Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

In the past couple of weeks, this quote has been on my mind often:

evertried

Being a writer, (or doing anything worthwhile and challenging), means that failure is inevitable. As I write the ninth version of Chapter One, it’s likely that I’ll add another notch to my failure belt. The thought of getting it wrong for a ninth time is a little unnerving and sometimes it feels like I’m running out space for notches.

And yet, this is exactly what needs to happen. Each time I fail, I improve as a writer. I learn something about the art that I didn’t know a day before, and my story is better for it.

So keep failing. Fail again and again. Getting better is worth it.

Advertisements

Antagonists are Protagonists Too

Since I released Dark Rising to beta-readers back in September, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of feedback from those of you who picked up a copy. The one thing I keep hearing is how surprised everyone is that so much of the book is dedicated to Psi (the villain).

Most of the Young Adult books I’ve read focus on the hero and the challenges that he or she faces, but that didn’t seem like the right approach for me. I knew that it was really important to showcase the villain and give him just as much room in the story as my hero, Alexander, was given. I would go as far as to say that the first book of The Dark Matter Chronicles is more so about Psi than Alexander.

Why did I set up the book this way?

I believe that it is crucial to treat antagonists and all secondary characters as having just as much value as the protagonist. They are no less important and they’re certainly not meant to be plot devices or accessories for the main character.

The world doesn’t revolve around any one person, but each and every one of us is the protagonist in our own story. We don’t think of ourselves as existing only for someone else’s benefit. And that truth should be kept in mind when it comes to stories as well because if those characters were real people, then they would never consider themselves to be secondary characters–or even antagonists–in other peoples’ lives. No villain (real or fictional) thinks of him or herself as a villain.  Good versus evil isn’t that straightforward. I think the upcoming Wreck-it-Ralph does a good job of showing that, but in a much cuter and fluffier way than Dark Rising does.

From Psi’s perspective, he is the protagonist. He’s the hero. The Dark Matter Chronicles wouldn’t be a truthful story if I didn’t acknowledge that. And though you’ll get to know Alexander more in the second book, (I’m working on it, I swear), you’ll also get to see Psi’s evolution, along with that of Ezilie’s, Charon’s, and James’s, too.

So the next time you find yourself thinking of about how much you hate the bad guys in books, remember that just like Wreck-it-Ralph and Psi, bad guys are people too.

An Ode to Superheroes

I have always loved superheroes. Always. I remember waking up on Saturday mornings or rushing home every day after school just so I could park myself in front of the T.V. I rarely missed an episode of Spider-man or the X-men as they battled their foes. I even watched the old-school, live-action version of Batman with Adam West. As I grew up, I never lost that love. I still watch every superhero movie when it comes out and think about them often. I’ll be the first person in line when The Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out. I would even tell you about the dream where I lived out my own episode of Doctor Who if I wasn’t thwarted by the evil that is my alarm clock and its dream-erasing abilities.

In the past I’ve written a blog post titled Why We Love Superheroes, but I never explained why comic book lore is so important to me. I turned to superheroes because I needed them. I can still recall an incident when I was six years old and my superheroes served me well. After a day of being teased at school, back when I hadn’t made a single friend, I headed home, bundled up in a new blue snow suit. It was my first Canadian winter and I wasn’t used to wearing so many layers. I looked like the clumsy Smurf cousin of the Pillsbury doughboy. It was also the first time I fell into a small, icy ditch, (and yes, that’s happened more often than I’d like to admit).

All the layers I wore acted as a cushion but it didn’t keep my bare face from smashing against the ice. I hit the ground, right cheek first. Stunned, I tried to get up but the ground so slippery that each time I found my legs, I fell again. Aside from the actual fall and the bruise that covered my face for a good two weeks after, what I remember the most about that incident was that I didn’t cry. I didn’t fall apart or give up. Instead, I just kept trying to stand up and crawl out of that ditch.

Why? Because Spider-man didn’t cry. Batman wouldn’t stay down after he took a hit. The X-men didn’t give up in the face of adversity. And I wanted to be like my heroes.

Superheroes are our modern-day incarnates of ancient myths. They inspire us to rise above our limits and circumstances in order to become something greater. They teach us to believe that through our actions, we can change the world. They are role models that show us that integrity and morality are a choice, and that the choice can be a difficult one that often comes at cost. And most importantly, they reflect the best in us — our strengths and our vulnerabilities.

As I’ve gotten older, my definition of the word ‘hero’ has evolved. It’s no longer limited to those who can fly and crawl up walls. Many of my current heroes have no superpowers. But they’ve taught me that showing courage, providing inspiration, persevering, and being compassionate are the kind of superpowers that can be greater than invisibility and superhuman strength. Writers like Stan Lee and J.K. Rowling gave me worlds to disappear into when the reality I lived in crumbled. I once had a teacher who made me stand up and answer questions until I learned to speak up for myself and another who told me that I could do anything I wanted. The former gave me a voice, the latter changed my life. During my toughest times, I have also been able to turn to great friends. When it comes to finding good ones, I have been uncommonly lucky.

