The Sport of Writing

I love basketball. I like to play basketball, coach, watch it, talk about it, study and analyze it. Some might find this hobby obsessive but everyone has their “thing” and besides, there are plenty of fellow enthusiastic hoop-heads out there.

The talent level of the NBA is astounding: the power, the speed, the skill, the team play, the focus, the awe inspiring. It’s a great time to be a basketball fan.

Before pursuing my dream of being an author I dreamed of being a great basketball player. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make the NBA.

My love for reading and writing came before basketball but took a backseat once I made that first club team. The wider world of elite (I use the word loosely in this instance) athletics rocked my previous experience of playing small town junior high basketball. After witnessing the skill of other players, the knowledge of the coaches, the intensity of the competition—I was hooked. That was the inception of the dream, the sprouting seed of hope in my teenage mind. Maybe I could play professionally!

The team success and my individual growth as a player were motivation to work harder, to improve my skills and try to get really good at basketball. This inspiration put a decade long process in motion. During this time I continued to be an avid reader but the only writing I completed was for academic assignments. Eventually, the basketball dream slammed into reality and I realized that I needed to put the stinky sneakers aside for awhile.

Change was entering my life whether I was ready or not and choices had to be made. I decided to broaden my skill set, actively participating in new experiences in order to turn interests into hobbies. Basketball was no longer my defining characteristic. I picked up the pen and started writing.

I knew how to write but at this stage I wasn’t a writer. The skills were there but they were lackadaisical and unrefined. Thankfully, I had years of training to fall back on. Through basketball I had learned how to break down individual skills into component aspects in order to proficiently execute them. These skills could then be put together to build a solid foundation. The foundation is then expanded upon in different situations and scenarios. I looked at writing like it was another sport. Success would only come through diligent training and study.

I looked at my favorite authors in a new way, analyzing them just like my favorite NBA players—copying their distinctive moves and taking different aspects of their styles and incorporating them into my own. And I wrote. Pages and pages. When I was inspired and when I didn’t want to at all. I equated every word put down on the page to another jump shot taken in the gym. It is said that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take—so I practiced. I got better. Confident enough to send some material to competitions and other readers. Club team tryouts all over again. Maybe I could write professionally!

Sometimes on the basketball court a sense of zen is achieved, one feels freedom, every movement effortless, one is in perfect harmony with the rhythm of the game. A similar sensation can occur when writing, often called finding one’s voice. In such moments it’s as though the words are pouring out as fast as the fingers can move, the writer part of a flowing consciousness that defies dissemination. Both acts are moments of creation. Understanding and skill have been focused by purposeful intent and delivered by a joyful passion. 

Lately, basketball has taken a backseat to writing but I have been given the opportunity to be the assistant coach of senior high boy’s team. The twelve guys are a coach’s dream: hardworking, attentive, unselfish, respectful, and actively wanting to improve.

At a recent tournament during a team dinner after a victory, a couple players were discussing how well they shot the ball during the game. The banter was harmless enough as they relived their minor glories but I took the instance to make it a “teachable moment.”

Player One: “Man, my jumper was so nice! Nothing better than a perfect swish.”

(General agreement from the others)

Me: “Yeah, you shot the ball pretty well, but a jump shot is like a hot girl.”

(All eyes turn to me because the only topic these guys think about more than basketball is the opposite sex)

(Pause for dramatic effect) “To build yourself entirely around the jump shot is tempting but risky. Other guys see you what you have and are jealous, wishing they had the same, but if you get cocky the girl, and the shot, will leave you, and then you better have more to your game or else you’re left with nothing.”

Player One: “I never thought about it like that before but I’m going to think about it now.”

Player Two: (Looks at me) “That’s why you write books.”

Yes, I write, but I still love basketball. The two are forever intermingled.

Capturing a Story

Ever get lost in the internet? Just lose yourself in the connections until they begin to make sense—almost. Then the internet becomes the most distracting thing ever invented. The activity is habit forming, the addiction insidious and sudden.

