Category Archives: Writing

Not Monsters


I’m just gonna let you ruminate for a minute on what that book means to you.

Go on, take your time, I’m in no hurry.

Have you got it fixed in your mind? Good. Now this isn’t a post about Twilight. In fact when I was composing my thoughts for this post in my head Twilight didn’t enter the picture until very late in the game. But once it did enter the picture, everything else seemed to fall into place.

Because Twilight is a book about vampires. The book didn’t invent vampires. It didn’t even invent the vampire romance. But what it did do (in my mind) was place the final nail in the coffin of true vampire horror.

You might think that I’m writing this as an indictment, but in reality this was inevitable from the beginning. Let’s look at that beginning, shall we?

I know you’re going back in your mind to Dracula (or perhaps if you are particularly well read, to Varny the Vampire) but you need to go back further. You need to go back to the time before vampires entered fiction. You need to go back to the time when they lived in the minds of men, passed on from mouth to mouth as folklore, whispered from the lips of mothers as a warning against unruly children. “If you’re not good, the vampires will get you.”

In the beginning vampires were monsters. Mindless, brutish, forest-dwelling monsters.

Then came the books. The notion of vampires passed from folklore into fiction. But in the passage something changed. The vampires were still evil, still frightening, but now they had become just a little more human. No longer were they forest dwelling brutes, bloated like rotted corpses and bereft of all but an animal intelligence. Now they were suave and sophisticated. Now they could walk the streets with their prey. They could pass for human until it the moment it was too late for their victims.

And from a certain point of view that change made them all the more terrible. After all, what is more terrifying that the monster who looks just like you? But it was the first nail in the coffin, the first step down the slippery slope that would end in stunning, sparkling, and above all safe Edward Cullen.

But like I said, this isn’t a post about Twilight. This is a post about monsters.

Because monsters have a problem. Monsters are cool.

I mean think about it, what little kid doesn’t like monsters? Dinosaurs, dragons, C’thulu? Show him those things, and he’ll say “Awesome!” and start wailing on them with his G.I. Joes.

Zombies? Ditto. Don’t even get me started on our cultural obsession with zombies. We’re not afraid of them. We’re fascinated.

And that’s the problem. Because in theory monsters are supposed to be scary. You’re supposed lie awake at night, afraid to go to sleep lest they show up in your nightmares. But instead we idolize them, we put them on a pedestal. Technically they’re still the bad guys, but really that just makes them all the more interesting.

But as someone who’s interested in fear in fiction, in making people uncomfortable with what they’re reading, I’ve noticed something interesting. Generally the most genuinely frightening parts of a story happen before the monsters ever show up.

Take for example, the horror film The Descent. In this movie a group of female spelunkers explore a remote cave and encounter human-like cave creatures who have become sightless because…I don’t know, they’ve lived down there for generations and they’ve evolved past the need for light? I mean, granted the movie shows that they kill stuff outside the cave for food and you’d think eyes would be an advantage there even if they hunt at night. Especially if they hunt at night. Nocturnal animals have amazing eyesight. Whatever.

Anyway, there’s some great scenes where these blind monsters are searching for the protagonists, and they’re walking right next to where they’re hiding, but they can’t see them (you’d think they could smell them or hear them breathing or something; I mean really, if you’re going to evolve away from using your eyes you could at least compensate through your other senses. But like I said, whatever.) These scenes are interesting, but in my mind they’re not really scary. They don’t reach into my stomach and twist my guts into knots with fear. Sure they might be good for a few jump scares, but that’s not really the same.

But there are truly frightening moments in The Descent. There’s the moment when one of the women is trapped in a claustrophobic tunnel with the cave shuddering and shaking, threatening to crush her under a thousand tons of earth and stone. There’s the scene where one of the spelunkers has to cross a yawning chasm using ancient equipment that starts to fail halfway through the traverse. These moments work because we can relate to them. We can empathize with the terror of claustrophobia, or with the fear of falling a very very long way down. These are examples of what I’ve started to refer to as the “not monsters” moments of movies, and personally I think there is far more to learn from their common earthy kind of terror than will ever be found in the pursuit of the supernatural slasher or the growl of the green skinned mutant.

In Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man which chronicles the life of a man who is (you’ll never guess) shrinking, the most powerful moments are not the battles between insect-sized man and monstrous spider, but rather they come when the eponymous shrinking man is midway through the process, trying to cope with the fact that his wife has begun to think of him as a child and his young daughter has lost all respect for him.

In Stephen King’s It the single most unnerving moment of the book (for me) had nothing to do with the supernatural clown/spider and everything to do with a simple-minded bully who locks puppies in an old refrigerator until they die of asphyxiation.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. We are human, and the terror we know the best is human in origin.

Most people I know don’t drive to work or go out with their families thinking, “I hope I don’t get bitten by a zombie today.” But they do think, “How am I going to pay my bills?” “What if my wife doesn’t really love me?” “A hundred years after I’m dead, will it matter that I lived?”

That isn’t to say there’s not a place for the monster in our stories. But if we truly want to gnaw at our readers, we must keep in mind that the ultimate terror is not in the fantastic but the mundane; it is in the known more than the unknown. The monster when used correctly is not a thing unto itself. It is a vehicle for something darker, something deeper. It is merely a shadow cast by the true terror that lies latent in the hearts of every one of us.

The Routine Revolution

Somewhere in my mind there is a hole. Actually, that’s probably understating the situation, but for today lets just focus on the one. You probably have this hole in your mind too. The hole works like this. When you’re growing up your mom says to you, “Honey, it’s a bad idea to poke yourself directly in the eye with a soldering iron,” and you’re all like, “Sure mom, whatever,” and go back to playing video games. But then the day comes when you actually poke yourself in the eye with soldering iron and you say to yourself, “Gee willikers, that was a really bad idea.”

Okay, so maybe the soldering iron example was a bit silly; but I’m trying to make a point. Sometimes you hear something over and over. It’s advice and it’s good advice. You hear it from lots of people who you know and trust, people who know what they’re talking about, people who have lived through the heartbreak that a soldering iron to the eye can bring. But you don’t really listen. Until one day you experience the usefulness of their advice for yourself, very narrowly avoiding the loss of your depth perception. And you make their wisdom your own. You internalize it. And after that you start to live it.

This happened to me recently. See, I had heard the advice, “Try to commit the same block of time to writing every day,” for a long time. I understood the advice. The advice made sense to me. But I didn’t follow it.

Why? Well, a number of reasons. For one thing, my work schedule is nowhere close to regular. I dearly envy those of you who work eight to five, Monday through Friday without fail. As for me, things are a bit different. This very day I will clock in to work at one o’clock and work till ten. I’ll come home and hit the sack as fast as possible because I’ll have to be back up again in time to be at work at seven in the morning. I say this, not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but so you can understand that it wouldn’t make sense for me to say, “I will write every day from seven until eight.”

So for a long time I had no schedule. I wrote when I could and where I could. If I worked in the afternoon, then I tried to write in the morning. If I worked in the morning, then I tried to find some writing time in the evening. The problem with that was, it was often difficult to write every day. Some days got filled up with other things, and I would feel guilty because I hadn’t put in my daily allotment of words. I let myself get stressed out about not writing, to the point that sometimes when I was out spending time with my wife, I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t at home working on some story or other.

And trust me when I say that, while writing every day is a good practice, when writing starts to feel like more like a duty than an oportunity, there’s a problem.

But in the last couple of months I’ve finally found an anchor, a constant place in my day that I can schedule myself time to write in.

