On writing about the Subject and not the Story

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s classic, On Writing, for like the twentieth time. If you’ve never read it, and even if you have no writerly aspirations, do so. If you ever want to write for a living, then definitely read it, along with Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird and Writing 21st Century Fiction.

Through re-reading King’s advice, I realized what I did wrong with my failed manuscript. I wrote about the subject matter of the story and not the story itself. That may seem like semantics, but the approach in storytelling matters. Instead of spending time with my characters, I asked my characters to spend time focusing on things I wanted them to discuss. Classic mistake.

The characters always guide.  They do what they want based on who they are as people and what motivations drive them. This makes them real, human, flawed, worth reading about.

This was not a pleasurable epiphany, but one I’m glad I had. And I bring it up because I believe in our current climate this type of scenario may happen with other writers and creative individuals. We are so infuriated with our current environment, we want to do something about it with the tools we have, words. But regardless of the skill set of the person wielding any tool, the approach is still everything.

If a carpenter built  “about a house” instead of actually building one, I’m not sure the results would be desirable. Same with writing. It’s perfectly fine to have a mental sense of what the story is about, but that’s only because of the action that’s taking place, the emotions on the page, the push and pull of characters as they move through this life they’re living.

I know you know this. I know I know this, but a little reminder can’t hurt.

And while I’m realizing things and making changes, I’ve also decided to put my YouTube channel to use. I have my book trailers there, but I also think it would be a great benefit to librarians trying to book talk my work, or to any reader who is researching who I am, to have a face with the name and stories. Therefore, I’m thinking of posting on Fridays, and for the next few weeks will cover my books, one at a time. After that, I’m open to any suggestions.

So, if you want to see where I write or what my outlines look like, or what books have most influenced my career, or how I get my inspiration, let me know. Do so here, via my email contact, or leave notes on my YouTube channel.

Additionally, there’s still time to win a copy of Look Past over at Goodreads, but make sure you enter before the clock runs out today.

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying the change of the season and the beginning of new things in your life, be them old things remembered, or new avenues to travel 😉

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On Letting Go

Letting-Go-Open-Hands

I’ve had a nagging problem with editing my next novel, tentatively titled, Dare Me. To properly edit, you have to be able to see your work’s failures. Objectivity is key. But I haven’t been able to achieve that objective distance because I’ve had something else on my mind: Tap Out.

My rough and tumble novel has been out for almost four months. It’s not as if the fanfare has died away, but the energy behind foisting it upon the world has been spent, and now the story is moving on its own volition, with readers finding it and posting about it and passing it along. And like a child, I must let it grow, let it walk alone, while I sing its praises and offer support.

At the same time, I must give my attention to my baby, Dare Me. For the past month, I did this, hiding out in my office while the swirl of Christmas built outside my door. I dove in with my editor’s notes in hand and cleaned up my mess and got my characters straightened out and ready for the world. And like any parent, when I was done, I needed a drink.

Still, however, that nagging was there. I knew I’d edited well, but something continued to crawl under my skin.

Because of the holidays there was little time to give this consideration during the week from Christmas to New Year’s. And then there was snow, two storms here in the Northeast. And I had to shovel.

Stephen King discusses in On Writing how writers should always be writing, but how after finishing a project they should also take a little break to recharge. I tend to heed King’s advice because he’s Stephen King, and I think he knows what he’s talking about. Therefore, I was out in the snow, not writing, not editing, just scraping away my driveway, and I came to clarity.

I love Tony and Rob and my cast of characters from Tap Out, but I have to let them go. I have to make room in my heart for Ben and his friends and the insane antics they get involved with in Dare Me.

This, apparently is the life of a writer: Love, let go, and love again.

And I do. I love Tap Out. I love Dare Me. I love the novel that will follow both, and the one after that… and on and on.

With this notion I reread Dare Me. I forgot that I’d ever written anything else and focused only on Ben and his friends and the stunts and the pressure and the conflicts. I didn’t need to edit. I just needed to read and enjoy. And I sure as hell did.

So I continue down this road with you, my wonderful readers, and your tireless support. You don’t need to let go of any of my work, but please make room. Tap Out isn’t going anywhere, but understand that the wild ride has just begun.

The Darkness comes from within

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg discusses the Artist’s desire to create: “…though she [the artist] expresses vitality, must behind it touch down on quiet peace.”

In On Writing, Stephen King describes how he writes to Metallica. Most recently I read an interview with him and Neil Gaiman, and King discussed how he writes in his Florida home with his desk facing the wall, away from the distracting windows.

Goldberg and King are both touching on the importance of the process and how we keep it from managing us. Ever since Tap Out hit readers’ hands, I’ve had questions about my process and the environment in which I write. Most assume because of the pervasive darkness in my novel that I will lean toward King’s image: sitting alone in a dark room, cranking heavy tunes and hammering away on the keyboard.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

But first, let me explain how my office came to be.

We bought our home while my wife was pregnant with our first daughter and we had no cash; of course during the real estate bubble. Therefore, we grabbed up a two-bedroom ranch with a large enough yard for a future addition. The “spare” room became the nursery, and my wife did not want a traditional theme. She wanted something unisex and something that would last for our second child (we didn’t know the gender of either child until delivery). Also, since my wife is 100% Irish, she wanted the room to reflect that, and so why not paint the room like the hills of Ireland with cute little sheep and a rainbow, etc? And while at it, why not make it panoramic, painting the popcorn ceiling with a multi-toned sky and puffy white clouds?

Exactly.

Of course I said yes, because that’s what you do for your wife in your new home with your first baby on the way. Fortunately, our friend’s sister is a talented artist. She came and sketched and then painted, and within a week the nursery was complete. And it was perfect once our daughter was snuggled inside.