I only wanted to check a few sports scores, some social media updates, then do a little research for a new story. Stories don’t write themselves, not yet anyway, but I’m sure someone will make an app for that soon enough. Where did all the time go? What happened to my motivation? All I have to show for the last couple hours are eyes made bleary by electric fuzz and a digital path of haphazard clicks.

I was hunting for a story, where did I take a wrong turn?

I’m coming apart at the seams. The warring aspects of my body are stretching the space between my ribs, creating streams where moments rush through like silver minnows. The pressure of competing polarities make certain there is nothing fast or exciting about my dissolution. I am made heavy, slumped in front of the screen. I couldn’t catch a story if it crawled onto my lap.

This process happens to people everyday, I’ve seen it in their blank expressions, eyes duller than worn out pavement. A person numbed into an inhuman material. Reduced to becoming a receiver of incoming stimulus. At best a reflector of chatter. How to reanimate? To take a break from the static?

I need to get the blood flowing.

Go to nature, says the body, quietly observe the trees whispering to each other.

Ah yes! Outside!

I hear the wind brush against stone, see trickling water effortlessly bend the land, investigate mysterious rustling as creatures hide from my interloper footsteps. Nature does not need my presence to continue, gracefully accepting of my entering into the flow. I exhale. My ragged lungs rejoice as I inhale the unbothered rhythm of nature.

Find a woman, says the body, nothing allows for a grip of the here and now like the curve of a feminine hip. I could lose myself in another, be swallowed by lust, become intoxicated by the softness of offered lips. But my lover has gone away. No sweet embrace this day.

Oh well, says the body, it is hunger that truly rules. There is an intrinsic truth felt in the grumble of an empty stomach, yet hunger can only be temporarily satiated, always returning just as fiercely as before. Thankfully, my present circumstances allow for this dilemma to remedied easily enough. But now what?

The body shrugs noncommittally, go to sleep. But I can’t, hunting as I am. So I plod onward.

A city never sleeps, nor does a forest, and neither does a body. There is always activity buzzing beneath the surface of any environment, moving parts of a system subtly chasing their own ambitions and unknowingly contributing to an overarching process. Countless individual stories swirling about and intermingling. A story is what I need. If only I could snag one, tame it, make it my own, then reintroduce it to the wild.

Here is where the hunt ends. All I managed to procure was a blog post. Maybe I’ll catch a story next time. Better upload this to the internet. Full circle.

Award Nomination

A new year has arrived and with it an early attempt at a little self-promotion! Daughter of Shadow has been nominated for Best of /r/Fantasy 2015 – The Stabby Awards. The competition aims to honor fantasy novels and while Daughter of Shadow  was a latecomer (released in early December), two readers found the time to nominate it in the categories Best Debut as well as Self-Published/Independent. 

I don’t expect Daughter of Shadow to win, seeing as it simply hasn’t reached a wide enough audience yet, but to be nominated is pretty cool. Have to start somewhere.

Follow the link to view all of the categories and vote for your favorites, or to scroll through a great list of recent fantasy novels.

Link: The Stabby Awards

The voting thread closes on Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 10pm PST. The results thread goes live Saturday, January 9, 2016 by 10pm PST.

Marketing: So You’ve Written a Novel

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Marketing: the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.

How does one use marketing to sell books? Theories and tools abound but none can legitimately lay claim to a surefire technique. The rapid ascension of self-publishing has thrown a kink into time tested models and everyone in the publishing industry is scrambling to adapt.

When listening to speakers at a writing/editing/publishing conference I attended there seemed to be a unanimous approach to modern marketing from independent, small, medium, and large publishers—the shotgun method. Splatter the wall and see what hits. Not the most efficient or eloquent of approaches but no one seems to be able to say for certain what will, and won’t, work.

