Input is Crucial for Writing Output

Where do ideas germinate from? Other ideas.

As a writer, it’s impossible to be original, but it’s crucial to be unique. What’s the difference? Being original means attempting something which has never been attempted. Under this definition, it’s difficult to find writing that is completely original because there have been thousands of writers and hundreds of thousands of stories and story-types which have proliferated over the years. There’s more out there today than there ever has been. A true original – someone who pushes undiscovered boundaries – is rare. But the key to writing is to find your own uniqueness. What is it about your perspective which brings a unique twist to that cozy murder mystery? What historical angle are you using to highlight an aspect of a historical event in a new way?

There are endless ways that a writer can be unique because no one has had your particular experiences. The key is to use what you have, use your own voice, and tell the story in an interesting way. Then you can stand out – even amongst the myriad great writers out there today.

Recently, I’ve been reminded that one of the most important aspects of writing which will help you stand out and show your uniqueness is receiving input from other sources. Whether through reading other books, listening to music, chatting with friends, or reading the news, input is crucial in building ideas and taking our writing to unique places we otherwise would not have gone if we hadn’t been actively listening to what’s feeding our mind.

Here’s my example. I’m currently reading MLB historian John Thorn’s fantastic book on the origins of baseball entitled Baseball in the Garden of Eden. I just so happen to be reading this as I’m also working on the sequel to my baseball novel which comes out March 23. Twice this week my novel has taken wonderfully unexpected turns because of something I read in the baseball history. I learned about a young ballplayer named James Creighton, who was baseball’s first martyr. He died at the young age of 21 after swinging too hard. As soon as I read his story, it coupled perfectly with a story strand in my novel and I was off, and amazed, at where the idea took me. I was also a little scared. What if I hadn’t been reading this history at the time? My novel would not have been as rich!

A few pages later in the same history, I came across the tragic story of a black ballplayer named Octavius Cotta, who was murdered for trying to vote in 1871 Philadelphia. It’s such a heart-breaking story and it spoke to me deeply. Within one day of first reading about him, I have already finished a one-act play based on the events surrounding his death. It is, in my opinion, one of the best plays I’ve written in a long time. I would not have written it without reading that book. In addition, this same tragic story will have great implications on my novel as well. There’s a terrific way to bring his story into mine and I’m thrilled.

Two days worth of reading netted me one new play and two new crucial story strands for the novel I’m working on. If I hadn’t been getting this input, my writing output would not have been as good.

Unique and engaging writing is a combination of using your unique experiences and knowledge and coupling them with a continual stream of new input. The mix of ideas will provide lots of fodder for many different writing projects. What kind of active input are you using for your writing?

A Storyline So Obvious that It Nearly Writes Itself

I abhor outlining when writing. I’ve seen the tutorials and how certain other professionals plan their stories, but that, to me, would feel like being forced to write state-sponsored propaganda under Stalin’s regime. Why would anyone want to lock themselves into a pre-conceived structure? I guess my brain just doesn’t work that way.

I’ve said it before that the joy in writing, for me, is discovery. It’s an adventure across an unknown landscape unsure what will be discovered around the next bend. It’s the thrill of the chase. Neil Gaiman described it as driving through fog with your headlights out (or something to that effect). I can get behind a metaphor like that.

But then there’s this: a storyline so obvious that it nearly writes itself. I had that revelation just two days ago while working on my sequel to my yet-to-be-released baseball novel.

Sequels are different in that the world-building has already happened. Now the writer has to live in that universe and is bound by the structure and actions of the first book. That can be constraining, but if the material is compelling enough, it’s still not a bore to write. I think that’s why it took me so long to actually write a series. I thought it would be a bore. My mind always wanted to move on to other endeavors, but I have now come to grips with the fact that writing sequels has its own challenges and benefits.

The challenge it to meet and exceed expectations from book 1. Not always easy to do.

The benefits, the story almost writes itself.

In my unnamed sequel to A DIAMOND FOR HER, it’s almost laughable how obvious the plot is, at least to me. I actually questioned myself about that fact: will the readers already know where this is going? Of course not. Nobody has such silly meandering thoughts as I do.

There is still much to be fleshed-out and a long summer of writing ahead to possibly have a finished draft, but it comes down to these simple tasks:

  • Complete the unfinished business of book 1. Check. I’m on it.
  • Introduce new and interesting characters who will help you do it. Check.
  • Find wonder, intrigue, and laughter in the minute details, even if they are constrained by what I’ve previously written.
  • Bring about a climax which will satisfy all participants in this crazy journey. Working on it.

Writing can be both discovery – when starting a new manuscript – and writing can be the rearranging of the final pieces of the puzzle left open in the previous installment. I’m now okay with both styles of writing even though one is, without a doubt, more enjoyable than others.

