Author: DeAnna Knippling (Page 1 of 62)

Writing Craft: How to Study Like a Professional Writer

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

Read; read wisely; study what you read.

We talked about setting goals versus establishing habits. Setting goals is one of life’s great meta-skills. We’ve talked about reading, and how to do it more often, and we’ve talked about reading wisely.

What remains is to discuss how to study what you read.

But before we do that, I’d like to talk about avoidance behavior, a term borrowed from psychology to describe the actions that a person takes to escape from difficult thoughts and feelings.

Avoidance Behavior and How to Avoid It

Avoidance behavior or “coping” is a blanket term for many different types of behavior that occur when you’re trying to avoid doing something.* It is not procrastination, per se, although procrastination can be a part of it.

I am not a psychologist, so I can’t speak professionally about avoidance behavior. I want you to be aware of the possibility of its occuring, though; I recommend researching the matter through other sources if you think avoidance behavior is a problem for you.

In short:

  • You want to accomplish something.
  • That something is difficult.
  • You find yourself avoiding the task.
  • You may also find yourself avoiding the task so thoroughly that, at the time, you’re not aware that you’re avoiding the task.
  • Later, you realize that you have been avoiding the task, or avoiding even thinking about the task.

If you have ever sat down to write and found yourself mysteriously cleaning house, cruising social media, or watching a movie instead, then you have experienced avoidance behavior.

(Continued here.)

Preorders Available for New Release – The House Without a Summer: A Novel of Gothic Horror

The House Without a Summer

Preorders Link

The year is 1816, in Northamptonshire. A red, spiderwebbed haze covers the sun. Temperatures drop, fields flood and freeze, grain rots on the stem. The people are starving, and even the wealthy and titled are affected by shortages. Sickness spreads as a red fungus overtakes fields, seals over windows, and infiltrates cellars.

On the way back from the Napoleonic Wars in France, Marcus, the younger son of the Earl of Penderbrook, returns to find his brother dead, the estate covered in fungus, and his father sinking into madness.

The last thing Marcus wants to do is be responsible for Penderbook; he wants only to spend the rest of his life playing cards, drinking, and seducing other men’s wives. But even the responsible life of an heir escapes from his grasp, as his brother’s body disappears, his father turns violent, and pale monsters horrify the countryside.

As Marcus pieces together the truth, he discovers a past more tainted with evil than he could have suspected.

From the family wine cellar to the folly behind the house—from the pond where he played as a child to the new cotton mill built along the stream—

None of what happens at Penderbrook is innocent.

And the monstrosities that have been committed may still be carried in Marcus’s blood…

A tale of transformation and terror, set in the year Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Sample from A House Without A Summer

Historical Note

The year of 1816 was known as “the year without a summer.” Across the world, temperatures dropped. Snows and frosts lasted until June, interspersed with heavy rain. Sunspots visible to the naked eye covered the sun. Crops rotted in the wet fields. When the fields were replanted, the crops rotted again.

Napoleon had only just been defeated. A plague of typhus spread across Europe, killing more people than the Corsican general had. Merchants bought up what stores of grain there were to be had, increasing prices. Farmers refused to sell their grain outside of their home districts. In Great Britain, what with one thing and another—including the ludicrous Corn Laws, designed to keep the prices of grain high—over a hundred thousand people died of illness and starvation. Food riots happened all across Britain and France.

To some, it was very nearly the end of the world.

The year before, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted in what was then the Dutch East Indies. It was an eruption ten times as powerful as that of Mount Krakatoa in 1883. The Mount Tambora eruption was the most powerful one known in recorded history, at a seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. (Krakatoa was a six; Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens were fives.) So much gas and dust were thrown into the atmosphere that it chilled the surface of the earth for two years. Worldwide famine followed.

Painter J.M.W. Turner caught the strangely miscolored skies after the eruption. His paintings from before the tragedy, in 1814, depict skies of a cool, bluer hue; afterwards, at dawn and sunset, the skies in his paintings burned the color of blood, and in daylight hummed with an almost eerie golden light.

The light remained in its distorted colors for almost the rest of Turner’s career; he died in 1851.

The summer of 1816 saw Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelly in Geneva, Switzerland, telling Gothic tales with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the doctor John Polidori. The rains kept them indoors most of that summer. Mary Shelly’s ghost story was that of a resurrected man, and the mad doctor who brings the creature back from the dead: thus, Frankenstein was born. It also saw author Jane Austen beginning to sicken and fade from a mysterious illness, from which she died in 1817.

By September 1816, the snows had begun again. In fact, snow tinted red from volcanic ash fell in some parts Italy all throughout the year.

It was the Regency Era.

While the upper classes held their endless parties, balls, and operas, attended gambling hells, scrambled to make advantageous marriages for their daughters, and obsessed over French fashion, the lower classes rioted and starved.

Many people were convinced the world was ending.

Prologue – The Crystal Palace

It wasn’t until Miss Lucy Abbott had attended the Great Exhibition of 1851 several times that she began to truly understand what had happened in the year of 1816.

Decades had passed; the unendurable, mad year of 1816 had come to a close; those who had died had faded from memory for the most part, either disappearing as if they had never lived, or taking on the aspect of the people they ought to have been, rather than the blackguards they were. In particular, the reputation of the Earl of Penderbrook had been much ameliorated.

In Lucy’s secret heart of hearts, she suspected that she herself had been changed little by what had happened, although at the time she had felt herself to have been transformed entire. What she had lost seemed the world to her. But, both before the tragedy and after, she was as dark of mind and eye as ever; her heart still dwelled upon the injustices that she saw everywhere. But who might she have been, if events had occurred otherwise? A wife, a mother, and a fine addition to society—if somewhat macabre of humor and a little too interested in novels.

Until the Great Exhibition, she had supposed herself entirely recovered of her peace of mind. And indeed, the first several times she visited the Crystal Palace, home to the exhibition, she felt only wonder, sore feet, and delight.

