridge, the checkpoint, that helps you gauge your progress towards the long term goal. Make these obtainable, though not easy.

Short term goals are absolutely obtainable, things that you can do right this moment, and are (on their own) relatively easy. Write everyday is on face value very easy. That is until life crops up and you run out of time, energy, or whatever.

Short term goals are frustrating because they are incredibly easy on their own. It’s doing them day in, day out, for years at a time, where they become unwieldy little bitches. This is where the 10,000 hour rule comes into play. Don’t know what that is? Google Malcolm Gladwell and learn, it’s an important concept regardless of what you hope to accomplish in life.

An easy way to visualize this is to put your long term goals at the top of a mountain. Your medium goals are base-camps spread out at regular intervals along the way. Short term goals are the countless individual steps you have to take along the way to ascend the mountain. There is no Donald Trump’esque escalator to get you up there, you’ve got to do the work yourself.

Start now.

5) Never Stop Learning

Doesn’t matter what, how, or why, just do it. Don’t become stagnant, don’t be boring. Learn, grow, try, and fail. Then repeat. Always. Until you die. Then start over in the afterlife.

never stop learning

Alright, alright. I could keep going indefinitely, ’cause I like spackling you with advice that I, myself, am horrible at following, but I’ll save you from my hypocrisy and end the torture now. Get down to the comments and let me know what you’ve been up to this summer. What goals you’ve set, what things you’ve learned, and which people have sucked you into the vortex of their lives.

Writing Is Sort Of Depresssing

This has been a week of highs and lows for me. And as is often the case when my mood starts flailing about like an enraged hobo high on bath salts, I can’t really put my finger on why. Which is surprising ’cause I don’t consider myself to be an emotionally complex individual. Overall I’m pretty simple.

What you see is what you get is what I feel. My emotional barometer doesn’t fluctuate all that much, usually. But this week has been a little different and since I’ve spent a goodly amount of time digging through my internal ichor in search of why that is, I figured I might as well share the results with ya’ll because none of this is unique to me. Au contraire mi amigo (

I said it in an interview a couple weeks back, but in case you missed it, I’l repeat it here: Writers (which extends to any creative type) need to have Han Solo’esque self-confidence alongside some C3PO crippling self-doubt. The tension between those two states of mind is where the best art is created.

Unfortunately, it also gives rise to some wicked internal dissonance which can lead to heavy drinking and heavy self-flagellation (and not the good kind).

Earlier this week I announced that I would be writing a time-traveling story for The Future Chronicles (which represents the apex of this weeks rollercoaster). But then it came time to dig in and get my fingers dirty with ink and story guts (this is the steep drop). Then came all the twists and turns that naturally arise when you write a story. The warm euphoria drizzling down on you like a Golden Shower from God when you realize, “Hey, this is an actual thing,” counterbalanced by the Devil’s wet-willy when you find that, “Hey, this isn’t any good.”

Which is nothing new; I always go through this phase upon swan diving into a second draft. After writing so many stories you’d think I’d be ready for the whiplash hairpin juke that comes after completing a first draft, but you’d be wrong. For some reason, I never see the damn thing coming.

Now, I’m not writing this because I want ya’ll’s self-pity (well, not entirely), but because at some point in the creative process you’re going to hit this wall like a crash-test dummy in a Pinto. It’s about this time that you want to throw your finger paints across the room and start giving serious thought to becoming a professional vagrant. The last thing you want to do is sit back down and get to work.

The shit of it is, that’s precisely what you’ve got to do. There’s no way around it. People say you can’t polish a turd, but you know what? Those people are absolutely wrong.

But here’s the other thing to remember: It’s probably not as bad as you think it is. Though, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it totally is. When that happens I recommend some margaritas and quesadillas to soothe the pain.

Overall I’m really happy with how this story is shaping up for the Time Travel Chronicles, by the way. There are some unique characters set within an interesting story world, but as usually happens at this point in my process I start second guessing myself and wondering, “Can I do this better?”

The truth is… yes, yes I probably can do better. Given more time, more practice, more skill, more more more..more things I don’t really have. I might as well wish for Patrick Rothfuss’s writing chops or the storytelling gene that Stephen King was so obviously born with (and totally never earned, he’s a cheater), for all the good it’ll do.

Ira Glass summarizes it perfectly in the video below. Especially if you’re a creative type who’s C3PO crippling self-doubt has become a bit too crippling.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

If I could change anything about that video it would be to point out that this feeling of mediocrity is not reserved for beginners. I’d say regardless of where you are on the path, you’re gonna hit this at some point. Even those guys I listed above, Rothfuss and King, suffer from that same nagging voice in the back of their head that says, “Ehh…. this is sort of shite.”