See, working for Walmart may not be the greatest job in the world, but one thing I can say for them is that they give you a lot of time to eat. If you work eight hours a day then your mid-shift lunch break is an entire hour. And I don’t know about you folks, but it does not take me an entire hour to eat a sandwich, some chips and a cup of yogurt. Of course for the last seven years that time has been there, and often-times I would do some writing once I was done eating. But I never made it my habit. Some days I would write, some days I would read a book, some days I would wander around the store aimlessly listening to music.

But when I started writing Sons of the Damned, I started dedicating my lunch breaks to writing that story, and after a while something clicked in my head. I had never realized how liberating it could be to say to myself, “This is the time I’m setting apart to write, and whatever I get done in that time is what I’m going to get done for the day.” No longer did I have to feel guilty that I was wasting time while watching a movie with my wife or reading a book. I knew when I was going to write, and possibly more importantly, I knew when I was going to stop.

That doesn’t mean I completely restrict myself to writing during that time and nowhere else. Last night I was taking the dog out for his constitutional at four in the morning, and a fragment of a short story came to me that I felt I had to write down then and there. This very blog post is being written in the morning hours I have before I have to go to work. But the only time I have to write is on my lunch break.

If you don’t have a writing routine, I encourage you to try and find one. Maybe your day is chaotic like mine, but I’d be willing to bet that most of you can find a time you can commit to every day. Try this: make a contract with yourself. Say, “Self, you will write from time x to time y every day. You may not write very much. What you write may not be very good. But you WILL work on this project for the time allotted.”

Don’t let the hole in your brain stop you. Experience for yourself the benefits of making writing a habit. You’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.

The Nikola Tesla Guide to Writing

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed know that I recently finished reading a book called My Inventions by Nikola Tesla. Before reading this book, I had a nominal knowledge of Tesla. I read a short biography on him back when I was in high school, and I was aware of his hero status on the internet, but reading his life story in his own words gave me a new appreciation for the man.

As a child who grew up idolizing the likes of Thomas Edison, and dreaming of what it might be like to have a career as an inventor, Tesla has always held a special place in my heart. But as a writer, I realized that his approach to life was something I could emulate as a writer as well. What follows is a short list of the things I learned from Tesla’s life that I think could benefit writers everywhere.

1. Embrace Your Inner Weird

Tesla was weird. I mean really weird. He suffered from all manner of mental maladies, from something that sounds very much like obsessive compulsive disorder, to an extremely active hallucinatory life. He was repulsed by random things like pearls, earrings, and June bugs, got a funny taste in his mouth when he dropped squares of paper into liquid. Occasionally he suffered from complete mental breakdowns during which he experienced amnesia while his brain rebooted itself.

And he was fine with it. He cultivated his hallucinations, working to understand them until finally he was able to control them. He used this ability to build models of his inventions in his head which he claimed he could test and modify just as well as if they had been present in the real world. The mental breakdowns, too he cast in a positive light. He said they were his brain’s natural defense mechanism against overwork and that they allowed him to consider his problems in a new light.

Now, I’m not suggesting that people with serious mental problems should just shrug them off, but what I am saying is that Tesla didn’t let what others would consider handicaps get in his way. Instead he made them a part of who he was and how he approached the problems of life.

Lots of writers worry about finding their “voice” but in reality there is nothing to find. The voice is you. All your flaws, all your quirks, all your weirdness, delivered through the medium of your words. Sure it takes time to develop the right way to express it, but  don’t fall into the trap of trying to be something you’re not. You’re a flawed, screwed up, utterly unique human being.

Don’t run from it. Embrace it.

2. Be a Bobber, Not a Sinker

Tesla had a lot of people who opposed him in his lifetime. He had to fight Marconi in court over the patent on the radio (and still the history books teach that Marconi invented the radio. This is beyond frustrating to me.) He butted heads with Edison over the superiority of alternating current. He was overlooked and stabbed in the back through much of his life. And you know what he has to say about it? Not a thing.

