Westercon

The first weekend of July marked what was a wonderful, career-building experience as a writer: Westercon.  As you can probably tell from the last three letters of its name, Westercon is a convention, specifically for writers and artists of sci-fi and fantasy.  Because of the endlessly strange stigma attached to the word “horror” in the publishing world, my writing falls under the sci-fi/fantasy umbrella, so it was only natural that when I caught wind of this convention I bought a membership.  I had been eager to go to my first writing convention for some time.

I showed up at the convention sign-in booth early on Thursday July 3rd and chatted with another writer in line who writes under the name Thomas Fawkes (he told me about some of his fantasy projects and it sounds really cool, you should check him out).  Being of similar interest and experience, we decided to become con buddies for the day.  Adorned with our name badges we set forth.

The first Westercon event we attended was the release party of Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology.  As I’ve mentioned before I am an avid listener of the Writing Excuses podcast.  It honestly as been a bigger help to my writing than the sum of instruction I received relative to my creative writing degree.  I’ve said this before, but it warrants repeating: if you are an aspiring writer of genre fiction that is serious about your craft, then you need to listen to the podcast.  It has improved my approach to writing.  Anyway, Shadows Beneath

The Writing Excuses Team

The Writing Excuses Team

is an anthology with a story from each of the podcast’s main contributors: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler.  Varying from most anthologies, this book has their stories up front and the deconstruction of the writing process of the stories (early drafts, notes, line edits, brainstorming, outlining, et cetera) in the back.  So this book serves as almost a textbook of the writing process– or just a good collection of short stories by great writers.  At the release party the Writing Excuses team all spoke briefly, then copies of the book were sold (of course I purchased one), food was eaten, signatures signed.  As I’ve posted before, I had met Brandon Sanderson previously at a signing, but I got him to sign my copy of The Way of Kings and chatted with him about Shardblades at the party.  I had brief interactions with Howard and Mary (primarily because I am not so familiar with their work) and then moved on to Dan Wells, who is one of m

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard's hat and cloak

Yes, Dan Wells is wearing a wizard’s hat and cloak

y personal heroes.  After all, the man has fulfilled what I want to accomplish– to make a living as a horror writer while being active LDS, religiously.  We chatted several times throughout the con (as shall be chronicled throughout this post), but the first interaction was quite funny as, after I told him a little about myself, he joked about being one of a tiny handful of Mormons who write horror.

After the party there was a two-hour recording session of Writing Excuses, which was great to be there for.  There was a Q&A episode, which I asked a question at (about creating frightening, unique creatures), which I will hold as bragging material with my writer friends when that podcast airs.

Most of the rest of day one was spent perusing booths at FantasyCon across the street (my Westercon badge got me

The FantasyCon dragon

The FantasyCon dragon

in for free), though I did jump back over for what ended up being one of the most productive things I did at the convention.  It was a class put on by Mary Robinette Kowal, Sandra Tayler, and the chairman of Westercon.  It was Schmoozing

101, intended to give some tips as to how to most productively interact with pros at conventions.  In a post soon to come I’ll give you a transcription and summary of this from my notes– it was very valuable.

I ended my first night for a guest of honor panel for Dan Wells in which he talked about his upcoming second John Cleaver trilogy (I love the first books– delightful supernatural horror), read from a book about cloning that he’s currently negotiating with Tor (I’m excited for it), and answered some audience questions.  The Q&A was very helpful to me because somebody asked where Dan goes to for his research on mental illness (something that has played a significant role in his books) and he recommended the self-help section books on mental illness intended for the loved ones of those afflicted.  I have been doing research on mental illness for Dark Art (the protagonist has severe PTSD) and until that suggestion, I had been wading through medical jargon and military transcripts.  Gathering the books he recommended has vastly improved my research.  Beside that, the best moment of that panel was when Dan, while discussing music he listens to in order to get him in the writing mode, mentioned She Wants Revenge and asked if anybody had any idea who he was talking about.  I alone raised my hand, to which he joked, “Of course, only the only other horror writer in the room knows that band.”

Day two began with more Dan Wells as I attended his release party for Next of Kin, his new John Cleaver novella.  It was cool to hang out, get a copy, get it signed, and eat pizza Dan bought for the event.  Then, another round of Writing Excuses recordings, during which I met my writing compadre (we critique each others’ stuff), J.A. Trevor, in person.  After that we hung out for a while in the dealer’s room where I bought a Cthulhu fish for my car (because what horror writer doesn’t want a dark Lovecraftian deity on their car?).  Later that day I attended a horror panel.  My attendance to that probably made Mr. Wells believe that I was stalking him.  Promise, his events just had the most appeal to me as a writer.  Really hope I didn’t seem creepy.

Me with Dan.  Be jealous.