There’s power in that realization. Writing (and art in general) is solitary by nature, and often you have no way of knowing if you’re doing it right. If those feelings of inadequacy are unique to you or indicative of something much more wide-spread.

Well, dear reader, take solace. You’re not alone,.

We all think we suck.

I think that was the point I was trying to make in all of this. Can’t be sure, though. Too many margaritas and quesadillas.

Joining The Future Chronicles!

Here’s some news: I’m writing a Time Travel short story for The Future Chronicles, and if I were any more excited I’d need to take a potty training refresher course.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Chronicles, they are curated by none other than Samuel Peralta himself, and explore the truly mind bogglingly (Yes, bogglingly is now a word. As a bonus, it’s also super fun to say, give it a try) vast spectrum of sci-fi themes in a short-story format. Past editions have explored the ideas of AI, robots, telepaths, aliens, dragons. You name it and they’ve probably either already done it, or will soon do it.

I got tapped on the shoulder yesterday to fill a spot left vacant for the upcoming Time Travel anthology. I’ve only got 13 days to get this story up and running so I’ve put a couple other projects on the back burner for now, but I’m pretty darn excited to share this one with ya’ll. I’ve only ever done one other time travel story (Which was about a time-traveling vampire, and oddly enough one of my dad’s favorite stories. But he’s not biased, he just really likes sparkly vampires), so this particular theme is wide open to me creativity wise. Trust that I’m running rampant like a rabid rabbit high on alliteration (Is that a good thing? Hopefully?)

If you haven’t read anything of The Future Chronicles I recommend checking out the links below and giving them a shot. Each edition has a truly impressive stable of high caliber writers, you won’t be disappointed.

telepath the alien chronicles ai chronicles

Three Most Awesome Books of May

This was an interesting month of reading for me. There was the usual mixing pot of novels mixed with graphic novels (Y-The Last Man Volume 2, Saga Volume 1), some authors I’ve done more than a couple laps around the block with (Stross, Sanderson, Scalzi) and others whose words I’d never had the pleasure of visually molesting (Kloos, Bennett, Wong, Yu, Bale, and maybe most embarrassingly Pratchett–yeah, I know, I know. I’m way behind the times and should have read Pratchett a decade ago). There were a couple of books that, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get into, and others who simply knocked my tube socks off.

We’re gonna talk about those sock thieves today. So let’s jump straight into that vat of butter and literary goodness. Listed in no particular order are the three best books I read this last month.

1) City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett

city of stairs

Okay, I know I said I’m listing these in no particular order, but I lied; I’m putting this at number 1 because it deserves to be. Simply put, this wasn’t just one of the best books I read last month; this was one of the best books I’ve read all year. I’m gonna try not gushing like Old Faithful over here, but I can’t really help it.

City of Stairs is sort of an alternate world political thriller where gods are real (and have subsequently been overthrown). Worshipping–hell, even acknowledging–the divine has been strictly verboten by the now ruling government which was responsible for the godly overthrow in the first place.

This story is too complex to give a simple synopsis. Any attempt I make to do so will only fall short and disappoint, so I’m gonna take the lazy route and just sidestep the matter. Here’s why you should read this book:

– Strong Female Leads. Seriously, they are everywhere. What I love about these characters in particular is that all of the characters are informed by their gender, but not defined by it. I hate books that have female leads running around doing stuff in gender neutral ways, meaning, you could just replace that character with Hugh Jackman wearing a dress and nobody would be the wiser.

Writing strong female leads is not the same as writing strong male leads. If you want a master class on this, read City of Stairs.

– The worldbuilding in City of Stairs is some of coolest I’ve seen in a long time. It’s oceanic in its depth. I have the feeling that Bennett could easily pump out 20 books in this world without even breaking a sweat. Whether were talking about the culture clashes stemming from the interactions between the ruling (we hate gods) class and the now overthrown and bitter (we miss our gods) class, or whether were talking about the familial drama that plays out between strong willed members of a similar household, there is always something interesting and compelling taking place on screen. It sucks you in like a giant Hoover vacuum cleaner–in a good way.

– The way Bennett deals with the divine in City of Stairs is fantastic. You can tell he put a lot of time thinking about his divine pantheon, and it plays huge dividends in the story. He gives you just enough to keep you alive and begging for more, without divulging too much and simply exposing the mystery. A storytelling skill (and patience) that is amazing for a debut author.

