Thoughts on the journey from a long-time traveler
I begin this blog at the age of 70. Thanks to the influence of a brilliant teacher, I've been writing to entertain others for sixty years. I have four books on the market, a story in an anthology, and another coming out soon, but have achieved no great success by any standard you care to apply, though I have gained magnificent friendships along the way that have made it more than worthwhile. But I have learned some valuable lessons about The Craft and how to ply it, and if sharing them here can help any aspiring authors on their own journeys, I am happy to do so. So pitch in with my blessing, and as this journal grows, it may come to contain something that might just answer a question or solve a problem that you've been struggling with, and that would please me beyond measure!|
Jack "Blimprider" Tyler
March 24th, 2019
| Good morning, fellow scribblers, and welcome to the final installment of my weekly soapbox. Big changes are coming to my little steampunk port, and within another week it is likely to be unrecognizable to those familiar with it now. I have used the handle "Blimprider" since my return to WdC two years ago. It is my legitimate nickname, my handle on many sites, my Xbox gamer tag, and my personal email address. It is based on my immersion in the fascinating world of steampunk over the last half-dozen years, and fits me to a T. The monthly award I give to favorite stories is named Talk of the Flight Deck, and alludes to the control center of a blimp or dirigible. You might say I have been fully invested.
But fully invested is the way I do things, and as fate would have it, I have been offered a gig by a professional publisher, assuming of course that my work is up to par, for a series of 1920s horror novellas. I am eager to get that gig, which at my age will almost certainly consume the remainder of my writing life, and am working hard to ensure that my work will be exactly what he desires. A side note: I am not mentioning names here because I cannot shake the feeling that I will jinx myself if I start making announcements before I've landed the job. My modern scientific self recognizes that superstitions are groundless, and I generally don't fall prey to them, but at the same time, millions of years of evolution have given us these "feelings" to help us steer clear of danger, so why risk it?
I have long followed an Oriental philosophy/religion which teaches that if there is something you wish to become, act as if you already are that thing and wait for reality to catch up. Thus fully invested to me means to set up everything from my private work space to my public persona as if I already have that gig, and am already a professional horror author. A large part of the public persona part of that equation is how I present myself in my portfolio. Some of you have noted my handle change already. My bio has been changed to reflect this new focus, and the rest of the port will soon follow.
Horror is such an all-encompassing term that it can mean very different things to different people who all consider themselves horror fans, so I'd best clarify the sort of work that I will be producing for this project. The parent project goes by the working title of The Nexus Chronicles. The premise is that there are various dimensions, realms, astral planes, whatever visualization you prefer, each with their own denizens. All these planes intersect at a point called the Nexus, and through this intersection strange and dangerous denizens can cross between worlds, some arriving on earth where they often wreak havoc and become the sources for many (some say all) of the world's dark myths and legends. The sentient and orderly creatures of the planes, some far more advanced than mankind, staff a bureau within the Nexus from where teams of investigators are sent out to look into and take corrective action on reports of monsters, witches, goblins, and things that go bump in the night. This must be done on the down-low to prevent the mass panic that would ensue should the general public find out how real some of the things they openly scoff at are. I suppose the flavor is similar to Buffy, but without the constant flippant prattle. I aim at 20,000 words for a finished story, and if anyone would care to visit, to comment, perchance to enjoy, the links are "Possession of Blood" (complete) and "Creeper" (under construction).
This publisher, who I will trumpet to the four winds once a decision is made, requires exclusive rights of publication, which means that I cannot post the stories anywhere else. That's fair; he will be paying me for that right, but "anywhere else" extends to WdC. He has graciously allowed me to post the works here for critique and comments until I deem them complete and submit them, after which they must be taken down permanently and immediately. "Possession of Blood" has been complete and up in my port since April 6th, and the comments have slowed to a trickle. I'm thinking that sixty days from completion is a reasonable time for the members here to comment, so June 6th I will take that story down and submit it to the publisher for consideration. Read it soon if you're going to. "Creeper" is about one-third complete, so no clock is ticking on it yet, but it will be. I would be suitably grateful for thoughts, critiques, and comments on either of those stories before they head off to battle in the marketplace.
I had a good run in steampunk, created some characters near to my heart as all good friends should be, and a combination of nostalgia and inertia kept me focused there, trying to come up with another boffo premise in a genre I had tired of. Perhaps that's been the source of my two-year writer's block. Whatever the case, this publisher read some of the horror I had been dabbling in, and approached me about submitting a series of novella-length works to his publishing house, thus opening my eyes to these new horizons. Wherever else this may lead, I'm writing again for the first time in a long time in a field that interests me, and I'm exceedingly grateful for that!
I mentioned in the first sentence that this would be the last issue of Riding the Blimp; I no longer travel by that form of conveyance. I'll give everyone a week, until the 26th, to read this, then it will be replaced by something horrible. Okay, not really I hope, but I'm going to try to attract horror fans, readers and writers, and make my port a place that they want to hang out. I know there are fans out there, but I tried to find a group, and discovered that there are only five on WdC, that the most active had its last post a year ago, and the rest have longer gaps than that until we come to one still calling itself a group whose last entry was eight years back. Really, eight years, and this is still considered a group? I don't know, maybe writing horror is such a solitary thing that it doesn't lend itself to group participation. I'm new at this, what do I know? But I'm going to try. It may be a direct replacement for this blog on the 26th, or I may wait another week in between, but if you've any interest in the dark side of literature, mark this port and pay me a return visit in a week or so. You never know what you might find lurking about!
And that's 30 for this week. I don't know what next week will bring, but I promise, as always, to do my best to keep it interesting.
Until then, read well and write better!
This week's news . . .
Good morning, friends, and welcome back, or just welcome if this is your first visit. Before I take up the business of this week's news, I want to wish a HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to all of the gentle warriors who have followed that particular calling. I've heard it called the hardest, most rewarding job anyone can do, and I'll not argue. Congratulations to all of you engaged on this path, and enjoy your special day!
It has been a busy WdC week for me, as it always is. I'm on two separate quests here. The first is to be an active, helpful cheerleader for young, new, and otherwise inexperienced authors who are here to learn the ropes and test their wings. I've learned a few things about the Craft in my decades of pursuing it, and am pleased to pass them along. If anything I share here helps anyone avoid reinventing the wheel or going down a blind alley, I'm proud and happy to have been of service. To this end, I endeavor to provide three or four in-depth reviews to newbies each week.
On alternate days, I write. The other quest is for publication in a new genre and a new format. I am unashamedly known far and wide as a steampunk author. While my "Beyond the Rails" series never made me the rich, famous, household name I once dreamed of being, it has made me a lot of friends around the world, and garnered a small but devoted following among steampunks young and old. Now I'm reaching for a completely different prize. There is a periodical aimed at the horror audience which shall for now remain nameless because of an unexpected superstition I have about jinxing myself, whose editor, also to be nameless, read "Possession of Blood" , and suggested to me the possibility of an ongoing gig in his publication for a 1920s horror series. You can bet that if that comes to pass, I'll be trumpeting those names from the highest ramparts! Heck, even if I don't get the gig, I'll tell you all about them anyway. I just have this little voice telling me not to start spreading the news until a decision has been made; I've learned over the years to listen to that little voice.