The phrase, “Write the best story possible and the cream will rise to the top,” kept appearing at the conference as well. How then to explain massive successes like 50 Shades of Grey? Clever marketing obviously had a hand in making that poor-to-mediocre story a success. I think it all comes down to word of mouth. The more people talking about a product, or at least are aware of it, then the higher chances of potential sales.

The shotgun method is an attempt to connect with various streams in the hopes that one, or multiple, will raise awareness of the book and author. Sounds easy enough but when everyone is doing it then the “cream” has a lot more crap to rise through to get to the top.

The amount of available funds at a publishers disposal also plays a major role in marketing. Rarely can a self-published author match the concerted and widespread marketing effort of a Big 5 publisher. Not all shotgun blasts are created equal. Not everyone gets to reload.

But what about social media? It’s free and ubiquitous! There are many success stories of self-published authors using social media to raise awareness and even the big time authors with big time contracts have to be involved on social media. Yet I can’t help but get philosophical about the apparent advantages of social media—if a self-published author blogs does anyone hear it? Do all tweets come from songbirds or is it just a bunch of honking geese?

Whatever the case, I’m trying my own shotgun method with my novel, Daughter of Shadow. I have to admit that aspects of marketing are fun—it’s like jumping into a game that’s already in process and nobody fully understands the rules. The most frustrating part is the not knowing. What works? What doesn’t? Why?

It’s incredibly easy easy to drop a piece of yourself into the internet but most of the time that piece sinks away never to be seen or heard from again. Maybe message in a bottle method is more appropriate than shotgun, although the reference to a weapon conveys a sense of control and applied direction rather than casting out wishes and hoping for the best.

To close on a point of optimism—we’re all in this together. The big time authors and first time self-pubs are all caught up in the same game. I can read Rothfuss, King, Gladwell, and Le Guin all at the same time and everyone wins, because the beauty of writing is that it’s meant to be shared. Books are a very different product then say a blender; you can never have too many.

Tough Women

The damsel in distress days are over. Women are more than capable of solving (and creating) their own problems. A female character no longer has to wait for rescue from prince charming, she can save herself and kick the bad guy’s ass in the process.

Gender equality, while not perfect, seems to have reached a level of acceptance where strong and flawed feminine characters are being recognized in popular culture. People want to view and read about these characters because they are relatable. Aspects of these heroines exist in reality, their attributes plucked from the personal and collective milieu. The bones of fantasy and sci-fi elements mirror those from our day to day lives and many of our lives are filled with complex, independent women.

When I began writing Daughter of Shadow there was no doubt in my mind that the story revolved around a strong female character.  Her name is Melea and she bucks the classic tropes of a fantasy protagonist. I don’t want to give too much away but when the story begins she’s certainly not a hero and would kill anyone who labeled her as villain.

A recent reader review of Daughter of Shadow described Melea as a “tragic, Don Draper character.” This comparison blew my mind—the manliest guy on a show where the word men is even in the title (Mad Men) was legitimately compared to a young female character in a fantasy novel. There are similarities: an outwardly successful individual with a carefully managed persona who is constantly being disrupted by a haunted past. In Mad Men, Draper drinks and humps his way through the 1960’s as his way of coping with this internal conflict, a cliche usually reserved for men. This is not always the case as the motif is flipped in the new Netflix series, Jessica Jones.

Jones is a foul mouthed, hard drinking, fiercely independent woman working as a private investigator. A childhood accident made her the recipient of superpowers and she’s caught in the struggle of what to do with this unwanted power. The first season is fantastic and Jones is one of the most interesting new characters I’ve come across.

Then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most hyped movie of all time. The saga finds Rey, an intelligent, persistent, caring, resilient woman whose role in the Star Wars universe increases exponentially from her humble beginnings (No spoilers I promise). It’s no accident that Star Wars & Disney teamed up to place a strong female character at the forefront of the biggest movie series in history (Harry Potter and James Bond are in the conversation).