If I’m not mistaken, City of Stairs is Robert Jackson Bennett’s debut novel, so it’s fair to say he’s only gonna get better. A startling fact considering how solid this book is already. The sequel, City of Blades, I believe is slated for release this Fall, so keep your ears to the ground on that one.

On a completely tangential note, after having read through the Hugo nominees for this year I can say unequivocally that City of Stairs should have been on the ballot. Bummer that such an amazing story got bumped, but what can ya do? Well, for starters, you could go pick up a copy of City of Stairs. Boom, look at that. Problem solving! Sort of.

2) John Dies At The End – David Wong

JohnDiesAtTheEnd-001

If City of Stairs tops the list for its storytelling excellence, then John Dies At The End comes next on the list simply because of its storytelling weirdness. This is not a book for everybody. In fact, I reckon that most people picking this up are likely to throw it against the wall with mild disgust plastered to their cheeks.

John Dies At The End is a comedic horror story (a peculiar slurry of a genre if ever there were one). Again, I’m not even gonna bother with a synopsis because (unlike City of Stairs which has a very complicated storyline) John Dies At the End is very weird.

So maybe at this point you’re wondering why I would even recommend this since thus far I’ve only called it weird. Well, weird can be good–if you’re in the right head space for it. If you;’re looking for something incredibly funny, at times stupendously stupid, and always a bit weird, then this would be the book for you. Pick it up and keep an open mind. You’re bound to have a few good chuckles along the way.

This thing is stream of consciousness word-salad, dribbling from the lips of a crack-fiend on a bad acid trip. If that doesn’t get your hackles up, nothing will. Feeling adventurous? Give it a go.

3) How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe – Charles Yu

how to live safely

Ya know, I think this one actually deserves to be number 2 on the list, but it’s all arbitrary anyhow and I’m too lazy to go back and fix it. So, use your imagination. You’re gonna need it when you read How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe because on the grand literary spectrum this thing falls much closer to John Dies At The End than it does City of Stairs, but that’s okay.

There is a lot of fancy sci-fi time travel hand-waving type stuff going on here, but at its core, How To Live Safely In A Science Fiction Universe is about a guy trying to find his father trapped somewhere in time. I think you’re going to get the most out of this story if you ignore the science fiction stuff happening in the background and simply focus on the heartbreaking story of what happens when we all grow up and realize our parents are not infallible, that they do not have all the answers, and more so, that they are people with their own hopes, dreams, heartbreaks and failures.

This is a very introspective story gift wrapped in some wonky paper. It’s worth it though, truly. I can’t remember the last story I read which affected my emotional state more than this. Perhaps that’s because I can see part of myself reflected in the story. Perhaps it won’t mean quite as much for you as it did me. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We’ll never know unless you pick up a copy and then come back and let me know.

So what’re your thoughts? Have you read any of these tales? What did you think of them? Agree or disagree with me?

What did you read this month? Anything good? Anything to recommend? Get down to the comments and fill my orbital sockets with your words. NOW! (or later, it doesn’t really matter when)

Writing Workshop: Worldbuilding (Avoiding The Dump)

Worldbuilding is hard. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult aspects of good storytelling. So many pitfalls, so many opportunities to wander off into that scary word-forest only to come back out the other side covered in ticks, mud, and other smelly sorts of dreck.

Then again, worldbuilding is one of the most rewarding aspects of storytelling, so it’s sort of worth the journey into that quagmire of suck.

So what is it? What is worldbuilding? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory: it’s the world your story is set in and it covers absolutely everything (even the things you as the creator haven’t quite worked out yet).

This includes (but is not limited to) religion, government, economics, entertainment, environment (both man-made and natural).

We could even zoom into your characters unique set of circumstances and explore their personal history ranging from past lovers, present employer, children, brothers and sisters, old uncle Leroy and the way he used to take your character to the ballpark to grab a slice of ‘za and toss the old pig-epidermis around. Whatever. It’s all fair game.

Worldbuilding is one of the main reasons I like writing science fiction and fantasy. Because as the story creator, I’m sort of like a pimply faced deity abusing my powers of omnibadassery. If I want my story set on a farm hugging the darkside of an asteroid as it careens through one interstellar neighborhood after another, great! I can do that. If I want the primary form of currency to be milk caps, poof! It’s done. If I want my characters to worship the mighty Brown Paper Bag in the sky, well, alright. I can make that happen too.

The sky is the limit (but only if I want it to be. Shit, it’s my world. I can use the sky for a carpet if I want to).

sky limit

These are the things that make writing SFF really fun (in my opinion), and seems to be the way that most first time authors get their story ideas. They don’t start with characters (though the character must eventually become the focus of the story otherwise you just have worldbuilding wankery), they start with an idea for a new world and expand from there.