Fast forward three years, the addition has been built, and we now have four bedrooms, two daughters and I get an office. The new “bedroom” in the addition was perfect. Spartan like King’s, painted a peaceful blue, ala Goldberg. Only there was one problem: the windows in the nursery had become excessively drafty. We didn’t have the money to replace both, so a decision was made–paint the office pink, add a cutsie theme and convert it into the new nursery. As for the old? It became my office, complete with a space heater to combat the cold, with the hills of Ireland over my head.

So when I write, I guess I implore both the wisdom of Goldberg and King. The room is incredibly peaceful. When I look up while writing a scene, lost with where I want to go or what I want a character to say, I’m faced with serenity, not insanity. And I believe that is what keeps me from getting pulled too far into the darkness within. Because I crank away at my work with a fevered pitch as if Metallica–or more likely Slipknot–is roaring in my ears, but I am surrounded by peace. That balance keeps me sane and maintains the humanity within my work. It is impossible not to. I sit and write in the room in which my firstborn dreamed.

Ban the Book the Bully and Me

In case you’ve missed it, Banned Books Week is in full effect, and October is anti-bullying month. On Saturday, I am holding my release party for Tap Out at a local MMA gym. So how are these three disparate events connected?

Banning books is a small-minded act, as is bullying. Both seek to destroy. And they succeed. Those that rally about books that are too offensive for our eyes get attention and books are not purchased, are not put on shelves, and we the readers lose out. Bullies are master manipulators, can be violent and coercive, and typically get their way. How can you fight such ignorance or such fear or such systematic intolerance? Not with aggression but with subversion.

As a teen I actively sought books that were banned because I wanted to better understand society. I never wanted anyone to distill the truth for me, to hide the lives beyond my own. To quote Stephen King: “The world has teeth…” It does and I have never been afraid to be bitten by the jaws of a novel or non-fiction. Both are infinitely safer than learning first hand.

I wish could claim that I was never a bully. I cannot. I was never strong enough to subvert and resist the temptation that exerts itself on an adolescent. I am positive that I manipulated and coerced, and at times made people feel horrible. Not often. But isn’t once enough? I am not proud of that, but I admit it and at least that suggests something in my character. Possibly I learned through reading just who I was, and changed. I hope so, because as a parent and as a teacher I actively work to keep bullying at bay. I know too much not to.

Which is why I believe I wrote Tap Out. This novel will certainly be banned. It cuts too close, bushes too abruptly and too unapologetically against the undesirable aspects of our contemporary society. Good. I owe it to anyone remotely close to such an environment in which Tony lives. I owe it to all who have no clue that such a life exists. I owe it to society to expose the humanity within even the darkest of characters. Call it my penance. Call it my duty. Possibly my fate after all that dark reading. Whatever the case, I’m proud to be in the mix, to have my work find the hands of another teen out there, willing to seek, and one who is hopefully stronger than I was. One who is willing to fight and to stand alone if needed. One who is subversive enough.

This is what and who I am celebrating on Saturday: the hope for change and the belief in the strength of the individual.

Keep fighting.

3, 2, 1…Write!

In CrossFit, a fair amount of our training is completed “under the gun” of a running clock. Workouts are performed at high intensity with the aim of completing the work under a certain time, or seeing how much work you can complete for a specified duration. I have used this methodology in my training for the past six years, and, unknowingly, have structured my writing schedule similarly.

I write in the morning, starting at five and continuing until I need to pull myself away from the computer to go to work, usually around seven. I do this every day of the week, and only on occasion write on the weekends. Therefore, in a year (260 days without weekends) I average 520 hours writing. That’s not a significant amount by most standards.

It was only recently that I began to understand how I can still produce a novel a year (90-100,000 words) in such a limited amount of time. That metaphorical gun to the head of the clock in my workouts applies to my writing.

I waste no time in the morning, usually eating my breakfast as I check email and wake up. The it’s immediately to the writing. I often start with longhand in my journal, clearing out the debris from the day before so I may concentrate. This doesn’t last more than 10-15 minutes. I immediately turn to the notes on the project I’m writing, make a mental list of what needs to be addressed, check my outline for the scene I’m creating and go.

At this point I usually have an hour and a half to crank. And I do. There’s little to no rest (coffee drinking and refills are allowed) and I try not to over think what I’m doing. Much like in training, the “paralysis of analysis” is crippling, and the running clock keeps me motivated to keep it simple and to avoid the unnecessary.

Therefore, when finished, I have crisp, active writing and have produced a fair volume of work.

Now, the paramount question: Is it any good? Yes and no.

Most often my first drafts are skeletal. The plot is hung, but the characters need fleshing out, the themes refined, the foreshadowing placed appropriately, and on and on. It is reasonable to say that my method is ridiculous since I have so much to do the second and third and fourth times around. I’d agree, if I had more time each day.

But I don’t. I can’t pause and reflect. I get those “first thoughts“–ala Natalie Goldberg–out. I try to get the entirety of the story complete within a season–ala Stephen King. Then I wait. Like with exercise, I recover. I mull over my weak spots–plotting or characterization–and I work on those in smaller stories, mere exercises for my “sucks” (those elements of craft I need to work on).

Then I attack the second draft with the same energy drive and determination as the first, now with different aims, but with the same running clock.

I repeat this process as many times as needed. It’s not pretty. It’s often a bit stressful at the start, but once I’m moving, like with any demanding workout, I’m fine. Because I know at the end I will be satisfied that I’ve written. Perfection comes in the revision. These sessions are about production. And under the clock, the 3,2,1…go! I’m on fire.