Me with Dan. Be jealous.

Finally, day three of the con.  Bright and early, I headed in to a workshop that I had paid and submitted for in advance that was done by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, who moderates Orson Scott Card’s writer’s workshop on his site Hatrack River, and LDS writer Dave Butler.  They read “Charlestonian Monsters” and gave me some terrific feedback.  Their reaction was very positive to the quality of writing, which brought me great pride, and the majority of their concerns were around making the piece more cohesive in terms of theme and tone.

After that I went to FantasyCon, where I went to one episode worth of another Writing Excuses recording session.  I ducked out early for a panel with Simon Pegg, which was hilarious and awesome.

After that, I attended my final Westercon panel– one on worldbuilding that was led by Brandon Sanderson.  Considering how intricate and wonderful the worlds of his creation are, the fact that it was awesome really goes without saying.  During and after that panel I chatted with another aspiring writer, Aaron Hoskins, who I met during Dan’s guest of honor panel.  We became friends and it was cool to see how our exchange was mutually beneficial– I had more writing experience to share while he has attended more cons that I have.

So, in summary, Westercon was a blast.  I learned a lot, interacted with professionals and had a ton of fun.  So, writers, get out to a writing con!  It was worth far more than its cost.

My (Very) Brief Stint as a Ghostwriter

calvin-hobbes-writers-block

For a good while I was really interested in finding a job that involved creative writing to be my day job when I’m not working on my novel. I love writing, I reasoned, so it only made sense that more writing can only be good.

It turns out that may not be the case for me.  I certainly have every hope to be able to quit my day job to work on novels full time, but working on projects that are not my own doesn’t seem to work very well for me.

So, here’s the story:  A couple months ago, I got an email from the Utah workforce services website.  I had used the site a few months prior to try to find a job (my wife and I moved at the end of the year).  Part of it involved inputting desired fields, so naturally I put in writing.  Move the clock forward, and I’m reading an email stating that there is a creative writing job that had just been put onto the site.  I put off checking it out for a few days, feeling quite content with my new job (a credit union teller), but curiosity won out.

The job was for a company that hires writers for a variety of book projects.  The company then owns the rights to the books and tries to sell them to publishers.  The posting specifically mentioned fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi projects, so I thought the job might be right up my alley.  After emailing back and forth for about a week (making sure, for example, that I wouldn’t be doing something like signing over the rights to my own writing projects) I got an interview set up.  At that interview I was told that the company had openings for writers of a few projects, but only one of those projects was fiction.  The rest were for a nonfiction project dealing related to business, drawing lessons from a wide variety of people or things depending on the project.  My interviewer told me that, if I was willing, that I could be hired on for one of those books and then could be moved to a fiction project when another opened up.  The pay was by page, and the nonfiction project paid a little more per page than the fiction projects, so I told him that should be fine– fiction definitely was more up my alley, but I thought that writing for money would make me content to matter what I was working on.  Plus, the company was expecting a minimum of 10 hours of work a week, which I thought would work out fine with my job and my own writing.

I wish that were true.  About a week later I was sent a project, partially complete, that I was to finish over the next few months.  I set to work, but the topic– lessons from the richest men in history– didn’t interest me, and in spite of my best efforts, the level of research I had to do on each individual I had to write about resulted in my production rate being far too small.  I was ideally supposed to be producing around 3 pages an hour, but I was realistically doing only half that.  That meant low pay for a lot of mentally strenuous work.  I quickly felt frustrated with the project and that frustration spilled over to my other creative projects.  Simply, by the end of my time spent writing I either didn’t have time to work on Dark Art or just was too burned out to do so.

Also, I was sad that with how the writing job was setup I had no real part in the business side of publication.  The material I was producing could very well get published in a year, or ten years, or never– and I wouldn’t hear anything about it unless I stumbled upon it at a bookstore while passing through a section I don’t peruse.  I took the job hoping to get a better feel for what I’ll be dealing with when my novel is complete and publishable, but that wasn’t going to happen.  I also hoped to gain some connections in the industry, but once again I just emailed my material to one person, who made sure it got edited and that I got paid, so networking was out, too.

I lasted one pay period– two weeks– and was glad to get out.  It was a good experience in terms of learning what ghostwriting can be and learning that it is not for me.  I suppose I’ll be working something less exciting than writing until I can find a way to go full time as a novelist…

Scrivener – An All-In-One Writing Tool

As a writer, there are many approaches to the actual writing itself.  Some people take pen to paper, some dig out an old typewriter, though definitely the most frequent method in this era is to make use of a word processor.  Obviously, Microsoft Word is a big one, though OpenOffice and others also have their proponents.

