Import, don’t recycle

When I look at the other fantasy novels at Amazon or other bookstores, I’m filled with hope. Not because they’re bad, but because what I’ve written is different.

What I noticed today had to do with tone. So many English-language fantasy novels are so serious, but not mine. Its tone is notably lighter. I like banter, I like adventure, and I like to occasionally laugh while I read a book! So that’s what I wrote. There are serious scenes too, but it’s deeply rooted in the ideas of entertainment, adventure, and fun.

I mentioned this to my alpha reader, and he said “I think you’ve got something unusual, if not unique, within the genre.”

I never thought about it that way, because to me, it’s not unique. I’m used to seeing stories with this kind of tone, just not from English-language fantasy novels. But I see it all the time in anime.

It reminds me of an old piece of advice from Terry Pratchett, which I’ve quoted before:

1) Watch everything, read everything, and especially read outside your subject — you should be importing, not recycling.

Which is what I did. I took all the things I liked from anime, and I tossed the stuff I didn’t—you won’t find any angsty teenagers in my book. Then I took everything I like from English-language fantasy, and from movies and comics and my own life, and I combined them all into the kind of story I wanted to read.

Instead of recycling the same tired fantasy tropes readers have read a hundred times, I imported the tropes from elsewhere and mixed them together. The result is not unique in its component parts—I could tell you where everything came from. I stole them all. But maybe the combination is something unusual.

If you like action or adventure anime, you may like my book. If you like fantasy stories that explore adult themes and feature actual adults, you may like my book. And if you’re tired of novels always being so serious, and like your fantasy mixed with banter and full-throated excitement, then you might enjoy my book as well.

I don’t know about unique. I don’t have the ego to claim that, and I know I’m an impostor who stole it all from someone else. But I’ll take unusual. When I look around the bookstore, I don’t see anything quite like what I’ve written. Hopefully it’s something you’ll enjoy as well.

Delusions of importance

“Don’t you think that that’s why we ended up here [on TV]? It takes a slight delusion … to believe that what I have to say is worthy of people sitting there and paying money to listen to.”

“That seems natural to me.”

“It does to me too, but I don’t think it seems natural to everybody else.” -Jason Segel and Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, 9-9-14

I’ve always thought it was the height of arrogance to want to write. Who am I to think that what I have to say is so great that people should stop and listen? What gives me the right? Why am I so amazing?

I’m not. I’m nobody. No one gave me the right. It’s ridiculous to expect people to listen to me, and it’s more than a little arrogant. It’s unreasonable.

But it’s the unreasonable man who changes the world.

Vacation, & a taste of what’s to come

September is going to be a busy month. Rather than sitting around, writing about anime, preparing the season preview, and finishing my book, I’m going to try to do all of those really fast, because Stilts is going on vacation!

I’ve got two overseas trips planned, one for work (blegh), and one for fun (yay!). If any of you happen to be in Munich at the end of the month, and you happen to see a ridiculously tall blond man at Oktoberfest yammering about something nerdy and drunk, that might be me! Ditto to several nearby cities. I’ll be getting around, in the best of ways.

That means you shouldn’t expect to hear from me until roughly October. My posts at RandomC will be covered by my fellow writers (<3 everyone, you rock!), but this field will lay fallow for the duration.

I didn’t want to leave you without a little something though, so I have a tasty morsel to present. Remember that book I’m always talking about? The one that’s coming together at glacial speed? Well it’s almost done, and since the core story isn’t liable to change much at this point, I’m ready to start releasing intriguing tidbits to my hungry public. All three of you. (Predictable joke, I know.)

One of my mentors taught me that a crucial skill to being successful as a writer is being able to succinctly describe what your story is about; to develop a good elevator speech, so you can grab potential readers’ attention, and so readers can decide whether they want to know more.

I present to you the elevator speech for my book. This is like the back-of-the-book blurb, but shorter. Here it is:

The book is called Wage Slave Rebellion, and it’s an urban fantasy adventure set in a sword & sorcery world. It’s about three friends who hate their crappy jobs, so they decide to become monster-slaying adventurers instead. It’s kind of like Terry Pratchett spliced with a badass action anime.