Sure, he brings up the incident where Edison promised him a large sum of money if he could fix a malfunctioning piece of machinery and then backed out of the deal saying he was only joking, but he doesn’t dwell on it. You never get the sense that he’s bitter about the matter. In a matter of a few sentences he tells the story, and mentions that he left Edison’s employ shortly thereafter. There are no bitter tirades, no condemnations of Edison’s character, just the facts.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Tesla was bitter at Edison, but if he was, he knew he would only going to hurt himself by whining about it.

And this lesson is good for everyone, not just writers. There are going to be people who disappoint you, annoy you, or flat-out try to hurt you in your endeavors. But that’s no excuse to air your grievances out to the whole world. Anger and bitterness are ultimately destructive forces, and if you spend your energies venting the negative, you’re eventually going to turn people away.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be human. The negatives are part of who you are. But never let them define you.

3. Dream Big

Yes, I know that sounds like a sentiment you might hear expressed in a girl-power pop song, but I’m pretty sure most people don’t understand what “dreaming big” really means. Tesla did though. When he was in his late teens he conceived of a system of transportation that could be achieved by building a huge ring around the equator, and then knocking the supports out and spinning the ring. It’s easy to see the problems you would have in implementing such a system. How are you going to build it over the oceans? What about mountains? What materials are you going to use that are going to use to keep such a massive object all in one piece while it spins at a speed great enough to counteract gravity?

But for Tesla, the problems were minor roadblocks. The idea was sound, and he believed it could work. Later in life he set to work building a radio transmitter that could tap into terrestrial stationary waves, making it possible to transmit to anywhere on earth. Tesla conceived of thousands of such devices easily sending telegraph signals, voices, and even pictures all around the world. In a conceptual sense it would not be improper to say that Tesla envisioned the internet years before the first computer ever appeared.

Tesla wasn’t daunted by the obstacles, but rather he was enthralled by the possibilities.

And if ever there was a time when writers could be enthralled by the possibilities it’s today. The landscape of literature is changing beneath our feet, computers and e-readers completely rearranging our relationships to stories and information, and we are on the cutting edge of this change.

The writers who succeed in this world will be the ones who reach out to these innovations, embracing them, making them a part of a new understanding of story-telling. No one knows what the world will look like in twenty years, and for some, that’s a terrifying prospect.

But the truth is, the unknown is a fascinating and wonderful thing. The future has yet to be created and we are the ones who will shape its course. Do not cower from the unknown, but step boldly forward, knowing that the only path ahead is the one you blaze for yourself.

4. Failure is Totally an Option

I almost ended this list with the third point; I wanted to leave you all on a high note. But that wouldn’t be true to Tesla’s legacy. Because in spite of his genius, and his hard work, Tesla never fully achieved all he hoped for in his life. And the things he did achieve have been largely forgotten.

There is no guarantee of success. Hard work helps, but at some point fortune plays its hand as well. You could argue that Tesla didn’t have the right mindset about money, or that maybe he would have done better if he was more of a people person, but those things miss the larger point.

Tesla didn’t much care about money. To him it was simply a means to an end, a stepping stone toward building bigger and better transmitters and the like. He was an inventor because that’s what he loved. He had his sights set on that path from a very early age, and every step in his life brought him closer to his dream.

Tesla didn’t accomplish all he wanted to, and he certainly never became a wild monetary success. But in a way it didn’t matter. He was living his dream. He kept on pushing forward because there was nothing else he could imagine striving for.

This is the ultimate test of what it means to be a writer. If you knew you were going to fail, if you knew, no one would remember a word you wrote, would you stop?

Could you stop?

In the end, that is the question that makes all the difference.

The Final Word on Endings

The End.

It’s kind of a big old deal isn’t it? Whether it’s the end of a relationship, the end of a life, or the end of an empire we mark our lives far more by endings than we do by beginnings. Lately I’ve learned that even the quintessential beginning, birth, is really just the end of a pregnancy. And when we’re talking about writing, the ending might be the single most important element of the story.

