I read a lot, for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I love to read. I love to escape to other worlds, meet new characters, and experience new things. The other reason is that I am constantly having to familiarize myself with books by authors that are going to be guests on my podcast, as well as discovering new guests for the show.
It’s not uncommon for me to have 5-10 books at various stages of completion at any given time. Some books I rush through and take notes, and some I take my time with and absorb what’s going on. Also, audiobooks. Oh my gosh, audiobooks are my saving grace. I listen to books while I do chores, driving, mowing grass, computer work that’s not writing, etc.
Anyway, I thought I would share with you what I’m reading now.
We all know that if you want to be a good writer, you need to be a voracious reader. Stephen King famously said “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I don’t think I could put it any better than that. But does it matter what you read? I think so.
If you want to write epic fantasy, should you only read epic fantasy? SF? Mystery? We all have read genre books that read like little kid brothers of something that we really love. They look like the original, sound like it, but way more annoying. I think this is what happens when you don’t branch out with your reading, you become derivative, and not in a good way.
If you want to write the thing that stands out in your genre, read other genres. If the complaint is that your plot is great but your characters are wooden and the relationships in your book are unbelievable, go read a good romantic mystery. Read a character driven book that is more Lit Fic. Find authors that know how to tug at your heart strings and find out what makes their characters real. Your plot weak? Read Grisham and figure out how he takes a mystery and unravels it bit by bit to keep the pages turning. Mystery and romance authors could stand to read some epic fantasy or space opera to understand that sometimes characters need to aspire to something bigger than themselves and that the hero’s journey is for all of us.
Patrick Rothfuss has said that after reading every fantasy story he could get his hands on, he couldn’t come up with a way to tell a different kind of story. Then he read Cyrano de Bergerac and The King Killer Chronicles were born. You never know where that spark of inspiration will come from, or that new idea of how to do things that have never been done before.
You get the point. Don’t be afraid to get outside of your genre to get fresh ideas and to learn from other authors. That’s one reason that I try to have a diverse roster of authors on Author Stories, because I know we can learn from each other, and it makes us all better at what we do.
So go ahead and read that romance, cozy mystery, space pew pew, or wizards and elves book. I won’t tell anybody.
Some of my best friends have lived within the pages of books. As a kid I was a little socially awkward, and I didn’t fit into any of the groups. I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t a star student, I wasn’t a preppy kid with a crowd of hanger-on. What I did have was a love of books.
I discovered Tolkien sometime around Junior High and I remember walking around with one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy tucked on top of my stack of textbooks and I spent more time in Middle Earth than I ever did in Civics. Later I discovered Asimov, Heinlein, Pratchett, Brooks, McCaffrey, and King and disappeared into their worlds with the same abandon and for the same reasons. Through their characters I could be someone different, I could see new and strange worlds, and through their coming of age stories, or adventures where an Everyman becomes something bigger and better, I could dream about what could be in my own life.
In high school I had a teacher that had the foresight to recognize this in me and she would slip me books all the time. She introduced me to even bigger and better worlds. She showed me characters that were just like me that weathered the trials of life and did something big, epic, even heroic.
When you’re that kind of kid, you start to get pegged as the nerd kid that’s always talking about computers and NASA and reading some book about Elves and Orcs or some such nonsense. But the cool thing is that there’s always someone else. You start to notice that there’s another kid that has those same tattered paperbacks tucked into his or her own stack of text books and friendships are founded on the mutual love of things bigger than each of us.
I remember an annoying jock that picked up my copy of Dragon Riders of Pern and tossed it across the room while saying “these books are for losers” while his group of idiot disciples laughed. I was embarrassed at the time, and I really hated him for it, but looking back he was right, at least partially. That book, and books like it were for me. They were for me and for folks like me. They took me out of a place I didn’t want to be and challenged me to be something better than I was.
Not only Gandalf’s wisdom, but Frodo’s heroic sacrifice and the subtext of different cultures working together taught me to be a better person, and continue to challenge me today.
Looking back now on those times makes me laugh. With the internet it’s very easy to find your tribe and to connect with people that think the way you do and like the things you do. It’s a good time. Hosting this podcast has also afforded me the opportunity to meet lots of people that are making good art and that have written some of those books that “are for losers”, and hopefully I am writing books for some kid that feels like he is a loser, but through my characters, he gets to experience something new, and just maybe I will encourage him to take a trip he never would have, or set out on a new adventure, or just be a better friend.