But as the Great Exhibition progressed, her heart began to leap uncomfortably about in her chest: at the sight of certain too-familiar, yet altogether featureless faces; the smell of mildew and unwashed bodies; even the sound of a laugh, shrill yet commanding, that reminded her of the Earl’s.

As she wound her way through the endless exhibits collected by Prince Albert and his committees, she was forced to remind herself more and more often that she was not walking through the halls of Penderbrook.

Penderbrook was gone as though it had never existed.

Thank God.

When first the Great Exhibition had opened, she had gone to see it like everyone else: it was a marvel, a wonder, the gathering of all that was brightest and best in the world, the promise of increase and prosperity to all mankind. She went because she had been invited by friends. She went because she had always had more curiosity than sense. She went because she had an idea that she would like to set one of her stories there, or at least to gather the flavor of a hundred different countries around the world, so that she might set her stories anywhere, and at least have some hope of getting something right.

She was always in despair that a reader would catch her out in some hideous inaccuracy, although they seldom did, or cared.

The Crystal Palace was a shining edifice, grand and impressive, a hall made of steel and glass. She could see inside it as the carriage approached, the sea of humanity that entered it, and, through the glass, the bustle upstairs, and an endless row of booths. She was handed out her carriage, escorted inside, and treated with all civility. She was not so overwhelmed that she did not understand that she was being treated as visiting royalty in the hopes that she would write something favorable about the exhibition for the Press.

It was everything that she had hoped for, and she promised herself that she would return again and again, and the next time she would attend with a notebook and more comfortable shoes. Later, she remembered little of her first visit but a blur.

She continued to visit the exhibition, to take copious notes, to study, to dream.

This continued into October of 1851, when the exhibition was about to close. The sense of wonder still remained, but it was a frantic sort of emotion now, the kind of feeling that one gets when one stays up past one’s bedtime and had drunk just enough brandy to feel a certain amount of strain underneath one’s own merriment.

It was a twilight sort of mood.

The exhibits, over the course of the exhibition, became less and less well maintained. The upper tiers of British society began to absent themselves, and the exhibition put on specials for the lower classes to attend more cheaply. The halls were more packed than ever. Little things began to disappear, either stolen by thieves or preventatively removed by the owners, wary of thievery.

She began to feel a certain familiarity, not of the exhibition itself, but of some other place, which she could hardly remember.

Then one day she turned in the hallway around one booth to the next and did not recognize where she was. She was surrounded by pale figures rushing past her, not quite ghosts, but men and women with all the color washed out of their faces, as though they were illustrations printed on onionskin paper. They grimaced at her and at each other, baring their teeth. Her skin rose up in instant gooseflesh, and her teeth chattered against each other several times, shivering, before she clenched them together.

When she glanced back over her shoulder, the hall seemed familiar again. There was the new steam engine; there was the new type of lock that everyone had been so certain of no-one ever being able to pick! But of course it had been defeated by an American locksmith in a matter of days… In other words, she knew her ground. The phantoms had vanished, or rather been subsumed back into the people surrounding her, who seemed as perfectly ordinary as always.

But upon walking forwards a few steps, she shuddered again.

Penderbrook.

As the word came to her, she jumped back from a pale-faced gentleman who had come forwards to shake her hand. She had no wish to startle the man—he wished only to tell her that he enjoyed her stories—so she forced a laugh and quipped, “You made me think of my editor for a moment!” He laughed, and they chatted briefly.

She hoped that she had concealed her true emotions from appearing on her face.

At any moment, she expected to be snatched from behind, a cold limb twining itself about her shoulders.

Lucy…

You know you must leave, Lucy, before it is too late.

After her admirer had excused himself, she had been solicitously asked by her secretary if she wished him to find her a seat; she had gone quite pale. She clutched his arm, saying that she felt a bit dizzy and did not wish him to leave her side, lest she fall.

Do not let me vanish.

It had long seemed to her that she owed a debt to Penderbrook. Or perhaps debt was not the right word. But there was a part of her which belonged to Penderbrook, which she had always suspected would someday be reclaimed as its own.

Her secretary held his arm stiffly at his side, and she clung to it, near to weeping. The halls seemed to spiral about her, wrapping her tighter and tighter until her breath became painful in her chest. The sense of being pulled or called increased. The faces spinning past her seemed to leer at each other, every face turned into a kind of translucent, bloodless clay.

This place is dying, she realized.

The Crystal Palace was clinging to life as a drowning man might cling over-tightly to his would-be savior, causing them both to sink.

As Penderbrook had done.

And she, of all who were present, was perhaps the only one to understand the sensation, because she had felt it before.

She must not let it take her; she must not let it take her secretary. She would linger no longer.

Slowly, carefully, deliberately, she took a step forwards. The Crystal Palace pulled at her. Oh, how it pulled! Like softness, like warmth, like the stupor after lovemaking, like candlelight. But she knew what it was now, knew that it was only winding up its cocoon, tighter and tighter, seeking a place of safety and finding only self-destruction.

Lucy…

You must leave, Lucy, before it is too late…

Her secretary stopped her to ask, “Miss Abbott? Are you quite all right?”

“I have a desperate need of air,” she told him, and he led her outside of the Crystal Palace, to which she never again returned.

The building was pulled down soon after. They said it was to be rebuilt on the top of Sydenham Hill, to hold permanent exhibits.

But it was not the same place, and she ever after felt herself having very narrowly escaped indeed.

Want to read more? Click here.

Personal Asshole Mitigation Plan

I have this theory about assholes; they’re people who have no interest in anyone other than themselves.

What I’m coming to realize is that they’re people who also have no interest in anyone other than themselves in the current moment.

As far as I can tell, assholes don’t have long-term plans, not even ones that will benefit their future selves.  They have a series of short-term, selfish, often secretive policies that tend to accumulate power, money, influence, and control—and that, in retrospect, look like plans. But they really just live in the moment.

If I’m right, this might help explain why assholes so often self-destruct, often taking other organizations and relationships down with them.