I wrote using these basic word processors for a long time– after all, they’ve served many writers well for the last couple decades, right?  I liked writing with them, though it felt like I either had to spend a long time scrolling and searching or had to break up my work into multiple documents, neither of which really were the best for my writing.  When I’m really in the writing zone but I need to pause to check a detail from previous work, I tend to get distracted and usually get much less done than I should.

Thankfully, a friend of mine once happened to have his book-in-progress open scriviconon his computer one day while I sat behind him in an English class.  He was using a program I hadn’t ever seen before.  I asked him what it was, and he replied “Scrivener!  Have you not seen it before?  It’s awesome!”

He was right.  Rather than the basic, all-purpose word processors I’ve spent most of my life using for everything from my books to essays to badly formatted birthday cards, I could see that Scrivener had a very specific sort of setup– one meant for writers, especially for long form fiction and nonfiction.

scrivenerFor starters, Scrivener is set up in a way that allows you to break up the writing of the story in any way you want.  You can have chapters, sub-chapters, whatever.  There is a note card view that allows you to look at all of the sections and lets you add notes that don’t show up in the text itself as to what is happening, or what you want to accomplish, et cetera.  It’s very easy for outline writers to thrown up a bunch of cards (which can be added to or re-organized as needed) and then write the text in each section without having to flip back and forth between the text and an outline document.  You can make a research section that is part of the Scrivener project to fill with notes, character sketches, photos, anything.  The whole writing process is streamlined wonderfully.  Also great is that if you jump to a different section of your text or notes, your cursor stays where it was in the section you were just working on, so no losing your place while editing or revising.

It’s honestly wonderful.  It’s made me more efficient, organized, and goal-oriented in my writing.  Plus, it’s like $40, and even less for students.  Check it out: if you are serious about your writing it’s much cheaper than MS Office and is much more helpful for your writing.

Why I’m (Continually) Thankful for Brandon Sanderson

In the last few weeks, I’ve become even more grateful for the great writer Brandon Sanderson.  I’ve already given a brief dissertation on why his writing is awesome and why I find him to be an inspiration to my writing.Brandon_Sanderson  I’m going focus on two points here: firstly, I’m just going to talk about some of his other writing I’ve read in the past few weeks, and also I’m going to talk about Writing Excuses.

At the job I recently left I listened to a lot of books.  This was really my first notable experience with audiobooks instead of print books, and I must say that it can be an enjoyable way to experience good writing.  Overall I still prefer the convention medium, but audiobooks have really been great for making long stretches of repetitive activity much shorter and more interesting.  As I’ve mentioned in my other Brandon Sanderson-related post, I listened to the audiobook of his recent novel Steelheart, which was pretty well done, and to his novella Legion, which I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  More recently I listened to another of his novels, this particular book a fantasy novel targeted for the YA audience.  Though I highly enjoyed this book, The Rithmatist, in its content, I wasn’t as pleased with the reading thereof.

As usual, hisrithmatist story and magic system for the book were both rich and unique.  The magic system, rithmatics, is based on chalk drawings and geometry, somewhat reminiscent of things like alchemical circles in Fullmetal Alchemist, though certainly more clear in what it does.  It uses circles drawn around the rithmatist, which serves as both a defense measure as well as the framework for additional lines or drawings which can be used to defend or attack.  One of the most intriguing elements of the system that tends to differ from other drawing-based systems is chalkings, which are combatant two-dimensional drawings that can to damage to rithmatic lines or living beings, and that there are numerous wild chalkings that are engaged in constant combat with the military.  The story is, naturally, closely tied to rithmatics.  Sanderson is thorough in how he deals out the implications of the magic system and how it has shaped the world in numerous aspects, including military, education, and religion.  I also liked the characters, even though they were clearly written for an audience a decade or so my junior.  I felt that they were pretty solidly presented in their youth.  I didn’t have the usual urge to roll my eyes that comes with much of YA literature, with writers clearly out of touch with what it actually is to be adolescent.  The setting was also one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, both in the school where most of the action takes place and in the world in general.  It is set in a turn-of-the-century America that, instead of being a single landmass, is a cluster of islands.  The sociopolitical history of the world is cleverly demonstrated in ways that are refreshingly subtle– for instance, to indicate a heavy Asian influence throughout Europe, the characters eat “Italian food,” which is noodles covered in a tomato-soy sauce and eaten with chopsticks.

So, as I’ve stated, the book itself is a pretty good read.  It seemed pretty clear that Sanderson intends to write subsequent novels, and I welcome that.  I almost certainly will not be partaking of them via audiobook again, however.

My qualms with the audiobook are fairly simple.  First, the reader wasn’t particularly compelling.  He sounded like a tired older man, which really didn’t work as the voicing character is a young teenager and also just made the story kind of boring.  Also, the book featured diagrams that served to explain elements of the magic system more clearly.  The reader partially explained what was in the diagrams, and there was a PDF with them all included, but it was a pain to stop what I was doing to look at them.