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s, The WIndup Girl, the near future is given a harsh, realistic, breathtaking portrayal and Emiko, a New Person, is the ultimate survivor in a world of hustlers. Emiko is not human, not in the eyes of those around her, so she must overcome the kinds of abuse usually reserved for females as well as what it means to be human. Bacigalupi crafts the story expertly and Emiko’s transformation is a powerful statement about some of the obstacles faced by women in a rapidly changing world.

The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley has entire continents of strong women—some nice, some not so nice. The first installment, The Mirror Empire, struck me as a truly modern fantasy novel. The way she bent and broke all the cliches of classic fantasy with seeming ease to create matriarchal societies is a thing of beauty.

I’ve watched an interview with George R. R. Martin where he is asked about his “complex and well-rounded female characters.” Martin chuckles and smirks, looking like he’s about to give a retort that Tyrion would use but then calmly conveys his bewilderment at having to constantly express that women are people. Why shouldn’t they be complex and well-rounded?

Women are tough.  It’s not that woman are changing to fit the definition but the other way around.

Ikigai

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This little beauty is called an Ikigai, a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being (Wikipedia).” Japanese culture has produced some of my favorite things (sushi, anime, ninjas, samurai, robots) and now the Ikigai is added to the list. The diagram is intended to serve as a reminder of the “reason to get up in the morning” and I think the simplicity and intricacy is fantastic. When you think about it, what else is there? Finding Ikigai is a lifelong search as one develops and matures through various experiences.

In most stories the main character searches for their Ikigai and the writer leads them to it. The search, the path, the conflict, resolution, and growth are laid out by the (mostly) all-knowing author. Perhaps our lives are the same, perhaps not—one has to delve into the topics of faith, destiny, God, and nobody is exiting that existential gauntlet with a clear answer. Storytellers get to create Ikigai and in doing so may stumble into their own.

I know I’ve never felt more in the center of said diagram than when writing. Not all the time to be sure, but enough to instantly jump to that conclusion when I first saw the depiction. When I’m not writing, occupied by time consuming activities like my job or the technicalities of adult life, I do feel out of place—shifted out of the center. When these activities monopolize my time I tend to get the sense of, “ughh what’s the point?” even though they’re pivotal to keeping me fed, clothed, and sheltered. The grunt work of existing isn’t always the most fulfilling.

This sentiment is not to downplay the severity faced by millions of people for whom existing is a daily struggle. I know I have a good life filled with great people and a seemingly infinite set of options. Refugees fleeing war zones might not have the personal security to ruminate on Ikigai. Homeless individuals pushed to the periphery of society certainly have less options for daily living. So to be in a situation such as I am is truly fortunate and to be aware of my Ikigai is something I don’t want to take for granted.

After making the decision to write a novel I became aware of how much meaning writing brought into my life and now there’s no going back. My writing might never achieve huge financial success (would be sweet if it did though) but I don’t think that’s the point. I’ll continue to write, to share stories and create. What is your Ikigai?

Daughter of Shadow Launch Party

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The book launch party for Daughter of Shadow was this past weekend and the support was amazing. The ebook has been available for a few weeks now but it was distinctly more satisfying (as a writer) to hold the book in my own hands. After countless hours staring into a computer screen while writing, dozens of edits, and a few bouts with formatting I finally had a finished product. A very surreal moment.

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The cover art turned out great; I’ve been quite impressed with Createspace. The entire order for the party sold out, which is a good problem to have. Signing copies was fun, a novelty that I doubt will get old anytime soon.

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I created a story but a story isn’t much without someone to share it with. Many thanks to everyone who attended the event and to all those who were unable to attend but still made the effort to contact me.

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The Trap of “Good Enough”

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All of us dreamers with a wifi connection, an idea, and enough time to type out a few words can be now authors. This predicament is personally inspiring and collectively terrifying. A person can make their voice heard, get their story out into the public, but how many of those voices are incoherent babbling?