To find out more about my upcoming release, check out the links below:

When’s a Manuscript Really Ready?

The thrill of the story. First draft.

Agonize over the revisions. 2nd, 3rd, 4th draft.

Send to beta readers. Gather info. Revise again.

Read and revise one more time then send to editor.

Editor returns a manuscript rife with red. Gulp hard and go after it. Major revisions, additions, subtractions.

Read through once more. Solid manuscript. Advanced reader copy (ARC) ready.

Send out ARC (both proof paperback copes and ebooks) to reviewers.

Acknowledge that release date is coming closer. Now 60 days away. Read proof once more.

Find annoying little mistakes like the time the team Lawmen was spelled Lawmem. Index finger slid a little bit too far to the right on the keypad. Brain, when reading that sentence for the 12th time, finally realizes that the ‘m’ is not an ‘n.’ How did it get by me twelve times, an editor once, and a bunch of my beta readers? That’s what mistakes do. They are stealth.

I think the mistakes have been found, but still the wording worries me. There are still unnecessary words. Keep cutting. Keep shortening.

There are still words that sound awkward. Smooth out. I can do better than that.

That sentence sounds lazy. Ahhhh, word repetition. I just used that word. Please, no. I have to change it.

Wait, tomorrow the publication date? Ahhhhh! It’s not ready.

Back to the original question. When’s a manuscript really ready? Never. In reality, it’s never ready. But like a boisterous little boy playing hide-and-seek at night, “Ready or not, here I come.”

The only question you have to answer is this: Did you do the very best you could with the resources available and the time given to you to accomplish it? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then release it into the wild and rest in the knowledge that you gave it your best. Is your best perfection? No. Will you be completely satisfied with it? No.

Do you move on to the next story anyways? Yes.

A DIAMOND FOR HER coming March 23. Ready or not.

How to be Creative in 2021!

We are creative beings. I’m convinced of it. I’ve been watching my grandson play over the past couple of weeks and he just naturally creatives narratives about firemen, emergencies, ice cream stands, railroads, excavators, dump trucks and just about everything. He oozes creativity and it’s marvelous. By the way, he’s two years old.

What will we do (I do) in 2021 to allow the muses to penetrate and invite the dark hushes of night to open avenues previously unseen? Here’s a couple ideas:

Play. I recommend blocks. Yes, I’m back to my grandson for a moment. There’s something magnificently simple about playing with blocks, but it’s also freeing and … yes … creative. I’ve been taken away in my mind more than once when constructing a block zoo or a block gas station or whatever. Seeing the patterns, the possibilities, the endless little tweaks which can shape and reshape what is being formed. Playing with blocks allows one to be creative, but there are many varieties to play. Find one that suits you.

Passion. I have two passions which fuel my creativity: writing and cooking. They are a great counterbalance to each other because they are not related in any way, but they each, in their own way, allow me to experiment and control the ideas of my mind. They also both need source material whether a recipe for cooking or a news article for creative writing, they allow me to use what I have and what I am currently processing in order to form something new. Guitar is another creative avenue for me. It’s not one of my passions, per se, and I’m not a great guitarist, but it’s another method of getting me to think creative about my writing since I like to compose lyrics and songs and musical theatre related stuff. We all have a creative passion. I’m sure of it.

Get Away from Clutter. I think this is also an important way to allow yourself to be creative. We are bombarded with media and technology every moment of every day, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at putting my phone down. What do you do to cleanse yourself from the daily clutter of your life and allow yourself to think, listen, see, feel, and just breathe? When I’m in my typical routine, that time for me is when I’m walking. I might be listening to music at the same time, but it allows me to think and ponder. Is it any wonder that a lot of my writing ideas come to me when I’m walking?

So if you want to be a more creative person this year; play, follow your passions, and secure time away from your cluttered life. We are meant to be creative. What’s holding you back?

Those are my suggestions. What are yours?

Let your light shine through in 2021. (Photo by mws, Rome 2018)

When Lightning Strikes: The First 300 Words

I love talking about writing. I don’t know why. I guess it’s a tangent of the creative process, a way of analysis. However, more times than not, talking about writing is more akin to trying to demystify the brain. In other words, it’s smoke and mirrors because writing is not an analytical sport, it’s a metaphysical mish-mesh of hail marys and lightning strikes.

If that first paragraph makes no sense, simply ignore. Here’s the relevant part: I just wrote the first chapter and the first 300 words of my next novel.

I wrote a post not too long ago where I outlined the options of my next project. Since then, I still hadn’t written anything or even concluded on which avenue I would chose until, that is, the lightning struck.