Next up I’m just going to touch on 01_elantris_ukanother of his books– Elantris.  I’m only at the beginning of the book, but I bring it up now because of how I’m experiencing it.  I’m listening to the GraphicAudio version of the book, which is a very different sort of audiobook than what I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few weeks, in a way that I feel is mostly positive.  Instead of just having a reader or two read the book aloud, the GraphicAudio version features a full cast recording.  Every character is voiced separately, as is the narrator, and things like dialogue tags are dropped.  There are also sound effects and implied dialogue, such as a person babbling on as the narrator states that the person wouldn’t shut up.  They claim it’s “like a movie in your mind,” and for the most part, it’s true.  It’s interesting to have a book presented almost like an old-school radio show.  There are a couple little problems I’ve had in the listening to this particular book, but they are relatively minor drawbacks when compared to how much more interesting the book is in this format than conventional audiobooks.  Specifically, I don’t like a couple of the voice actors (they sound too old or the like), and there are times when there is a crowd shouting or something that wasn’t mixed well enough to keep the narrator’s words clear above the din.

The last thing I want to mention in my discussion of the-hero-of-ages-by-brandon-sandersonmy recent reading is the final novel of his Mistborn trilogy.  I’ve already raved about how good the magic system and world is generally, but I just wanted to comment that the series’ conclusion is very impressive.  Everything comes together in unexpected ways that are, simply, brilliant.  He set up a number of very critical elements from the very beginning of the first book that stayed beneath my radar until he wanted to skillfully pull back the curtain and show what he’d been doing the entire series.  I even more highly recommend reading this series now that I’ve finished it.  Even the most careful reader is going to be surprised, and it’s simply delightful.  I am very eager to read The Alloy of Law, which is set hundreds of years later, in part because the original series is so good and also because I can’t wait to see how the important events that conclude The Hero of Ages have an impact on future generations.

I’m going to say it again: read Mistborn.  It has an incredible magic system, dynamic characters that you actually care about, interesting creatures, and vast (but not overwhelming) scope.

Okay, I’m done foaming at the mouth fromwriting excuses how good he is at writing.  Now, on to how good he is at teaching.

Writing Excuses, if you are not familiar with it, is a podcast about writing.  Brandon contributes, along with other Utahn writers Howard Tayler and Dan Wells.  So, a fantasy novelist, a sci-fi cartoonist, and a horror novelist.  There is also another regular contributor later, but I haven’t gotten to her contributions yet, as well as numerous guests including Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Mull, Tracy Hickman, and Steve Jackson.  In each 15-minute episode the podcasters discuss some aspect of writing, specifically focusing on helping new and aspiring writers improve their craft.  It’s a lot like listening to college-level creative writing class lectures, but I honestly think they are frequently better than the classes I’ve taken in that they bring in multiple perspectives.  These are all genre fiction writers as well, so the advice is targeted at the kind of writing that I do (and is thankfully free of the judgmental tones that often accompany professorial discussion of anything that isn’t “literary”).  I can’t understate how wonderful this podcast has been for my writing.  First of all, they talk about a lot of topics that are important to take into consideration in writing– everything from specific aspects of worldbuilding to how to brainstorm to giving characters individual voices– and also about the business side of professional writing– that it is being a small business owner, the importance of cons, what publishers look for.  The most I ever got about the business of getting published in college was essentially “always be submitting.”  That’s it.

Not every podcast has been super-relevant to my writing, but every podcast has been at the very least interesting to listen to.  I’ve never had any interest in writing card or board games, but I still was fascinated when they had Steve Jackson on.

The most important thing about Writing Excuses is that it has provided me a regular opportunity to think about my writing.  I’ve listened to it during my commute to and from my last job (total two hours of driving, which is why I no longer work there), so I spent two hours in which I usually did nothing thinking about my writing from numerous angles.  I’ve learned a lot about my characters and what I need to do in my current revision process of my novel– and I’m not talking just about line edits, I mean big-picture changes and refinements.  It’s been invaluable to me, and I’m already seeing that my writing is improving because of it.  It’s also good in that it reminds me, frequently and in no uncertain terms, that I need to set aside time to write.  I need that reminder and I’m thankful that the Writing Excuses guys have gone out of their way to provide it and their experienced advice to anybody who wants to download it.

Discovery Writing

I am a discovery writer.  I have both a great love for and great frustration with my writing process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, discovery writing is figuring out what happens next in the story as it is written.  It’s writing with little-to-no outlining.  Writing by the seat of the pants, writing reflexively.