Now, here's the business part of it. Said publication requires exclusive rights, meaning that if they buy it, it cannot appear anywhere else... Including WdC. The editor has authorized me to post my work here, members only, for beta-reads and editing suggestions, but once they are submitted, I have to take them down. "Possession of Blood" has been up since April 6th, a little over a month, and the reviews and comments have fallen off over the last week or so, so I'm assuming everyone with an interest has had their say. Over the next week, I'll be polishing the story and incorporating some of your valuable suggestions, and submitting it to the editor. At that time it will have to come down here, so read it soon if you have an interest.
My second offering, "Creeper" , is under construction. It is, like Possession, a novella, about 20,000 words in length, and I'm aiming for about twenty scenes. I put the fifth scene up yesterday, and average three or four a week, so if you have an interest in 1920s horror, by all means, pay me a visit and let me know what you think. Formal reviews aren't necessary, just drop me an email with any thoughts or questions you may have; who knows, you may help me check one of the last items off my bucket list.
My port has been steampunk-themed from early on, my very handle, Blimprider, being an homage to my airship stories. If this takes off, I may be looking at some changes... Ghostrider, anyone?
This week's ramble . . .
"The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."
~ JOHN STEINBECK
I'm going to open with a comparison of two movies. Both were big-budget extravaganzas. Both were based on respected fantasy classics from the early and mid-twentieth century. Both starred multiple talented actors and actresses. Both filled the screen with epic stories and breathtaking effects. Yet, one redefined its genre and launched the careers of many of its crew and supporting actors, while the other lost a quarter of a billion dollars, and certainly would have bankrupted its production studio had it not been one of a very few large enough to survive such a catastrophe. Have you guessed what movies these are yet? I'll get to that shortly.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the situation exemplified by the fates of these two movies and see whether there are any lessons that can be applied to writers. After all, they both began as successful books, and even if they hadn't, movies still have to be "written" before an actor is hired or a camera loaded. So why did one turn into cinematic gold and the other almost sink its studio? That would be something worth knowing to a writer who wants to pen the Next Big Thing. What lessons can we take away?
Specifically, as writers, everyone wants to produce the next Harry Potter, and who can blame them? But how? No one has found the secret to predicting literary success. I guarantee you that when J.K. Rowling sat down to write her book for tweens about a wizard school with a silly name, she wasn't thinking about the multiple movie treatments that would make her the richest person in the British Empire, but that's what happened. Why? What was difference between the Lord of the Rings trilogy and John Carter? I have to tell you, I saw John Carter again a few days ago, which is what gave rise to this essay, and I still can't see the reason for its failure; it certainly isn't in what's on the screen.
The first factor I always want to look at is advertising. I have four books for sale on Amazon, and let me tell you, readers are staying away in droves! It frequently occurs to me that if I could just come up with $20- or $30,000 dollars a month to pour into TV, radio, and magazine ads, my books would be doing fine. But I don't have that, and I sometimes cynically feel that that's all that stands between me and the best-seller list. All I can do is talk them up in places like Facebook and writing-dot-com, and hope for the best. The best has not been forthcoming, but in the case of these two movies, the advertising was not dissimilar. In fact, a significant portion of John Carter's budget went into promotion, including an extended ad during the Super Bowl, all apparently to no avail. Overall, I seem to remember seeing more ads for John Carter than I did for Lord of the Rings, so that doesn't seem to be the cause.
Everyone who knows me is familiar with "Tyler's Axiom:" Characters are fiction. So, did the characters let John Carter down? Lord of the Rings was the more faithful to its source material, and its characters were compelling, but there were dozens of characters vital to certain aspects of the plot including characters whose story lines began early then faded away, and characters who weren't seen until late in the books/movies who had major parts to play. One thing I remember about the weeks following LotR's release was people talking about how difficult it was making out who was who if they weren't already a fan of the books. Still, LotR jump-started the careers of such little-known actors as Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, and Andy Serkis. But while JC was well-known to fans (as Princess of Mars) as the granddaddy of modern science-fiction, its characters popular with readers for a century, and its story a much simpler star-crossed lovers tale, it didn't translate with viewers. This despite Taylor Kitsch's adept portrayal of Carter, excellent supporting performances by Bryan Cranston, David Schwimmer, and Willem Dafoe, not to mention a compelling performance as the titular princess by Lynn Collins, who not only can deliver emotion with the lift of an eyebrow or the twitch of a lip, but has the advantage of being arguably the most beautiful woman who has ever drawn breath, the movie just dies. Not the characters, then.
What else? The cinematography in both films was great, the sets were breathtaking, often overwhelming, so what is that elusive difference? The only other factor I can think of is that hard-to-define chimera, word-of-mouth, and that's hard to pin down. Conventional wisdom suggests that word-of-mouth consists of someone seeing a movie, or of more interest to us, reading a book, then telling his friends how great it is. If that's all there is to it, then something in JC that was too subtle for me to catch fell flat. All that aside, I still have reservations. Over the course of my writing career I have met some wonderfully talented authors, and when they produce a great book, I tell everyone I know, by word-of-mouth, on any of the several blogs I've had, through reviews here, on Amazon, on Goodreads, any place I can reach. I know that other readers have done the same, all to no effect, because I don't know any J.K. Rowlings, Stephen Kings, or anyone else who plays in that league.
And then there's another thing about word-of-mouth: You as an author have no control over it. Oh, as a filmmaker with money to burn, you can pour millions into advertising, but that can backfire, making you look desperate, as if you're trying to make enough noise to cover a poor product. Maybe that's what happened to JC. The sorry conclusion I am forced to draw is that all you can do is to write the best book/story/essay/blog you can, and hope for results. This is a sad state, but at the same time, it makes you a member of a psychological elite. Not that many people can put in the vast amount of work required to create a quality novel on the mere hope that there might be a payday later. That puts us in the company of Olympic athletes and fighter pilots; we work ourselves to death, honing our skills in the hope of some future payoff. For the athlete, it's that one gold medal that will be given in his or her event; for the fighter pilot, it's his life. Given the number of people who think they can write books, the odds we face are hundreds of times longer than athletes and pilots. Take comfort in that. Treat your writing as something you do out of love, and if a financial or social reward comes later, that's your cherry on top, but know, though you toil in a dark corner under the glow of a reading lamp, you are elite. You are a hero. Very few people in this world have the grit to stay the course that you're on, and maybe that's its own reward. What do you think?
Until next Sunday, then, read well, and write better!
"Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing.
Talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."
~ E.L. DOCTOROW
How do you get in the mood to write? Most people will probably say they just sit down and start writing, either when the urge strikes them, or at a certain time of day. The time-of-day approach is my method, as I have the house to myself in the early mornings, so I get up and make use of the time. But how do you make yourself ready to make best use of the time when it is available?
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who accomplished many amazing things that helped lay the groundwork for modern medicine, and was awarded both a Nobel Prize and a Copley Medal, but he is best remembered today for his work in the field of Conditioned Response. Who hasn't heard of Pavlov's dogs? In its simplest form, the story is related that he rang a bell each time he offered food to a test group of dogs. Said dogs would quite naturally salivate at the sight and smell of food. Eventually, the dogs would salivate and otherwise prepare physiologically to eat at the sound of the bell alone. The question I pose to you is, how can you take advantage of that in order to maximize use of your writing time? All I can tell you is what I do. If you're a writer, you must have a good imagination. Maybe you can think of something similar that will get your creative juices flowing.