That’s what I’ve been working on! It’s the first in a series, though I think I’ll save the unveiling of the series’ name for a little longer. Are you excited? I know I am. Or sick. Oh gods, I hope this works…

Feel free to give me your thoughts on the trip or the elevator speech. I re-enabled comments on this post. I’m considering opening them across the site again, so feel free to give me feedback on that as well.

Just don’t expect me to respond too quickly. To the wild blue yonder I go!

Fast, easy, guaranteed

“…pick none.

That’s the work that’s worth doing.” –Seth Godin

What this tells me is that I’m doing work that’s worth doing right now. Writing this book has been neither fast, nor easy, nor is it guaranteed to succeed.

What else this tells me is that as soon as my writing is any of those things, I need to reach further. Especially easy. If it gets too easy, I’m not pushing myself hard enough to tell even better stories than I have before.

Slow, difficult, uncertain. That’s more like it.

Writer, author, full-time author

To me, there are distinct differences between these three titles, and when I will allow myself to use them.

To become an author, you must sell something you’ve written. If you’re a traditionally published author, that means selling a book to a publisher. For independently published (read: self-pub) authors like I plan to be, it’s the first time you sell a book to someone who isn’t a friend or family.

If I’ve never spoken to you in person and you are the first one to buy my book, you will be the one that makes me an author. Until then, I am not. Aspiring author is the most I will claim.

As for becoming a full-time author, that’s the holy grail. That says not only is someone buying your work, you’re making enough money to support yourself with your writing, even if you still don’t make much. That’s the dream, because it means I’ll be able to write even more.

But writers? Writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. Maybe not a good one, maybe not a successful one, maybe not a widely read or beloved or influential one. Maybe you’ll never become any of those things. That doesn’t matter. If you write, if it’s something you love and seek out, you’re a writer.

Writers write. If you want to be a writer, write. That’s it.

On the lookout for ideas

The last nine posts (including this one) were all written in a single afternoon. I was only able to do this because I had all the subjects ready to go.

To me, idea generation is best done all the time. It should be a constant process, a part of your brain that is always on the lookout for good ideas. Whether for a book or a blog or anything else, you should always been on the lookout for things you can use, because if you sit down and try to force yourself to come up with something, it’s hard. Very hard. Some of my most frustrating evenings have come about because I tried to do exactly that.

But once you already have the ideas, it’s wonderful. You’re no longer creating things whole cloth, you’re merely stitching together the ideas you already have. When the act of creation is separated from the heavy lifting of ideation, you can give your full attention to stitching the patterns together rather than constantly having to stop and decide what the patterns you should use.

If you’re writing a book, this means you can write by outline. If you’re writing a blog, it means you’ll always have a post to write, or you can schedule out nine posts and not have to worry about your deadlines for a while.

Always be on the lookout for ideas, so when you go to put pen to the page, you’re not clamoring for your most basic of tools. You’ll have them all laid out in front of you, ready to get to work.

Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing

I love reading what great authors have to say about the craft. It’s often revelatory, and Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. So here they are – Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

#3 is important, and difficult for many. Finishing has never been a problem for me, though. Finishing quickly, perhaps, but I’m stubborn, and I know I will finish eventually. #6 as well – I have no problems with imperfection, though I may need to get even more comfortable with it if I’m to finish this book and move onto the next. It’s a continuum, and I haven’t found the right spot yet.

#5 is revelatory, and exquisitely lonely. While I’m fine with doing my own thing, I like to collaborate with others as well, so I often find myself wanting to talk to my friends when I’m wrestling with a thorny scene. Sometimes they lead me to the answer, but other times they offer strong solutions. Do I take them? Do I not? It’s a case-by-case thing, but I know that when I’m getting feedback from proofreaders, I’ll pay far more attention to their problems than their solutions.