There is an invisible rope snare laying in wait for the would-be self-published author, many wander into it unawares and then dangle until giving up. One musters up the courage to write the story and publish it only to have it flounder. But why? Why do the vast majority of self-published authors never earn a cent from their writing?

An obvious answer is that the market is flooded by wannabes telling semi-realized stories riddled with grammatical errors and inefficient (or non-existent) marketing. But every author was a wannabe at some point, those who have “made it” did not wake up one morning with a fresh bestseller under their pillow (Nicholas Sparks might be an exception).

To be a professional in anything isn’t easy; dogged persistence is ineffectual if the skills are lacking and talent can seep away if effort isn’t applied. Professional writers work hard on their stories, endeavoring to create something that rings true, a clear note within the cacophony. My trek towards professionalism is still in progress but I can offer some personal insight from my experience of writing a novel with regards to the trap of “good enough.”

  1. Inexperience—It’s difficult to write an amazing story when one hasn’t spent much time writing. So write! Jot down ideas. Take notes. Try out short stories, poems, essays, novels, blogs, diary entries, etc until the act of not writing feels unnatural. A professional athlete makes it to the big leagues by spending hours upon hours honing their skills so why would becoming a professional writer be any different? Read from different genres and different styles, look for what makes different authors unique. All of this effort aids in creating your own style—no one will believe the words you put down if you don’t believe in them first.
  2. Discipline—Habits. We all fall into patterns that are eventually perceived as the way things are, blinding us to the fact that they are changeable. You, I, the next person you see, are all mostly water—we flow along the path of least resistance at every opportunity. Unfortunately, most times the easy route does not end in a book deal. Habits are stubborn little critters and often need to be actively altered. When you’re absently clicking through the internet and feel the jolt of an idea or the pang of “I should be writing” then start scribbling/clicking away. When you feel like there’s no time to write then make time. Nobody can lie to you better than you can, but luckily you know your own tricks (or can learn them).
  3. Fear of Rejection—Writing is personal and it can be scary to share with others, but sharing is a crucial threshold that needs to be crossed. Find a supportive network that is open to discussing ideas and if you trust the opinion of individuals within this network then share your writing with them. As a writer you need to discover what aspects of your story/style is working and what can be improved. This detail is key: you are not your art. Learn how to accept criticism. The critique is of your art, a creation separate from you as a person, something that can be altered and shaped in any number of ways.
  4. Overexcitement—The desire to “get it out there.” Rushing the process in pursuit of the dream, which results in a story not being ready to hang with the heavyweights. Don’t skip steps because publishing is only a few clicks away. Do your homework, make a plan, put in the extra behind the scenes effort
  5. Hire a Professional—Sometimes an opinion other than that of your unfalteringly supportive best friend is required. Hire a professional when you’re ready to make the jump from amateur to professional (you might not succeed but the odds are tilted more in your favor). Editors are book magicians, it is literally their job to make your story as good as possible. People do judge books by the cover so get an artist. Be thorough, check around, ask plenty of questions before choosing which professional to go with.
  6. Relax—Writing is fun! You love to write. You’re in charge. This project is yours, do what you want with it. When you’re ready, let it go. Art isn’t meant to be perfect or timeless, trying to attain subjective ideals like this can drive a person insane. Be awesome (way more fun than perfect).
  7. Ask Yourself Tough Questions—Everything I’ve described is meaningless without this step. The most important part of DIY is the yourself. Why are you writing? What are you writing? What are you goals? What is your view of success? Is your story realistically comparable to similar titles in the genre? How can it be made better? How do you respond to criticism? Be objective about your story whenever possible (remember, it’s not you, it’s of you). If you’re going to DIY then you better make sure that the project turns out the way you want. I’ve found that satisfaction in this regard is directly associated with excuses. Less excuses=more satisfaction.