Here’s the pattern:

Assholes infiltrate existing organizations and relationships, acquire influence and control the way a dragon acquires a treasure hoard, and then do something incredibly stupid that wrecks both their own situation and the original organization or relationship. And then they try to shift the blame onto someone else—even when a sincere apology would save their ass.

It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s that they don’t see past the moment.

They cannot actually believe that the bills—particularly those with emotional or social rather than legal or financial consequences—will come due.

Assholes are incredibly clever and talented about short-term accomplishments.

They are incredibly bad at anything long term.

Think about the biggest asshole that you personally know. Think about what marks them as an asshole. What might come to mind first is the way they treat other people. Even when they put on an appearance of charm, they’re rude, they’re belittling, they’re manipulative.

But what’s really telling is to see how an asshole treats themselves: short-term thrills and pleasures, long-term self-sabotage.

In life, it’s hard to know when you’re dealing with an asshole over the short term. Assholes are good at the short term, and they’re good at coming up with policies that conceal their true behavior and motivations. They say all the right things, because saying the right things provides a low-cost, short-term benefit.

They’re not so good at maintaining long-term behaviors, though.

Over time, an asshole will reveal themselves.  The truth will come out.

But what should you do over the short term? Be suspicious of everyone? Trust everyone and let the consequences be damned? Trust people at first, then change your tune the second that the asshole turns on you personally?

I think those plans are flawed. Trusting people who are trustworthy is one of the biggest benefits a person can experience. Trusting people who are untrustworthy is one of the biggest tragedies—and ignoring red flags until someone hurts you personally is how assholes get surrounded by sycophants and shock troops. That’s how they protect themselves.

So what should you do?

I think I must have the word “victim” on my forehead, from how often I get stalked or “chosen” by some asshole. Slowly, over a great deal of time, suffering, and expense, I’ve learned a few painful lessons.

Step one of mitigating the effects of assholes on your life? Love yourself. Even if you don’t think you’re worthy of it. Don’t wait until you deserve it.  People who hate themselves, or tolerate hate from other people, are easy to manipulate. Hate generally doesn’t show itself by screaming or frothing at the mouth. It shows itself by contempt. Do not cooperate with contempt. When someone is rude “but only joking,” that’s a red flag of contempt.

Step two is to care for yourself first.  Ask yourself What do I need? and handle that first. What you want might be getting spoiled rotten. But what you need might be a glass of water and ten seconds to stop and think. When someone can’t let you have even that, your hackles should rise.

Step three is to recognize when people do, and do not, support you. It doesn’t have to be a lot of support. Support is when people are happy for your successes and sad for your setbacks. They don’t jump in with unasked-for advice. They don’t tell you what you should have done differently. They don’t guilt-trip you for not succeeding. When people smile if good things happen for you, that’s enough.

Step four is to draw boundaries. If it were possible to draw boundaries without being able to do the first three things on my list, I’d recommend you draw boundaries first. But it just doesn’t seem possible to say that’s your problem, not mine until you love and care for yourself and can tell the difference between charm and support.

Boundaries are the rules that define what’s your problem and what’s not. That’s all. They will not only protect you from assholes, but from the people who will do you harm even though they genuinely mean well. And, when you’re in the middle of a meltdown, maybe even from yourself.

Because inside every boundary you set is that’s my problem, not yours.

Step five is to commit, or re-commit, yourself not to self-defeat. Make someone else defeat you. Make someone else have to shut you up.  Make someone else have to say out loud what they want. Make someone else have to work their damnedest to get you to cross a boundary, to break a personal rule.

Don’t do it for them. Don’t assume, don’t listen to subtext, don’t pre-fail.

And finally, when someone throws up red flags, disengage.

Do not re-engage because they did something nice for you or because they said please.

Ask yourself if the red flag has changed.

If it has not, do not negotiate about your engagement.

A normal person can be negotiated with. There can be some give and take. Things don’t always have to be spelled out. You can rely on a normal person to keep an eye on the long term, and to understand that your relationship, whether personal or professional, is more benficial than any short-term win.

An asshole will never understand that. The only long-term good you can do for an asshole is to stand your ground. Giving them what they want will, because of who they are, only benefit them in the short term. They do not have an eye on the relationship, long-term benefits, or the greater good.

They just don’t have it in them.

You cannot control the behavior of an asshole. Everyone has bad days now and then—but assholes have bad lives. You can pity what an asshole has done and is doing to themselves. You can encourage them to do better. You can even take small, safe actions that support them without pandering to their short-term demands.

But you can’t pretend they will change, or that they will, over the long term, do anything other than try to sabotage you for their own limited, short-sighted benefit.

Don’t give them the opportunity to do so.

You’ll both be better off for it.

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Writing Craft: How to Read Like a Professional Writer

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

If you would like to know the “secret” to writing better (which does not necessarily mean that you will publish or sell well), then here it is:

Read; read wisely; study what you read.

This statement is admittedly worthless as given, and of course there are other practical considerations like making time to write that we will cover elsewhere, but there it is: if you want to be able to improve quickly as a writer (or at least more quickly than most of your peers), you have to leverage your reading.

We will be breaking down the tasks into actionable steps in a moment, with “read” and “read wisely” in this section, and “study what you read” in Section 3.

First, however, because this section is about dealing with big-picture writing issues, a word on setting goals.

Goals vs. habits

You can set any goal you like, but if you don’t establish a habit to go with it, you won’t get anywhere.*

Telling yourself “write better” will not help you become a better writer. You have to have a plan. “Writing better” is impossible to achieve on its own, especially when part of writing better is reassessing what writing better actually means.

What “writing better” does as goal (in the absence of supporting habits) is create a vicious cycle:

  • You tell yourself to “write better.”
  • However, you don’t actually know what “writing better” means (yet).
  • No matter what you write, you naturally question whether you’re actually “writing better.”
  • Fame and fortune do not immediately arrive.
  • You don’t feel rewarded; therefore, you must not be “writing better.”
  • Conclusion: you must be a failure!

…and repeat.