Recently in my review of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds I noted that there was something I didn’t like about the ending, something just slightly out of tune. I also said that the rest of the book was utterly fantastic and totally worth reading. But somehow my slight dissatisfaction with the ending turned into slight dissatisfaction with the book as a whole. Objectively I know that I loved 99% of everything I read, but somehow my memory of that experience has been thrown out of balance.

Now, let’s take an alternate example from the same author. Just days before Blackbirds was released I received an early copy of Chuck Wendig’s pulp epic Dinocolypse Now! (Incidentally in the very same week Chuck Wendig’s vampire-in-zombie-land sequel Bad Blood was released as well. I think I’m going into Wendig overload. Not that that’s a bad thing.) Dinocolypse Now! was….okay. I’m not going to write a whole review here, suffice it to say that it’s not Chuck’s greatest work, but neither is it necessarily bad. But the ending, dude, the ending in that thing was such a kicker. I loved that ending so much. I asked that ending to marry me, and when it spurned me I wrote poetry all night made from the tincture of my tears. Consequently, when I think back on Dinocolypse Now! my brain goes, “Dang, that book was good. Remember that part? And that other part? And that part where the hollow-earth caveman did that thing to the hyper-intelligent ape?”

Why does this happen? Well, let’s consider an experiment wherein researchers read people a list of different kinds of ice cream and told them to pick from any of the varieties on the list. The researchers found that no matter what flavors of ice cream they presented to the test subjects or what order they were arranged in, the flavor they named last was far more likely to be chosen than the others.

The moral of this story is that somewhere in the world there are scientists doing experiments that involve giving away free ice cream. It makes you wonder doesn’t it? Where would you sign up to be one of these experimentees? Did the scientists pay these people? Would it be possible to game this system and get a full-time job eating ice cream?

No, wait, sorry, the moral of the story is that there’s a glitch in the workings of our brains, a subconscious subroutine that causes more recent experiences to be valued over earlier ones. And in terms of writing this is why it’s so crucial to get the ending right. Because unless you’ve got the world’s slowest readers, odds are that the time they spend remembering your book will far outweigh the time they spent reading it. And your reader’s brain will value the final memory of the book above all others.

Point is, endings are important. They’re not all-important of course. There are other story elements you’re going to need to keep the reader interested enough to actually get to the ending. But if you’re going to do anything right, if you can make only one moment in your story amazing, make sure it’s the ending.

Now you may be wondering, “Albert, you’ve written a whole blog post about endings, so how are you going to end this sucker?” Well, fortunately for me, I’m a big fan of self-referential irony which means I can just-

The Quest for Normalcy

There are four words you never want to hear your doctor say. Now you might be thinking those words are something like, “You have bone cancer,” or “Sorry man, wrong leg.” But actually the four worst words your doctor can say are these: “I’m a writer too.” At least they were the worst words that I could have heard when my doctor said them to me.

You might already know how this story begins. It starts with me making a blog post a few weeks back about how I had been fighting some serious depression. I figured I couldn’t be the only one who was going through something like that and I wanted my fellow-writers to know they weren’t alone. Well you people, being the wonderful human beings that you are, responded with many encouraging words, as well as one comment that respectfully suggested I look into some sort of chemical solution to my problem.

At first I was hesitant to even consider such a thing. After all I wasn’t that bad right? I mean, sure I had been having more bad days than usual lately, but was it really worth pursuing medication?

But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I did have a serious problem. Over the last few months my writing output had taken a nosedive, and I had even been affected to the point where I was unable to continue a project that had been very dear to my heart.

So I mentioned it to my wife in passing, half expecting her to dismiss the notion out of hand. But instead she agreed that maybe I did in fact need to try something drastic to get out of the rut I was stuck in.

Of course I put it off for a few weeks even then, but the idea wouldn’t go away, and I knew I needed to make an appointment with my doctor anyway to renew my asthma inhaler prescription, so why not bring up my other concerns at the same time?

