It’s Time to Stop Following Your Dreams

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I followed my dreams for years.

I followed them into loud bars with flashing lights and crowds of interesting people. I followed them to foreign lands, stately museums, and dark forests. To thin, ancient streets late at night. Sometimes I even followed them to the keyboard to peck out a few words, but who wants to sit at a screen when there are bars, forests, and thin, ancient streets to explore?

I followed them secure in the belief that surely, somewhere I would find the idea, the inspiration, the story that would enthrall my soul. Then I’d drift back to the keyboard and the hours of writing would fly by as pleasantly and magically as my other adventures.

Many of these journeys I do not regret. Yet even the best of these explorations got me no closer to where I wanted to be.

Why? Because “follow your dreams” is a terrible metaphor. It’s an awful blueprint for accomplishing any worthwhile goal, and one that I’m here to banish from your vocabulary forever.

To show you how terrible this phrase is, I’m going to break down word-by-word why “follow your dreams” is such a harmful idea.

Follow

This verb is the most seductive word in this insidious aphorism.  Following is easy. Anyone can follow. You find something – a light, a path, a butterfly fluttering across a meadow – and you amble after it. Following requires no thought, no agency, no effort beyond walking with your hands in your pockets and whispering a sweet tune.

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Sure, certain paths exist in real life. Good grades-college-job-promotion-promotion-vacation home-retirement-death is the most dominant, but there are others. Yet none of them lead people where they really want to go. The paths to true happiness vary by individual, can be traveled only in darkness, and are hacked out of dense underbrush with dull machetes. They are not presented to you; they are created by you. There is no road to follow.

Dreams

Have you ever had a dream that made sense? One that wasn’t full of impossibilities and internal contradictions? One that adhered to the physical laws of the waking world? Me neither.

Yes, I know that the more precise meaning of “dream” in this phrase would be “a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.”  But a lot of people place a surprising amount of importance on the random firings of their neurons while they sleep. And even the more precise sense of the word is vague. Rarely do these cherished ambitions come into the sharp resolution required to make them achievable.

So what’s a better metaphor?

Forge your life.

That’s the one I’m using right now. At least until I think of something better.

To forge a piece of metal, the furnace must be fueled and maintained. The iron will only bend after repeated, consistent striking. Forging is active, difficult, and creative. It requires both skill and endurance.

I’m trying to apply this approach to my whole life, not just my dream of becoming a successful writer, because people often attain a goal only to find that it hasn’t made them happy. So I have imagined the life I want in its entirety. I sat down one day and wrote it all out. What am I aiming for? Not just with my writing, but with my family, my health, my friendships. I saw that so much of this life is already formed and shining up at me from the anvil.

And the parts that aren’t? I’m maintaining the furnace. I’m embracing the heat. And I’m hammering away.

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Thank You, Total Strangers

I’ve  been giving away my short story collection, Horizons, on Amazon for the past few days, and the response has been way better than expected. As of right now, I’m almost to 70 books given away, and with one more day to go, I’m hopeful that number can crack 100.

Why am I so happy to be giving away a book I worked so hard on? Partly, I’m glad that there are 70 more people who know my name and think that maybe when one of my novels comes out later, they’ll recognize the name and pick up a copy. But more than that, I’m simply happy to have written these stories. I’m happy to have brought these characters and worlds to life, and I’m happy that total strangers are entering into them and hopefully enjoying them.

So thank you to everyone who’s picked up a copy so far. And if you haven’t yet, the deal runs through the end of the day. All you have to do is click here.

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The Joy of Hunting Tics

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So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?

How to Write Faster

…according to 1.5 books on the subject.

I’m going to keep this post short because I don’t have much time to write today, and I want to spend most of it working on my current novel.

Since the “not much time” dilemma is a persistent theme for me these days, I recently read through one and a half books on how to write faster, with a goal of getting more out of my scant writing time. One book was good (2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron), and one was not (1,500 Words Per Hour by N.P. Martin).

Despite their varying quality, they both had the same basic message:

Plan your novel. Extensively.

Figuring out what you’re going to write — before your butt hits the chair — frees you from doing your heavy “where am I going with this” thinking at the keyboard. It allows you to focus all your mental resources on settling into a flow while composing. Extensive planning also helps by preventing major mistakes that require you to scrap and rewrite large portions of your book. You know, the “Oh wait, when did my protagonist lose the superpower that would have made the climactic battle a non-event?” kind of oopsies.

