Friday, July 26, 2013

Once I Get Started...

I recently started a new day job. While there, I’ve met a coworker who’s expressed a lot of curiosity about my writing career and shown some interest in doing some writing of her own. I’ve never before been in a situation where I’ve been asked for help or advice by anyone trying to get started writing. At first, I wasn’t sure how to react. For one thing, writing is an intensely personal and individual thing. Good writing comes from the writer’s unique personality and set of experiences, and I felt that maybe I didn’t have the right to advise anyone else on such matters, even if asked. Another thing is that I don’t often think of myself as a successful writer. This is simply because I want more: more money coming in from the work, higher profile writing jobs, more reviews, and higher sales. Of course I want those things. It’s not greed, but ambition. No matter what I do, I can always do better. I suppose I feel that the moment I get comfortable with what I’ve done so far, I’ll risk losing some of my drive to do more and more. It’s good to be motivated. In some ways, I felt that if I’m not more successful than I am, why should anyone else want help or advice from me?
            But then I started thinking about it a little more and came to realize that in many ways, I am successful with this writing thing! No, I can’t support myself solely on my royalty checks, but I get royalties, which is more than many writers can say. I’ve had 32 stories published, with a few more to come out this year. I have four publishers who are always willing to read something new from me. I’ve been given opportunities to write some of my favorite fictional characters, including Sherlock Holmes! I get to create my own characters too. The vast majority of reviews of my work have been good (and only one story was ever called “a real stinker!”), and there are several readers who seem eager to know when my next vampire or spy novel is coming out. And, just as important as the money and reviews, I’ve made more friends than I can count over the past 5 years, all because of writing. Readers, editors, publishers, artists, and others: all of whom I met through my literary endeavors and the networking that goes with it. Taking all that into consideration, I suppose I am a successful writer in many respects. There’s always room to move up, but I’ve come a long way. Perhaps, then, I am in a position to offer advice to someone who wants to take some steps down the road of words and stories. If I can help at all, I’m glad to do so. Anyway, we writers love to talk about what we do, even if we won’t usually admit it! 

So this blog entry is an open letter to a friend, in which I’m about to speak very honestly about some of my thoughts on the subject of writing. Most of what I say isn’t going to be right or wrong, but will consist of my opinions. When my fellow writers read this, they may nod in agreement with some of what I say and shake their heads (or fists!) in vehement opposition to other statements. That’s what makes writing so great. Every writer is different, and so we end up with a beautiful variety of stories in the world.