I finally set the date and on a beautiful Wednesday morning my wife went with me to the doctors office. But that day there were complications, meaning that the wait time was far longer than anticipated. If there’s one thing in the world I absolutely hate it’s waiting, sitting there with your butt in the same uncomfortable chair for hours on end, thinking about how your never going to get those hours back, wishing you could at least just get up and walk around the building until it’s your time to see the doctor. (That last one might be only me. I can’t stand sitting still for very long.)

So after about an hour and a half I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t want us to waste our whole day here. Maybe we should just go.” Her response shocked me. “No,” she said. “We’re staying. You need this. I need this. Because if something doesn’t change I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle it.”

That was when it really hit me what a burden my foul moods had been on those around me. So I sat my butt back into the chair, buried my nose in my book and waited.

Eventually they called us back, and we waited some more in the room for the doctor to show up. And when he came in I realized this was a new guy and not the doctor I was used to. We got the basics out of the way and talked to him about my asthma troubles, and before I knew it, it was time.

I had psyched myself up for the moment I knew was coming, the moment I was going to have to bare my stricken soul to a total stranger and ask for his help, but when the moment came it was even more difficult than I had imagined. Still, I did my best. I told the doctor about how I hated my job, how that every day I went in and did my work knowing that nothing I did would ever matter or be remembered, how that I had dreamed of being a writer for years and now my failure to attain that dream had turned into a mocking voice in the pit of my soul, a reminder that I was no one and nothing and always would be.

And that was when he smiled and said, “I’m a writer too.”

Oh. Great.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of other’s dreams when I haven’t exactly done very much toward achieving my own, but in my experience when someone tells you they’re a writer you’re usually about to be in for some mind-numbingly bad advice.

This time was no exception. “I’m not sure you need antidepressants,” the doctor told me. “I think maybe you need to keep pursuing your dream of being a writer, so you can get out of the job that you hate.”

Never have I so badly wanted to punch a human being in the face. Follow my dream? Get out of my dead-end job? What did he think I’d been doing for the past five years? Looking at a typewriter and twiddling my thumbs? Did he care that my problem was getting so bad that I couldn’t write anymore?

But I stayed calm. I explained as patiently as possible that I couldn’t climb out of this pit of despair on my own. At which point he said, “Have you ever heard of a guy named Dan Poynter? He’s got some really great books on self-publishing.”

I have looked up Dan Poynter since then, and for what it’s worth he seems to be an interesting guy with a lot of experience in self publishing as well as being, and (this is true) a world premier expert on the subject of sky diving. But on that day I really really wasn’t looking for another self-publishing guru. I just wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel like a real person again. I wanted to have the emotional energy to do the things I loved. That’s why I went to the doctor.

Only after accepting the a card on which the doctor wrote down Dan Poynter’s name as well as the title of his book was I able to convince him to write me a prescription for a low dose of Prozac. (Actually off-brand Prozac, which I was disappointed to learn is not called AmateurZac.)

That was two weeks ago. And in spite of the hoops I had to jump through to get here, I’m happy to report that I’ve been feeling better than I have in a long time. It’s still not all sunshine and roses. I still have down moment here and there, but on the whole I’ve been happy and, more importantly, productive. Of course I still have to sit down and do the work. As far as I know they haven’t yet invented a pill that cures laziness. But now I don’t have to fight against the nagging fears and crushing doubts that plagued my way before.

I was afraid at first that taking antidepressants would somehow change me, make me a radically different person, but I’m happy to report that still feel like myself.

To those of you who offered me encouragement in my dark times, thank you. And if you’ve been going through dark times of your own then let me be the first to say that there’s no shame in looking for help. If you let it depression will crush you and wear down the ones who love you.

But you don’t have to let it. You can fight back.

Shoot the Cat

The eternal curse of being a writer is that you’re no longer able to look at stories in the same way. You can’t just sit back and watch a movie or read a book and enjoy it. You find yourself saying, “Hey, that bit really worked. I wonder why?” or “That was so boring I want to remove my left eye with a corkscrew. I wonder why?” You’re like a freshly-minted mechanic, no longer able to simply drive your car in blissful ignorance and stare in befuddlement when it breaks down. You have to know why.