What I love:

  • Discovery writing is fun.  It’s all of the thrill of creating something awesome, plus the thrill of experiencing a new story, being along with the ride’s twists and turns.  It’s writing a book while reading it for the first time.  I must say, that is the biggest part of why I don’t outline or the like.  I love not knowing what is ahead.
  • The story quickly takes a life of its own.  Because it becomes its own entity (though one living in my head), it does things that I wouldn’t come up with if left to my own devices.  I don’t feel like I would be able to come up with the twists that the stories I’m putting into text form have on their own.  I know this seems like a weird idea– I am creating the story, after all, but I feel like if I’m trying to get it to conform to a plan, then I would miss out on far too many interesting arcs and directions that have happened organically in my writing.
  • My characters take on lives of their own.  One complaint I’ve heard from people who outline is that their characters frequently want to do things that they didn’t have planned for them.  Because I take the planning out of the equation I don’t have that issue, and they frequently surprise me in wonderful ways.  I feel that I don’t have the trouble of my stories being awkwardly forced into a storyline because my characters are making their own decisions.
  • My first drafts tend to come pretty quickly.  My first draft of Dark Art took, in total writing time, probably a quarter of the time I’ve put into it.  The story just kind of happened, and there’s hardly anything more thrilling than to have a little story world that’s taken form.  It’s the quick gratification that brought me into writing.  Now I just need to love the long haul more…

What drives me crazy:

  • Drafting.  As I’ve said, I don’t outline, but by the fact that I’m dealing with an existing story, writing later drafts of a story is very similar to writing with an outline.  In fact, it’s often more constraining than a list of points I want to hit in a story.  I love writing my first draft as a discovery writer, but when it’s time to buckle down and make my writing good I am out of practice in developing existing ideas and plans further.  Also, it becomes really difficult for me to jump from section to section, making changes early on to tie into something I’m fixing for late in the story or the like, because I’m in the mindset of writing a story from beginning to end, not sporadically as needed.  I’m experiencing this problem right now, as I’m working on a later draft of my horror novel-in-progress.  How I’m doing the drafting is inevitably going to result in several drafts more than I otherwise would need to do, so I’d better find a way to fix my approach at this point.
  • It’s really easy to get writers block.  Really, really easy.  I’ve found that because discovery writing is so much fun, whenever I hit one of the tricky spots that isn’t just “flowing right,” I stop working on a story/essay/blog post for much longer than I should.  Notice the time gap between this post and the previous one?  Yeah, things weren’t flowing, so I found it harder to make myself sit my butt down and write.  Ultimately, I’m letting my discovery writing process create excuses, and that clearly needs to stop.
  • It makes it easy to forget that writing is work.  This is both a blessing and a curse– I love writing, and much of the time I spend doing so I enjoy so much that it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life to make my living.  It’s wonderful to have that level of passion for something that is a viable career.  But, to actually make it a viable career I need to treat it like one.  I need to make myself work, so pushing through the rough spots, making myself write come hell or high water, is part of the gig.
  • I don’t know what’s coming next.  I’ve already mentioned that I love being surprised by my stories, but it also sucks in that I don’t have goals in writing.  I don’t know what to write toward, what to move my characters toward.  I feel like all too frequently my characters can fall into meaningless action or dialogue because, even if they have goals, I don’t.
  • It’s hard to pack in more after my first shot.  Because my story has given me surprises all along the way, it’s very tricky to make future additions fit in as well.  I do make interesting discoveries, things I missed, while I’m revising, but adding compelling subplots, side characters, compelling dialogue– it doesn’t come quite as naturally to me.
  • Prewriting and worldbuilding is more difficult.  I’ve recently found that I really enjoy writing things that don’t go into the finished text– writing the things that make their way into the story subtextually.  Since I tend to discover things as I go along, it’s hard to get to know my characters and world as much as I really should before I dig in to the storyline.  I need to make myself do a lot more of this while I write that first draft, because doing so to help color later drafts is helping me a great deal, and I love it.

Now that I’ve written this all down, this seems like I’m really just saying that writing is hard work sometimes.  For discovery writers, the bulk of the hard work comes after the first draft or where ever the story slows down.  For outliners, the hardest work seems to come with the planning process, then with ironing things out to work with the plan, or figuring out how to adapt the plan to make a better story.  Either way, it’s worth the effort.  There’s nothing quite like putting a story to paper.

Published in: on February 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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I Have A Degree In Creative Writing, So… What’s Next?

Spring  semester of 2013 I completed my degree in English – Creative Writing at Utah State University.  Initially, I felt thrilled– I essentially had a piece of paper that implied that I could write with a fair degree of proficiency.  Even though I had been given words of warning by every writing professor I had come in contact with, I felt like I was a writer.  I had done it.

