writing

Your One Good Idea

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(Not representative of A Spark Ignites. At all. You can tell this was written by a teenager.)

“Everyone has at least one good story in them.” I don’t remember who it was who said that to me (and no, I’m not talking about the Hitchens quote, who might I add was not actually the first person to use it), but I remember I thought about it a lot in high school. I had been working on a webcomic which would eventually become A Spark Ignites, and I was beginning to worry that Spark was my only idea, my only story. Allow me to explain.

003PromoWhen I was seven years old, I created my own comic book character, and began writing and drawing my old comic books. Every year until I was thirteen, through one thing or another, all my comics would get destroyed or go missing. And so, I’d start it all over again every year, promising myself to outdo the years previous. Mind you, I didn’t just try comics. I wrote scripts, animated cartoons, and even programmed video games, all about Spark. By the time I was halfway through high school, I began to wonder if that one lone idea was all I had.

002PromoPieceSo I stopped. For a couple of months, I didn’t work on Spark at all. I just let my mind wander. I kept a small journal where I’d jot down whatever popped into my head. And by the end of those two months, I’d had ideas for a book, a television show, and another comic book (and not one of them involved superheroes). That’s why every year I’d allow myself a break from whatever it was I was working on, just to think. Sometimes I would revisit the journal and play with those ideas (I’ve taken the old tv series idea and used it to outline six books, which will be my next project after the third book in the Spark series), and other times I’d come up with entirely new ones, like the animated short below:

The trick is to just stop working on what you’re working on. Think about another genre. Something totally out there. Brainstorm. Read. Watch. Listen. Daydream. Just get your head out of you “one good idea.” Focusing on the one thing can be stifling to your creativity. You shouldn’t be afraid to let yourself get out there, out of your comfort zone. You cant worry about failure. Ultimately, while I decided to write my first novel based off what evolved out of what I considered my first good idea, I know it wasn’t my last, and that there will be many more to come.

The thing is, no one is uncreative. Everyone has an original thought. An original story to tell. And who knows, if you just push yourself away from your first idea, maybe you’ll find you have more. You won’t know until you try.

Free Ebook!

Now when you sign up to my mailing list, you will receive a free ebook of my short story, A Sparked Interest. This is not the free short ebook (Walking the Wire) that will be given away on Amazon and Smashwords when my novel, A Spark Ignites, comes out. It will only be available for free here (elsewhere it will be 99 cents). Unlike the novel, which is a straight up superhero story, this short story is in a totally different genre. I was apprehensive about releasing it (at least the widely distributed free short story will be closer in content to the novel), but it just flowed out of the characters as I was writing them, even though it didn’t fit in the book itself. So it became a short story, which I now give to you. Enjoy!

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Description: Dan Raye finally has a date with the girl of his dreams. When the date doesn’t go as Dan planned, he realizes that dreams and reality are two very different things.

Disclaimer: This is a short story that takes place after the events of A Spark Ignites. It is a stand-alone story, however, and it does not require knowledge of A Spark Ignites to be understood or enjoyed. Another thing to note: despite this story taking place within the universe of The Spark Superhero Series, there are no superheroes or mention of superheroes within the story. It is simply the story of a date that doesn’t go entirely as expected.

Religion in Books

Putting religion in a novel is always a tricky thing. Unless you’re specifically writing Christian fiction, it can be easy to turn some people off. That’s probably why most fiction tries to avoid the topic of religion, other than the odd mention of a holiday or whatever. More often then not, especially in fantasy, if religion is mentioned, it’s just a product of the author’s imagination.

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Numerous books use fake religions, such as a Song of Ice and Fire, Forgotten Realms, The Stormlight Archives, etc. Some of the religions are completely alien, while others are thinly veiled copies of actual religions, and are used to deliver commentary. I feel using a fake religion is often best if you want to avoid offending anyone.

Mentioning Christianity is something that should be avoided in most cases. Either you’ll get a lot of eye rolling or angry folks, depending on what your write and who’s reading it. Now, if it is essential to the story  or the character (like Matt Murdock, for instance), then by all means, go ahead, but remember to tread lightly. Most of the Western world is Christian, or at least familiar with Christianity. As such, it’s ok to be vague. It can be easy to say the wrong thing and offend your audience (unless that’s part of the point, like The DaVinci Code). I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t make a character religious, I’m just saying you should try to avoid going into detail about it if you can. (Just look at Harry Potter. They celebrate Christmas, but Jesus is never mentioned.)

When it comes to other, less popular religions, such a Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism, you can afford to go more into detail. Chances are, most of your audience isn’t so familiar with it, and will find it interesting without being offended or the like. After all, much like fantasy religions, they don’t have a horse in the race. Friday the Rabbi Slept Late or the new Ms. Marvel aren’t just interesting because they’re good stories that are well written, but also because you feel like you’re exploring a new religion. It gives you a bit more leeway.