So yeah, books are for losers. Losers like me. And thank God for them.
I know this title is a bit clickbaity. But that’s ok, you’ll understand where I’m going with this soon enough. I’m releasing my 200th episode of Author Stories (subscribe already!) this week, and I’ve been in a reflective mood lately. I don’t share many personal thoughts about writing, mostly because I haven’t felt like I could speak from a position of authority. I’ve said many times that the reason I started the podcast was so that I could become a better writer. “Surround yourself with the best people you know” the adage goes. And so it is true. Here’s a little something I’ve learned about myself and about the craft.
I have an affinity for tools, writer’s tool specifically. I collect them like the star of an episode of Hoarders. Even thought I have everything I need, there’s always that one other thing that will give me the edge, or will unlock that extra little bit of potential. But one more is never enough.
Here’s the reality. Writers write. It doesn’t matter if it’s cuneiform in clay tablets, longhand on legal pads, quills on payment, dictated in Dragon, or in the latest bells and whistles word processor, writers write. If you become more enamored with the vehicle than the journey, something is wrong.
I’ve used Scrivener for a couple of years, off and on. I initially found the binder on the left hand beneficial in that it would allow me to create a working outline of sorts and help me to organize my story while tricking myself into thinking that I was not actually outlining. That is great. It has helped me as a writer to understand the structure of the thing I am writing and it brings out the best in the story. As a writer I believe you should find a way to document the road map of the story so that you don’t just wander blindly into the writing. I’m still not a very detailed outliner, I leave lots of room for the story and mostly for the characters to evolve as it goes. But there’s nothing wrong or uncreative about being prepared.
Scrivener helped me to do this, but at the cost of time and frustration. I use a desktop PC, a laptop, and an iPad to write. I would sync writing projects using Dropbox and it worked pretty good between PC and iPad. Until it didn’t. I started getting weird artifacts or pieces of the project missing after syncing. No big deal, make sure you’re saving a giving it enough time to propagate before opening on another device. But it’s never worked exactly right.
I’ve also worked with several editors that complain about “knowing which authors use Scrivener” because there are always formatting issues with the rendered text. The compile feature has a lot of potential, but I’ve never had an instance where I could compile a document without having to go into Word and clean it up. Extra work.
So here’s the deal. If you’re going to be a serious writer, you have to remove distractions and unnecessary work. I don’t care how pretty the interface is, if it causes frustration and extra work, throw it out the window.
You know what is nearly universal in publishing? Microsoft Word. Yeah, it’s not the most elegant. It’s not the most cutting edge interface. But the things I appreciate are that it is standard and ubiquitous. Nearly everyone has a copy of MS Office, and the mobile apps are really nice. Add a cloud service like OneDrive or Dropbox and documents sync seamlessly. I can edit a document on my laptop in my dining room, open it out in my office on my big production desktop, then continue on my iPad and the document is there, and the interface is always the same. Heck I can even log into my MS account from anyone’s PC and work with the web version of Word.
I find that familiarity breeds productivity.
Editing doesn’t require me to port my work to another program, and when I send it to an editor, there’s not cleaning up after me before they can get to work and Track Changes is a god-send.
I reset my iPad to factory settings and only installed Word, OneDrive and Spotify. No social media apps, no games, no nonsense. I have several PCs, a phone, and an Xbox for all that. The external keyboard adapter (aka “camera adapter from Apple) allows me to connect my big, heavy, very clicks mechanical keyboard, or I can connect my ultra-light, very portable Bluetooth keyboard and have it with me and ready whenever and where ever I like. This setup has proven invaluable and I find myself tinkering with settings and tools much less and instead, just writing.
So yeah, I’m using Word exclusively, and I think I’m better for it. I still like to experiment with new tools, and I think there are places for them for specific scenarios, and I would never tell you what you should do, that’s up to you. But it’s never a bad idea to get back to basics. Sometimes a claw hammer and screwdriver are all you need.
I originally published this in Deep Magic Magazine. I release The Author Stories Podcast twice each week, and I’m grateful for the chance to sit down with the best of the best and glean some wisdom from them. I’m going to try to blog about some of those things I’ve learned, and here’s the first in a recurring series. I hope you enjoy it.