I get up in the morning and put the coffee on. Yes, I'm quite addicted to the Sweet Nectar of Life, and no cracks, if you please! While that's perking, I look over my notes or find an item to review to get a feel for what I hope to accomplish in the day's session. Once the coffee's ready, I light a stick of incense. I prefer nag champa, with sandalwood running a close second. Perfumed smoke rising, I pour a large cup of coffee and infuse it with a flavored creamer. Again, I have favorites, among them Coconut and Almond, Hazelnut, and Irish Cream. I then take that cup to the bar-height dining table by the window overlooking the garden, take that first sip to get the flavor on my palate, and with the incense teasing my olfactory lobes, I can almost feel the neural channels to the creative wing of the old brain expanding for the free passage of ideas. I have somewhat ambiguous feelings about grouping myself with a pack of conditioned dogs, but I know it works; advantage is where you find it.
In the ongoing discussion about doping in sports, a question that always comes up is, "If you could take a pill that would make you significantly better at your job than your competition, would you?" Well, would you? Here's a drug-free "pill" that you can use without guilt or repercussion to make your writing flow. It takes a little while to condition yourself, but once you do, you'll see a dramatic improvement in production. I did; I know it works.
Will you take it? I guess the main point is to establish a routine that you follow, little pleasant details, like a pre-reward for performance, every time you sit down to write, and very soon that part of your mind, whatever it is, that sets up blocks will come to understand that this is writing time, and you don't plan to entertain any resistance. It will get used to taking a couple of hours off, and you will get used to turning out copy at a level you never dared dream of before.
Will you take it?
Of course, I can't leave here without a shameless self-promotion. If you like action/adventure, alternate history with a bit of sci-fi, or ensemble casts watching out for one another during dangerous times, check out my "Beyond the Rails" trilogy. One of my first reviewers called it "Jules Verne meets Firefly." That put me off at first, but then I realized there are worse things to have your work compared to than a Joss Whedon masterpiece! Got an adventurous itch? Drop by and scratch it! There's nothing to buy; while I have nothing against fame and fortune, what I really want is to be read, so I've made it all free. Join me on the Kestrel, and experience what it's like Riding the Blimp!
And that's 30 for this week. I'll see you next Sunday, unless something exceptional comes up, in which case I might be back sooner.
Read well, and write better!
"Discover everything about your characters that you can before you write your story.
If you get stuck at any point, they will write your dialogue for you."
~ MICHAEL J. KANNENGIESER
Earlier this week I was asked by a member that I reviewed if I could recommend any material to help with character construction. There are dozens of "those books" out there with chapters on character development, but I passed along this post from my old off-site blog. Now I'm thinking, what the heck, if one person has asked, there are probably a lot more than that who are wondering, so I'm going to repeat it here for the benefit of anyone who might find it useful.
I have long championed the position that characters are fiction, and that if your characters are weak, shallow, or in any way lacking, then there is no amount of skillful description or plotting that can rescue your story. Those of you who have been recipients of my reviews are already familiar with my beliefs in that area. Over the next weeks and months I plan to share some of the techniques I use in the composition of my own books and stories, and I can think of no better place to start than with the construction of your characters, the people, aliens, spirits, and automatons who are going to tell your story for you by living it. I had intended to open this installment with a quote very close to, "Authors don't write books, characters do," but I couldn't find an attribution. My memory is telling me Arthur C. Clarke, but I can't find it anywhere. I know I didn't say it, but somebody did, so there you are. In any case, truer words were never spoken.
I can't tell you how to create a character from nothing. That's one of the primary skills of the writer, so I'm going to assume that you have it. You're just idling along minding your own business, when BAM, a trapdoor opens in the gray matter, and out climbs this person. Suave guy, tough chick, or someone completely different, it doesn't matter. Another thing that doesn't matter is whether you were already working on a story, and this spontaneous creation is in response to that, or if this person just popped into being and inspired a whole narrative for his or her own use. It is a character, and as such, has to be developed.
First, compare him or her to the story you are writing. Comedy, romance, action, horror, all have their denizens that populate their pages. Writing a comedy, and the guy who popped up bears a striking resemblance to Indiana Jones? Then you need to look at whether he'll stand for you making him a bumbling sort of action hero. He won't have it? Then consider a role as a pompous straight-man. Now comes the tough part: If he refuses to fit into the story you're telling, then he needs to go. Not to the gallows, but to your author's notebook where ideas, settings, characters, and situations percolate for use on future projects. If he just won't gel, then maybe he does need to go permanently; if you can't make him hold still for a snapshot, how are you going to manage him for the marathon that is writing a novel?
Let's assume he does work, though. Now he needs to be developed to a level where you know him better than you know some of your own family members. People are going to say, "I'm a pantser," or "Planning stifles creativity." If that is your philosophy for the story as a whole, that's fine, your style, your business, but a character is much more complex than a simple plot. Plots tend to behave; characters are people, and if the ones you know are anything like the ones I do, they're as drifty as the most chaotic subatomic particles. Every plot twist, every unexpected development, every decision in which your character goes to the street corner and waits for the light to change, or just darts out into traffic comes down to who that character is, and you, Mr., Miss, or Mrs. author, have to know. You have to, because if you get it wrong one time, your readers will notice, and you can take that to the bank!
This requires some form of character sheet. I'm sorry, but no short cut exists. You have to know far more than you will ever put on the page, because if you don't, your character will be a straw man, a stick figure, with no more depth than the page he's described on. If that's good enough for your purposes, then you may as well stop reading now, but before you go, consider all the most powerful works of literature, from Dickens to Rowling. Every character comes alive, leaps off the page, draws you into the story and keeps you there for the whole ride. If you want your fiction to grab your readers like that, then read on. Writing is hard work. If it wasn't, we'd all be on the best-sellers list. If you want to be a top-tier writer, it begins with doing the work.
So, the Character Sheet. What goes into it? When you first think of this character, record the obvious things. Height, weight, build, color of eyes and hair, distinguishing marks, all the things you'd tell a cop if you'd witnessed a robbery. Ah, but then it gets interesting. Let's examine each point that you need to know intimately to make your character come alive.
ROLE: The first thing you need to decide is whether this character is the Lead, the Opposition, the Confidant (sort of the Lead's version of a Henchman), the actual Henchman, the Romantic Interest, or a Minor Player. If a Minor Player, it is important to know whether he favors a victory by the Lead, or if he's partial to the Opposition.
CONNECTION TO LEAD: If this character is not the Lead, then he or she must know or otherwise have an interest in the Lead's success or failure, and you have to know what that is. Whether a blood relative, childhood friend, or someone who read about the Lead in the paper, and views him as heroic, or as a villain who must be stopped, there is a connection between them, and it must be defined. It isn't enough to throw a character into the mix who wants to bring the Lead to his knees. There is a reason, and knowing that reason, and keeping true to it, is what elevates the story above the level of Archie and Jughead.
STORY GOAL: Every character wants something tangible, something that will benefit him personally. It isn't enough to say that the Confidant wants the Lead to win. It's all about the why. What does she gain if the Lead goes home victorious, and what does she lose if he loses? That's the motivation, and without it, the Confidant becomes a Sidekick, motivated only by hero-worship, and any other character becomes less interesting than that.
MANNERISMS: This is very important, and one of the few things that can grow as the character does. If you have anything in mind for him, write it down here. Talks with her hands, sways when standing in one place, nervous tic in the left eye, anything, anything at all. Then leave a lot of space, because much of what you write as the story develops will need to be recorded here. Don't skimp on this. If your character drums the fingers of her right hand on the outside of her thigh when she's agitated, and a hundred pages later, she starts popping bubble gum under the same kind of stress, readers will notice. Readers notice everything, and that's only good if you've gotten everything right.