Personally, other than the odd throwaway comment, I try to avoid mentioning religion in my writing for very much the same reason I avoid language. The less people you upset, the wider audience you have.

Using Short Stories

So you want to offer a free sample of your work in hopes people like it and buy the stuff you’re actually selling. Sounds good. A popular marketing technique is offering the first book in a series for free, and charging for the second one. That’s all well and good if you have two or more books in your series, but what happens if, for the moment, you only have one? You don’t want to offer it for free, because then you’re essentially wasting your time, as there’s no other product for sale to lead people to (yet). The solution is to write a self-contained short story that ties into to book you’re selling, and offer that for free. Hopefully, folk will download the short story, enjoy it, and buy your full-length novel as a result.

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In the digital age, anyone can self-publish a short story!

The short story should be between 5,000-15,000 words. Anything further is pushing it into the realm of a novella. You should want to get started on your second book, so limit the time you spend on the short story. Remember, it’s a marketing tool, used to sell your novel. It isn’t, in and of itself, a product you’re selling. The advantage of a short story is that it doesn’t require much of a commitment from you or the reader. I wrote a 5,000 word short story in under a week (which I intend to release simultaneously with my novel). They’re also easy and cheap to edit, and because they can be done quickly, from start to finish, you can publish it mere weeks after (or even at the same time) you publish your full-length novel.

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The story should be about a side character, preferably (you’ll want to save the main character for the main series, although he or she can make a cameo), or a prequel, and you should take pains to ensure that nothing that important happens in it. It should be a side story, a nice little adventure that isn’t necessary to read if you’re reading the novels, nor do they even need to be referenced. Not everyone will read the short story, and if it isn’t numbered, it probably won’t show up on your Amazon series page, so it is important to make sure there isn’t major character development that would effect later books. But just because you’re limited doesn’t mean you can’t tell a good story that’s short, sweet, and to the point, makes your audience that to find out more about your character(s) and most importantly, has a satisfying ending.

That last bit is vital. You do not want to have the story end on a cliffhanger. It will just frustrate the reader. They’ll feel scammed. You want your reader to leave the book with a good taste in their mouth. And if you’re lucky, they’ll hunger for more before long. One final thing, make sure to link to the novel you’re trying to sell at the end of the short story. It’s no good having a reader like your work if they can’t find it.

Writing What You Don’t Know

write-what-you-knowThey say write what you know. Sounds simple enough. But when writing fiction, you’ll inevitably have to write about things you’ve never experienced. What do you do then?

You can always do research, and read about other people’s personal experiences. It can be helpful, but often it can come across as just spitting back something you heard or read, not something you experienced, and sometimes the reader will be able to tell that the feeling behind it is hollow.

Your own personal experiences are the best wells to draw from. Just because you didn’t experience something exactly doesn’t mean that you can’t approximate your experiences and adapt them to suit the story. For example, I did not go to a public high school. I went to a private religious boys-only school. As such, I never experienced a high school romance. In fact, teenage dating is alien to me. However, my high school experience was not without drama, and my college experience was not without dating. By drawing from my high school and college experiences, I was able to write scenes taking place in a public school that felt grounded and real, even if I did not have those exact experiences myself.

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When it comes the the more fantastical elements to a story, one can still draw from personal experiences. It just requires a little exaggeration. I may not know what it’s like to turn into a seven-foot-tall green rage-monster, but I know what it’s like to be angry. I know what it feels like to have that power and adrenaline coursing through me, and how easy it can be to lose oneself to the blinding rage, doing as one pleases without thought of consequence. I don’t know what it feels like to fly, but I know the feeling of exhilaration when the roller coaster drops, leaving my stomach behind as the ground rushes by me, my face fighting against the wind. Just take what you experienced and exaggerate it, and it will read better than simply imagining it and writing that down.

Whenever able, write what you know, even if you don’t know it.

They Stole My Idea!

You’re sitting there, reading a book or watching a movie or TV show, when something happens that is eerily similar to something you’d thought of ages ago, perhaps even written down. So naturally you exclaim, “Hey, they stole my idea!”

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Not exactly what I’m talking about.

I must’ve heard this line dozens of times. Heck, I’ve used it myself one more than one occasion. The truth is, of course, that nothing is original. As King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Chances are, no one stole your idea. You and whoever wrote the other work were likely influenced by the same thing, and as a result came up with a similar concept. The question then is what do you do next?