But I really hadn’t. 71019119

Reality has a way of punching people.  My degree made me a writer in much the same way a degree in French makes somebody a Frenchman– it doesn’t.  At all.  What my degree meant was I had received a few years of training on the craft, but other than some optional letters– B.S.– to add behind my name, I only warranted a BS (not bachelor of science) sense of achievement.  I wasn’t a writer.  Not really.  Unfortunately, I’m still not.

Yet.

So, what’s the difference between being a writer and a guy that writes?

I’m not going to restrict the use of the term “writer” by any measure of success in the field.  Success means that the wonderful word “professional” can be added before it, but I feel like I can become a writer long before any story or book is published, long before I garner a large blog audience.  To me, being a writer is about decisions and habits– ones that I am trying to teach myself to make and follow.

Simply, a writer writes.  Regularly, persistently.

Life makes it really easy for me to be a guy that writes instead of the alternative that I desire.  I’m married.  I have a job that I have to commute to.  I have friends.  I have an extensive backlog of video games, a Netflix account, a music library.  And these aren’t bad things in any way.  In fact, these are all wonderful– they make my life interesting and fun and worth living.  These things also can help with my writing.  A full, interesting, varied life informs and inspires art in the same way art informs and inspires life.

So, I need to find ways to make writing fit in with all these other things.  I have to make some sacrifices, but I think writing is well worth it.  I’ve started to find ways to adapt my life into one that involves writing more heavily, and I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by how easy it can be when I don’t let myself to forget how much I love it.  I’ve found ways to remind myself of this simply by thinking about my writing– especially my novel-in-progress– all the time.  It sounds like this goes without saying, but it’s really so much easier to sit down and write when I’ve spent the day coming up with good ideas.  I feel like I’ve had the issue of sitting down and expecting myself to just create, on demand, without much forethought.  Moving away from this, letting myself really stew with fresh ideas for my stories, is really making a world of difference.  I sit down feeling elated to have the chance to write, and it makes the experience magical every time.

The end goal is to write every day, or at very least 4-5 days a week.  With my current schedule, it is admittedly tricky to sit down and crank out material with as much regularity as I’d like.  So, I’ve looked at how my time is divided and spotted sections that I can do something pro-writing with.  For example, I know that I really benefit as a writer when I’m receiving instruction, so I’ve found a way to be instructed– by listening to a writing podcast while commuting.  I actually recommend it to anybody interested in writing– it’s Writing Excuses, and is done by some Utah writers– Howard Tayler (whose webcomic I have not read), Dan Wells (whose first published book, I Am Not A Serial Killer, I have read and enjoyed quite well), Mary Robinette Kowal (whose contributions to the podcast I haven’t yet reached), and Brandon Sanderson (whose writing I am thankful for).  Their discussion of the craft has already helped me a great deal– as I listen I think about specific elements of my book and have accordingly uncovered very critical plot and character details that are really adding a great deal of shape and thematic power to the story.  I can say definitely that listening to Writing Excuses is improving my writing.

I’ve also been carrying around a little pocket notebook with me.  I’ve actually been doing this for a while, originally for the intent of scribbling down ideas when they strike me, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to do more with it– specifically, to make it useful in terms of prewriting.  When I have a free second at work or the like I’ve been pulling it out and fleshing out plot points, themes, character sketches, et cetera.  I’ve found that by doing so I’ve also been adding more to the fresh ideas aspect of the notebook as well.

I’m also seeking to find employment closer to where I live.  Simply, the less time I spend driving the more time I can potentially spend writing.  I may only end up with a job that pays okay and has only okay hours, but if it works with my writing then I’m going to be content– I’m learning to think more in terms of jobs that are working towards the goal of professional writing and those that do not.  Unfortunately, outside of podcast time and the ability to listen to audiobooks while performing my job tasks (because reading is critical to good writing) it isn’t a job good for my endgame.  So, I’ve also been looking into jobs that build writing skills, but that’s been a bust so far.

So, the habits and self-improvements to become a writer are in the works.  Any other tips for transitioning into becoming a writer?

Why I’m Thankful for Brandon Sanderson +Steelheart

A few years ago I first caught wind of the writing of Brandon Sanderson.  It was in one of Gabe’s posts on Penny Arcade, briefly praising a fantasy novel he’d recently read called Mistborn: The Final Empire.  The title of the book, as well as Gabe’s words, piqued my interest.  I made a mental note, which I quickly Brandon_Sanderson_signfiled away in the back of my mind because I was obsessively reading through the complete library of Stephen King (a task that I’m still working on, now with the end in sight).  I also had then-recently fallen mostly out of love with the fantasy genre because of a number of mediocre books that I had read over the year previous– the exceptions to my genre abandonment being King’s The Dark Tower series and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  So, when I later heard that Sanderson had been selected to finish The Wheel of Time after Mr. Jordan’s unfortunate passing, I felt hope that the series might be given the conclusion it deserved.  A quick glance at Sanderson’s Wikipedia page stated that he was selected for the Herculean task after Robert Jordan’s wife had read Mistborn and had, like Gabe, been impressed.  I moved the novel up a few notches on my to-read list.