I have a theory. Storytellers are born, but writers are made. What does that mean? I think that we are all born storytellers. I think it’s something that’s ingrained in our humanity. From the times when our very survival from generation to generation depended on passing wisdom from one group to another, we as a people were crafting parables, proverbs, stories, legends, poetry, songs, and instruction from our elders. Before we had the luxury of the written word, we were ensuring our survival by passing stories along.
Here’s why I think storytelling is something we are born with. Watch children at play. They will happily create entire worlds to play in, or take a favorite character and live out whole new adventures, all within the confines of their imaginations. If you’re lucky enough to be anywhere near when this is happening, you could get pulled in and be given a co-starring role.
The problem is that most adults have allowed this part of their humanity to atrophy. Like the biceps of an insurance salesman, the creative muscles must be flexed and put under tension and forced to work or else they become flabby and withered.
That is where the difference lies. We are born storytellers, but writers are people that see that small creative spark and continually provide an environment that allows that spark to breathe. They give the spark fuel—not too much and not too little, just the right amount—that will gently and gradually bring that spark to the raging fire of creativity.
I began the Author Stories Podcast in the fall of 2014 as a way to surround myself, albeit virtually, with the best of the best. I sought out writers that were doing great things and making a difference, and asked them to share some of their wisdom with me. For the last couple of years, I have produced this weekly podcast that one listener called “a master’s degree course in creativity”. I like that description.
I’ve tried to take some of the ideas and themes that come up over and over again on the podcast to highlight some that I feel are the most important.
The first thing is that there is no such thing as an aspiring writer. You either write or you don’t, and putting your butt in the chair is the single thing that will help you bridge the gap from wannabe to writer.
The first thing is that there is no such thing as an aspiring writer. You either write or you don’t, and putting your butt in the chair is the single thing that will help you bridge the gap from wannabe to writer. Writers write. It’s as simple as that. If you need some encouragement to help you decide that you want to be a storyteller, here it is. I believe we have survived as a species because we tell stories. We pass down wisdom, information, and tales about the human condition because we can wrap those things up in story form. Sit down and tell your version of it.
Writing is hard. Sure, some days you will sit down and the story flows out of you like a river after a dam bursts. And some days you feel like a miner looking for a last nugget long after the vein has been completely emptied. But the stories that resonate the deepest come from the struggle of finding the thing that is not easy to find. Just like the discovery of a precious jewel long after the cave has been abandoned, you will not regret digging deeper to find the thing overlooked by everyone else.
Trust yourself. Writing is a very solitary pursuit, for the most part. You spend long hours in front of a computer or notebook, reporting on the characters and events in your head. After you spend the months immersed in your imagined world, you have to come back to where the rest of us are. That is when it’s important to have a few people that you really trust help you see things in your story that you were too close to see for yourself. Learn which pieces of advice and comments are truly helpful, and which ones are just opinion. Make changes that help the story be the best it can be, then trust in your gift. You are the storyteller.
The Internet has changed publishing in fantastic ways. You don’t need the gatekeepers to give you the green light to publish your book anymore. With digital publishing and social media, you can publish and build an audience of people that will help you spread the word. In the same way that the music industry has changed and the days of huge advances are essentially over, publishing has gone back to its roots where an artist is connecting directly with his or her readers, and this is a good thing. When the machinery and bloat of a thousand middle-men is stripped away, some really great art comes out. This is a golden time for indie music and publishing.
There are lots of trolls that won’t appreciate what you do, but one day you’ll receive an e-mail or comment from a reader, and they will tell you that the thing that you poured your soul into has helped them through a difficult time. Like a woman that looks back on the pain of childbirth and smiles when her baby learns to walk and talk, knowing that your story has found a home in someone else is worth all the pain and struggle.
I said earlier that writing is a solitary endeavor, and this holds true, but some of my closest friendships have come about from this podcast. Some of the friends I’ve made have sat across the table from me and broken bread in real life, some exist in the alternate reality of e-mail and Skype, but their friendship and input are invaluable to me. Writers are sometimes mercurial, introspective, and opinionated, but at the same time, some of the most humble and generous people you’ll ever meet. Like iron sharpens iron, trading ideas and encouragement with other people in the trenches makes you a better writer and, I believe, elevates the craft for all of us.