If I wanted to sabotage someone’s career, I would tell them to “write better” and leave it at that.

(Continued here.)

Habit: The Chaos-Winged Butterfly of Change

Perhaps you’ve heard of the butterfly effect. It’s a term from chaos theory.

…perhaps you’ve heard of chaos theory. I had an extra slot that needed to be filled in college, and took a semester-long seminar on the popular-science version of what chaos theory was. Math was minimal. We read Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav, Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland, Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, and some other books I can’t remember now. Chaos theory is the idea that true randomness is rare, if not non-existent, and that instead of throwing our hands up in frustration at the vagaries of the world, we should be studying non-linear math, because fractals and Brownian motion (e.g., the movement of cream in hot coffee) and weather patterns are all non-linear, and we can study them now.

…and perhaps you’ve heard of non-linear math. As a non-mathematician, my best explanation is that non-linear math is when you plug a number N into a formula and get a result X, then put in a slightly different number, N+.01, and get result X time one bajillion. The results you get out of a formula cannot be described in a line or a curve, but are non-linear. This is where fractals come from. Pretty!

Anyway, the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect describes a situation in real life where non-linear math applies, causing seemingly random results in the real world. Make one small change to the flapping in the wings of a butterfly, the theory goes, and you might create a storm. Nobody knows: predictions involving the weather don’t follow any kind of straight line.

We are, however, discovering how to describe and predict the behavior of non-linear results as a whole, if not in every specific instance.

Why is this important?

I’ve been trying to explain how habits work in several contexts, and I’m struggling to get past people’s ideas of what a useful habit is. It seems almost universal for people to say things like, “I’m going to lose weight this year!” or “I’m going to be more financially responsible!”

What I’ve observed is that saying those things is a type of self-sabotage.

Here’s the process:

  • Make some kind of resolution, like losing weight or getting rid of debt.
  • Break that resolution down into smaller steps that are essentially the same thing, only smaller: eat fewer calories today, spend less money today.
  • Fail to accomplish the resolution.
  • Waste time, brainpower, and happiness continuously trying and failing to accomplish resolutions.
  • Envy people who have accomplished something.
  • Ask them how they did it.
  • Ignore advice, because it doesn’t look relevant.

The problem is that most people focus on results and don’t actually figure out how they’re going to accomplish the result, either on the large or small scale.

We tell ourselves to be stronger, happier, or richer.

How?

Crickets.

There’s a piece of advice that circulates around the popular financial book circuit. It goes something like this:

If you stop drinking one fancy coffee per day at a coffee shop, you will become rich!

That particular piece of advice is predicated on a level of financial success that most people who are struggling financially can’t reach—but those books aren’t aimed toward those of us who can’t afford to drink a fancy coffee per day. For the books’ presumed audiences (middle-class people with a bunch of disposable income that they’re wasting), it’s reasonably good advice.

If a person who drank a cup of fancy coffee from a coffee shop every day followed this plan, they would:

  • Save the price of one fancy cup of coffee per day, and
  • Save the calories of one fancy cup of coffee per day.

Over time, this person would naturally lose weight and have more money, unless they make correspondingly stupid choices elsewhere.

Usually the books also talk about how to stop drinking that one extra cup of fancy coffee per day, with solutions like:

  • Buy an espresso machine ($100) or an individual coffee-pod maker (e.g., a Keurig) ($80) and make your own fancy coffee.
  • Ask yourself when you actually need a cup of coffee, versus when you habitually have one or just want the experience of drinking fancy coffee, and drink something else instead (like tea) for those other times.
  • Completely wean yourself off the coffee habit.
  • Switch to plain drip coffee (it’s cheaper).

The save-money-via-changing-your-coffee-habits plan can be extrapolated to something like this:

  • Determine one thing you’re not happy about and set a vague goal related to it (“be debt-free!”).
  • Determine one habit that might be related, and that seems relatively easy to control.
  • Find ways to change that habit that are actual actions, rather than just telling yourself to do less of that habit (except when going cold turkey, generally considered a radical, advanced, and unnecessary technique in the books I’ve read).
  • If that particular change doesn’t work or it’s too hard to stick to, try another one.
  • In short: don’t force yourself to keep a goal. Find a vulnerable habit, and change it.

For the right audience, it’s a good plan.

But let’s say you don’t have problems with coffee. Let’s say you have (ahem) problems with buying too many books. You have a house full of books that you picked up at used bookstores, thrift stores, flea markets, and friends who had to get rid of their books—free books! You have an ereader full of free books and books that you bought on sale. Once or twice a year, you buy new releases from your favorite authors, but mostly you go for books that are an excellent deal. You also check a lot of books out from the library.

(This is me, by the way. I also have the expense of research and business books that I directly need for my writing career, but let’s leave those aside.)

Guess which books get read?

The ones from the library.

Not the ones I paid for, or even the free ones. The ones I got from the library.

Why?

They have due dates.

I have spent years trying to establish healthier habits around buying books. I tried to limit the number of books per month I could buy. I tried to limit the dollar amount. I was serious about this.

I failed.

Things got worse: more books built up, more money spent.

Until I found the vulnerable habit. The library.

Right now:

  • Books I haven’t read yet: I can’t buy it even if it’s on sale, unless it’s not at the library.
  • Books I have read or books I can’t get at the library: I can buy it, but only if it’s on sale (under $4.99 plus tax).
  • For every library book I read, I have to read a non-library book (to use up my already-purchased books).

If I haven’t read the book yet, I don’t know if I want to keep it. If I have read the book, I know if I want to keep it, and I know whether I want a print copy (for books of my heart) or if an ebook copy would be better (as in, the thousand-page books that are just easier to read as ebooks).

I fudge the line for short story collections and anthologies. I’ll buy them without having read them, but only on sale. I love short stories, though, and I never give collections or anthologies away. I also sometimes fudge a line if a writer whose work I like has a sale. But those two things make up maybe $5-$10 a month, which is a figure I can live with.