SPEECH PATTERNS: Here go your character's regionalisms and accents, his embarrassment talking to the opposite gender, his stutter, the way he says "y' know?" at the end of every sentence, and all that jazz. I suppose you could combine this with Mannerisms, but keeping it separated helps me keep these points from getting lost in the shuffle.
PERSONALITY: List here the character's basic traits, the qualities that are going to inform his every action, be that a bubbly optimism, cowardice, underhandedness, saint-like honesty, any sort of quirk or flaw you can think of, and stay true to them. Again, readers will notice. Note: the four indispensable traits of the Lead must be Courage, Virtue, Likability, and Competence. Lose Courage or Competence, and you have a comedic hero, as in Beverly Hills Ninja. Lose Virtue or Likability, and you have an anti-hero; think Paul Newman in Hombre. Lose two or more, and you will have an unsympathetic ass who will kill any story you place him in.
BACKGROUND: This is simply the pertinent facts in your character's life up until the beginning of the story. Examine the story you are writing, and let your imagination run wild; a young woman who had grown up in a convent wouldn't likely choose to become a gangster's moll, for example. Jot down a few details. They needn't be exhaustive biographies, but you need to know what has driven these people to the time and place of your story, and what factors they believe are important. A few areas to solidify:
Geography: Where was he born? Into what conditions? Where did he grow up? Was the childhood location stable, or did the family move around a lot?
Family: What were her parents like? Does she have siblings? What is their relationship like? Did she marry or have children, married or not?
Childhood: What was his childhood like? Was he happy? Abused? Popular? Miserable? Lonely? What caused his underlying condition, and what sort of person did that make him?
Education: Did she go to college? Where? Did she do graduate work? Was there any other sort of training such as vocational school or military training?
PERSONAL LIFE: Where does the character live? A house, an apartment, a co-op, a condo? In what state, city, or town, real or made up, in what neighborhood? Is there a spouse? A parent? A partner? Are there children or pets? What is his social life like? Who are his friends? How does he socialize with them? Does he go to the gym, do things with his son, enjoy a night out with the boys, or a board game with his wife? Does he like to go dancing or visit museums? We are all products of the road that brought us to this point. I am 70 years old, and I still carry baggage from my childhood home. Your characters do too. You need to capture it.
PRIVATE LIFE: What does the character like to do when she's alone? People don't just sit and stare at the wall until the next dramatic plot twist arises. We all have things we like to do. I write, play video games, read, watch music and documentary videos, and sometimes take a walk, just for a few examples. You need to know whether your character is a bookworm or a squash player. Also, most people have a secret they would kill or die before disclosing. Maybe your character is a porn addict. Maybe she's into BDSM. Maybe she's embarrassed to be a Furry. Once you know what that character is hiding, she will fairly leap off the page! It needn't even be that dramatic. Patience Hobbs, the airship pilot of the Beyond the Rails series, has a small tattoo in an area that is always covered by her Victorian clothing. None of her friends know she has it, and it doesn't come up in the stories, but I know she has it. I know who put it on her, why she allowed it, and what it signifies, and it informs her actions in ways almost too subtle to imagine.
PROFESSIONAL LIFE: What does he do for a living? He does something, unless he is retired, a bum, or a member of the 1%. What is it? Did the story you are telling come about because of his job, such as a police officer or a journalist? Or was it an obligation dumped in his lap by his shiftless brother-in-law, and attempting to solve the dilemma it presents is going to bring him into conflict with boss and coworkers? How is he viewed at work? Is he a valued team member, or a problem employee? Who are his friends? Who are his allies? These are often not the same people. Who are his enemies and his rivals? Again, not always the same. Does the story take place in his work environment, or is it going on outside, maybe affecting his performance? All things that contribute to a well-rounded character, and vital for the author to know.
SKILLS: These are special abilities that the character brings to the story. This is perhaps easiest to envision in a fantasy story. If your character is a mage, what are her most familiar spells, the ones she will go to in an emergency because she can rely on them? Which are harder for her to manage, ones with a high payoff, but a big risk attached to attempting them? The housewife in your story may have dropped off the kids at school and gone from there to a two-hour karate lesson every day for the past five years. This will inform the way she looks, carries herself, and her confidence level at the very least, but it will also render her attempt to free her children from their kidnapper considerably more believable than if she's a librarian who hasn't exercised since the Bush administration. Once you identify a skill that your character is going to need, identify in parallel with it a reasonable way she could have acquired it, and when it comes up in the story, you will have a full understanding of it, and already have presented it in a thoroughly believable fashion.
STRENGTH: What is this character's strongest positive trait, the one that will inform his approach to solving every problem? Express this in one word, if possible, certainly not more than three or four. This character may be completely villainous in his outlook, but everyone believes that he himself is righteous, and has powerful strengths to support that belief. These are things like loyalty, ingenuity, discretion, and adaptability. Most of us would be honored to be described in those terms, but those are character traits that would serve a villain well.
WEAKNESS: Similarly, what is the one dominant weakness that will test your character to the fullest when the going gets tough? These are the Seven Deadly Sins sort of traits. Envy, greed, laziness, arrogance, and selfishness all belong on this list, along with sloth, gluttony, and so on. Tempting though it is, pick one, and make your character face it by the end of the story.
NAME: I know, it's a small thing to name a character. Throw a dart at a telephone directory, and there you are. True to some extent, but it's not quite that simple. There are a few considerations you have to take into account. Is your character ethnic, or from an ethnic background? A migrant Mexican worker is unlikely to be named Clive. You need to consider the period in which the child was born. When I went to school, the most popular name for girls was Debbie; my daughter's school was awash in a sea of Jennifers. Girls in the Victorian era, in which most of us steampunks write, are more likely to carry such cumbersome handles as Theodosia, Eudora, or Henrietta. Consider who the character is to imagine how her name might have been changed with use. A party-loving club-crawler named Cecelia might encourage her friends to call her CeeCee; a college professor of the same name might decline that particular honor. Nicknames are usually given by others, and they aren't always flattering. My mother's legal name was Kay Frances Tyler. Not the worst name in the white pages by any means, but it didn't quite fit the professional gambler that was mom, a fun-loving girl at home in a man's world with the nerve to bet it all on the turn of the next card, and show a steely-eyed poker face looking over a pair of deuces. At home, the other adults called her Kay, but on those occasions when I found myself accompanying her to the local gambling haunts for any reason, everyone I ever met in that world called her Frankie; it fit her to a T.
Most importantly, help your readers out by choosing names appropriate to the character. A high-powered attorney might be named Grant or Elliot; the drug dealer he's defending probably won't. Finally, keep your names distinct. Do not, under any circumstances, have three important characters named Edmund, Edward, and Edwin. Okay, nobody's that heavy-handed, but a useful trick is to write down the alphabet on a page of your notebook, and when you name an important character, for example, David Smith, cross out the D and the S, and don't attach those initials to any other important characters in that story.
All right, I know I said a few naming considerations, and this is the biggest section in the article, but naming conventions are important. The name describes your character, and a well-chosen name defines her. Done right, you can tell a bank officer from a pre-school teacher, a liberal from a conservative, one who embraces life from one who endures it. Done wrong, names can lead a reader into a minefield of confusion, and I've been led to believe that readers don't like that. They don't like it to the point that they will remember your name, and never buy another book that has your name on it.