For instance the book Save the Cat takes its name from the idea that a story’s protagonist needs a moment to be the hero, to shine through in such a way that the reader will want to pump his fist in the air and let loose an exultant “HUZZAH!” You can’t build a whole story out of that kind of moment, any more than you can build a whole car out of spark plugs, but it is a necessary piece of the completed whole.

But lately I’ve taken note of a different kind of moment in many of the stories I’ve been reading, the television and movies I’ve been watching. It isn’t the kind of moment you cheer for. When it hits there will be no fist pumping, no getting up out of your seat and walking around the room with the book in your hands because you’re too excited to sit still, but too enthralled to stop reading. (You guys do this too right? Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.) This is a moment that stabs into your gut like a rusty machete and then twists.

This is the moment when everything goes wrong.

Of course, if your story is any good, things have been going wrong all along. An easy path does not compelling reading make. But up until this point there was hope. Before the reader was saying to himself “Well golly, I wonder how he’s going to make it out of this one.” But now the mood has changed. The reader is reeling, swaying, staggering from the sucker punch you’ve just delivered. A main character has just died; the romantic interest had just professed his love to the wrong woman; the earth has been destroyed by the Vogon Constructor fleet. In short, thing are looking very very bad indeed.

This is what I’d like to call the “shoot the cat” moment. And I’m increasingly of the opinion that every story should have one. It’s a chance to remind your audience that you’re not messing around, a moment that will make them wonder exactly how far you’re willing to go.

As far as I can tell this moment can happen at virtually any point in the story, as long as the reader is vested in your characters. This means that unless you’re writing a book in a series or a serial television show (Season 6 of Doctor Who has a fantastic example of this in the opening scenes of the second episode) You should probably save this for somewhere in the second act.

Always remember, keep the stakes high and personal. Triumph means more after tragedy, and the further down into defeat you can drag your hero, the more it will mean when he overcomes it all and soars high above the clouds victorious once again.

The Gentle Art of Letting Go

I was ten years old when I met Claws. I say met, because, when it comes to cats, ownership is a tenuous concept. I remember I was sick that day when one of the ladies from our church came over with a scraggly white kitten she had found by the side of the road. I remember how we kept him in the garage for the first few weeks we had him, and I would rush out there in the mornings and pick him up out of his box and he would dig his tiny little claws into my hand.

We had some good times together. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he sat on the couch. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he batted his toys around. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while I whispered my darkest secrets into his pointy ears.

I loved that cat. I really did. But then one day he came home from a cat fight with his nose mangled to a bloody pulp. Didn’t think much of it at first, because, come on, he was a cat. I’d have been more worried if he wasn’t fighting.

But over the next few weeks the wound didn’t heal. Instead it started to fester, cracking and bleeding whenever he scratched at it. And when we finally took him to the vet the news was worse than I could have imagined. Skin cancer. I didn’t even know that cats could get skin cancer.

That was it. There was nothing they could do; nothing we could afford at least. So we had to put him down.

I am not a sentimental man. It’s not so much that I don’t like feelings, as I just don’t seem to have as many as some other people. But on that day, when I scratched Claws’s ears for the last time, when I hugged him and told him what a good cat he had been, when they took him away and closed the door, I bawled like a baby.

That’s the story. And here’s the point.

Sometimes you have to learn to let things go. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix it or make it better. Sometimes you have to learn to move on. And this is a thing we need to learn, not only as human beings, but more specifically as writers.

That story you’ve worked on for years, trying and failing to root out the causes of its failings? There’s nothing wrong with editing, but there comes a point where you might have to consider very carefully whether pressing forward is really worth the time you’re investing in it.