Figuring all this out wasn’t an easy, mindless process. It was much more complex and time-consuming than going, “In 2020, I will buy fewer books!” I’ve been messing around with my book-buying habits since the last time we moved, in 2015. I’m not going to tell you how much money I spent on books, and I didn’t track numbers well or sort between fiction and research/business books, but the change in yearly book spending from 2015 to 2019 was at least $500.

My habits resulted in my goal being achieved, but I didn’t try to achieve my goal. I just kept an eye on it.

So, tentatively speaking, here’s what to do:

  • Identify a problem.
  • Guesstimate a goal.
  • Pick one small, doable action or rule that may or may not help achieve the goal, but you won’t have to work too hard at to find out. (If it’s pleasant to do, even better.)
  • Try that for a couple of months.
  • If you’re not seeing a change, try something else.
  • If you’re seeing a change but it could be better, tweak.

Don’t suffer. If you’re suffering, you’re burning up willpower. Burning up willpower almost always fails.

If you’re doing something like running marathons, you are going to suffer and burn up willpower and work hard, but if you make sure that you’re getting more pleasure out of running than what it costs you, then the same habit-determining principles should still apply.

What habits do is apply a non-linear solution to a problem. A slightly different solution may have greatly different results (for example, if I defined books on sale as “more than $1 off the original price,” then I doubt I would have saved much money; likewise, if I defined books on sale as “$.99 or less,” then I doubt I would have stuck to the plan—I would have been too frustrated with it—and I also would have spent more money).

Habits, in short, are how you nudge the chaos-winged butterfly. You can hope and dream all you want—you can set all kinds of unrealistic goals—but if you don’t nudge that butterfly, nothing will change.

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Announcing Amazing Monster Tales Issue #3: It Came From Outer Space!

Announcing Issue #3: It Came From Outer Space!

Hello my Earthling! Hello my starling!

Hello my space-time alien gal!

It Came From Outer Space! is a baker’s dozen of tales about creatures from outer space who may or may not have boldly gone where they really shouldn’t have. Tales of aliens who test the creatures of Earth…tales of Earthlings who test the creatures from other planets…aliens who attack…aliens who defend…and aliens who are a little too close for comfort.

Prepare to discover realms at the furthest edges of human imagination.

From the depths of outer space…

To the depths of the sea…

To Portland…and beyond!

Amazon • Barnes and Noble • Kobo • Apple Books • Universal Book Link • Goodreads

The Stories

Jason Dias brings unusual aliens to the table in “Day of the Raptors,” with a tale of aliens who left Earth millions of years ago…only to return and find that the wrong species had taken over the planet! Evolution has led our planet down some mysterious and ancient pathways that could save or damn us all…

“The Mysterious Artifact,” by DeAnna Knippling, is an homage to the early female pulp writer Francis Stevens, a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett. In this tale, two siblings pick up a mysterious object that whisks them away to a mysterious world that seems all too familiar.

In another pulp-style tale, jetpack flyboy extraordinaire “Daring” Dorian Pace encounters a plot by Nazis to capture an alien and take over the world! “Cape Disillusionment,” by Charles Eugene Anderson and Jim LeMay, is the quintessence of an alien invasion tale, full of glorious adventure.

“The Queen’s Captive,” by Debbie Mumford goes into the depths of space to a place where humanity is unknown—or at least misunderstood, by an alien race that would rather take humanity for granted.

Rebecca Hodgkins’s story, “You Are Not Alone,” is a short tale of the unlikeliest of locations in which to find an alien…and the inevitable consequences of that discovery!

Alien tales often make for excellent calculations on where the line between humanity and other is—and whether that’s important, as in Thea Hutcheson’s “Adding Up the Cat Numbers.”

Calculations—and recalculations, due to an unexpected event—take place in Travis Heermann’s deep-space story “Void Song.” What humanity needs as we explore the universe isn’t fail-safe systems that cannot adapt to the unforeseeable…but is it possible to become too adaptable?

Shannon Lawrence’s “Incident at Ben E’s” is set at that most alien of human locations: a children’s birthday party. At a certain place with cheap pizza, lots of very loud games, and animatronic monstrosities that are worse than anything from outer space…or are they?

An engineering/military team is sent to an alien base as a “backup plan” for a vital diplomatic mission—one that may be intended to fail—in Ron Collins’s story, “Building a Bomb.” How far will they go to carry out their mission?

Robert Jeschonek’s tale, “The Greatest Serial Killer in the Universe,” is the kind of story that makes you wonder what the main character, Luther James Paraclete, will get up to next…because you can’t keep someone with that much talent down for long.

“War and Marketing,” by Stefon Mears, is set on Earth, where an alien invasion has everyone stumped: just what do the aliens want? It’s up to a man with a talent for finding things to come up with a solution.

Sometimes even the aliens don’t know what they want, as in Jamie Ferguson’s “Time to Play,” a tale of a visit from outer space that has unintended but dire consequences to Earth, and the way that humanity begins to slowly corrupt those who cannot die…but there’s still hope…

Meyari McFarland’s “Old Friends from Out of Town” is a tale of the friends of a human who come to visit during a family reunion—friends that she met when she was the first surviving explorer of a new planet. What new adventures will she encounter among her friends, after all this time has passed?

Artwork

Paul Roman Martinez designed the cover and the Amazing Monster Tales masthead. He also writes and illustrates for The Adventures of the 19XX, including graphic novels, the board game, and more! You can find Paul at his website, or on Facebook.

Find It Came From Outer Space!

Amazon • Barnes and Noble • Kobo • Apple Books • Universal Book Link • Goodreads

Amazing Monster Tales

Amazing Monster Tales is a series of monster anthologies full of fast-paced action-adventure stories. Whether you love monsters or fear them, they are the coolest! This series features a mix of classic monsters and monsters that you’ve never seen before!

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Writing Craft: Are you ready to publish? A relatively sane self-assessment.

(This is from my writing craft series; you can read more on Patreon. Please note that these first posts are about things that aren’t strictly about the craft of writing, but the craft of surviving as a writer, if you will, because I want to get them out of the way first.)