Anyway, to the person who started me down this road of thought (and anyone else who wants to listen to my rant), I’ll tell you this:
            Today at work, I overheard your little explosion over certain comments people had been making to you or about you. It’s not my business, but the back room is tight and it’s hard to not hear everything that gets said (and just for the record, don’t let their bullshit get to you), and I liked what I was hearing. Do you remember how it felt when you let out that long string of words, shoved all that frustration into the air and let everything that was on your mind flow out with no hesitation? There was good stuff in there, clever stuff. You were in a state of mind where you just had to get those thoughts out and give them life by turning them into words. You probably felt like you’d explode if you didn’t say those things. You had no choice. If you can find that feeling, that zone, again when you try to write, you’ll be just fine! And that doesn’t mean the writing has to be guided by anger or any other negative emotion, but it has to feel like it needs to come out. You’ll know when it happens, and you’ll love it.
            And once you find that feeling, you’ll want to make it continue, maybe even need to make it continue. That’s where what we talked about in person today comes into the equation. You asked me about discipline, about how I manage to get the work done. I’ll repeat here what I said to you this morning: set a goal and stick with it. Personally, I write a minimum of 1,000 words a day, unless I’m editing a major project, in which case I put the story I’m currently writing on hold just for a little while. Other than those editing pauses, my thousand words are non-negotiable. It’s not what I do when I feel like writing. It’s what I must do to keep the guilt from hitting me too hard. I don’t feel like a real writer if I don’t produce material. If I feel great, I write a thousand (and more sometimes). If I feel like crap, I write a thousand. If I have a headache, I write a thousand. If I’m joyful or depressed or confused or exhausted or sentimental or angry or horny or hungry or not even sure how I feel at the time, I write a thousand. That doesn’t mean you have to write 1,000 words a day. It might be 500 or 1,500 or even just a few paragraphs, but what you have to do is set a goal and stick to it no matter what.
            And it’s not easy. It only looks easy in the movies. Writing, if you really take it seriously, is not a leisure activity. Sure, you’re sitting in a chair at a desk and maybe the only thing anybody else sees moving are your fingers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking writing isn’t work. It is work, and it will have its effects on both your mind and your body. It will give you a glorious mental workout, it will make you tired at times, might cause you to literally break a sweat (remember Sean Connery in Finding Forrester telling his young student to “Punch the keys!” I wish I could type in his accent), will cause an occasional headache, cost you some sleep, and maybe even give you nightmares from time to time. Yes, writing is work, and it’s worth it if that’s what you really want to do. If that’s what you really need to do!
            But what if you can’t make it happen? What if you get Writer’s Block?
            I’ll tell you a secret. There’s no such thing as Writer’s Block. It’s an excuse. Either a person can write or they can’t. If your thoughts turn into stories and you feel the urge to express them in words, that’s a trait that doesn’t just stop. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be easy. There will be times when you get stuck. My solution to that has always been to have two projects going at once. If you get hung up on a detail of one story and don’t know where to go next, switch channels and work on something else for a while. Don’t worry. The wheels will begin to turn again soon enough. Don’t ever give up. Inspiration strikes like lightning and you can never really predict when it will happen or what form it will take. For that matter, keep a pen and something to write on near you at all times (or your smart phone if you want to take notes that way), so you’ll be able to grab the gold before it slips through your fingers.
            And speaking of inspiration, I have no definite answer about where it comes from. I can tell you all about the things that might intentionally bring it about, things like reading great books, watching great movies, or using your own memories as fuel for your work, but what nobody can ever anticipate are the little events in life that cause those wonderful bursts of sudden inspiration. Ideas explode like popcorn at the oddest times. A sentence in a news article can make you speculate about what the world would be like if events happened slightly differently and soon you have a science fiction story on your hands. A stray bit of conversation between strangers at the next table in a restaurant might have you making up entire life histories for characters who didn’t exist a moment ago (that’s how my detective character, Picard, came to be). My point is that anything you see or hear or feel might spark your next big idea, so keep your senses absorbing the world around you.
            I mentioned reading great books a moment ago. By all means, read the bad ones too. Read as much as you can. Read the books you can’t live without reading and read some you think you’ll hate. I read a lot of horror and mystery because those are the genres I write most often, but sometimes I’ll scan through something I’m not the least bit interested in because it exposes me to different styles and subjects. I might even occasionally glance through a cheap romance novel (how many ways can they come up with to use the word “throbbing” anyway?) or a children’s book or revisit something I tried to read years ago but didn’t enjoy at the time. Words are our tools, so we need to see many different ways to use them.
            Concerning those tools, the best way to learn to use them…is to use them! There are no shortcuts. Write a lot and you will get better. There’s no way around the fact that the more you cut with that sword, the sharper it becomes.
            And please, don’t let worrying about writing get in the way of writing. Don’t over think it, and don’t make concrete rules that don’t have to be there at the beginning. If you look around the various writers’ forums on the internet, you’ll see a lot of experienced writers saying a lot of smart things, but you’ll also see a lot of inexperienced writers who aren’t getting any experience because they’re too busy worrying about how to do it right, which keeps them from doing it at all. You’ll get more out of writing 10,000 clumsy, fumbling words than you will out of spending a month planning how to write and fine-tuning your approach and memorizing some silly list of do’s and don’ts before you type the opening line.
            You can have all the self-imposed rules you want, but the rules are yours to follow as you see fit, not limits with which you should restrict yourself from doing what’s best for the story.
            On that note, I’m going to share the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Several years ago, I was working with a certain publisher for the first time. My first vampire novel was in the editing phase and the editor sent me an email that was one of the hardest to accept messages I’ve ever read. Basically, she felt that my storyline was excellent, but the way I’d written the book needed some major cutting and tightening and a lot of changes. It was a damn good spanking. For about an hour, I sat there in sadness. I was insulted. I loved that story, I was proud of it. Part of me wanted to tell that editor exactly where to stick her suggestions. Then I came to my senses. I really wanted that book to come out. But I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. How could I adjust my point of view and edit so much of that story that it would feel like I was a doctor about to operate on his own child? Could I really cut that deeply and show so little mercy for the book I’d worked so hard to write in the first place? I needed advice. I contacted Ron Fortier, my first editor and a very good friend. Ron’s advice to me was so simple, but it made so much sense. He said, “Love the story, not the words.”
            That was it. My whole mood lifted and everything was all right. I followed the other editor’s suggestions, reworked much of the book, and eliminated a lot of stylistic clutter. In the end, the finished product was far better than the original manuscript and the essence of the story I had set out to tell was still intact. “Love the story, not the words.”
            Okay, so I’ve now been rambling on for several pages about the process of writing. But how, you might be wondering, do you know if it’s working properly? If you’re writing something that’s good or could eventually be good? I’m sure it’s different for every writer, but here’s how I know I’m on to something promising:                              
             When it affects you as much as you hope it affects the reader. When your characters become as real to you as the people who live next door, when you can hear their voices and see the expressions on their faces and share their sorrows and joys. When they suddenly do things you’d never expect them to do, as if they’ve taken on a life of their own. When you feel remorse for the hellish things you put them through. When you nearly make yourself sick with just how twisted you can make a horror scene. When you write a sex scene so candidly that it turns you on and you’d be embarrassed if your mother read it. When you have to force yourself to kill off a character because you feel like you just can’t do that to them and it seems to you, at that moment, that it’s not just words on a page but a real life or death situation. That’s when I know I’m on the right track.
            I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve made myself cry while writing. I’ve also made myself laugh out loud and scream in anger and pump my fist in victory. That’s when I know it’s working.
            But guess what? I just lied. The truth is I am embarrassed by what I just admitted. And that’s a good thing. Writing should be embarrassing sometimes, because a part of it is being honest in the lies we tell. We make stuff up for a living, but we also use those stories to reflect what we really feel and think and how we react to ideas and events. If something gets to us, makes us cry or scream or smile or laugh or shake in fear or fall in love, we owe it to our readers to use it to make our stories stronger, because if those things bring out those emotions in us, chances are they’ll do it to the readers too.     