It was not long after this that I went on my LDS mission, so all of my fiction reading was halted for a couple of years.  When I got home, Sanderson was about to release his second of the three Wheel of Time books he is responsible for, so I quickly set myself to acquiring and reading the continuing adventures of the Dragon Reborn and his companions.  I was, of course, overjoyed at how 9781429997171seamlessly Sanderson picked up the series.  His style for the books was very similar to Jordan’s, and the story picked up with almost the same momentum it had left off.  I felt like Sanderson knew the extensive collection of characters almost as personally as their creator had.

So, there’s my first reason to be thankful for Brandon Sanderson: he finished The Wheel of Time, and did a dang good job doing so.  I was distraught the day that I learned that Robert Jordan had died– I needed to know how the story concluded.  Now, some people may think that selfish of me, thinking only of how much of a cliffhanger I’d been left on, but I think that’s one of the greatest honors that I could pay him.  I was upset because I just had to know how the wonderful story I had been reading for around 10,000 pages ended.  I loved the world he created, and I wanted his legacy– one of the greatest of all fantasy series– to be complete.  Brandon Sanderson honored Jordan’s legacy, praise the light.

Between the time Mr. Sanderson released Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, my wife-to-be and I visited some extended family in Arizona.  My favorite uncle and I were chatting about books and our discussion turned to The Wheel of Time, and how happy Brandon Sanderson’s handling of it was making us.  My uncle mentioned that he had read a number of his other books, and that they were excellent.  He mentioned that one of Sanderson’s books, Warbreaker, is a free PDF on his website, so I quickly downloaded it (you can acquire it here).  I put it on my kindle.

A few months later, I got married.  While waiting in the airport to head off to our honeymoon, I dug my kindle out of one of my bags warbreakerand suggested to my new wife that give it a read.  She is also a big fan of The Wheel of Time, and had read a little of Sanderson’s other writing already, liking what she had thus far read, so she was excited to agree.  She had already indicated to me that his writing would be fun for us to pursue.  We silently read the prologue in the terminal, then the first chapter or two in the air, nodding to each other for page turns.  Soon, taking turns reading Warbreaker aloud to each other became a nightly ritual, with additional large chunks being knocked out whenever a lengthy car ride occurred.  We fell in love with the characters (Lightsong is my personal favorite) and with the vivid, fascinating world of the novel.  The magic system was especially spectacular– and refreshing– because of how unique yet logically sound it was.  With how impressive the system is, it was no big surprise to me that he has published laws for writing magic systems in fantasy.  The story is wonderful, with some very intricately set traps for the reader.  I recommend it to anybody who loves good fantasy lit– plus, it’s free if you don’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

After finishing Warbreaker, my wife and I decided that reading Brandon Sanderson’s writing at night was a ritual that should remain unbroken, so we quickly moved on to the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire.  This time we weren’t just drawn into the world he had created, but were yanked in.  The series (which we are reading the third book of currently– we’re taking our time to really savor its wonderfulness) is simply some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.  The characters, especially Vin and Kelsier, are compelling, strong, complex.  Sanderson also boasts three mistborn(three!) magic systems in the series, all of which are based around metals.  Just explaining the main system, allomancy, has caused a number of friends to immediately purchase all three books in the main series (there is also a novel set hundreds of years after the trilogy that I look forward to reading).

So, the second reason I’m thankful for Brandon Sanderson is for his magic systems.  They both make for some refreshingly different fantasy reading and have helped me as a writer.  I’ve been working on a fantasy novel off and on for years.  Actually, for just about as long as I’ve been wanting to be a writer– since sixth grade (and I’m now a college graduate).  The ideas I have for the story are pretty decent, I think, but the story was always missing something that could make it have something that made it distinct from the numerous small group of good vs overwhelmingly powerful evil stories that tend to make up most of the fantasy genre.  By reading Sanderson’s books, I’ve come to realize that my magic system was a mess– an amalgam of pretty much all of the typical magics I’ve read over the years.  The only way I can save the story is to start yet another draft, this time with a solid system of magic drawn out.  Mr. Sanderson’s laws will really help me do so.