The bare minimum of being ready to publish is as follows:

  • You know how to legally make money at publishing books.
  • You know how to legally write books.
  • You know how to legally obtain art and other design material for your books.
  • You are comfortable releasing the material.

These are the basic elements of what you need to be ready to publish. Everything else, from formatting to cover design to marketing to managing your social media, you can get help with. But if you don’t cover these four points, you will eventually have problems on a rather large scale.

The first time you address these issues will probably be uncomfortable. A lot of work and research are hidden in each item. Most people who aren’t already running a business will find some of the material difficult to learn (although which parts are difficult will vary).

The focus of the rest of this book will be on the last point: getting you comfortable releasing your material.

But before we can do that, let’s talk about making your business legal…

(Continued here.)

A Visit to Monet

In December of last year, I went to the Denver Art Museum exhibit of Oscar-Claude Monet, an Impressionist painter who died in 1926.

I’ve been trying to attend the bigger exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum over the last few years. I’ve seen Van Gogh, Dior, Rembrandt, Degas, more. It is, first and foremost, an overwhelming experience: first you have to get there. I find driving in city center to be intimidating at the best of times. I normally take the light rail from the Mineral Station to Union Station, and then take the 16th Street pedestrian bus to the Civic Center Station, and walk to the art museum from there.

But it was cold, and damp, and I had bronchitis. I was too stubborn to stay home, but I was not too stubborn to drive. After a few near-misses and wrong turns, I parked, walked over to the Leven Deli Company, had lunch, and walked over to the art museum. I showed my ticket (with these big exhibitions, you have to reserve a time slot ahead of time, or risk missing your chance to see the exhibit) and wandered around for a few minutes until it was time to begin.

I entered the exhibit with about fifty dear strangers, all of whom wanted to see the same thing at the same time, while holding an audio track player up to their ears. What we so intently studied was art by a Monet who competent but not yet identifiable as himself. We saw art by Eugene Boudin, Monet’s mentor, who was also part of the Impressionistic movement and was one of the first French painters to pain en plein air, or outside, in the weather, under the light.

On the one hand, Boudin’s paintings are enjoyable: fresh, vivid, full of technique that allowed the artist to pain very quickly, yet still feel realistic. His work was full of color, and mood, and light.

But soon the path of the exhibit led us away from Boudin.

We studied Monet’s landscape paintings. At first, they contained human figures. One of my favorite paintings of the exhibit was The Beach at Trouville (1870), which showed the boardwalk, houses and churches to the right, tinted golden by southern noon sunlight, and beach-goers in full dress: suits, parasols, dresses with tiers of ruffles. The clouds, the sea are natural colors, the sand is everywhere, boards are warped—and the flags in the background, amusingly, have been caught by the wind at different strengths, so that the ones in the rear of the picture sag, while the ones nearest the painter flutter.

Then the artist begins to reduce the importance of the figures, and finally to skip them altogether, in favor of architecture and nature. He began painting the same scenes repeatedly—he had been doing so previously, but now he began painting series of the same scenes, in different seasons and weather, deliberately, to be shown together. He painted the shimmering colors of light and shadow, and their effect upon plants; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the water; he painted those colors onto the London fogs; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the snow. By the time I left the exhibit, it was difficult for me to see a flat hue, even on a white wall. To see the paintings was to be initiated into a different way of seeing color itself: and that was overwhelming, too.

Finally, he began to focus in upon his garden in Giverny. He planted roses, he designed paths and views, he dug ponds. His most famous paintings, of water lilies, were designed by him personally, from the roots up.

Monet’s art had always been the art of the close-up versus the far-away. To see the paintings in real life is to see how generously open he was about his technique. It seemed as though he had no embarrassment about the impressions he made turning into uninterpretable lines, smears, and dabs upon closer inspection. Some artists seem to fear being “found out,” with their technique being so exact that one is never quite sure whether one is looking at a photograph or a reflection. The Impressionists, of course, flaunted realism as a convention, but Monet seems to have cared even less than usual about exposing the artificiality of his work.

In fact, one of the things that most impressed me was that no two paintings used the same techniques. Dawn might require not just a particular set of colors, but a particular pattern of dry, soft daubs. A stormy noon of intermittent light might require heavy jabs at the canvas, paint laid thick and sharp.  Two paintings of the same scene might almost make you think they had been done by two friends sitting side by side, but certainly not the same painter. It’s only from a distance that the style seems remotely consistent.

And then we come to the room with the lilies.

There’s a short film showing Monet at one of his lily canvases. It’s an enormous canvas, and he’s standing very close to it, turning back and forth between canvas and pond. I’m not sure which particular lily painting he was creating—I forgot to write it down—but it seems almost like a work of magic. He never steps back from the canvas to see what it is that he has painted at a distance. It’s almost as if he isn’t worried about its overall appearance anymore.

By the time I looked at the lily canvases, I was tired and my feet hurt. I was tired of listening to narrators giving me this or that invaluable information about the canvases. I disliked being surrounded by constant throngs of not-terribly-polite people. I was thirsty. My back hurt. I needed to pee.

I had been in the exhibit for three hours by that point.

What caught me then about the lilies wasn’t their colors, or their shapes, or the techniques that had been used. It was the sense that none of it was quite real, and was not—and had never been—an impression of anything that had actually existed.

The colors and shapes had become concepts. Existence was reflection; solidity was transience; boundaries were fuzzy and didn’t quite line up with the edges of things. Some of the edges of the paintings had been left exposed, revealing the canvas, and sometimes had been painted so the canvas showed through in edges throughout.

The colors were beautiful, yes, but they were not real.

I had pushed myself to the point where I felt like I was looking at an artist’s subconscious experience of the idea of reality itself, as though he had painted so attentively, and for so long, that he had begun to glimpse the Matrix, as it were, underlying what he saw, and knew no other way to communicate that.

Also, he was developing cataracts.