Writing is a wonderful and terrible thing at the same time. It can be magnificently rewarding or dreadfully disappointing. One day it will lift your spirit above the highest cloud and the next it will break your heart and stomp the pieces into the dirt. Is it worth it? I think it is, but I can’t make that decision for anybody else.  
Not everyone can write, but some of those who can have no choice. Some of us have to do it. If you’ve managed to read everything I just wrote about the good and the bad of writing and you still want to try to do it, you’re in for quite an experience and I’ll be happy to help if I can. 

See what happens when you ask me to talk about my work?  

Friday, July 19, 2013

It Came From the Eighties!

I've always been fascinated by different periods of history and also by how those different times look to our minds' eyes as we think about them, whether we were there or have only read about them in history books or seen movies set in those years. Each decade seems to have certain elements that end up as archetypes that define, in the minds of many people, that particular series of years. When I think about my own life and the different decades I've lived through, I realize that the 1980s had a very strong impact on my development as a person and, years later, as a writer. Of course the 80s did, for that was the decade that contained most of my childhood. I was 3 in 1980 and 12 in 1989, and that's the part of life where the imagination really forms and certain images and themes embed themselves in the mind of a creative person. So I find myself considering which things that could only have happened in the Eighties really stuck in my head and had something to do with the person and writer I turned out to be. Here are some that come to mind.  

Yes, I realize the first Star Wars movie came out in the late 70s, but the two sequels were in the 80s and the cultural craze those movies prompted lasted well into my childhood. I don't know if any other series of movies has ever had such an impact on so many children as Star Wars. The movies, its characters, the action figures, comic books, and everything else that had anything to do with George Lucas's science-fantasy saga surrounded us, penetrated us, and bound us all together just as the Force did in his movies. And for any kid who grew up wanting to be Luke or Han or Leia or even Darth Vader, the Force is still with us now.

This had nothing to do with music. When I was a very young kid in the early 80s, I had no idea that Iron Maiden was a band. I had never heard one of their songs. But those shirts seemed to be everywhere. You couldn't walk through the local mall without seeing at least one teenager wearing one of those shirts with their gruesome designs. They were scary! And that fascinated me. Seeing one of those shirts was like catching a brief glimpse into a strange nightmare world, and I loved the mystery of that feeling.

While I'm all for advances in technology and I think today's video games are wonderful to look at in all their realistic, precise detail (although I don't play them often), I'm glad I grew up at a time when the graphics were simpler and didn't look so much like perfect pictures of what they were supposed to be. Why? Because seeing what was on the screen and simultaneously seeing what you imagined the little colorful blips would really look like gave the imagination quite a workout! As I thrilled to The Legend of Zelda or Castlevania, I was seeing both the fuzzy little monsters on the TV and the frightful things they would have been if those images had been able to replicate what the story told me they were.

There were some really weird looking rock stars in the 80s, and they made some interesting little films to go with their songs. As a kid seeing the New Wave videos or Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or so many other videos, it really didn't matter too much to me if I liked the music or not. The images that went with the songs sometimes sent my mind in interesting directions in ways that a song alone or a regular movie couldn't.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that Sherlock Holmes is my favorite fictional character. I was very, very lucky to have discovered the Great Detective at a time when the most faithful series of film adaptations was being produced. Beginning in 1984, Jeremy Brett played Holmes in a Grenada Television series that adapted over 40 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries. They were as close to perfect as adaptations can be.

Putting him on my list has nothing to do with his specific politics, but rather his presence during the years in which I grew up. Having such a high-profile president in office at the time when I was first learning something about the history and government of my country made those subjects even more interesting to me. My opinions of what Reagan or any other president did or didn't do while in office are beyond the subject matter of this blog entry, but as a character in my early impressions of the world, Reagan deserves mention here.

