Blog Tour de Ben

My good friend and crit group companion Russ Linton hit me up for this “blog tour” dealie, which is sort of the blog version of a chain letter, but it’s also a chance for bloggers to interact with one another. The idea is that he tags two people to answer the same questions, and we in turn tag others, etc. Since I only halfass blog and don’t pay a lot of attention to the blogging world, I don’t really know anyone to tag, but I can still answer the questions.

Q : What am I working on at the moment?

A : Making a blog post. Next question!

But really, my long-progress work is Rise of the Righteous Mantis, a YA wuxia (that’s basically “fantasy”). It occupies most of my time, but in addition to that I still write a poem a day, and I’d really like to get back to editing my adult magical realism novel, Dreaming Vicariously.

Q : How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A : Well, Righteous Mantis is a blend of eastern and western storytelling. We (my writing partner and I) have had to break with certain conventions on both sides, and I think that alone makes it pretty different. For example, there isn’t a lot of wuxia with a female main character (for thousands of years, women have been second-class citizens in China), and we wanted to hit on some feminist issues that cross cultures. She’s the fighter, her male love interest is a doctor, so we’ve turned the traditional “male fighter, female healer” trope on its head too. Aside from that, there isn’t a lot of wuxia being written specifically for English-speaking / reading audiences – most of it comes from Chinese translations, though I hear there are a couple of wuxia authors who write in English. Honestly it only falls within the YA category because YA has become so broad that it basically lays claim to anything where the main character falls within its age range. If I had my way I’d just say we’re writing “westernized wuxia” or “fantasy.”

Q : Why do I write what I do?

A : That’s sort of a vague question. Laurie, my writing partner for Righteous Mantis, invited me to collaborate with her on a wuxia short story, which then became a novel. Ever since seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I’ve always wanted to write a wuxia, so I accepted. A few hours in I came up with most of the plot points and characters, so I guess it opened some sort of creative well, and I can’t bring myself to turn away from that sort of thing.

In a broader sense, I think I’m happiest when I’m writing or plotting. I once wrote a novel in 16 days and it was the most empowering, positive, fascinating experience in my life. It was terrible (well, sort of), but it happened.

As for the daily poetry I write, some of it is little more than the harshest self-criticism I can throw at myself crammed into a vaguely poetic form. I think the real reason I set out to write it is the theory that out of 365 poems a year, at least one has to not totally suck, but 4 years later, I’ve found that’s not necessarily the case.

Q : How does my writing process work?

A : It’s different for different things. I’m a big fan of the “just go and work out details later” method, and it shows sometimes. In my book (literally), the first draft / plotting is done on intuition, then the second draft is where you put your head in and connect it with logic. There have been many days when I’d show up at whatever writing venue I’d chosen and have zero idea of what to write that day, but 2000 words and a few hours later, I’d have a pretty decent section. Editing isn’t just about fixing typos and tightening the language – it’s a lot more about knowing the arc of your story, building bridges for the reader, and putting in the detail you missed on the first go.

Through all of this I’m generally taking it into my weekly crit group, who then tells me what’s crap and what’s not, and usually how to fix it.

Let me add that collaboration hasn’t really changed this. For the most part, I’ve written the first draft and Laurie has been running along behind me doing her thing. There are times when I have to stop and explain my vision on something, and since she knows wuxia and Chinese history and culture better than I do, she’ll give me a context and I’ll have to change what I was doing, but the shape of the story as a whole hasn’t gone through substantive changes.

Alrighty, as I said up front, I don’t know a lot of bloggers outside of my crit group, but if you’d like me to list you as a tag, let me know.  Also, go check out Russ’s blog and work. He’s a lot better about keeping his blog updated, and he’s nearing the release date for his superhero novel, “Crimson Son.”

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I lied, you’re not actually that awesome, part 4 – Peer Critique

I fell off my high pedestal of making a post a week until I finished this series. Gah. Just imagine I’m flogging myself as I type this.

Anyhow, so a few weeks ago I started this endeavor with a sort of response to an article (or if you’re a pirate, an arrrrrrticle) about why you shouldn’t do NaNoWriMo. If you’re too lazy to go read the original post or the article, the short version is that people slam-out a novel in November and turn around the next day and send it off for publishing or throw it up on Amazon as an e-book. The article criticizes folks for creating their first draft during NaNoWriMo and then treating that as a publishable story.

Sure, maybe you’re so awesome that you create first drafts on your first try, but most people aren’t. People often like to think that they’re the exception to the rule, and maybe they are (if you were that awesome though, you’re probably a best-selling author and wouldn’t be reading my blog), but I’m not actually aware of any author who’s ever done that, especially after writing a novel in a month. The truth is that everyone does at least a little editing, and I’d say editing is most useful with the help of a good critique from your peers.