I actually arrived at some of these conclusions on my own via another path. On my last short story – which will be released as part of a collection I’m putting out this summer – I tried extensive planning, purely with the aim of writing better. My goal was to craft a story that was deeper than my previous work, and I knew that would require weaving certain themes consistently throughout the piece. I had just read a great post by Steven M. Long about outlining, and my guess was that imagining almost every beat of the story in advance would help me develop that depth. It did. I’m happier with that piece than with a lot of my other stories. But the unexpected bonus was how quickly I was able to compose it.

2,000 to 10,000 was a lot better in fleshing out these concepts. The writer, Rachel Aaron, has produced a ton of well-received novels, and she walks the reader through the plotting and diagramming process that she has honed over her career. The examples are supremely helpful, and I’m employing many of her methods as I map out my current project. The Martin book is less detailed and mostly repeats itself ad nauseum.

Both of these books could have used better line editors. They are riddled with typos, which undercuts their argument that writing quickly does not mean writing poorly. The Martin book was far worse in this respect — to the point where I stopped reading halfway through — and even had an egregious error in the first sentence of the first chapter.

Speaking of first chapters, I’m hoping to start laying down words on my new novel this weekend, so I better get my outline done. I wouldn’t want to start writing without it.

I Love My Kindle, But…

I just read six pages of a book while waiting on a dark train platform. I’ll probably sneak a couple pages during visits to the espresso maker at work this morning. And each day usually presents the occasional four-minute stretches between tasks where I can sip down a scene or two. Add it all up, and by the end of the day, I’ve done a respectable amount of reading, probably more than 90 percent of Americans.

None of it would happen without the Kindle app on my phone. While it is physically possible for me to carry around a book all the time, it’s just not practical. My phone though? As long as I’m conscious, I’m going to have it on my person. Also, no one questions me for busting out my small screen for a bit. My coworkers might not take it as kindly if they saw I was skipping conversations at the break-room microwave to leaf through Battlefield Earth.

So as much as this post is a love letter to my Kindle, it’s also an “I miss you” to paper books. I miss their weight. Their smell. The lack of glare.

But it’s not just the physical experience. It’s also the abundant free time that enabled me to sit down for hours to read instead of stealing pages here and there.

I love my life. I wouldn’t trade the things that keep me so busy – namely my two amazing daughters – for any amount of reading time. Maybe there are other tasks I could lose or reduce, but for now, reading volume has slipped far down my hierarchy of priorities. Part of why I’m pursuing a writing career is to have more time, or at least more control over my time.

Until then, I’ll be reading my Kindle. I won’t be hating it. But still…

Review: Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a thorough and readable investigation of one of the most fascinating people of our time. Ashlee Vance reconstructs Musk’s rise to wealth and fame through hundreds of interviews with current and former business associates. This exhaustive research allows Vance to provide well-founded insights into Musk’s thinking, motivations, and behavioral patterns. While Vance touches on the major points of Musk’s personal life, the book avoids most of the armchair psychoanalysis so common in many biographies.

It’s worth nothing that Vance is a business journalist, so this book focuses heavily on Musk’s methods as a businessman. The book also delves further into SpaceX than I’d expected, which was a pleasant surprise. While Musk is probably most well-known as the head of Tesla, SpaceX best epitomizes his grandiose ambitions and manic work ethic. And, as a sci-fi author, it’s the company I’m most interested in.

Bottom line: If you are interested in Musk as a businessman, especially the story of SpaceX’s founding and his plans for that company, you’ll find this a worthwhile read.

 

The Magic Book to Make Your Minor Discomforts Vanish

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I’m writing this while tired. Very tired. We have a four-month old who still wakes up twice a night for feedings, and my nine-to-five job is actually a six-to-five. Once I’m home from that, I spend a few hours chasing around my four-year-old daughter, who expends enough energy in an hour to power the Vegas strip for a week. Then, after everyone’s asleep, I approach my keyboard with red eyes and a wrung-out mind.

And yet after reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, the sad violin I play for myself has gotten quite a bit smaller and quieter.

The book tells the story of English-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s failed crossing of Antarctica in 1914. The expedition went awry when his ship became trapped in a field of pack ice and crushed to pieces before his party could even reach land. Shackleton and his crew spent the next 500 days trying to survive the most hostile environment on Earth and trying to make their way back to civilization in three poorly equipped, 20-foot boats.

The punishment they endured was staggering, travails so severe that they would be laughed off as unbelievable if anyone survived them in a work of fiction. Months camping on ever-shrinking ice floes. A full year in frigid air and wet clothes. Weeks near starvation. Five sleepless days at sea, battling choppy water and dodging icebergs that threatened to sink their boats. Boils. Frostbite. Blisters that froze, forming pebbles of ice under their skin. Months eating little besides seal and penguin. A 720-mile journey across the world’s most dangerous seas in a glorified rowboat. Waves like skyscrapers. Bailing, watching, bailing, watching. Days of thirst without clean water. A full day rowing furiously against the current to avoid treacherous rocks. A traverse of a craggy, inhospitable island of stone and ice with nothing but a fifty-foot rope.