It struck earlier this week and it was fast and furious after that. In a moment, I could visualize it in front of me, and I started pecking at the keys with all the various strands that came to me like a sudden, overwhelming summer storm. I jotted down people and places and situations and plot twists. Those moments of sheer creative joy are the most fun part of writing for me. It’s exploratory, it’s surprising, it’s rewarding. Think about that. I’m doing the thinking, yet I’m the one who is surprised. How does that even work? This fully shows just how bizarre the creative process is for me.

This morning, a few days after the lightning had passed, I finally typed out the first 300 words. Funny thing, however, these first 300 weren’t even in the original revelation of the other night. Another surprise. And on a further note, this first chapter has a wonderful cliff-hanger. Someone shows up. Someone whom others had been waiting on. You know what? I don’t even know who it is yet! That’s the exciting part! The quest is on. I am on a jaunt of discovery to find out who that person is. It’s a long meandering puzzle that only I can put together.

Does anyone else get this excited about writing?

A few details of what I’m working on. It’s a sequel of sorts to the novel I’ll be releasing on April 1, 2020. That one is called A DIAMOND FOR HER: Myths and Tales of the Winasook Iron Horses. The new one? Let’s give it a working title. How about Iowa She Said? That will work for now.

And the cover reveal for A Diamond for Her will be soon!

The Apple Tree & Writing

The idea behind the following metaphor is not new. Other writers have expressed similar ideas. This is, however, how I envision a successful writing process.

Here goes.

Writing is an apple tree full of red, ripe apples. Every apple is an idea. From a distant observation, each fruit looks equally delicious. What a bumper crop! You shall never run out of things to write about.

However, the writer would be wise to show restraint and not impulsively climb the tree to pick every reachable apple, for every reachable apple is not a quality apple. A conniving worm might be eating out the core. It’s impossible to tell at this point.

Good ideas are more apt to come to fruition when accompanied by patience

So what’s a writer to do? Find a comfortable beach chair. Put on a Hawaiian shirt, keep the front unbuttoned, and have a beverage of choice within arm’s reach. Sit in the chair, stretch out your legs and ponder the apples. Patience leads to a little miracle called inspiration.

One by one the rotten apples will begin falling from the branches. Caution: a writer may not want to sit directly under the tree.

Once the rotten fruit has revealed themselves and lay a stinky mess on the ground, what remains is the one true apple, the sweet one, the crisp one, the one you desired all along, only you didn’t know where it was on the tree.

Suddenly, there it is. Redder than the others. Sweeter than the rest, with a hint of sour crispness which will make the plot even that much more unpredictable. Choose that one. The one remaining.

Be patient. Be observant. Allow nature to do the rest.

Then place that apple into your hand and devour it with every bit of strength that you have.

 

 

Look in the Mirror, Writers

It’s that time of year. A little inner reflection. Soul-searching, if you will. Writers of all stripes are known to stare out into the vast unknown of their empty page and wonder, “What am I doing?”

I’m never at a want for words when it comes to writing. I’m always stocked with more ideas than I have minutes in the day. But it doesn’t mean I approach these writing tasks with confidence. Not at all. I often wonder what I’m doing. Will any of these myriad words make sense? Will anyone find them interesting? Will I ever get out of my writing tendencies and make something truly creative? Will I ever stop using THAT word? Will I ever be good enough?

The answer to all of these questions is to look in the mirror.

The reflection you see is your answer. That reflection is you, or in my view, me.

I have to ground myself from time to time with these mundane thoughts which should be as plain as the sun is hot. But writing life doesn’t work that way, so I have to remind myself these few simple facts.

  1. I love to write.
  2. I was born to do this.
  3. I would continue writing if no one ever read another word I had written.
  4. I have a voice.
  5. I have unique experiences.
  6. I am not Hemingway or Steinbeck or any other of the greats.
  7. I don’t need to be them, either.
  8. I am not the sum of the doubts in my head.
  9. I am not the sum of the critiques from others.
  10. I am unlike any other writer who ever lived.

I just need to be that person. Me.

I always try to encourage young writers to be themselves better than anyone else can, and you will find that you have a unique voice, one worth sharing, one worth listening to. This is why the question “Will I ever be good enough?” is the wrong question to be asking.

Press on. Create like there is no tomorrow, because you only have a short time on this earth and we will be blessed to know how you look at the world. We’ll all be better for it.

Keep writing.

Thank you, beta readers

It’s done. Novel #9 sent to my editor. More than any other novel I’ve written, the writing of this one has made me understand the true purpose of beta readers.