There’s an aspect of the story in my book, A Spark Ignites, which was done to similar effect in a film that came out last year. When I saw it, I was quite disheartened, especially as I had written the outline that included that very plot point well over half a decade prior. What I ended up doing was keeping the plot point, but downplayed it. It no longer played as big of a roll as it did before, and I figure by the time people read it, enough time will have passed, and the story is different enough, that no one will notice the similarities. That isn’t the only option though.

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It isn’t unusual for two movies with the same plot to come out around the same time, such as Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Madagascar and The Wild. But why is it that only one of those movies are remembered, while the other is often forgotten? And notice that it isn’t always the movie that comes out first that’s remembered. What will stick in people’s mind is what was executed better. So just because someone ‘stole’ your idea is no reason to throw it out. Come out with it anyway. Just make sure you do it better.

Making a Difference: The Reason We Write

I used to enjoy Taylor Swift. I loved how Norman Rockwellesque her early music felt. The innocence. It brought forth images of a simpler life in a small town, where every love is your first love, true love, where every kiss is your first, where life was ideal, simple, beautiful. Perfect. Of course, life is not like that, I know. It never was. Not for us, not for our parents, and not for Taylor Swift. But still, I liked it anyway. Call it nostalgia for a time that never existed. There’s a song though, from her relatively more recent years, that is probably my favorite of hers.*

“All Too Well” by Taylor Swift

There’s a reason why this is probably my favorite Taylor Swift song. Its because it touches a primal desire. Throughout our life, all of us meet people only to fade out of their life after a time, and its nice to imagine you had some sort of impact, that they haven’t forgotten you, that it wasn’t all for nothing.

Its nice to imagine you mattered.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
-Shelley’s “Ozymandias”

The reason we write, the reason we become writers, is very much the same reason we have children. We do it to leave something behind. Not fame or fortune. Rather, a legacy. When all is said and done, when we’re lying there on our deathbed, we want to know we made a difference. We want to be remembered. Because as long as we leave something behind, we can rest knowing that in some way, however small, we mattered.

Our legacy is our immortality.

 

*I should note that her recent single, Wildest Dreams, deals with similar subject matter, but does it in a more shallow way, not to mention the music video, although gorgeously shot, seems to be advocating adultery, which is as unNorman Rockwellesque as you can get.

Using Brand Names and Pop Culture References

There are two different paths folks take in writing. Some folks use stand in brands, such as MyFace, while others will use the actual brand names, such as Facebook. I personally prefer when real names are used. There is a problem with this approach, however. Let’s look the the example I used earlier, but say that instead of Facebook, the writer used MySpace. If you’re reading it today, the book instantly feels dated.

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I was actually reading a book that came out fairly recently. The book specifically mentioned Radio Shack a few times. Radio Shack closed all its stores in 2015, and thus the book itself becomes something of an oddity. Despite the fact that it is supposed to take place in contemporary times, the book is stuck taking place during or before 2015.

When mentioning brands and technology/websites, it is important to keep it vague. For example, using MyFace may sound fake and stupid, while using Facebook may make it dated once Facebook dies, which it inevitably will (though it looks like it’ll be around for the time being). The compromise would be to call it simply a social media site. That type of site will always be around and will not be outdated. (Then again,  if you think your book has a shelf life of ten years or so with relative certainly that Facebook or Google will still be around then, by all means just go for it.)

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You’ve got to be careful using pop culture references. Never use a modern pop culture reference. You don’t know if it’ll stick in the public contentiousness, and it could make your book outdated within a year of its release (please don’t quote Borat). It’s best to stick with older ones that have stood the test of time, like Star Wars or Back to the Future (basically, the 80’s is pretty safe). In the book I mentioned above, with the Radio Shack reference, there’s actually a line that reads “[a]ll four Pirates of the Caribbean movies posters.” Which was accurate when it was written and accurate now. But with a fifth film coming out soon, its about to date the book. So when it comes to referencing a movie series, try to use something that’s been long finished.

Then again, who could’ve ever predicted there’d be more Star Wars? (Basically, unless you’re writing a period piece, you can follow all the rules and still get screwed.)

On Following Your Dreams and Giving Up

Scott McCloud’s ZOT! is one of my favorite comic books. While the book is about a superhero from an alternate dimension, towards the end of its run it becomes another animal entirely. Zot gets trapped in our dimension and all of the sudden the stories seem to almost completely ignore him, and instead just focus on the lives of the people around him. What started off as a sci-fi superhero story became simply a story about normal people and normal life, and the issues they face.

One of the issues, #30 to be exact, is told from the perspective of Barbara Weaver, Zot’s girlfriend’s mom. She’s going through a divorce, and relates the story of how she met her husband, Horton. In the beginning, Horton was a dreamer, he had big plans, lofty dreams, ideals, etc., and that’s part of what she found attractive about him. So they got married. But as time went on, Horton wasn’t doing so well financially. They had bills to pay. A kid on the way. So Horton gives up his dream, and enters the corporate world. Not for himself, but to be able to better provide for his family. To be able to give them a good, comfortable life. Horton grows up.

