Writers' Journey

I'm trying to draw something every week, so when someone mentioned a map for Natalie's hiking analogy, my muse said, "Oh!"

The hiking analogy is like this: writing is a hard, long trek up a mountain. It's beautiful, but sometimes you wonder if you'll ever get to the end. And a lot of us are trapped in the Forest of Lost Minds, where we begin to wonder why we started this journey in the first place. But there is a way out and a point at which everything is clear; you can see how far you've come, how not ready you were before, how close you are to getting "there" - Lookout Point.

That's the short version. Read Natalie's post for a better explanation. I added some things too:

On a related note, does anybody know anything about oil pastels? This is my first time using them, and the effect was only slightly better than if I'd used crayons. I like the mountains, but that's about it. Any tips?


You guys asked some really good and difficult questions. Hopefully this is as much fun for you as it is for me. If not, well, that's too bad, because I'll probably do it again.

Ben asked: What is your least favorite book?

Of books I've read to the end, my least favorite is probably Tribulation Force from my least favorite series, Left Behind. It wasn't the theology that bothered me (I was actually interested in a 'what-if' of rapture theology). What bothered me was the dozens of major characters all alike, the paper cut-out villains, the huge apocalyptic moments handled in a single paragraph.

So why this book rather than one of the other 16? The title edged it out. Tribulation Force is just... not a cool name.

Ben: What is the worst thing you would do to get published with your favorite editor?

I would crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women.

Was that your question?

Ben: What is your favorite quality of your writing or yourself as a writer?

When I'm outlining and drafting, I love everything. When I'm getting critiques and rejections, I hate it all. I will say this: whatever anyone else thinks, I love writing air pirate dialog. It's just fun, aye?

Of course even my most critical betas said they enjoyed the way air pirates talk, so I might have just decided, after the fact, that I like it too.

Anne L. B. asked: Why do you write (other than you can't not)?

I've always loved to create stories - kindergarten make-believe, Star Wars action figures with my brothers, writing Choose-Your-Own Adventures, designing video games, GMing D&D sessions...

About 6 years ago I decided my time was too limited to do everything I wanted. I chose to focus on writing because - between making novels, board games, computer games, or movies - I thought a novel was something I could most likely complete with the skills/resources I had.

Of corollary interest, around the same time I wrote a prototype game based on the Air Pirates world. It just shows how long I've been thinking about it, I guess:

Natalie said: I've always admired what you do in Thailand. What made you want to go there and work with kids?

The short answer: God called us.

A longer answer: Cindy (who is Thai-American) wanted to run an orphanage since highschool. When I first told her I liked her, the third thing she said to me was, "If God calls me to be a missionary overseas, what will you do?" (Yeah, we were thinking long term from the start). That got missions in my head.

Years later we finally decided to "become missionaries." My original thought was to plant a church or something, but one thing after another kept putting Fatherhood on my heart. When we moved here, and started volunteering at a children's home while we learned the language, I realized being a father was all I wanted to do. It's what I was made for.

Natalie: What's your favorite Final Fantasy? Least favorite?

I've only played the big ones a little bit (meaning VII thru XI). Of the ones I have played, Crystal Chronicles is my favorite. You can't beat multiplayer RPGs, I think. Four guys on a couch in a boss fight, yelling at each other so we can get the combos timed just right... Yeah. Good times.

My least favorite was probably Final Fantasy I, not because it wasn't good, but because I recall many hours of fighting Frost Gators just to level up. On the other hand, FFI introduced me to airships.

Hilary asked: After reading the first page of my manuscript, would you want to keep reading?

Yes, largely due to the stranger (yay, tension!) and because I want an explanation for the last paragraph. I left more comments in your comments.

Hilary: When/where are you most inspired to write?

For some reason, the ocean tugs something inside me; when I see it I want to write, to create worlds. Mountains and other landscapes do it too, but nothing quite as strong as the ocean. I don't know why. It sucks that I live like 20x farther from the ocean than I've ever lived in my life.

Excellent stories also make me want to write excellent stories. Miyazaki, Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, and Naruto inspire pretty consistently (yes, most of that is anime). Though occasionally something really excellent, like say Dark Knight, just makes me think, "Man, I'll never be able to write like that."


I'm a little burnt on posting amateur writing tips,* so today is your opportunity to ask me anything you like. Put your questions in the comments, and on Friday (well, my Friday... you know, in Thailand), I will answer them.

I agree to answer all of them, however nosy, strange, or inappropriate. I agree to answer with the truth when possible** and humor otherwise. And what the heck, I agree to post at least one picture.

There. I feel better already.

* This may have something to do with critiques that are coming in now. At the moment, I don't feel like I have much to say on how to write. Don't worry. I'll get over it.

** Which, of course, means when I feel like it.

Again With the Infodumps

I've been doing some critiquing lately. I think I've critiqued about 8 short stories/novel chapters since I joined, and at least half of them have the same problem: infodumping. (I know I've talked about this before, but bear with me. There's an Air Pirates excerpt a'coming.)

An infodump is when the story stops, to exposit information about the world or the character. This happens a lot in SF/F stories because they involve worlds with which we're unfamiliar. We need them to be explained, but usually not as much as many writers (myself included) believe we do.