Writers have blind spots. Or possibly soft spots. Maybe I get a little to sentimental at times and think a few chapters can get by with charisma without conflict. Whatever the case, I had two beta readers for my novel Moses the Singer who essentially said the same thing: the conflict of the story became less apparent about two-thirds through.

I’ll be honest. When the first one said it, I kind of brushed it off as different people have different perspectives. But when suddenly different people have the same perspectives, it made me take note. And they were right.

I found the problem. A story strand which I had left on the table. It turned out to be a crucial turning point in the life of the protagonist. In the first draft, he kind of floated through a few chapters without motivation. Well, not any more.

The re-worked manuscript adds about 6000 words and two brand-new chapters. And conflict? Oh yeah. Big time. It’s the type of big moment which pushes the story forward and which helps to define a character’s actions. It was big, and I missed it.

So, once again, thanks beta readers.

Moses the Singer now clocks in at about 90,000 words. It scheduled for a summer release. I already have the cover and will be revealing it soon.

Here’s the first published description of the book. Much more to come:

Moses the Singer: A man without a country lives a disenfranchised life on the beautiful island of Penang, Malaysia. A group of teenage musicians witness the old man being taken advantage of by a local resident. What happens next is a whole lot of sweet harmony.

Be Willing to Make a Major Change in Your Writing

As I’ve mentioned, I had sent novel #9 out to some beta readers for feedback prior to final draft and sending it to my editor.

Two beta readers, whom I respect a great deal for their knowledge of literature and their ability to just tell me honestly what they think, said basically the same thing. One could not recommend the book because, in the beta reader’s opinion, there was a pause in the conflict during a certain section about two-thirds through. The other would recommend this book to others but also said something similar at the same part. The conflict seems to be undefined giving the reader no real clue where the story is going.

I was happy with the story the way it was.

So now what?

As a writer, am I willing to slow down the publication of my story and make a major change to the plot, not really knowing the ripple effects it may have for the story?

Yes. Emphatically, yes.

I have learned that I cannot entrench myself so far into my writing that I’m not willing to take criticism and make changes. That’s the whole point of having a beta reader, right? If I’m not willing to listen to them, then I just wasted their time, and I slowed down the time line of my book for no reason.

But I want to do this right. This writing thing. So here I go.

What am I about to do? My book is 34 chapters. I’m really happy with it through chapter 16. I’m also happy with the ending, and I think both beta readers were too. But the back middle is sagging, so I will:

  • enter a brand new plot twist to chapter 17.
  • not whine and complain when it wrecks havoc with some of my chapters.
  • welcome the ripple effects and go where they take me.
  • try to make it into the kind of book that the first beta reader would recommend.

As I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, something hit me. They are right. They are absolutely right. I left a conflict on the writing table. It’s right in front of me. Part of the story just disappears. Neither of them mentioned this, but it’s obvious to me now. And this missing storyline will become the needed conflict which will, hopefully, propel the story to its ending.

Here’s what I keep telling myself:

  • be open to change
  • keep trying to get better
  • listen to others
  • do the best you can
  • then accept it, finish it, and move on.

MOSES THE SINGER coming summer 2020.

 

Beta Readers: Choose Tough Ones

I just heard back from my first beta reader concerning my newest novel MOSES THE SINGER. She’s ready to answer my questions.

Am I terrified? Of course. She is the first person in the world to read this manuscript after myself. I have five other people working their way through it right now.

Is it killing me that she gave no indication if she like or hated it?  Yes.

Am I glad she didn’t? YES. As much as I hate it, I want beta readers to be tough, critical, fair, and blunt.

Here’s why:

  1. Beta readers are not seeing the final product yet. Why I have done a lot of revision and editing on the manuscript, it hasn’t gone through the final editing process yet. Beta readers are meant to help you get it ready for the final push for the book.
  2. I need unbiased eyes. I wouldn’t send a manuscript to anyone unless I was happy with it, but I have no idea what a reader might think of the story. If it sucks, or if it has a major flaw, I need to know. The writer is sometimes too close to his or her own story to see the warts.
  3. I want to get better. Fawning praise will not help me improve my writing. Serious reflection and tough questions will.

When I choose a beta reader, I choose people who are voracious readers. I choose people who love literature and are well versed on all types of quality writing. When possible, I choose English teachers or people who are writers or aspiring writers themselves. I choose people whom I respect and have shown a passion for literary criticism to one degree or another.

My beta readers are tough, and I want them to be blunt, no matter how much it might hurt my fragile writer’s ego. So here goes, wish me luck, and let’s hope the following criticism will make the end product that much better. The end product means the book in question AND my writing in general.

PS: Just so we’re clear, I am okay for beta readers to tell me how much they liked it, too. Praise has its place. So, feel free.