THE BIGGEST NO-NO: Resist the temptation, no matter how strong, to impart all of this information to your reader. The reader should glean, whether through dialogue or exposition, no more than two-thirds of the information you compile on these characters, and on the thoroughly detailed ones, closer to half. Part of the character's power to hold the reader spellbound is the mystery, the uncertainty, the romance of what's implied. Use that mystery to seduce, to charm, to intrigue. Never relieve that curiosity, and they'll remember your characters into their old age.
Okay, I've given you a ton of material here to use in creating and developing your characters, and you're probably thinking, "What's the matter with this guy? I just want to tell a story!" Well, I'm honest. That's my character trait that I fall back on when the going gets tough, and make no mistake, if you're a writer, the going is tough! It's hard to get a firm figure, but taking the averages of the various places I've looked, it appears that some 5,000 books are published every day! The majority are self-published, which means the writer is responsible for the quality of his own work. No one is standing over him making him take care of the details, and so most of them don't. There are literally millions of books available to buy on Amazon; go on, ask me how I know! Vast numbers of them have sloppy grammar and spelling, improper punctuation, ridiculous premises, and are riddled with plot-holes. They are a complete waste of every aspect, from the writer's time to the reader's 99c, or whatever he paid for his Kindle edition. Anyone who has the misfortune to encounter one of these is probably going to swear off indies for life, so they harm all of us. The things I'm telling you in articles like this are the secrets of success. Do the work. There are no short cuts. Writing is hard work. After all, you're creating a world, a society, a culture, and all the people in it. You're controlling every aspect of every character. Do you think it's going to be as easy as dealing a hand of solitaire? If you haven't been approaching character creation using some formula similar to this, why not? The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. First do the work, then enjoy the success. It doesn't happen any other way.
And I'm going to wrap this up here. That's a lot to take in, and if you have been pantsing your characters, you're probably in shock right now. I'll be around for questions and comments, and would love to hear your thoughts on this. Until next time, read well, and write better!
| Good morning, friends, and happy midweek. My policy here is to post things that I think may help the young or novice writer navigate the pitfalls of The Craft, but as it happened that last night I completed transcribing the Beyond the Rails trilogy to my port, I must take this opportunity to promote that milestone.
is my signature work to date. It is a three-book series for sale on amazon.com that is the cornerstone of my public writing persona. It consists of three books, the first two containing twelve novellas, and the third a full novel that chronicle the adventures of the crew of a Victorian-era airship moving cargo in the skies over Kenya. The three books carry between them a cumulative rating of approximately 4.5 stars on Amazon, and have engendered some wonderful reviews that I'm quite proud of. I'm going to quote three of them here, all by C.W. Perkins (and read to the end for some words about his own work), a steampunk author and reviewer. A fair reviewer, C.W. liked them without being afraid to point out what he saw a shortcomings, and is also the only voice to date to review all three, so quoting him seems appropriate. About the first book, he had this to say:
Exactly what I was looking for! Beyond the Rails, written by Jack Tyler, is the unique kind of steampunk you secretly hope for when you open the cover. A series of stories following the crew of the airship Kestrel and their travels through the adventurous African interior. Tyler single handedly adds mystery, romance and excitement to a genre so often stuck in the same familiar foggy London alleys or dusty American frontier. Part of this owes itself to Tyler’s seeming familiarity with the dark continent. It’s a relief to find an airship story that is just an airship story, without the zombies, vampires and gratuitous brass gadgets.He trusts us to enjoy the minutia of simply piloting a freelance airship on its routine (but inevitably dangerous) supply runs. And I for one, did enjoy it.
Seven months later, in his review of the second book, Soldier of the Crown, this was his review:
Addictive and enticing! Some of the best steampunk you can find. Beyond the Rails II: Soldier of the Crown is a fantastic return to form for indie author Jack Tyler. Following once again the crew of the airship Kestrel in 1880’s colonial Kenya, these six new stories are a welcome continuation, further building the world, developing the characters and shaking up the status quo.
We pick up not long after the events of last book and Tyler continues to succeed in his episodic, almost TV Season like approach to storytelling. The memories of “last season’s finale” are still fresh as he picks up a new adventure with the Kestrel crew. Only Captain Monroe, the American cowboy Smith, and the young tagalong botanist Dr. Ellsworth remain to keep the ship aloft and take on new missions. Even in her absence though, the prodigious pilot Patience Hobbs leaves a noticeable impression on the others, like a daughter who has run away from home and might not come back this time. Though Tyler never lets us forget her, he uses the break wisely to let the others stand out and prove their worth. Monroe languishes over keeping the Kestrel in the air and on mission, and Smith with his Peacemaker and rugged Clint Eastwood charm always entertains.
Previous Prussian engineer Gunther has vanished like an actor who asked for more money in the offseason and didn’t get it. I thought he more than earned his keep but I can’t say as I missed him for long, so maybe it was for the best. Ellsworth covers for him in the engine room until he’s replaced but still can’t find time to be as interesting as the rest of the cast. As for Hobbs, I won’t spoil what Tyler does with her, but he makes sure we don’t forget about her and he definitely uses the absence to enhance the story. In fact, the first couple tales she sits out are easily some of Tyler’s best crafted stories.
The first is a quick jumpstart, sucking you back to the audacious African frontier with Tyler’s usual sense of mystery and danger. This time it’s reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as they find themselves trapped with a family of mad scientists. The third story (one of my favorites) takes a break from the action when one of their passengers lures them into his international treasure hunt, evoking a Raiders of the Lost Ark, feel. Tyler plays with a lot of fun but familiar tropes: the daring escape from capture, the interrogation of a bad guy high in the air, the race-against-the-clock chase to save a life, or the framed-for-murder mystery. Each is familiar to anyone who has seen an action movie in the last forty years, but Tyler handles each one with poise, using the various scenes to illuminate his characters, build suspense, or tease us into second guessing our own expectations.
Tyler’s writing was good before, but his straightforward and direct style is even sharper this time. His extensive research makes me wonder once again about the kind life he’s lived. His maritime vocabulary and proficiency with the mechanics of the ship’s boiler suggest he could quite possibly build his own airship and tour us across Kenya himself if he felt like it. Unlike a lot of steampunk, he keeps one foot firmly grounded in real life and doesn’t get swept up in fanciful genre indulgences. I wouldn’t call this hard science-fiction just yet, but his “steampunk-light” approach retains the kind of gravitas and depth that we all first fell in love with during 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in 80 Days, where one good premise is enough to inspire awe rather than a slew of improbable gadgets and pedantic mad scientists. Not to say he doesn’t dip his toes into some darkly ominous human experiments, but when he does he stops short of gratuity to make sure his characters and their experience come first. To say it works is an understatement. I loved it and it’s a high standard for others in the genre to live up to.
His guest stars once again are so compelling that he fools me almost every time into thinking they’re about to join the cast. The underrated Chang Wei, the treasure hunting Eric Hafner, or the Maasai priestess Darweshi all prove to be as fully realized as the main cast. Recurring characters like Governor General Sanderson or the barman Faraji are equally delightful. I look for them every time we return to port.