It’s tough to get perspective on something you wrote – you probably like what you wrote, so you might accidentally overlook some weak points like plot holes, missing information, out of character moments, etc. It’s similar to the more glaring errors our writer’s eye tends to glide right over – typos, misspellings, grammar problems, etc. – it’s easy for a writer to miss the big stuff for the same reasons (the “well it makes sense to ME” reason). Crit partners can offer the perspective you’re missing, and great crit partners can give you tips and ideas you were too close to the story to see. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a group with a writer who walked out with a whole new batch of ideas.

The real power of critique comes when several folks point out things you’re consistently doing wrong, or poorly. Making a habit to correct those things is how one gets better. I have a couple folks in my crit group who do a lot of telling when they should be showing, and while they still do some of it, everyone’s noticed an improvement in that and other aspects of their writing ability since they started showing up. Maybe they could’ve gotten better on their own, but how long would that have taken, and would they even have noticed what not to do?

Critique doesn’t necessarily need to come from other people who are involved in your genre or even practice your chosen craft. I’ve heard it said that beta readers shouldn’t be people you interact with regularly so that they don’t “know” you or your style. If you’re creating something for the general populace, find people who represent that and listen to what they have to say about your work.

It’s plain foolish to think everyone will automagically love and understand everything you create. No artist has ever done that, but good critique can help you get closer, usually a LOT closer.

In short, you’re not awesome, but you can become awesome by 1) doing a lot of whatever your craft is, 2) exposing yourself to a lot of quality work in and around your craft, and 3) listening to what’s wrong with your work and fixing it.

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I lied, you’re not actually that awesome, part 3 – Observation / Experience

A few weeks ago I made this post which was sort of spurred by an old article about doing a crapton of reading instead of NaNoWriMo. Not that I disagree with the article, in fact if you go read the post I linked above, I sort of agree with it, buy why only pick one or the other? It’s not like reading and writing are mutually exclusive, and on the contrary I would argue that in order to put out writing of any quality, one must do a lot of reading.

At one point in the article it mentions people coming up to a writer at parties and basically saying “I don’t have time to read, I just focus on my writing.” I actually don’t call bullshit on this, because I know folks who effectively say and do this. Supposedly Aquinas said “hominem unius libri timeo,” which translates to “I fear the man of one book,” which basically means, “If you only have one thing to talk about, you suck and should go outside once in a while.”

In regards to the above quote, let’s equate experience / observation with books. It’s not a far reach – books are sort of our windows into other worlds and other people. How good of a story do you think you could write if you’d only had one experience? Sure, imagination is an important factor, but without some sort of reality to ground it in, it’s likely to spin off into acid trip land (which would be interesting on an entirely different level, I’m sure). Reading gives you an idea of how other authors did it and helps you wrap your brain around the conventions of your genre.

Let’s switch the medium from writing to food. People say to “never trust a chef who isn’t fat,” which isn’t as much of a statement about body type and portion control as it is about passion for food. If you’re not passionate about food, why would you become chef? If you could choose between two meals, one cooked by a chef who had a healthy desire for good food, and the other who just wanted a job, which would you honestly think would be better?

The idea is that when it comes to your chosen art form, you don’t limit yourself to creation alone. Great musicians listen to a lot of music, great choreographers and dancers watch a lot of dance performances, great actors (I mean the kind with talent, not the kind people like just because they’re “cute”) watch a lot of other great actors, etc. I would wager this is largely due to their own enthusiasm for their chosen craft, and it adds a measure of credibility – people who actually LIKE what they’re doing tend to be better at whatever that thing is.

I have this list of loose “rules” which I call “My Own Personal Kerouac,” and #19 on that list is “Throw yourself at the story or don’t tell it.” The idea can be applied to the craft (and to some extent life) as a whole – throw yourself at your craft or find something else to do. If you’re serious about producing writing of any real quality, read, and read a damn lot.

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I lied, you’re not actually that awesome, part 2 – Volume

Last week I made a post about how awesome you aren’t, but how (in my opinion) you can get there. In an attempt to follow-up on that, I’m gonna hit the first point on the list that I mentioned – doing a LOT of what you do, even if you suck, and especially if you suck a lot.

This is in part a “keep going no matter what,” and the “no matter what” encompasses literally everything, but I’ll try to break it up a bit.

A) Physical obstacles : You’re a painter, but you go blind. Well, I actually know a dude who didn’t actually start painting until he went blind. I’ve mentioned Jon before, and he’s crazy successful and skilled at what he does. He’s also one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met. Anyhow, find new ways or new places to do what you do – it might even add an accent to your style that you enjoy. I maintain that if you’re serious and driven enough, you’ll find or create a way around your obstacles.