As I prepare to prepare to head into the publishing world with my book series, The Dark Matter Chronicles, I’ve turned to my superheroes once again. Through my characters, I get to live out my hopes and fears on blank pages. And I’m not at all surprised that when I made the choice to be a writer, I created a world where superheroes exist but still struggle to find their place.

While I try to find my place in this world, I’ve encountered a lot of people who have told me to put away the kind of dreams and fantasies that are often associated with childhood. You can’t build a life imagining superheroes, they said. I know now that they were wrong. I’m glad I was too childish to listen. They are welcome to become proper grown-ups if that’s what suits them. I prefer to be that six-year-old kid who got back up thanks to a team of caped crusaders.

The Great Rules of Writing

As a writer, I think it’s important to work on your craft and strive to get better at it. I’ve learned a lot through the act of writing itself but sometimes it’s helpful to come across a list of rules like this:

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
~William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”

If you don’t stumble upon these ‘rules’ somewhere, it’s likely you’ll discover them on your own. So far, I’ve found that they apply pretty consistently. The trick, of course, is to master the rules and then learn when to break them.

The Importance of Failure

At some point you’re going to fail. It’s inevitable, especially if you’re a writer.  It’s what you do with failure that really counts. If you accept that’s an opportunity, (or ‘crisortunity’ as I’ve learned from Homer Simpson), then you can use it as a platform to succeed upon while learning something about yourself in the process.

I recommend that everyone watch JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech on the importance of failure. It’s a lesson we all need a reminder of every once in a while.

How to Come Up With Book Ideas

In the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of conversations about how difficult it is to come up with book ideas. There’s a lot of advice out there by other writers and bloggers about how you can find inspiration, so only add to the info with a couple of points that work for me.

First, create mental space for a book idea. When the idea for The Dark Matter Chronicles came to me, I was actively looking for it. I spent time thinking about writing, about the sort of things I would want to write about, and I started to jot things down even if my thoughts seemed ridiculous. It took a while for the right idea to click. At that point, I had been thinking about writing and looking for an idea for several months. That being said, once you have the idea, you have to continue to give it attention, and actually sit down and write everyday. Once you get into that mindset and make it a habit, brainstorming new ideas gets easier.

Second, be an active learner. I get a lot of ideas from reading about things that I’m interested in or from watching documentaries, and these things aren’t always related to anything in my book. I find that learning for pleasure often leads me to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

There’s tons of tips out there that can help you start your first book, so take advantage of that! Writing requires time and work. But if you do happen to find a magical elf that sprinkles fairy dust on your work to make it better, then please send it my way.

Why You Need Beta Readers

In my last post, I mentioned that my beta readers pointed out some weak spots in my manuscript, (I’m looking at you, Chapter 1). So, I had to reprise my role of typing monkey and make some changes.  I’m happy to report that the updates have all been made, and I am recovering my borderline sense of sanity while it all sits and stews.

This rewriting session has really made me think about the value of beta readers. For anyone who doesn’t know, a beta reader is someone who critically reads your manuscript before the public sees it. They are your guinea pigs, your friends — the ones subjected to the terrors of your mind and all of its weirdness before anybody else.

Why unleash your work on them before anyone else?

Beta readers will catch mistakes you didn’t.

Even if you look over your manuscript a hundred times, you will miss some of the errors you made. There comes a point when your eyes skim over your work, filling in the gaps and correcting the mistakes automatically without you actually registering it. And these mistakes can be little grammatical ones, (like missing the word ‘and’ in a sentence), or big ones, (a plot hole that makes your story illogical).  A beta reader will spot those mistakes because he or she is seeing the work for the first time and doesn’t have an imprint of it in his or her mind.

They can evaluate your work objectively.

It’s hard to look at your work without bias when you know how much blood, sweat, and tears went into it. Unlike you, the beta reader isn’t emotionally entrenched in your work. They don’t feel the same way that you do about that character that is so loveable but does nothing for the storyline, or the event that you think is so interesting but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book. If you’ve picked good beta readers (i.e. honest, constructively critical, and a member of your target audience), then they’ll be able to point out what’s wrong and why. You might find out that you’ve written a great book. You might also find out that what you’ve written isn’t very good at all. Either way, it’s important and listen because whatever gripes your beta readers have, your target readers will have them too.

Your manuscript will improve as a result.

The quality of your work matters. Or at least it should to you. The point of a beta reader is to give your work a test drive so that you can figure out the kinks, and then go back to the drawing board to create something better. And hopefully that leads to more readers down the line.

So cheers to my beta readers and all their hard work! I appreciate their efforts so much, I no longer refer to them as minions in my mind. Not that I did before… *fakes a cough and looks away*

The Joys of Rewriting/The Power of Beta Readers

Someone once said that writing your first draft is easy, but writing the second draft is hard. That ‘someone’ severely understated how difficult the editing/rewriting process can be. Let me clarify and tell you that it is evil. Pure evil. I know this because I have had to rewrite many sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters again and again…only to realize it’s still not quite right. As much as it makes me want to tear my hair out and go all out Hulk on my computer, I can’t deny it’s value. I know the story will be better for it.