As the Kestrel rises above Mombasa, you really feel like you’ve joined their crew. Part of that comes with time, having simply had more exposure to the characters after twelve stories total, but their interactions really do feel more authentic and “in the moment” this time. And that’s what makes these stories so compelling. Like Star Trek or Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica, you really want to be a part of this family and you wonder what they’re up to between scenes. Part of that comes as a result of Tyler’s story-craft. For each main plot, there are little digressions, mini-episodes, or scenes that stand on their own, like a meal at the bar, or the negotiation of a new fare, or an innocuous walk through the market before being mugged. Or even just the denouement after the dust has settled where they discuss the mundane practicalities of refueling, restocking and how they’ll find their next paid gig. When each story ends, the most satisfying element is the excitement of wondering what mayhem and misadventure is lurking behind the horizon.
Conclusion: 5 out of 5 stars. I usually save this for the kind of professional-level books you find in a book store, but if I could find anything like this from a traditional publisher, I’d buy it for sure. Tyler succeeds in taking us along for another African airship adventure and like the season finale to your favorite guilty pleasure, you can’t wait till next year to see what’s going to happen.
It's another year-and-a-half before he gets to the novel, Slayer of Darkness, but when he finally does, it moves him to write this assessment:
More of this, please. The stakes are high and I can’t promise a happy ending, but at least you can always enjoy the ride. The gang is back aboard the rickety airship Kestrel for another adventure in colonial Kenya.
Beyond the Rails III: Slayer of Darkness is Jack Tyler’s third foray into the world of wild nineteenth century. I always liked his episodic structure, but this is a nice change of pace. The slow-burn pacing here is a natural extension of the fact it has always been one long saga anyway. Tyler’s best scenes are always the character moments that fill in between plot-points and this only gives him more of them work with. Captain Monroe, hotshot pilot Patty Hobbs, and the mysterious American David Smith shine as the core cast. Previous holdovers like the new engineer Bakari and the tribal girl Darweshi stay mostly out of the way this time and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It means the leads get better development, but I kept waiting for these side-characters to rise to the surface and have their moment.
As usual, the guest stars are all standouts, including the return of Jinx Jenkins from Book 1. Newcomers like Jubilee Bellouard and her crew of bounty hunters are a nice addition as they attempt to collect on David Smith, if that is his real name . . . (it’s not!). They add an unpredictable subplot to the mix that haunts the story unbeknownst to our heroes. Tyler has fun with all this dramatic irony, keeping his crew in the dark until close to the end. At one point, the villain’s own right-hand man, Mutala, charters the Kestrel to get from A to B and nobody but the reader has any idea the implications.
Tyler usually mixes an eclectic dose of old pulp adventuring into his Firefly-esque, steampunk-light vision, but this time I sensed just a hint of James Bond or the Man from U.N.C.L.E. with the global governmental conspiracies just out of frame. He avoids letting these larger than life problems over-inflate the core premise by always presenting them through unreliable sources. At the end of the day, the world’s governments may be banding together in secret to fight a clandestine collection of mobsters and terrorists, but the crew of the Kestrel still has to earn their keep if they intend to keep hydrogen in the bag before the rainy season hits. It’s these down to earth mundanities that make Tyler’s stories so charming and relatable.
I had some problems with Act III resolving abruptly but it was Act I that really carried the novel for me with its strong setup. Old friend and previous crew-mate Ellsworth from Book I has been assaulted by accident when the enemy goes after the wrong storefront. It’s the perfect pulpy-noir kind of chance plot-point that carries you miles in verisimilitude. This is the dirty, chaotic world of Kenya, and the police are useless. Say nothing of the precarious financial ruin Kestrel is always on the brink of. Act II is like lighting a long fuse and watching it burn. You know eventually something is going to explode, so even when things seem slow there is a subtext of inescapable tension. Tyler keeps his characters moving around from place to place, often completely oblivious to each other, as he sets up the final action.
Conclusion 4.5 out of 5 stars. Excellent setup and slow burn storytelling with our favorite characters is more than enough to keep this story afloat despite the Star Trek-like abruptness of its ending. Jack Tyler continues to be among the best of indie steampunk writers out there!
I'm going to wrap it up here in the interest of keeping this blog post from becoming a novel of its own! I am grateful to Mr. Perkins for his kind words and high praise. I have included his reviews, frankly, in an effort to generate interest in the series. Apparently, my one glaring shortcoming in this whole process is an inability to sell the product, so I have posted the entire trilogy in its entirety for my fellow WdC members to read free of charge. As a writer, fame and fortune are a nice dream, but what I want more than anything is to be read, so here is my signature work free for the taking. I ask for neither money nor reviews. I just want people to read and enjoy, and should you be so moved, to leave me a comment. I'm battling old age, fading health, and a muse who seems to be ready to move on to greener pastures. If I can't give my best work away, I'm going to have to re-evaluate my whole purpose for doing this.
In the meanwhile, please take a few moments and pay Mr. Perkins and his own lively creation, Miss Lorna Lockheed, a visit. Imagine that Commando Cody was a woman; a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, poker-faced gambling woman, and you'll have a fair idea of what awaits at https://cwilliamperkins.weebly.com/
See you Sunday!
| I left the navy in the fall of 1969, full of life experience and immaturity, and thinking that now I would have time and space to devote to that novel that had so eluded me. My neighbor gave me an antique typewriter in lieu of payment for some yardwork, and convinced that that was the last piece of the puzzle, I lit into it with a vengeance. Space operas, spies, and special agents came and went, none finding completion, nor even any particular direction as I thrashed about seeking divine inspiration for my efforts. Then one day I picked up a copy of a fan magazine, Starlog or one of its clones, and there in the back was what I was certain was the answer to all my problems.
"The Star Trek Writers' Guide," the tiny ad trumpeted. "Own the guideline given to every writer for the hit TV show Star Trek! Learn the secrets that made this show great, and apply them to your own screenplays and novels!" Well, how could anyone go wrong with that? So I dutifully sent my buck-and-a-half or whatever (it wasn't much) to the post office box in Pasadena, and two weeks later there arrived a pamphlet of twenty-odd pages, poorly mimeographed on one side and clipped together with brads, purporting to contain the Secrets of Star Trek between its hand-lettered covers.
What a bunch of crap! I would be hard-pressed to describe how angry I was. The idea that any professional production would hand any professional writer this piece of garbage was unthinkable! I had to take out the brads and separate it into individual pages to read some of it, it was so badly centered. But then I thought, I paid for this, I'm not going to get a refund, so I may as well read it on the off chance there's something useful there.
And what a wonderful decision that was! Despite the appearance, there was much useful information therein, and in fairness, I did discover later that this was indeed the exact guide handed to such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Bloch. Much of it was aimed specifically at screenwriters, but there were three tenets that I took to heart and that have guided me since the dawn of my adult writing career. Am I going to share them? What else would I be doing here?
1. DON'T EXPLAIN STUFF. The cops on Law & Order and Blue Bloods don't draw their weapons and turn to explain their workings to the nearest bystander before they follow a fleeing suspect into an abandoned building, and your characters shouldn't either. Guns are part of our modern world, and we all know how they work. If you're writing about a different world, be it wizards or space pirates, they know their own equipment, and rarely discuss its workings. Star Trek presented transporters, tricorders, phasers, medical equipment, warp drive, and a host of other things they never talked about. They simply used them. The audience saw them work, had their aha! moment, and understood from then on what they did and what they couldn't do. The same applies to a wizard's wand or a steampunk gadget. Show it in use, and move on.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE. The guide chronicled an example of a writer who had written a five-minute scene of orders being given, procedures implemented, camera changes and so on for the purpose of turning the Enterprise around to retreat by the same route they had arrived on. All that was replaced by Kirk saying, "Reverse course." All that procedural jargon is uninteresting clutter to your reader. He'll tend to skim through it to get to the place where the action resumes, and if you've buried something important in there, he'll miss it completely, and likely regard it as a plot hole.