I wandered through the souvenir shop, almost bought a small magnet of The Beach at Trouville, didn’t, got a cup of coffee, sat, drank it, felt better.

Most of the attendees had gone by then. The rooms weren’t empty, but I had outlasted most of the visitors. I went through the other exhibitions—Treasures of British Art, Shantell Martin, and The Light Show—which I particularly liked. Pieces showed or used different types of light: shadow puppets, interior design, reflective surfaces, mythological embodiments of light (and darkness), and mirrors, including a mirrored tunnel that was supposed to depict the journey to the afterlife, if I recall correctly. I had to wear shoe covers, which made the glass underfoot feel liquid as I walked.

It was cold, icy, and wet when I left. I took a picture, my brain still overwhelmed by subtleties of light and color.

And went home.

 

 

 

 

Writing Craft: Lessons In Fiction for the Working Writer

(Patreon Page)

I’ve been talking about it for a while in various formats: writing a book on the craft of writing. The idea both excites me and makes me anxious enough to feel sick to my stomach. (Me? Write a book on writing?!?)

But the time has come. I’m not the best writer ever, but I am in the right spot to write a book on writing, at least for writers who have read all the beginning-writing books and are having issues moving further forward. This isn’t a book for grand masters of the craft. It’s just a book for people who are entering the messy middle of writing, and who feel as lost and helpless I did, when I first entered that realm. I’ve written over 50 novel-length works of fiction now, both under my own name and for my ghostwriting clients. I have a solid place from which to begin this project now, and if I put it off any longer, things will just feel weird.

So: Writing Craft has begun.

Because it’s me, I’m first putting the book up as a set of blog posts. Lots of people have commented to me in person that my writing blogs are interesting and helpful, so I know the format works. I also appreciate comments when I can get them.

However, I’ve learned over the last year that instead of trying to please every reader, I need to focus on the readers who support me. Readers who support my fiction can buy books–but writers who support my craft posts can’t (yet). I debated whether or not to post the blogs on this website concurrently with Patreon, but eventually settled on drawing a boundary between publishing promotional posts for free, versus publishing other types of content. I’m doing a bunch of work that won’t sell my fiction books; I should get paid for it somehow.

I’ve restructured everything (see The Plan, below), am rewriting and re-researching posts, am putting my big-girl professional panties on, and am moving writing-related posts over to Patreon. Later, the same material will come out in ebook and print, but that may take some time.

I will still be posting on my blog, but the posts here will be reader-focused posts rather than writer-focused ones (promotional posts, in other words).  I may put up teaser craft posts here on the blog to help gather up new patrons; I haven’t decided yet.

New posts will go up on Patreon at least every other week, possibly more often if I think of something that isn’t on The Plan that I have to get written down before I forget.

Without further ado…

The Plan:

Individual books:

  • Cover
  • Copyright
  • Table of contents
  • Intro to series
  • Intro to book
  • BOOK (by numbered section): Vocab as necessary, What I’m gonna tell you, The main point of the section, broken down into steps as necessary, Summary, including action items, What’s next
  • Fundamental assumptions section, short rehash of Vol 1.
  • Analysis examples for current volume, as necessary.
  • Worksheets/study projects/sanity checks, as necessary.
  • Resource list
  • About the author
  • Also by
  • About the publisher
  • Newsletter signup
  • Thanks

List of books:

Volume 1: Are You Ready to Publish and Other Burning Questions

1.  Are you ready to publish? A relatively sane self-assessment.

2. How to read like a professional writer (studying).

3. An in-depth discussion of fundamental assumptions, like what to write, reader focus, expectations, imposter syndrome, meta-skills, emotional breakdowns

Volume 2: Writing for an Audience, and Not Just Jotting Down the Movie In Your Head

1. The Principles of Writing Fiction Code: Immersion, Information, and Structure

2. Elements of Immersion

3. Elements of Information

4. Elements of Structure

Volume 3: Dragging the Reader Into Your Story

1. Writing from the Five Senses (and More)

2. How to Write Setting (Basics)

3. How to Write “The Rules”

4. When to Write Immersion Details

5. How to Write an Opening Hook

Volume 4: Keeping the Reader Trapped In Your Story

1. The Character in Your Head vs. the Character on the Page

2. The Elements of a Point of View Character: Background, Opinion, and Presentation

3. Inside Voices vs. Outside Voices

4. Dialogue Tricks

5. Camera Tricks

*Note: I will research a “Writing the Other”-style checklist for the appendix on this one.

Volume 5: Telling Them What You’re Going to Tell Them, Telling Them, Then Telling Them What You Just Told Them

1. One Simple Trick to Boost Your Writing: Tell Them Sooner

2. Basic Scene Structure

3. When to Tell Them What You Want Them to Know (tagging)

4. Clues: When to Tell Them What You Don’t Want Them to Know

Volume 6: Pacing: It’s All in the Timing

1. What is Pacing?

2. Story- and Chapter-Level Pacing

3. Paragraph Pacing

4. Sentence Pacing

5. Word Choice and Other Patterns

Volume 7: Keeping the Reader Up All Night

1. What Makes the Reader Turn the Page?

2. Endings of Chapters: Cliffhangers

3. Endings of Books: Riding Off Into the Sunset

4. How to End a Book When You’re Writing a Series

Volume 8: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 1: The Big Picture

1. Plot vs. Structure.

2. Basic Plot Structure and the Obligatory Joseph Campbell Rant

3. Big-Picture Structure Questions: POV Characters, Story Lengths, Genre

Volume 9: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 2: Down in the Weeds

1. Basic Conflict Structure: The Beat

2. Basic Scene Structure: Putting Openings, Beats, and Closings All Together

Volume 10: Steady As You Go: A Rough Guide to Editing

1. The Trap of Constant Revision, and Possible Paths Ahead

2. The Story You Expected to Write, vs. the Story You Actually Wrote

3. What Actually Went Wrong, and How (and When) to Fix It

4. Are You Ready to Edit Other People’s Work?

5. Rules of Thumb: Critique Groups and Other Feedback, When to Start Over, and Other Reasons to Despair

Volume 11: Writing Like a Magician: Hidden Elements of Fiction

1. Subtext: The Text That May Not Be Written

2. Clues, Red Herrings, Foreshadowing, Hints, and Misdirection

3. Subplots and Other Hidden Structures

4. The Biggest Secret of All: Theme

Volume 12: Getting Away with What You Want to Write, Part 3: Special Topics in Pacing