Then there’s #8. That’s the refrain. It’s the goal and the reward of the honest storyteller. As I read that, I’m uplifted. So I’ll write with assurance and confidence, knowing I’m not as good as others, but if I tell my story as best I can, I’ll get to keep telling the stories I want.

Movies are half credit

When I first started getting serious about writing, I was reading a lot of Terry Pratchett, so it was to him which I first turned to for advice. I dug up an old interview, and from that I learned three useful pieces of advice. Here they are, as I remembered them:

  1. Read a lot.
  2. Use a word processor (it makes everything mutable).
  3. Write a lot, every day.

I’ve since seen more advice from Terry, but those were what I took from that first transcript. Of those, I followed the second two faithfully. It’s the first one where my success was a bit more…qualified.

Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot. Not all of it is fiction, but I spend a large part of every day reading. I love to read, and there are many subjects and stories I’m interested in. The problem is that for a long time I didn’t have the time to read as much fiction as I should have, so I tried to fill in the gaps with other media.

I’ve loved anime since before I started writing for RandomC (obviously), but after I became some kind of (admittedly shoddy) expert in the medium, I felt it was my duty to watch a lot of anime. I would watch 3-4+ episodes a day of different anime, and occasionally marathon an old series to bolster my cred. I wasn’t reading as much fiction as I should have been, but that’s okay because I was still taking in the stories, right? I was seeing what worked and what didn’t, analyzing it, and bolstering my storytelling chops through anime.

Wrong. Or at least, only partial credit.

Though I forgot this over time, here’s the actual first point from that interview:

1) Watch everything, read everything, and especially read outside your subject — you should be importing, not recycling.

The problem is, if you don’t spend enough time in the medium you wish to inhabit, you’ll never learn the ins and outs of how to convey your story in said medium. What I realized was that my ideas were good, but the skill with which I had to convey those ideas was inferior. Partially this was due to experience (and still is), but it was also because I hadn’t seen the tricks of telling a tale in text as much as I should have.

Mr. Pratchett is right – you should absolutely seek out stories in other subjects or genres. You can also get great benefit from watching TV, movies, or reading comics. But you will only learn the tactical minutiae of telling a story in your chosen medium if you spend a lot of time in that medium.

If you want to sing, listen to songs. If you want to make movies, watch movies. If you want to write, read. The other mediums can help, but you must spend a great deal of time in your own medium as well. Import, don’t recycle – but make sure you know how to properly convey your imported ideas.

Movies (and all the others) are only half credit to a writer. And no, you can’t get the other half by watching double the movies. It doesn’t work like that.

Ashamed

I look forward to being ashamed of my first book.

Not because I think it will be bad. I am ridiculously proud I’ve what I’ve done so far, and will be even more so when it’s ready for you all to see.

No, it’s because I’ve read many a writer’s first book, and then their later books, and I know how vast the difference can be.

I will be ashamed of my first book when I have ten others, and when they’re far better than the one I’m working on now. That will mean I’ve made progress. That will mean I’ll have gotten better. That will mean I’ll be able to give you even better stories as time goes on.

I look forward to being ashamed of my first book, well into the future when I’ve learned ways I could have made my first so much better. But what I’ll never be ashamed of is that I wrote it. You have to write one to write ten, and finishing something extremely difficult is a feeling I cannot adequately describe.

It’s worth the effort, and I’ll never be ashamed of that.

The fear of doing nothing

“Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” – Alain de Botton

I will not be the first person to tell you that writers are inveterate procrastinators. Writing is a mentally taxing endeavor, and getting started is often the most difficult part.

But here’s how I know I’m a writer, and likely always will be – I get antsy when I don’t write. I write every day because that’s the best way I know to get things done, but it’s also because when I miss a day, I feel weird. The fear of doing nothing grows within me, until now when I can hardly take a day off. I’d rather work. Wouldn’t you, when your work is fun?

Cultivate this insanity. It’s natural to be afraid of letting your perfect idea out into the imperfect world, but far worse is the regret of doing nothing.