For example, in one chapter Sam is in danger of losing his most trusted friends. His pirating used to be an attempt to do good, but Sam has become just as bad as the people he attacks. While his crew celebrates the Winter's Night festival in Savajinn, Sam stays on board his ship to think. The following outline is how the scene went in the first draft:

  1. A paragraph about how Sam's ship was refitted from a merchant ship and the changes he made.
  2. Two paragraphs about Savajinn and Sam's relationship with the town they'd moored at.
  3. One sentence of Sam thinking.
  4. Four paragraphs about Winter's Night, it's origins, traditions, and the differences between the festivals of Savajinn and the Imperium.
At the time, I thought it was all important. No, that's not true. I knew some of it wasn't, but I wanted to share all the cool stuff I'd come up with - like Savajinn and Winter's Night. The problem? Most of it had no bearing on the story. To the reader, Savajinn is just another country and Winter's Night another festival. Unless the details define the plot, readers don't need to know more than that.

In my first edit, I cut the infodumps by half and rewrote the remainder to be (mostly) more connected to Sam. Below is part of the scene - the paragraphs about Winter's Night, both before and after. It's still kinda infodumpy (I bet I could cut the whole thing actually), but it's better than it was. I submit it here with the hopes of helping some of you who may be doing the same thing, but don't realize it:

The sun set alone beyond the sea. It marked the beginning of Amber Winter, when the amber sun eclipsed the warmth of its sister. At the same time, fireworks went off in town, for the first setting of the eclipse also marked Souls’ Day – though in Savajinn, where the monks had little influence, the holiday was still known by the old traditions as Winter’s Night.

Souls’ Day was a day to remember the dead, to celebrate their life and their afterlife. People would feast and pray to their dead relatives, then launch fireworks and hot-air lanterns in celebration. Winter’s Night, on the other hand, was not a night to remember the dead, but to fear them. On Winter’s Night, it was said, the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks and lanterns were meant not to celebrate, but to drive the spirits back to their world.

Same traditions, different meanings. Although the monks did have this much influence on Savajinn: there were no Winter’s Night feasts before the monks came.

Sam watched the celebrations from the prow for a long while. There was singing and dancing, even a parade winding through the streets. Children went here and there dressed as ghosts in what was once a prank to scare older folks, but had since become part of the fun. Some children even dressed as Azrael, for the pirate had become something of an icon to this feast of death.
Fireworks were set off in the town of Chuffton below. Everywhere, people released hot-air lanterns into the air. It was Winter’s Night, when – according to Savajinn tradition anyway – the spirits of the restless dead came back to haunt the living. The fireworks were meant to scare them away, and the lanterns to guide them home, though few took those things seriously. Mostly Winter’s Night was another excuse to get drunk.

I Draw Like I Write

I've been drawing again, and every time I do it, I realize more and more how much my drawing process is like my writing process.

I drew as a kid, but stopped when the things I drew didn't come out like they were in my head. I would doodle occasionally, but no more. So I guess that's the first similarity: I quit because I thought I wasn't any good.

Something inside me still wanted to do it, though, because I bought Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain a few years ago and worked through it. I think it was that book, more than anything, that taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: I learned I can be good at anything I want to be good at, if I'm willing to work hard.

Okay, so the first thing I do when I decide to draw is I don't. I write down "draw" on my todo list and put it off for a few days. Then when I'm done with that, I open my sketchbook and stare at a blank page for about 5-10 minutes. Why is this important? It's not. It's bad, actually. But I do it every time because: I'm afraid of drawing (or writing) something wrong.

When I finally get started, I plan. When you write, it's called outlining. When you draw, it's called blocking. Not everyone does it, but I do because I want to know that everything is in the right place before I start drawing "for real." So in both: I plan until I'm confident the end product has no major flaws.

Lastly, when I write, I'm constantly going back over each scene and chapter to clean it up. This is sometimes wasted effort when things get cut or rewritten, but I do it anyway. Apparently I do this when I draw too. I'll start with maybe the left eye, and I won't move on to another part until I've got all the detail - not perfect - but good. See: I want the part I'm working on to be "done" before I move on.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I treat both kinds of art the same way. It's me, you know? I am surprised at how much fear plays into both processes. I guess I need to work on that.

What's Cliche?

Everything creative is plagued by cliche. Writers are told over and over again not to use cliched phrases, cliched plots, cliched characters... But what's cliche? Sometimes people talk about cliches like they're definable and objective, but I think it's slightly more complicated than that.

At its heart, a cliche is something you have seen before and are tired of seeing. You're bored of it, maybe even annoyed or angry, BUT it's your opinion. People like to say things like, "The washed-up superhero has been done. It's so cliche." And maybe it has been done, but whether it's old and boring to you is another matter.

Take ninjas. Ninjas have been done, a lot. But you know what? I'm not sick of them. Give me Japanese guys in black pajamas - give them swords, shuriken, and smoke bombs - and I'm sold.*

My point is we should be aware of cliches, but not afraid of them. If it's something that you still enjoy, there may be others like you. If someone says they don't like your work because it's "been done," don't set your hard drive on fire. Write well, be as original as you can, but write what you love, even if everyone else is tired of it.**

But most of all, don't be afraid to write.

* It's worse than that. I know nothing about motorcycles, but I want a Kawasaki Ninja. There's a bottled tea here made of red beans and poppyseed (blech!), but because it's called Ninja flavor, I want it. I'm so sad.

** Now, it's different if an agent or editor says something is too cliche. They know what will sell, presumably. At the very least, they know what won't sell if you don't listen: you.

Much To Do About Nothing

A random writing sample from highschool. We were grouped in pairs and each given the same opening sentence. The assignment was to write a short story using at least 15 vocabulary words from the year. My partner and I used 51.

Much To Do About Nothing