B) Mental obstacles : Most times this is a simple matter of self-esteem – don’t think you’ve got “what it takes” to write a novel or learn to dance? Honestly “what it takes” is time. Anyone can shoot out a novel, dance, run a football, etc. Doesn’t mean you’ll be good, but then that’s why you’re reading this post. Some of the world’s greatest artists did their best work while they were suffering from depression or anguish. Don’t go seek it out, but also don’t let it hold you back – use it, get it out into the world in an artistic format. You might be surprised at how powerful it is.

C) Fear : Mostly this is a fear of sucking, the “I don’t want to spend all this time doing something only to find out that I suck at it.” Baby, ain’t nobody gonna create something so awesome EVERYONE in the world loves it, especially if you’re just starting. Even Philip K. Dick had rejection letters all over his office, Star Wars wasn’t Lucas’ first film, and most of the popular bands you love today started by playing crap in tiny, nameless clubs. Be brave, but also be unashamed. The bottom line is that you keep making stuff, even if nobody ever sees / hears / experiences it.

D) Lack of inspiration : I separated this out from the “mental obstacles” section because I think the remedy is different : create trash. Start a project with no idea where it’s going. Try out a stream-of-consciousness format. Experiment with changing up your style. If you usually write poetry, do some fiction, OR MUSIC. Change gears, or to extend the metaphor, try a different type of car entirely. The worst that happens is you wind-up with something crappy that you never show to anyone (but I bet one day when you’re a big deal, people will fall over themselves to get their hands on it).

A note on the “I’m creating total trash” period. I feel the biggest hurtle that stops folks from doing something is how nobody wants to go through this. Sure, everyone wants to “skip to the good part,” but honestly this part is the crucible that purifies you. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true, and it also separates out those who are serious from those who aren’t. This is the period where you churn out a ton of crappy material is where you learn and hone your craft the most. Don’t be afraid of it and don’t try to skip it. Yes it will suck, and yes you’re likely to stay here for a while, but you’re more likely to get better in spite of yourself if you stay at it than if you quit.

If you’re really and truly passionate about what you’re doing, fuck what other people think and what might happen. Do it anyway and do it a lot. Do it in defiance of obstacles. Do it shamelessly.

Next week (maybe?) I’ll cover the second point – observe & experience.

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I lied, you’re not actually that awesome, part 1

I randomly ran across this article a while back – if you don’t want to read the full article, it’s mostly about how people don’t read enough, with a few choice words about crappy NaNoWriMo novels being submitted immediately upon being finished in December. I won’t go over the merits of editing here – that’s for another post on another day. Editing does however play into the larger problem – not sucking. Because let’s face it, I’ve been telling you all this time that you’re awesome… but I lied. Sort of.

Mostly I didn’t though. More to the point, everyone (aside from strange savants who are often utterly crippled in some other way) sucks when they start something. Athletes don’t come out of the womb sprinting, musicians don’t pick up guitars and spontaneously transform into Eddie Van Halen, and writers don’t become Hemingway after writing one story. Nevertheless, lots of people seem to think there’s an “easy” route into awesomeness – that they can skip the “I’m producing nothing but crap” period altogether. 

Here’s the great part – you can stop sucking and BECOME awesome. In my opinion, everyone who’s really interested in being good at something needs three things :

1. Do a LOT of whatever it is you’re trying to do, even if you suck at it.

2. Observe / experience others who are magnificent at what you do. Wrap yourself around it and devour. that. shit. like a goddamn amoeba (because that’s sort of what you are)

3. Serious & constructive criticism and the  ability to absorb and USE said criticism (i.e. edits).

Take football players for example. I kinda hate football, but I know that at least some of the professionals play a lot (and practice a lot), watch it a lot (including recordings of their opponents), and watch recordings of themselves. Likewise, a good writer should write a lot (NaNoWriMo is a good START but by no means an end), read an obscene amount (and in my opinion, different genres and reading levels too), and use criticism to EDIT (I’m always going on and on about the amazingness of my crit group). You can apply these to any art, most sports, and quite a few plain old jobs on the market today.

So here’s what separates the chaff from the gems – passion. Are you passionate enough to dedicate the time and work it’s gonna take to climb out of suckitude? I would argue that the above three things are the work you need to do ad infinitum, even if / when you “make it.” And you need to do ALL THREE – if you’re willing to write a lot and read a lot, but not take any criticism or make edits (ye olde “my work is PERFECT” mindset), you’re not passionate enough.

I probably pissed some folks off with that last sentence. Good. If you’re not interested in getting better, why did you start? Getting back to the article I posted a link to, the writer mentions doing a shitload of reading INSTEAD of NaNoWriMo. I want to one-up them : do both. Do it all. Set unrealistic goals and hurl yourself at your work. What’s the worst that can happen? “Oh no, now I have half a crappy novel and have read a bunch of books.” What a terrible fate.