The funny part is, it’s implied that that’s the reason Barbara doesn’t love him anymore is because Horton is no longer a dreamer. He’s a realist. It implies that poor Horton lost his way. Now, I understand what the author was trying to say with this. He himself was considering giving up his dream at the time, due to his comic not being so successful and having financial difficulties. He wrote this to convince himself that he’d be happier following his dream, even if his family suffers as a result. But if you ask me, Horton is an amazing family man. He gave up his dream for those he loved. He shouldn’t be made out to be the bad guy. He was acting selflessly.

Perhaps I’m wrong though. Maybe I’m just writing this to convince myself that I made the right decision, giving up on my dream. I write, sure, when I can. But at the moment it’s a hobby. When someone goes out and works or goes to school and only writes in their free time, all it is is a hobby (or perhaps a second job, stressing the second part). I would like for it to be my profession, but I can’t very well drop everything and jump all in. Not when I have rent and bills to pay, a wife to take care of and a child on the way.

“When you’re a little kid you’re a bit of everything; Scientist, Philosopher, Artist.
Sometimes it seems like growing up is giving these things up one at a time.”
-The Wonder Years

Giving up dreams is never easy, but its essential, most of the time. We come to realize there are things more important than what we thought we would always want. We come to realize that these new dreams are more important to us than the old one, but letting the old one go is always difficult. And we always look back, wondering ‘what if…’

One of my favorite episodes of The Wonder Years is the one where Kevin goes with his father to work. While there, he asks his dad when he knew he wanted to be a manager at NORCOM. Jack explains that while “Being manager of product support services is a good job, but it’s not what I thought I’d be doing with my life.” He goes on to tell Kevin about how he always wanted to be a captain of a ship. Kevin asks why didn’t he do it, and Jack responds, “How come? Well, you know, one thing leads to another, went off to college, met your mom, next summer I got a job on a loading dock here at NORCOM, the rest is history.” Then Jack says what is probably the most important line, at least to me, that’s ever been said in a television show: “You know, Kevin, you can’t always do every silly thing you want to in life. You have to make your choices. You have to try and be happy with them.”

There’s no shame in giving up a dream. In fact, I’d venture to say there’s honor in it. And I’m sure, somewhere, Horton kept his dream alive. Some part of him hopes that he can quit one day and be the person he was. If only life was that simple.

Collaboration

There are many pros to collaboration when it comes to writing, but it is not something everyone can do. Peter David, who is best known for being a comic book writer, said that he found writing prose novels much more fulfilling, as that’s a product that he completes all on his own, as opposed to a comic which is a collaboration with an artist.

Jeph Loeb is another comic book writer (though he’s written other thing as well, and currently heads Marvel’s television decision), and being a comic book writer, his work requires much collaboration. He used to be known as an amazing writer, until his son passed away. His work was never the same again. Some people say it broke him, and he never recovered. I don’t know if that’s true. But something I found interesting about his work, specifically in comics. It became very obvious after a while that he was writing for the artist, often at a disservice to the story. There was no reason for a time traveling Kingdom Come Superman to show up in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, but the artist wanted to draw him, so he was written in. Batman: Hush, another one of his works, is overly crowded with villains, but most puzzling of all was an appearance by Jason Todd, a former Robin who was dead at the time of it’s publication (don’t worry, he got better. Comic books and all that). It was later revealed that it was Clayface impersonating Jason, but the only reason he was there was because the writer wanted to draw him. And in Loeb’s Supergirl book, he has Supergirl fight the Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl, who was paralyzed at the time and thus no longer Batgirl (don’t worry, she also got better). The only reason that was written was so the artist could draw a character he wanted, even if it didn’t make sense in the concept of the story. (Again, it was revealed to be Clayface in disguise. Boy, Loeb sure relies on that Clayface gimmick a lot.) A successful collaborator should put the story before pleasing his or her partner.

Having two names on a book is good, if only for marketing purposes, as it would lead fans of one individual author to check out the other author’s solo work. But honestly, I don’t know how two people can write a book together, other than switching off chapters or something.  Plotting though, can be done together with another. I enjoy talking through the story with my wife. Its fun, and we get to bounce ideas off each other. In fact, my favorite part of A Spark Ignites was actually her idea (or taking my idea and pushing it one step farther). Using a collaborator can also help you catch plot holes. There are some people who have to do everything by themselves. I used to be one of them. But even if you want to do all the writing yourself, I’ve found that when it comes to working through a story, two heads are better than one.