I expected to write an article about very specific points of story craft and the execution of writing, but the more I thought about it, I realized that as writers we have the same struggles and hurdles to jump. But thankfully we have the tales of those that have gone before us to light our way.
Now I have to put my butt in the chair and get my next novel out. Thanks for reading.
Stu Remington is a successful novelist, but faced with a deadline for the final book in his best-selling trilogy, he finds himself stuck. Stu turns to an old typewriter that he acquired at a yard for a change of pace. When he realizes the next morning that the nonsense story he typed on the old typewriter has come true, Stu is set upon a path to not only fix his writer’s block, but to face the demons lurking all around him, with the help of his faithful and sardonic bulldog Rolo and a cast of colorful characters that cross his path.
A story full of twists and turns, Writer’s Block mixes elements of literary fiction with magical realism and a supernatural twist. Originally published as a serial, this story has received rave reviews and love from readers.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool things. I’ve published three novels, three episodes of a new serial series called Writer’s Block, written short stories for a few anthologies, and hosted a podcast that consistently blows my mind. I hope it gives you the same kind of feeling.
The podcast has been an especially gratifying experience. Through it I’ve made some really great friends, gleaned priceless advice from other writers that are a lot farther in their careers than I am, and opened my mind to new possibilities. Hugh Howey even mentioned it on his blog yesterday. And to top all that off, the audience has grown exponentially since I started it.
I can attribute all of the successes I’ve had to one thing more than any other. Persistence. I don’t give up easily. I believe that the harder you work, and the more consistently you pursue something, the luckier you get.
Find something that makes you happy, and if you can find a way to benefit others with that talent, then you’re on to something. Then do it. Then keep doing it. There will be plenty of days that it seems like no one is listening or seeing all of the hard work that you’re putting in with no return. Don’t worry about it. When others will give up, keep working. Eventually you will look around and notice that there’s a whole group of people that have benefited from what you’ve been laboring alone at. Then welcome them in and keep going.
In over 80 interviews on Author Stories, the one theme that is repeated is that successful people don’t give up. They just don’t. And why would they? It’s our superpower.
Want to be successful? Looking for a shortcut that will make you more happy and achieve all of your dreams this year? Well, here you go. My shortcut to instant success.
We all know that there are no shortcuts to instant success. Sure there are shortcuts that can help you achieve short-term results, but they won’t last, not in any meaningful way. But here are some things that I’ve learned.
Practice. Nobody gets good at what they love just overnight. Even prodigies have to hone their craft. Sure, some of us are born with a “gift”. But we all know someone who has natural God-given talent that they squandered because they didn’t make themselves improve upon their talent. Talent + Practice = Success.
Persevere. We live in an instant gratification society. We want a fully cooked meal in the time it takes to drive from the menu board around to the window where you hand them your money. We want a blog post to tell us how to be instantly successful. Young people want to begin their married lives living in a house they can’t afford filled with stuff that it took their parents 30 years to accumulate. And it leads to misery. Perseverance is sticking with something and working at it when it seems like no one appreciates what you’re doing and when it seems like it will never pay off. If you stick with it, you will look back one day and realize that you’ve grown and sharpened your skill set. Nothing happens overnight. Be the guy or gal that never gives up.
Be nice. Arrogance is never pretty. Assuming that people owe you something is never pretty. Learn to be humble. Do nice things for people even if it will never benefit you. People are naturally attracted to humble and kind people. Plus, it never hurts to do good.
Don’t believe hype. If people constantly tell you that you are no good and will never achieve your goals, don’t believe them. If people constantly tell you that you are the greatest thing since fried chicken, don’t believe them either. Stay humble, stay persistent and be nice. Thank people for the compliments and thank people for honest feedback that tells you that you need to keep practicing. Then don’t give up.
Understand what true success is. Money will not solve all your problems. It might remove some pressure, but at the end of the day, you will still be the same person. Don’t get lost in the pursuit of success and neglect the people around you. If you can look back on your life and see that you have been surrounded by people who love you and care about you, and that you have done everything you can to benefit others, then you can say you have succeeded.
There you go. My shortcut for instant success. Now to remove my tongue from my cheek.