I’ll come back to this next week (yeah right) for part 2, wherein I’ll address the first point : do a lot of whatever it is you do. Until then, enough of me, YOU NEED TO GET TO WORK.

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Unrealistic goals

A few months ago I made a post about collaboration on a short story for a contest. Because I haven’t mentioned it since then, some folks think that it quietly went away and I moved on to do other things. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The original contest called for a wuxia under 30k to be turned in by October 30th, 2013. My writing partner Laurie and I began working on it in early September, and later that month we were about 20k in when we discovered that the contest website had gone away. Laurie emailed the guy in charge and found that he’d shut down the contest, which left us with an almost-finished short story and a ball of disappointment.

While we were writing it though, I had this crazy, half-suicidal idea to just turn it into a full-length novel and pitch it at the DFW Writers’ Convention in May, so the contest shutting down sort of made the decision for me. It’s been said that I have unrealistic expectations of others and of myself, but that I can present rather convincing arguments, which is probably how I got Laurie on board with the plan. My initial timeline put us at being done with an 85k-ish novel by March, which at the time was about 6 months away. I think having a first draft done in 6 months is pretty reasonable, but having a draft that’s both gone through beta readers and is clean enough to present? Quite a bit more lofty.

One of my friends said, “your goal seems a bit unrealistic,” and that gave me pause. Granted, the guy is a pessimist, but it made me question : is it better to fail whilst pursuing your vision than to succeed at something more manageable but not quite what you really want?

I should probably qualify this a bit : I don’t think this is a “one answer fits all,” both in regards to people and situations. In example, what we really want to write is a wuxia story, but in order to make it marketable, we’ve had to westernize it a bit. At the same time, since it takes place in ancient China, there are some mannerisms and cultural differences that we’re kinda adamant about not budging on. When it comes to progression, I think unrealistic goals are the way to go.

Sure, I’ll admit I was a little skeptical as to whether we could have something done by March, and that maybe it was a little unrealistic, but I think having that goal and declaring  there would be no retreat pushed us. Instead of some leisurely “it’ll be done whenever” pace, we’ve hammered this thing without mercy and are approaching the supposedly “unrealistic goal” – when last I checked I was at plot point 10 of 13 and we’re at 63k words.

The whole thing reminds me of a Courage Wolf saying : “BITE OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW. THEN CHEW IT.” Thanks Courage Wolf.

Now it’s time for you, yes YOU reading this right now, to go set your own unrealistic goal and then achieve it in spite of yourself.

Posted in China, Fiction, martial arts, Uncategorized, Writing, wuxia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Show 2014 no mercy

In the wake of the new year, I saw a lot of people saying the equivalent of “2013 sucked a lot.”

While the whimsy of fate can really be a downer, I’d like to point out that we have a pretty incredible amount of control over our own lives, so most of the time we’re reaping what we sow. Sure, there’s always inclement weather, random catastrophes, bad hair days, human errors, etc., but even some of that can come down to personal choice – if you live where the weather is what makes your life suck, maybe you should move. If you consistently have bad hair days which are ruining your life, maybe change hair styles?

“But Ben,” you say, “didn’t one of your friend’s kids get cancer in 2013? How is that under his control?” Well it probably wasn’t, which is why I included statements like “most of the time,” and “some of that.” Shit happens, no argument there, but it COULD be argued that avoiding extra shit / dealing with the shit you’re dealt is what life’s about. The kid’s doing pretty good from what I hear, by the way.

I’ve heard it said that you don’t HAVE to do anything in your lifetime except die and pay taxes. To put things into perspective, I’d like to point out that you don’t actually HAVE to pay taxes – there are simply repercussions if you don’t. I heard that one of my favorite local musicians actually evaded taxes for a while by moving to Europe. A lot of the roots we lay down are of our own making, and people pick up and move to other cities / states / countries / continents every day.

Anyhow, people make resolutions to do this or that, which is great, and we all joke about how giving up on those resolutions halfway through January, but we forget the fact that we made the resolution, and in some cases that’s a pretty big thing. It’s a conscious, pro-active effort to make the year “not suck,” and yeah, some folks give up too easily, which is unfortunate. By the way, no, I’m not saying “it’s the thought that counts.” If you made the resolution and didn’t stick with it, at least recognize that you
made it. Ask yourself why you made it? Why didn’t you stick with it? Grill yourself – the only person holding you accountable is yourself.

So here we are, a full 9 days into the new year. Are you gonna get started on that epic art project you’ve always wanted to dive into? Find a new job? Move to a new place? What is your MERCILESS and PRO-ACTIVE plan to make 2014 your bitch?

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