The difficulty inevitably comes when we try writing about that world. We want it to seem authentic and grounded in reality and so we have this impulse to drop steaming paragraph shaped piles of words in our stories with the hopes of getting our readers up to speed, or to just give them a deeper understanding of this neatorific world we’ve conjured up during our last spirit quest to Wal-Mart.

But this is wrong, and we’re all guilty of it. It’s called the Infodump, and it needs to be avoided at all costs. Why? First, because it’s lazy. And second, because nothing bores a reader faster.

You know when you’re being infodumped because the story just stops and it suddenly feels as though you’re reading an encyclopedia entry. Let’s do an example, but first let’s lay the scene: In the paragraph before this we have an autistic child who’s consciousness has been transferred into a giant killer robot, and who is now going on a bit of a rampage. We have action and things are exploding and tension and drama and OMG a giant rampaging robot, we need to do something! What should we do?

How about this?

“Autistics are often taught to communicate their wants and feelings through an intervention protocol called PECS–Picture Exchange Communication System. PECS is a natural way for non-verbal autistic children to “talk” with their caregivers. The system is simple: it consists of a board and a set of pictures, and each picture has Velcro on the back so that it can be–“

Wait.. what? where’s the giant killer robot? Why do I feel like I’ve been transported to wikipedia suddenly?

“–adhered to the board. But for the non-verbal autistic child, the system is a powerful tool: it provides a way for the child to express his needs. For instance, if he wants to go outside with his brother, he can place a picture of himself on the board, then one of his brother, then one of a tree. “I want to go outside with my brother.””

Seriously, where is the rampaging robot? Is he still rampaging? Has he taken a nap? What does any of this have to do with not getting ripped limb from limb by a warbot?

By starting with single-picture messages and gradually moving toward more advanced structures, the child begins to understand that there is a way to get the things he wants or needs. The frustration of not being able to communicate is mitigated.”

Oh, cool. That was uh… informative (if not a bit dry and tangential when considering the life-threatening robot we’ve now lost track of).

he went those

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with infodumping. You rip the reader straight out of the scene to hold their hands and explain something to them as though they were sitting through a lecture.

So how do we avoid the infodump? Not easily, unfortunately, but here are a few tricks to help you navigate that sticky-wicket of a dump.

Cut, Prune, Shave

I know you’ve put in a lot of time thinking about how the folk music of the hill people informs their perspective on life and death, but unless it is entirely relevant to the story you’re telling, it doesn’t need to be there. We also don’t need to know the conversion rate between Twinklaberries and the American Dollar (or whatever makes your fictional economy go). That is, unless that particular detail is important to the story you’re telling. Which, let’s face it, it’s probably not.

“But the way young suitors intricately braid their hair and toss it over their left shoulder to indicate…”

Doesn’t matter. Seriously. Well, unless it does. You decide.

And that’s the real problem, ’cause as the creator it’s really hard being unbiased about what needs to be in the story versus what you just want in the story because it’s cool. This is why you need beta readers and editors going through your stuff. They’ll pick up on the extraneous stuff real quick. Usually.

Good rule of thumb is you’re better off under-explaining and leaving it to mystery and the readers imagination than boring them into submission.

So what about those shish kebaby parts of your world that you really need to have in the story. How do we share those tasty tidbits without blatantly thrusting our little skewers in the reader’s face?

Use Dialogue

Having characters interact on screen is always more engaging than simply listening to a monologue. A good writer will impart a huge amount of worldbuilding information via dialogue without the reader ever really noticing.

But here’s the key: the reader cannot notice.

notice

If they do, you’re sunk.

Nothing comes off as more false than characters on screen doing the old “As you know…” bit. For example:

“I’m so glad our southernly neighbors from Radishville have stopped warring with Beetsville. Sure, they are our sworn enemies, but what with Princess PompPomp coming to town to pick a sire–of which I sure am rooting for Duke HumptyLumps–it will be nice not having to worry about any raiding bands of mutinous soldiers upsetting the Winter Festival–which as you know is tomorrow.”

“For Lairnea’s sake, Dwillard, we’re hanging garlands of garlic outside Mr. Coffeepot’s tavern. Why the hell are you telling me all this?”

“Oh, just wanted to remind you, is all.”