3. KEEP IT REAL. It's the day after tomorrow on the bridge of an American destroyer in the Persian Gulf, and they've spent the morning playing cat-and-mouse with a flotilla of Iranian patrol boats. Suddenly three of them peel out of formation and head for the ship at top speed, and the captain suddenly remembers that briefing from last week, the one mentioning the rumor that the Imperial Guard had acquired a small nuclear weapon, and was looking for a way to make a statement with it. Does the captain then turn to comfort a junior female sailor on her first cruise, or launch into a speech on the nobility of doing one's duty? No? Then maybe yours shouldn't either. Whether he commands a pirate ship, a star ship, or a rickety dirigible cruising over Kenya, your reader expects him to leap into action, giving the orders that will maximize their chances of survival and victory. If you ever find yourself in doubt, place your action on the bridge of that destroyer and ask what that captain would do. Chances are it's what yours should do, too.
So that was my Starfleet education in producing exciting literature. Feel free to take and use any part that seems reasonable to you. I have followed this advice for my whole writing career, and if my reviews are any indication, readers love it!
Okay, I'm going to head out in search of the next thing to bring you come next Sunday. Until we meet again, read well, and write better!
| While I was in the planning stages of this blog I thought long and hard about what the theme should be, and given the nature of writing.com, I decided that it should primarily be a journal of my sixty years of pursuing The Craft. I have been through the wringer with the business of being a writer, and have learned many lessons large and small, pleasant and un. Given that many WdC members are aspiring, practicing, polishing their Craft, what could I do that would be better than sharing my lessons from the University of Hard Knocks?
So following last Sunday's post, I set out to find the subject for this one. I have shipping crates and steamer trunks full of, for want of a better word, experience, so it became a matter of where to start. And then fate intervened. I am on Jerry Jenkins' newsletter list. I thought I had unsubscribed, but it's apparently harder to get off of than it is to get on. Jerry Jenkins, for those who may not know, is the author of the Left Behind series, a popular religious series based on the end times. Well, in his latest newsletter, Jerry says he achieved his success by following the strategy laid out in Dean Koontz's 1981 book, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.
The book has long been out of print, and sells for several hundred dollars when you can find a copy, but Jerry obligingly summarizes Mr. Koontz's advice, and while it isn't the method I use, I recognize its value and have no reservations about repeating it here for the benefit of anyone who may care to read it. Koontz (and presumably Jenkins) follows a four-step plan in the development of his stories, and these are the four steps as put forth in the newsletter:
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
The definition of “terrible trouble” differs depending on your genre. For a thriller it may mean your hero is hanging from his fingernails from a railroad trestle. For a cozy romance, it may mean your heroine must choose between two seemingly perfect suitors, each of whom harbors a dark secret.
2. Everything your character does to get out of the trouble makes it only worse.
The complications must be logical and grow increasingly bad until…
3. The lead character’s predicament appears hopeless.
4. Finally, because of what all that conflict has taught your character, he or she rises to the occasion, meets the challenge, battles out of the trouble, accomplishes the quest, or completes the journey.
That’s it, in its simplest form. If you’re struggling to decide where to go with your novel, try it. If you’re trying to figure out how to structure your memoir, try it. For fiction, nonfiction, short story, article, biography, even humor, it works. If you’re telling a story in an article, a biography, or anything else, try it. Jerry Jenkins swears by it. He says he was languishing on the midlist until he read Koontz's book, and after that, his sales soared into the tens of millions. Coincidence? Maybe, but if you're having difficulty getting your epic tale launched, it's something to look at.
And here's a little bonus for you. I haven't read much Koontz, but I recognize greatness when it stands before me. Some years ago, I heard Mr. Koontz being interviewed on a PBS segment, and he offered a bit of wisdom which I'll have to paraphrase, because my memory is nowhere near that good.
5. Give each character a secret he would rather die than see revealed. Once you know what that is, the character will fairly leap off the page.
Mr. Koontz is certainly one wise author! Now while you're assimilating all that, I'm going to go work on next week's nonsense. Until then, read well, and write better!
| I've mentioned here and there that I was turned on to the joy of writing to entertain others by my fifth grade teacher, which would have made me ten years old. The year was 1958, which means I have been writing for over sixty years now. I have precious little to show for all of that, a few self-published books and a handful of fans, but those fans, most of whom have become friends, are worth more than gold to me. I've also come through the process with a wealth of experience which I plan to share here over the months and maybe years to come, but I want to go back now and look at the process that brought me to this place in time.
The stories I wrote for that fifth-grade class were no better than anything any other ten-year old was writing. I wrote of everything from war heroes to jungle explorers, all the stories starring my friends from around the neighborhood, and the other kids ate them up. What that brilliant teacher would do was give us an hour to write a little short piece of fiction then send us out to recess. While we were playing, she'd read them and select those she thought were exceptional, and when we came back in, she'd read the ones she liked to the class without saying who wrote them. Mine always ranked high in popularity, and I've never looked back!
I wrote short stories until I was in the navy, when I decided I was ready to tackle a novel. That would make it around the spring/summer of 1966 when I was late in my 17th year. I continued into my adulthood, but was never able to finish anything, or even get close to it. I've identified four reasons for that.
First was a lack of life experience. Granted, I was in the navy, and they were piling it on by the metric ton, but I still lacked the maturity to fit it all together into a whole. Second, I had no idea what went into a well-constructed novel. I knew what I liked, and I could write decent scenes, but I couldn't bring them all together into a unified whole. Third, I had somehow acquired the notion that I could only work on one project at a time, so every time a new idea came along, which of course I was intrigued with because of the newness, the old one went over the side, never to be looked at again.
But the biggest reason was that I was a "pantser." I wrote by the seat of my pants, and my approach to novel writing was similar to Captain Kirk's approach to solving a life-or-death problem: Will this be fun? I have to admit that it was, but my life-or-death problem was that I'd be writing along on the main plot, and suddenly, "Oh, this would be cool," and down the rabbit hole I'd go. A hundred pages later, I'd find that I'd written myself into a dead-end, and had to trash those hundred pages, or I'd produce an entertaining hundred pages that had nothing to do with the story, and couldn't bear to let them go, so the book became a rambling mish-mash of unrelated actions that led nowhere in particular. I didn't actually finish a novel until 1996, thirty years later, and it was a rambling romp down every dog hole and rabbit run that I could drag in, a 140,000-word monster that might have been good at 90,000. I thought it was pretty good until I submitted it, and an agent graciously took the time to straighten me out on that point.
And then I discovered The Marshall Plan for Novel-Writing. Evan Marshall, a high-powered New York agent and author, put together his beliefs on what made a gripping novel and how to get it down on paper, and it was exactly what I needed! It was, and is, a highly structured format that counts scenes, assigns them to the various characters, who are also defined, specifies where the plot twists go, the protagonist's distractions, and just everything that goes into The Craft. I can safely say that I didn't know there was a Craft until my path crossed with this guy. Now, everything that goes into one of my books is just so. It's like building a house. You begin with a foundation, and every brick, every plank, every window has its place and purpose, and I now point to my work with pride because it has a professionalism that was always lacking before. I know some creditable writers who are proud pantsers; they do good work, though I'm damned if I can figure out how. All those little side trips are just too tempting for me!