The third reason I’m grateful for Brandon Sanderson is that his writing is an example to me as a writer.  As I’ve noted before, I’m LDS.  I’ve been long trying to figure out what that means to my writing.  I want to write in a wide variety of genres, focusing on horror, and sometimes the material I want to write, that I have great ideas for, has resulted in extended periods of time staring at a blinking cursor, pondering what to do next.  I often find that my characters do not have the same moral perspectives that I do, or find themselves in extreme situations, which leaves me wondering where the line is.  How do I balance being true to the story and characters against my own views on profanity, violence, and evil?  I have no desire to go the direction of LDS literature (that is, lit specifically written for a Mormon audience), as I find most of it tacky at best.  I’m glad to have two popular literature writers who are LDS– Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card– whose work I both enjoy and can learn from.  I haven’t found the most absolute footing in this conundrum yet, but looking at Warbreaker and Mistborn have helped point me in the right direction.

Plus, he just brings me lots of joy. I really want to go to one of his workshops. And just be as awesome as a writer as he is.

Since it doesn’t 13452375quite fit in with the “thankful” motif (I can’t think of any solid ways to tie it in to that seasonal idea) I’m just going to break to talk about some of Brandon Sanderson’s other writing that I’ve acquainted myself with.  The first discussion will be brief– his novella, Legion— while the second will be a bit more extensive– Sanderson’s newest novel, Steelheart.

I became acquainted with Legion as the result of some ad I came across for Audible.  For most of my life I’ve tended to pay audio books no mind, but the ad caught my interest as it featured the name of Sanderson– next to the word “free.”

Free will almost always catch my attention, and will manage to hold it if I can quickly determine that free is actually free.  So, I clicked on the link, saw that Audible would actually allow me to download Legion, in its entirety without taking my credit card information, if I set up an account with them.  A few hours later, in a car ride of moderate length, I was listening to it.  I was pleased, I’d like to note, that the reader for the novella was very good.  He has a voice that kept my interest and I liked that he gave each character their own unique feel.

The basic premise of the novella is that a protagonist is able to see and interact with a titular legion of vivid, unique people, most of whom are brilliant experts on different subjects– but all of whom are actually just in his head.  Working with them, he’s able to solve the most baffling of mysteries– if any catch his interest.  I must say, I really enjoyed the idea, and felt like it was well-executed.  I would really love to see more with the character (or should I say characters?) in the future.

Now, on to Steelheart17182126The idea of this book is also very fun– when I read a little promotional card for the book in my local bookstore a few months before it came out, I was immediately enthralled.  Basically, the book is about a world where people begin to get super powers– but, every person who gets these powers is evil.  One of these Epics– as these superhumans are called– named Steelheart has declared himself the emperor of Newcago.  Steelheart is virtually invincible, having defeated any challengers to his power.  The story follows a young man, David, who has sworn revenge on the dictator of his city for killing his father years before.

I really like this idea, though I do have one concern with it.  Essentially, the idea of a believed-invincible emperor being challenged by a small, specialized group who theoretically has no chance of standing against him does feel a lot like the basic story of Mistborn: The Final Empire, and was a little difficult to shake in my listening to it (I listened to the audio book at work– it was also very well done, and it is my understanding that it’s been nominated for Audible audio book of the year).  But this feeling of similarity is really my only criticism of the story.  It does a lot to stand on its own, and I especially loved how the powers of the Epics worked.  Instead of all following a set system, each had its own rules with strengths and weaknesses, giving the story a feel quite different from Sanderson’s fantasy novels.  Instead, the world felt an homage to the universes of comic books, though in many ways having a wide variety of powers and abilities in a way that worked much more seamlessly than the worlds of Marvel or DC, which seem to be inconsistent in how balanced their universes are when attempting to blend the stories and abilities of their heroes and villains.  For example, in the DC universe, I always feel like writers really struggle in bringing the tone of Batman and his associated allies and villains into the universe as a whole, especially when he has no superhuman powers himself, and many of his foes tend to be a little more plausible than that of Wonder Woman or John Constantine.  There are plenty of good stories that manage to blend Batman in, but with a story like Steelheart Sanderson has already set himself up for success in that the world is set up with many heroes already in mind, rather than trying to mediate between very different backstories and general atmosphere.  The origin for all of these Epics is the same– the arrival of the star Calamity.

Many of the Epics had powers that I thought were particularly excellent.  The idea of one of Steelheart’s generals, Nightwielder, was particularly compelling, with his incorporeal nature and his ability to bring darkness upon the city.  How he fights, flying and stabbing with tendrils of darkness, is, simply, very cool.  The technology present in the novel, such as gravitonics and the tensors, is also very cool and contributes to the world.  It’s great to see everything that Sanderson does with the sci-fi genre instead of fantasy.  It’s great to see one of my favorite writers change things up.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future books of the Reckoners series.  I also look forward to reading the other novels that Sanderson has written.  I’ve been curious about Elantris, and I’m eager to see what The Stormlight Archive is going to hold.

P.S. – This post has a sequel!

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