Endurance was published in 1959, so the language is somewhat antiquated in spots. However, Lansing’s prose is clean and crisp and tugs the reader along without speed bumps. This book was gripping throughout in a similar way as John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. But even the torments Krakauer’s Everest climbers suffered were far shorter in duration.

Endurance forced me to reflect on the human capacity to withstand suffering, both physical and mental. It gave me a new perspective on the unfathomable coziness we First Worlders are surrounded by every day. Climate-controlled dwellings. Running water. Warm clothing. Abundant, nutritious, inexpensive food.

This security and convenience has put much of our resilience into hibernation. We avoid the outdoors if it’s colder than 50 degrees or warmer than 90 degrees. We drive three blocks to buy groceries, instead of walking. We hire out physical chores whenever possible. But that strength is still there, untapped.

With that in mind, that knee I jammed the other day isn’t so sore anymore. The tightness in my wrists from constant typing seems trivial.

And, yeah, I’m still tired. But suddenly I don’t mind so much.

Five Writing Lessons I Learned From Hugh Howey’s Wool

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I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’ve hit a rough patch in my writing, I watch Tony Robbins videos on YouTube for a boost.

I know that literary types like us aren’t supposed to like motivational types like Tony Robbins – because he’s rich and in better physical shape than us pale basement dwellers – but the guy dishes out some sound advice, even when he’s just pointing out things that should be obvious. One tactic he frequently recommends has stuck with me: If you want to succeed in a particular endeavor, find someone who’s already succeeded and copy what they did.

Because I want to become a popular science fiction author, and because the evidence suggests that self-publishing is the best way to achieve that, the obvious model for me is Hugh Howey.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Howey is an independent author whose seventh published work, Wool, blew up into an international best-seller. He’s still writing while at the same time sailing around the world on his 50-foot catamaran. That’s not exactly the life I’m shooting for, but it’s not too far off the mark, either.

Helpfully, Howey has made modeling him easy by publishing a blog post called So You Want to Be a Writer, half of which is devoted to the craft of writing. That post, combined with a studious reading of Wool, serve as a solid crash course in how to create fiction that demands to be read.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Read widely and borrow from other genres. While Wool is ostensibly a dystopian science fiction novel, it’s also three romances and two mysteries. The romances raise the stakes on the action, and the mysteries serve as a propellant for the plot at times when mortal danger isn’t in the forefront.

Let your heroes have flaws. Wool’s major protagonist, Juliette, has refused to see her dad for years for reasons that I – as a father of two young girls – consider not to merit the torture of shunning a parent. But this fault springs from the same source as her heroic qualities, making both sides of her more believable.

Let your villains have virtues. The antagonist, Bernard, is doing what he thinks he needs to do in order to keep everyone in the silo alive. His resolve and his willingness to make difficult choices is admirable.

Suspense allows for intellectual depth. I used to think that suspense and intellectual heft were competing forces in fiction, that more of one meant less of the other. Wool destroyed this notion for me. Suspense makes the presentation of larger ideas more palatable. Passages in which characters are thinking deeply aren’t boring if they occur while they are in danger. This also lends veracity to the story. It’s natural that characters on a precipice would have racing thoughts and that they would engage big problems and concepts when they are at risk of losing everything.

Don’t be afraid to take risks or play with structure. Wool’s opening chapter about Holston and his wife would serve fine as a standalone short story. But it’s also an effective inciting incident for the rest of the novel. I can’t recall any other novel that starts that way, and it had me hooked from the beginning. Wool also employs some time-jumping and other devices that keep the story barreling forward.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to writing compelling fiction, but these are the lessons that hit home on my first pass through Wool. When you’re trying to accomplish something difficult, it helps to know that others have done it before. It helps even more when those people look back and shine a light on the path for you. So thanks, Hugh Howey.

And thanks, Tony Robbins.

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Review: Lock In, by John Scalzi

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In the near future, a highly contagious disease causes roughly 2 percent of the population to become prisoners in their own bodies. The U.S. government invests massive amounts of money to help victims of the illness, known as Haden’s syndrome, have normal lives, even without the control of their voluntary nervous systems.

Two options gain popularity. In one, Haden’s sufferers are able to use their minds to control robot bodies – called threeps – that allow them to move around and interact in the world. The other option lets Hadens control the body of another, specially trained human known as an integrator.