So, what kind of writer are you? Free spirit? Planner? What do you include in your outlines; how do you decide which rabbit hole to ignore? Share in the comments, and help your fellow members refine their own way.
A Great Writing Asset
As you might imagine, I've met a lot of people on the journey, and one of them is Lynda Dietz, a professional fiction editor. She has a lot of knowledge, as should be expected of one who makes her living polishing manuscripts, and while that statement does imply payment, she has started a new website where she shares freely of her vast experience. We're all writers here, right, and the purpose of our membership for most of us, at least, is to improve our writing. It seems to me that the journal of an editor might be a great place to pick up tips, tricks, and hints you can incorporate and use, so I'm passing along her URL for everyone to bookmark. It is:
Her latest post deals with keeping your period writing firmly grounded in its own time, an entertaining an informative read. And be sure to join me next Sunday when I'll be waxing profound on whatever has caught my . . . Oh, look, a dangling participle!
Until then, read well, and write better!
| Good day, friends, and I hope you're having a great weekend. I thought I'd open this week by explaining my writing style, how I acquired it, and how it's developed in my hands. That way when you read about my writing philosophy in future installments, you'll have a much better handle on who I am in the writing sense. So, let's begin the journey, shall we?
I grew up in a manless family in the 1950s, a time when Leave it to Beaver was the standard model of American families, and nobody that I knew didn't have a dad. The women of the clan did what they could, but money was always short, and a weekly event was the trip to the local Goodwill store. Early on, I haunted the "toy department," all sorts of broken and discarded toys piled in an open bin, and none of them worth the nickel they wanted for them, but I was always reading well above my level (reading was almost my superpower), and around the age of ten I discovered their bookshelves. Three rows high, if I remember correctly, and it seemed to disappear into the haze of the far distance. I found some wonderful reading there, and as the typical price for a book was 5¢, and I could usually find that under the couch cushions, I was never hurting for reading material. In the 1950s, most of the books people were donating had been written in the 20s and 30s, and it wasn't long before I encountered a genre that had begun in England a hundred years before, and seems to have had its heyday in the 1920s: The boys-own adventure.
Literature for boys from the 1700s on consisted of lessons on becoming a man, and leaned heavily on attending church, obeying one's parents, and keeping one's nose to the grindstone. According to my research, boys-own adventure, dealing with such topics as deep-sea exploration, jungle treks, and the new-fangled flying machine, broke on the scene in 1855, and the collective sigh of relief let out by boys the world over must have changed the atmospheric pressure of the planet. From Tom Swift to The Hardy Boys to Roy Rogers and the Ghost of Mystery Rancho, I couldn't get enough of it! Much of it was formulaic, but they were ripping good reads for all of that, and the one that stands out above the rest in my memory is The Seagoing Tank by Roy J. Snell. In it, a yacht-size, tracked vehicle was driving across the Pacific Seabed from the United States to Asia. There was a traitor aboard, prominent members of the crew were teenage boys, and the secret part of the mission was to recover sensitive documents from a sunken ship.
The science was garbage, but the action was non-stop and top-drawer, and it followed a number of conventions of the boys-own story. First, the hero is always heroic. No anti-heroes here, no internal conflicts clouding his vision; he knows what is right, and does it. Second, the villain is unambiguously bad. He has no point, no uncertainties, no qualms about what he's doing. He is irredeemably evil, either because he works for an evil government or organization, or he just enjoys being evil, but whatever the case, there's never any doubt. Third, and perhaps most important, is the women in these stories, and there are very few of them. The most common character is the stoic romantic interest, hopelessly in love with the hero, keeping the home fires burning as she hopes against hope that he'll find his way back to her. The second variety is the helpless bystander, swept up in the adventure, possibly interested in the hero, but utterly incompetent and an anchor on the hero as he attempts to find a solution to the story problem. Third is the femme fatale, usually working for the villain, who may be a distraction, but rarely figures in the action. The last type is the tomboy, often a mechanic or navigator, on the team but not much of an asset, usually filling the role of a mascot, and causing additional problems for the hero to solve. No matter her role, The Woman is portrayed as completely sexless. She may be in love with the hero, but there is never anything physical about it.
These books were highlights of my formative years, but popular literature was changing drastically by the dawn of the 1960s. A new brand of savage, ruthless, cold-blooded hero was coming to the fore, spearheaded by 007 and Paul Newman's Hombre. Plots became rife with twists, surprises, and blind alleys, and the women! Good or evil, no woman could trip without falling into some guy's bed for an extended and graphic sexual encounter. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the new model, and still do, but like an old friend who moves out of the neighborhood never to be seen again, I missed my boys-own adventures. For a long time I pined away for those lost loves, occasionally taking solace in a re-reading of a forgotten favorite, but about ten years ago, or a little less, I had the epiphany: If no one else was going to write them for me, I would write them for myself.
Beyond the Rails was born with that decision. They are boys-own stories, somewhat modernized in deference to the times, but boys-own nonetheless. Adventures on a blimp flying around colonial Kenya couldn't be more boys-own! There are a few more twists, an occasional ambiguous character, and the main female is the very capable pilot, vital to the crew and the plot, but she is still non-sexual. Oh, she flirts and hints and expresses occasional interest, but if she ever takes a man to her bedroom, the door will firmly close, leaving the reader standing in the hall. That's one tenant I will never violate, and I think Mr. Snell would recognize the format if he were to read it.
So that's what brought me to the work that I'm best-known for. A critic once called it "Jules Verne meets Firefly," and that's a description I was at first irritated with, though in time I came to realize that there are worse things to have your work compared to than a Joss Whedon masterpiece. For the record, I didn't set out to copy anything, but I'm happy with the way things have turned out. Now that I have completed posting the first book, you can judge for yourself at
And I'll call it a week for now. Enjoy the story, and I'll be back next week with another tale about the journey. Wishing you the best on yours, as well!
Read well, and write better,
| Welcome, friends old and new, and I hope it finds you well! Today I launch, or more accurately, re-launch my blog. I won't dwell on the problems I encountered blogging here before. Suffice to say that the new official rating is 18+, and that should cover everything!
The first job of any new blogger is to establish what his or her purpose is for blogging, so here we go. As I stated in the intro, I have a tremendous amount of writing experience. I was never able to parlay that into a Stephen King-type career, but there you are. That doesn't mean that I haven't learned a few things, and this blog will be my platform to share them... and yours to discuss them, should the desire strike. I love a good conversation, and will respond to almost anything that isn't a personal attack.
Those of you who know me will know that I've been gone from the site for a year. and my muse has been gone from my service for longer than that. Well, last Friday he returned bearing a steamer trunk full of new ideas, and so I have upgraded my membership, and added, among other things, this blog. I hope it attracts some knowledgeable readers who bring scintillating comments for discussion, and I especially hope I can stay out of trouble this time! Time will tell, but I'll give it my best shot, and I look forward to meeting many new and fascinating friends here.
I plan to bring something to the discussion every Sunday, a nice quiet day to set aside for introspection, and note also that I am restarting
So drop by and take a ride; I'll try to keep it interesting!
Read well, and write better,
Jack "Blimprider" Tyler