I’m sharing this because my awesome evil genius minions team of beta readers have informed me that chapter 1 needs an overhaul. Something about it doesn’t click, and it’s just not as good as the rest of the story. Since, I’ve written about the importance of a first sentence in a previous post, (while managing to screw up the first sentence of my own book), I figured I would share the updated version here. Here’s a quick preview of the new opening paragraph of The Dark Matter Chronicles:

No matter how many times he repeated the words to himself, they refused to sound right. It was only a dream. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. Alexander let out a sigh of exhaustion and pressed his forehead against his bedroom window. When he opened his eyes, his reflection stared back at him, lit up by the moonlight that gleamed off the aging glass. Nothing about his appearance had changed in the half hour he had stood in the same spot with the same confused attitude. His grey eyes still had the warmth of a winter sweater and his unruly black hair still looked like it was in dire need of a trim. His pale skin divulged how worn down he really felt, but that wasn’t unusual either. But he found it difficult to look at himself the same way again knowing he had somehow transported himself to another world and back. Unless, it was only a dream.

What’s in a Name?

There are some writers who can conjure up a manuscript and pick names for their characters after the characters have been written. I am not one of those writers. In my mind, names and personalities go hand-in-hand. When I think of a name, an image and some character traits immediately snap into place.

So, you would think that I would have settled on a name for every important character before I started writing that character, right? Wrong.

Instead of doing what works well for me, I went ahead and created an unnecessary challenge. After all, what would life be without those self-inflicted stressful moments when you lie awake until 4am, breaking out into little, tiny patches of eczema?

I’m now stuck with a character that has a full-fledged personality and no name. I’ve gone through a long list of existing names and created several new ones, and none of them feel right. I know I’ll stumble across it eventually, (probably at 4am when I’m desperately trying to sleep because, you know, my brain is sadistic like that). Until then, I’m going to continue doing research and keep a very important lesson in mind for the future: figure out what works best for me and stick to it.

Writing and The Simpsons

In honor of The Simpson’s 500th episode, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned as a writer from one of TV’s most iconic shows. I know not everyone watches it and I can already hear many of you pointing out that its well past its expiration date.  To that I say ‘Why you little…I’ll show you expired!’  But seriously, I believe there is much to be learned from animation’s first family.

Lesson #1: Good characters can turn the most mundane activity into something memorable, especially when you don’t intend for them to.

Homer can turn an ordinary trip to the Kwik-E-Mart or Moe’s Tavern into a wild adventure at the snap of a finger, (sometimes less).  It might sound cliché but a well-formed character can help direct the plot when the author isn’t sure where the story is going.  They will tell you who they are and what they want to do.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of exploring a direction a character’s personality might gravitate towards instead of imposing your rigid plot line on them.  Remember: it’s the characters that people get invested in, not the antics they get into.

Lesson #2: Impart wisdom without preaching.

Many of the episodes involve a crazy stunt that seems implausible on the surface but usually has a relatable and valuable lesson at its core.  The writers behind The Simpsons make countless statements about society, our politics, and our cultural values in a subtle and subversive way.  They don’ try to force their opinions on others but they do take a stand.  Most importantly, their own values are never expressed in a way that detracts from the story.  It’s a really fine line for writers to walk and The Simpsons does it brilliantly.

Lesson #3: A good story has layers.

Every time I go back to an episode, I see something new in it.  There’s always a joke or a remark that goes over my head the first time but when I come across a rerun years later, (after I’ve had some time to learn new things and grow intellectually), I suddenly spot things I missed.  One example that I’ll never forget is from season 6, episode 21 titled ‘The PTA Disbands’.  With school no longer in session, Lisa starts going crazy and builds a perpetual motion machine which disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, (nothing in the universe disobeys the laws of thermodynamics, the theory will be rejected if does).  When I was younger, I laughed because of the tone of the conversion between Marge and Homer was funny.  Now I laugh because I actually get the joke and it’s ingenious.  A good novel should function the same way.   Here’s a clip of the scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xy0UBpagsu8

Lesson #4: Awareness

The writers of The Simpsons know that the show is no longer at the height of its run.  If you don’t believe me then just watch the intro to the 500th episode.  Before you even reach Bart’s chalkboard writings, they call the episode ‘a meaningless milestone’.  As a writer, it is almost impossible to be subjective about your own work.  You’re so familiar and emotionally involved with the plot and its characters that you often can’t step back and be honest about whether or not your work is any good.  And be honest, you must; even if that means you need to ditch what you’re doing and start again.  Acknowledging your weakness and being honest about the caliber of your work will help you identify where you can improve.  It will make you a better writer in the end.

Having been on the air for almost 23 years, The Simpsons have done it all and brought us along for the ride.  I’ve gotten so many hours of entertainment and laughs that the show has become a staple in my life.  They’ve even shown me an aspect of myself—what it’s like to be a writer.  Because only The Simpsons could show you how to write a novel while being outlandish and make fun of Neil Gaiman while having him in on the joke, (season 23, episode 6).  And you still think they haven’t got it? Of course you don’t 😉