If you do the math, you'll realize that I was only 5 when Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out. No, I wasn't that precocious! But when it showed up on TV a few years later....let's just say it made quite an impression on me. As I later learned, it wasn't just me. When men of a certain age discuss certain things that had important impacts on their childhood, that movie (and especially that scene, with its soundtrack by The Cars) usually makes the list. 

If I thought about it for longer and really let my mind wander back through those years, I could probably come up with dozens, maybe hundreds of things from the 80s that influenced me then and still do today, but I've spent enough time in the past for one blog. Maybe I'll do a sequel some day.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Four Non-Bonds

It's been a great week since the release of my spy novel, Nobody Dies For Free. The book's availability met with enthusiasm, I've had some good feedback from several readers so far, and I'm anxiously awaiting reviews. With the book getting attention, I've been thinking some about my favorite fictional spies and how they've influenced my work in general, and, in some cases, specifically the character of Richard Monroe, protagonist of Nobody Dies For Free. I got into that subject a little in my last entry where I talked about the influence of Ian Fleming and his James Bond stories as well as the movies based on his books. But 007 certainly isn't the be all and end all of fictional spies who have caught my attention over the years. So, today I thought I'd list a few espionage and thriller characters who I'm a big fan of.

George Smiley
Appearing in several novels by John le Carre, Smiley is not an action hero. He's a sly, scheming, intellectual agent. The most famous Smiley story is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been adapted to film several times. Smiley has been played by such extraordinary actors as James Mason (though the character's name was changed in that instance), Sir Alec Guinness, Denholm Eliot, and, most recently, Gary Oldman. 

Jack Ryan
Tom Clancy's character, Jack Ryan, might best be described as an unintentional hero. Ryan, a CIA analyst, often wants nothing to do with the violence and gritty intrigue of the espionage world, preferring a peaceful life as a father and husband while serving his country from behind a desk. But he usually finds himself in the thick of things. Clancy has written many Jack Ryan novels. There have also been four major movies, with a fifth coming soon. If asked to choose a favorite film version of the Jack Ryan stories, I'd be forced to give a double-sided answer. My favorite in terms of plot and delivery is The Hunt for Red October, in which Jack Ryan was played by Alec Baldwin, with a superb supporting cast that included James Earl Jones, Sean Connery, Sam Neill, Tim Curry, and Peter Firth. But my favorite portrayal of Jack Ryan was by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and A Clear and Present Danger, which are both excellent.

Adam Carter
Of the characters I'm discussing today, Carter might be the one most unfamiliar to American audiences, but I think my British friends will know who I'm talking about. From 2002 until 2011, a magnificent espionage series called Spooks ran on British TV. Lasting for 86 excellent episodes, the show was a smoldering, suspenseful joyride of spy thrills. It was a powerful show and had the guts to very frequently kill off major, well-liked characters. Nobody was safe on this show, which sometimes made me want to hate it as much as I loved it.  
Spooks revolved around MI-5 supervisor Harry Pearce (played by Peter Firth) and the team of agents who worked under him. At any given time, the squad was led in the field by a Section Chief. There were five different Section Chiefs throughout the show's run and all were interesting characters. The one that makes my list today is Adam Carter (portrayed by Rupert Penry-Jones). The second character to hold the post, after Matthew McFadyen's Tom Quinn, Carter was a dynamic, energetic, courageous agent who worked hard to balance his obligations to his country with his responsibilities to his family, often with mixed results. Carter also lasted as Section Chief longer than any of those before or after him.
If anyone reading this has never seen Spooks, I highly recommend it. It's available for streaming on Netflix, but you'll have to look for it under the title it adopted for viewing in the U.S. Here, it's renamed MI-5.

Bryan Mills
You really, really, really do not want to mess with his family. It's not a good idea. Just remember, he has a very particular set of skills that makes him a nightmare for people like you. 
On paper, Taken sounds like a mediocre, possibly somewhat entertaining action flick that might star someone like Steven Segal. Simple plot: retired spy's daughter is kidnapped to be sold as a sex slave, so he goes to Europe to find her and get revenge on those who perpetrated the crime.
But if you take that premise and give it to producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel, and cast Liam Neeson in the lead role of former special operative Bryan Mills, you end up with what I think just might be the best spy/ action movie of the last few decades! I absolutely loved it. I rarely watch movies more than once within a span of just a few years, but I've seen Taken at least a half-dozen times since its release in 2008.
The sequel, Taken 2, was a very good action movie and well worth seeing, but not on the level of the first. I'm happy to have recently learned that there will be a third installment. As long as Liam Neeson wants to keep playing Bryan Mills, I'm willing to go to the theater and watch him teach some very bad people some very harsh lessons.