You pull that shit and I won’t just put your book down, I will find you and throw it at your head when you’re not looking. Probably while you’re doing something really important, too. Like driving a car or drinking a hot cup of coffee. You’ve been warned.

book to the forehead

Wrapping your infodump with quotation marks does not make it any more appealing. So think real hard about how you’re using your dialogue to impart details of your world. Do it in a way that is natural to your characters and the way they would speak otherwise it’s going to stick out like a red flag.

For instance:

“What’s that jackdaw doing here dressed like that?” Dwillard said, balancing on one foot and leaning dangerously off the side of the ladder to nail another bulb of garlic to the tavern wall.

Streich turned to see the “jackdaw” in question; there, across the street and hiding away from the flakes of snow falling from the sky, was a fully armored Raddisher. “Maybe he’s here for the Festival?”

“Not dressed like that he ain’t,” Dwillard said. “Likely to get his arse kicked is what I say. Not that the Beeter’s didn’t do a good ’nuff job for us all on that account. Boy, I wish i could’ve been there to see that.”

“Might get your chance, Dwill. From what I hear, Duke Bigsocks is coming for Princess PompPomp’s speed dating extravaganza.”

Dwillard almost toppled off the ladder in shock. “You’ve got to be kidding. No chance she’ll choose a filthy Radisher over the likes of Prince HumptyLumps, mark my words.”

End Scene, thank god. Okay, I apologize for subjecting you to that. It was to prove a point, but that point has long since sailed away so now we’re hopelessly adrift in a sea of wonky worldbuilding.

Something you’ll notice from that second scene (besides the fact that it’s not any good) is that a lot of information is being conveyed fairly naturally. Two grunts are working and sharing some gossip. Through this sort of typical interaction we are getting a lot of details about the world they inhabit. No, we don’t necessarily know what the hell a Radisher or a Beeter are, but we can infer it. Later, as the story progresses, we can fill in some of these details, but throwing too much wood on the fire too soon only smothers it.

Stoke it with a little tinder and hot air along the way. That’s the key to good worldbuilding.

tinder

Wrong Tind… oh, nevermind. You win this round, Immature Anthony.

Before we move on, let’s draw attention to the fact that worldbuilding of the sort we did in that second scene takes up a lot more space than in the first scene. Sometimes this is a tempting reason to simply infodump. Like I said earlier, we all infodump; sometimes it’s for the sake of expediency and sometimes it’s out of laziness.

Expediency is important in certain situations. With the example I mentioned earlier–in the middle of a giant robot fight scene–you should probably aim to be on the side of quick and to the point. Whatever worldbuilding detail is so important that it interrupts the drama on scene, you better make it fast.

Now, let’s reverse for a moment and chat about old Dwillard and Streich up above. For this scene they are the POV characters, which makes sense if they are the main characters in whatever story we are telling, but if they aren’t? Well… why are we in their heads at all? Is it simply because we needed two guys having a conversation about what was going on in the wider world?

If we’re leaving those characters and never seeing them again, then I argue that that second reason is pretty piss poor. If that’s the case, they are merely a plot device and that’s stupid.

BUT! BUT! BUT! What if later on in the story our Prince HumptyLumps and Duke Bigsocks get into a fight outside the tavern. HumptyLumps slams into the wall and dislodges one of the bulbs of garlic old Dwillard nailed up there earlier in the story. And then what if Bigsocks is deathly allergic to garlic, a weakness HumptyLumps exploits to murder the visiting dignitary.

Granted, we’d probably want to know “Why garlic?” and it’d be good to know Bigsocks was allergic to the stuff before that climactic scene, otherwise that twist comes clear out of the blue and sideswipes us like a Ford Taurus on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon.

So, we’re in a really weird, foreign world dreamed up during our last opium binge, and we want to share details about that world and how awesome it is, without being utterly transparent in the process. How do we do that?

Easy.

Introduce A Watson

emma watson

What the… No, no, no! Wrong Watson goddammit!

A Watson character is a foreigner to your world. He needs things explained to him because he simply doesn’t know how everything works. As he learns, so too does your reader. This is a great little tool in our writing quiver if used correctly.

For a great example on how to use this effectively go watch Sherlock.

Now, a little caveat here: your Watson needs to do more than just idly sit back asking questions and generally acting as a question repository. If that’s the only purpose he serves in your story, well, that’s a weak character and you’re gonna have other problems. Remember, characters are multi-sided beasts; play with all their different nooks and crannies. If you don’t, then they quickly turn into one dimensional, cardboard cutouts.

Okay, so, the important takeaway from all this is that your reader deserves better than a simple infodump. Your worldbuilding needs to be sprinkled in like a spice. Too little and it’s bland, but too much and we choke and die.

Nobody wants to read a story that’s going to kill them.