It is in this world that Chris Shane, a Haden’s victim who uses a robot body to get around, joins the FBI and on his first day is thrown into a bizarre murder mystery. The rest of the novel is essentially a science-fiction police procedural that’s infused with a snarky voice and sharp commentary about the intersection of industry and politics.

In short, John Scalzi’s Lock In is a fun, quick read that explores interesting ideas. Scalzi deftly weaves in critiques of broad swathes of the current political, economic and cultural environments, and my brain chewed on a lot of these issues between reading sessions. Even though this novel falls just short of full page-turner-hood, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who watches Washington and Wall Street with their head in their hands or to anyone who’s interested in biotechnology, the science of the brain, or the idea of transferred consciousness.

The following section is mainly for discussion with other people who have read the novel.

Some mild spoilers are below.

Here’s what I liked about Lock In:

The main character’s smart, wry sense of humor makes the story move briskly despite the often mind-bending forces at work. The supporting characters also have distinct, crisp voices that made spending time with them pleasant. The effect was similar to being at a party of smart, interesting people.

The scientific aspect of the story was fascinating. The idea of linking mind to machine has always intrigued me. Pushing the concept to the extreme of decoupling Haden’s sufferers’ minds from their bodies and gaming out the legal, cultural, and political dimensions of that separation gave me a lot to ponder.

The possibility of people inhabiting other bodies made the murder mystery setup of the story more interesting. I don’t watch detective shows or read many police procedurals, but the loophole that any given person might actually be someone else kept the act of piecing together this puzzle more enjoyable.

Here’s where Lock In fell short for me:

I never felt like Shane had much at stake. Early on, the main points of sympathy for him were that he was part of a group of that had been discriminated against and that he was starting a job that promised to be difficult. Given that he was a rich kid who didn’t need the job and that he was one of the most famous and privileged Hadens, I couldn’t generate a ton of empathy for him.

Also, the threat to his life didn’t develop until late in the book, and even then, the risk that he’d actually die seemed low. So for most of the novel, the main draw is whether he’ll solve the mystery and prove himself competent. That was intriguing, but I didn’t feel like anything bad would happen to him or to the world if he didn’t crack the case. As the case progresses, we see that there is more at stake, and the back half of the back is more compelling than the first half. So presenting the larger implications of the conspiracy earlier on might have added propulsion to the story.

To be sure, this is a mild criticism of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. And I’m coming off of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I found to be an addictive read, so my bar is temporarily higher than normal. I definitely recommend picking up Lock In.

 

 

How I stopped being a literary snob

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And how that helped me start writing

For most of my life, I’ve been that annoying writer friend. You know, the one that always says he’s going to be a writer, who talks about how much he loves writing, who tells you all his ideas for all the books he’s going to write. And then never writes a damn thing.

Actually, I would write some damn things from time to time. A scrap of a story here, a bit of dialogue there, a character sketch on a napkin during a coffee break. But never a full story.

Many different obstacles – most located inside my skull – held me back from dedicating myself to my craft. Among the largest of these hurdles was my insistence that straight-up literary fiction was the only genre worthy of a true artist and intellectual like myself.

That stupid idea finally died three years ago, when my wife and I watched the movie version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The movie grabbed me in a way few films do, engaging me intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally. The action propelled the plot, the humanity gave the action meaning, and the movie’s confrontation of big ideas kept my brain churning long after we’d shipped the DVD back in its little red envelope.

After watching that movie, I realized that most of my favorite movies were sci-fi, from the Star Wars trilogy up to more recent films like District 9 and Moon. The appeal of these films for me was how they tackled the strangeness of the universe in a way that’s not possible in genres restricted by current reality.

That embrace of the hypothetical and fantastic was the missing propulsion without which none of my attempts at storytelling could ever take flight. My subconscious had always wanted to skirt the boundaries of reality, to suffuse my narratives with the spooky, the mysterious, and the ridiculous. But some voice inside me always rapped my knuckles, telling me those devices weren’t the tools of serious writers. That’s why I’d always gotten too bored with my work to ever finish a story. And it’s partly why I stopped even starting stories.

After Cloud Atlas, I tried my hand at a sci-fi short, Beyond the Pillars. It was the first story that I couldn’t wait to return to writing every day, the first one I found myself daydreaming about away from the keyboard. Most importantly, it was the first one I finished.

Now that I’ve found my natural genre and am writing regularly, I’m no longer the annoying wannabe writer guy. I rarely discuss my work around my friends, and I never talk about stories in progress.

I don’t need to waste my breath convincing myself how much I love writing or showing others how writerly I am. I’m having too much fun actually writing.