1. Writing Fast-Paced Scenes

2. Writing Slow-Paced Scenes

3. Writing Suspense

4. Writing Action

5. Writing Comedy

Volume 13: Writing Synopses and Other Sales Materials for Fun & Profit

1. The Fundamentals of Selling Books

2. What Are You Selling? Translating the “Unique Selling Proposition” Question

3. Who Is Your Audience?

4. Guidelines for Synopses

5. Guidelines for Query Letters

6. Guidelines for Book Description and Cover Copy

7. Guidelines for Ad Text

Volume 14: So-and-So Is Selling…Why Not Me?

1. First, Write Good Books (WIBBOW and Writing for Money–or Not)

2. Speed vs. Productivity (Research)

3. Production & Publishing: The Basics

4. Promotions & Marketing: The Very Basics (Genre)

5. Running a Business: The Very Very Basics, Plus, Not a Lawyer

 

Asshole Theory, Part I

Note: If you’ve seen this before, well, I decided to write this up again; I can’t remember if I posted it here earlier or not, or just posted it on my newsletter. Anyway, I added/changed a few points, based on observations. 

As I look back over the lessons I learned in the previous year, the main one that strikes me is establishing my asshole theory.

Here’s my theory:

About one in four people are assholes.

I got this from walking along a high-traffic, easy-to-access bike and foot trail in Colorado, a place where there are no bars on the cell phone and no one to help you but your fellow travelers. One particularly bad day, I started waving at people. At everyone.

About a quarter of those people who weren’t listening to music or talking to someone else didn’t acknowledge the greeting. They made eye contact. They just didn’t react, or reacted negatively, with contempt.

Colorado, I might note, is a friendly place, where greeting other people is the norm. And I wasn’t doing this in Denver, but in a remote location where it was in the best interests of people to wave: I might be the person who had to get help in case of an accident, after all.

I acknowledge that some people might have waved who were, at heart, assholes, and some people might not have waved who weren’t. But, after several times of doing this, I felt pretty secure in the general proportions. Men, women, people of my race, people not of my race, little kids, old people: it all seemed to run to about one in four people going, “Even though it’s in my best long-term interests to extend some kind of minor acknowledgment of other people’s existence, I won’t.”

(Men will tend not to smile if they were with female partners or if I was with a male partner; I stopped counting those responses. I also didn’t count it if a big group passed by, and only one person greeted me, in case the social dynamic was such that one person was the public “face” that day. Also, people with fishing rods are almost universally not assholes, which is pretty cool.)

What was so game-changing about this theory was that I only just really started to set, and maintain, boundaries this year. Which means that previously, no matter how much I complained or whined or dragged my feet about it, I would, given enough time and pressure, would do what other people wanted to do.

And it was wrecking my life.

The details are still too hot and painful to me to recount in much detail, but to sum up: a lot of people who were my family and friends took advantage of me in ways that made me miserable, broke, and lonely.

Me being able to say “This person is an asshole, that is, a person who thinks mainly or only in terms of selfish, short-term gains, or is controlled by an asshole and is therefore also not reliable” was a relief.

People wanted things. They lied about what they wanted and why they wanted it. They guilt-tripped me, gaslit me, emotionally and verbally abused me, and blame-shifted it all on me.

I was able to go, “It was never about me. This person is an asshole.”

It was a relief.

Side note: I’ve been reading books about sociopathy and narcissism, and it seems pretty standard for the authors to say things like, “about one in twenty people are sociopaths” or “about one in twenty people are narcissists.”  If they’re not exaggerating, that means about one in ten people is a diagnosable narcissist or sociopath. But it’s hard to tell; sociopaths and narcissists tend not to believe that the problem lies with them, and even when they do, admitting a diagnosis like that can get you fired or ostracized.

Time passed and I blocked a lot of people on Facebook. I started to ask myself how I could learn to live with assholes. How to cope. Obviously, with such a big percentage of the population being assholes (at least, by my perceptions), some sort of strategy is necessary: you can’t live your life without having contact with at least some assholes.

I didn’t have a clue what to do at first, but I did start noticing some patterns:

First, the person would go completely overboard building up a bank account of goodwill. Normal people tend to try to do nice things for other people when it doesn’t interfere with their lives. Assholes try to smother you with how impressive the amount of benefits you will receive if you’re their side.

Second, the person would try to manipulate me. Because I didn’t have good boundaries, this would generally work, even though I would pretend to independence—while chewing my fingers until they bled.

Third, the person would become upset because they didn’t feel as rewarded by whatever they got out of me as I felt from what I got out of them—but it didn’t take much to make me feel rewarded, where they had a much higher bar to feeling rewarded, and it didn’t last very long.

Fourth, the person would try punishing me, since establishing that bank account hadn’t worked.

Fifth (usually after several cycles of varying tactics), the person would lash out at me to make me leave without having to actually tell me to leave.

The “story” would then shift so that I had been gaslighting, abusing, and manipulating the asshole all along.  Poor thing!

When I started reading books about narcissism, what I was seeing became not a surprising discovery but old hat, with corresponding terms like “love bombing” and “discard phase.”

In a way, it was reassuring to find out that I wasn’t discovering anything new. But it did make me wonder: why?

It’s not like assholes do a bunch of research before they start acting the way they do. What is it that makes assholes, who, at heart, are really only united by not waving back at strangers on a public trail, behave so similarly, both in the short term and over time?

My theory was incomplete…

I’ll write more of this later, but the article was getting long. If you liked this, try signing up for my newsletter, here. If you’re a writer, please check out my ongoing craft posts here, on Patreon.

 

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