And with stories it’s hard. It’s hard because you’ve built this world, nurtured these characters, shaped these events like a microcosmic god, you’ve already invested so much of yourself into it that there’s a sense that if you give up on this you’re giving up on yourself. You say, “Think of all the time I’ve invested in this. It’s just around the corner, I know it is, just one more re-outline, just one more scene change and it’ll be right.” And so the story lurches on, a poor pathetic undead thing, forced to continue its agonized existence by the sheer force of your will.

Here’s the thing: sometimes you fail. It hurts to admit, but sometimes that story just isn’t very good. I had to face this recently with one of my own stories. It was the first book I had ever written, and I kept going back to it year after year thinking I could salvage it somehow. But last month I finally I realized the flaws in the narrative were just too deep to fix. I had to let it go.

But it isn’t a total loss. That story was the first step on a journey. And while I’m not yet the writer I want to be, I’m a whole heck of a lot better than the writer I used to be. And the stories I’m going to write are better than the stories I have written.

We fail, yes, but in failing we can learn. We can grow. But only if we can learn to accept failure for what it is: an opportunity to learn.

A Little Less Talk, and a Lot More Action

You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down  the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.

Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.

Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.

It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.

But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.

In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).

It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.

You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.

This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.

Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

Flash Fiction February – Day Seven

A while back some of you may remember that I got a little burned out on the whole writing “thing”. I went through some things that made me reevaluate what I wanted out of my life as a writer and for the space of about a month I did almost no writing at all.

I’ve been slowly coming back from that, but here at the end of the first week of Flash Fiction February I’m finally starting to remember that there really can be joy in sitting down to write every day.

Not that every day has produced some spectacularly brilliant work of fiction, but the beauty of Flash Fiction February is that if today’s work stinks, that stench doesn’t necessarily have to carry over to tomorrow. When I was a kid my mom basically forced me to sit down and watch Anne of Green Gables and in that movie there’s a line that’s stuck with me: “Tomorrow is fresh, with no mistakes in it.” For me that’s basically the spirit of Flash Fiction February summed up in a single sentence.

So far I’ve only missed one day of writing, but that was because I was engrossed in the big game (not the Super Bowl mind you; me and the kids had a wicked round of Uno going on Sunday night.) As to the writing I have done, I have to say that overall I’m pleased, not only with the general quality of my output, but also in the fact that writing a different story every day is forcing me to try new things, exercise different narrative techniques, try out variations in my writing voice.

There’s still a lot of writing left to do, but I’m feeling good about the rest of the month. Here’s wishing the rest of you a happy February of writing too.

Flash Fiction February: A Pile of Prompts

February is nearly upon us my friends. Can you feel it? Can you sense that electric hum of anticipation in the air? That’s not the feeling that comes with knowing that you have nothing special planned for your sweety this Valentines Day. That’s the realization that Flash Fiction February is right around the corner!

Yeah, that’s right. Exclamation point, ya’ll. I’m not taking it back neither. ‘Cause I am pumped.

But maybe you’re worried. Maybe your thinking, Albert, I want to do this Flash Fiction February thing, but what am I going to write about for twenty-nine whole days?

Never fear my friends. I mean unless you’re being attacked by the Slender Man or something, in which case, yeah. FEAR. But we has got you covered on this writing thing. And by “we” I mean, blogger and writer C. M. Stewart.

Ms. Stewart is a flash fiction aficionado, a connoisseur of writing prompts from around the web, and she has compile a fantastic list of twenty nine prompts, one for each of the days in February, which you should totally check out here.

Now maybe you don’t feel like you need any prompts. Maybe you think you’ve got a handle on this thing. Let me tell you, you owe it to yourself to at least go and check these out. Why? Two words: ghost rockets.

Remember these prompts are just suggestions. You can use all or none of them as you see fit. The main thing is to write. To form a new story every day for twenty-nine days.

And whether you wing it or use the prompts, always remember, the most important part of any story comes from something that you and only you can bring to it.

Happy writing!