There are entire books written on this topic and various self-described gurus out there who claim to be able to guide an author to success. This blog is by no means a replacement for those resources. I understand there is no clear path to becoming a professional writer but I think the seven above mentioned items have validity. My list is not exhaustive or overly detailed (attention spans: yours and mine). I can go into more detail if anyone is interested and would love to hear any tips other writers have to share.

Why Fantasy?

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At first glance fantasy seems like a ridiculous genre to read, let alone write, yet it has never been more popular than right now. Big books, modern day tomes, filled with swords, mythical beasts, magic, and outrageous adventures have became mainstream. People eat it up—old rehashed stories and modern innovations alike. Why?

I think this phenomenon stems from the ability of a fantasy novel to transport the reader into an exciting, foreign world controlled by the same, but accentuated, rules that govern the world we inhabit. At some point in our lives we all have epic fantasies and such fantasies appear as commonplace in a fantasy novel. The desire to become better than we are through diligent training, to rise to (and overcome) all challenges, to selflessly make the personal sacrifice when required, to shape the world with our own unique power. To be a hero.

I’m referring to an archetypal hero. The champion, the ultimate victor, an individual saturated with glory. In the stories these heroes come to believe, trust—no it’s even more than that—they know, deep down in their bones, where the spirit may or may not reside, that there is something other than themselves. That this something needs their aid. All well and good for an ancient musclebound Greek blessed by the gods, but what about the rest of us?

In many fantasy stories this schism of good and bad is clearly developed—light vs. dark, life vs. destruction, order vs. chaos, love vs. hate. This dichotomy works well within the confines of book covers but has difficulty spilling over into the day-to-day reality of our lives.

People are complicated, we’re bundles of contradictions. Rarely does a wise wizard appear to tell one that he/she is The Chosen One, and if you happen to find yourself in this situation DO NOT GIVE OUT YOUR CREDIT CARD INFO, because that elderly bearded gent is likely playing you for a sucker. And yet, wouldn’t it be easier with this magical system? To run off on a quest and triumph over the baddies—but in our world who are the baddies? We’re all just humans after all.

I’ve yet to encounter a rabid horde of trolls (late night scurrying to pizza shops after the bars close notwithstanding) and I’ve never faced the wrath of a Dark Lord hellbent on subjugation (personal debt is much subtler). So, if you were Señor or Señorita Chosen One, who would you do battle with, conquer, slay? What quest is worth the ultimate dedication?

Your answer is yours and yours alone, a completely subjective decision influenced by your own beliefs, age, societal affiliations, and motivations. Not right, not wrong, just yours. This is why I believe fantasy is a useful tool, because it allows for self-reflection by plunging the reader into a mirror-image of our world populated by characters battling with universal dilemmas. The large scope of fantasy is an attempted portrayal of an all-inclusive (not the kind with tropical drinks) struggle faced by individuals. One problem at a time. Page by page. The basic is expanded in order to be accessible, which is then interpreted through subjective experience. On some level the reader questions, “what would I do?” and this leads to the more important question of, “what do I believe?”

In a world without trolls and dragons (all we have are camera shy Sasquatch) where does one make a stand? What cause does one champion? There is no black and white answer, only a muddied grey full of choices. Choices that you must make for yourself.

Some people choose to make as few choices as possible and that’s fine I suppose, a kind of net-zero, not influencing positively or negatively, but I think that readers of fantasy are different. They’re dreamers. Hope filled idealists. Passionate explorers. Seekers of a quest. Not to burst any bubbles, but you’re already on a quest whether you realize it or not. A choose your own adventure where you can’t keep your finger on the page and read ahead to see if you like the outcome. No going back, no wizards or talking animals (besides a few species of canny birds). Only people.

We’re all we have. And as individuals, families, cultures, and societies we’re stranger, better, worse, more beautiful, uglier, weaker, and more powerful than anything imagined in fantasies.

Stories have the capacity to deeply affect us and from an early age I connected with the themes in fantasy stories. But that’s my subjective experience. Read a fantasy novel, put yourself into the story, allow the story to sink into you, and decide for yourself.