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Once More, Into The Breach…

August 9th, 2012 Comments off

There’s a line I like in the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, that we can all relate to in one way or another.

Bilbo: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

In context, he’s talking about starting to feel his advancing years. But it’s also a great metaphor for the feeling you can get when you look at the to-do list involved with everything you want to keep or put in motion. Right now, there’s a lot in motion.

And sometimes, too, you have to prune things here and there. To that end, it’s time to relinquish my ninth-of-the-month slot and go on sabbatical again.

Still, home base for this sort of thing will continue to be my own blog, Warrior Poet, whose latest entry exploits someone else’s unnecessary tragedy to detail how to “Save Your Creative Life In One Hour Or Less.”

Vaya con libros, my friends…

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It’s A Small World After All: Audience In The E-book Age

July 9th, 2012 Comments off

We forget the length of our reach sometimes.

We underestimate the universality of our experience — of the truth as we know and tell it — and the potential for others to tap into it.

And the more we remember the potential of stories to leap cultural chasms in a single bound, the closer we are to being writers not just for a region, for a particular demographic, for our country of residence or for the fellow native-born speakers of our tongue, but for the world.

It Came From Mumbai

I got an inquiry about optioning the film rights to one of my novels the other day. It happens sometimes. Never like this, though. Until now, the farthest afield these inquiries have ever come from is Canada. And Canada, to me, feels pretty much like the U.S., just with a lot more hockey and things with antlers.

This time the inquiry, about my crime novel Mad Dogs, came from a writer-director in the Indian film industry.

Not Indian as in Native American. Indian as in 12 time zones between Mumbai and the Rocky Mountains. Literally on the other side of the world.

One paragraph into the e-mail, my initial thought was that, okay, this is someone from a thriving foreign film industry — you’ve probably heard the term Bollywood — looking to expand into the U.S. market. Which I based on nothing other than intimate knowledge of the book in question:

Mad Dogs follows not quite two weeks in the life of a struggling actor who gets mistaken for the real-life fugitive he’s recently portrayed on an America’s Most Wanted-style TV show. A mistake like that isn’t going to hold up for long, but it sets into motion multiple chains of dominos that, once they’ve started falling, can’t be stopped. Including the actor and his situation suddenly becoming a Hollywood hot property, a status which is better served by his continuing to remain a fugitive in his own right. Then there’s the matter of the real criminal deciding that he has to meet this guy who’s just played him on TV…

It’s harsh and comic and violent and satirical, and, because I wrote the thing, I can state with 100% certainty that it was written as an allergic reaction to what I considered to be uniquely American cultural craziness.

But hardly uniquely American in the view of the man from Bollywood:

“I see great potential in it to be adapted into a ‘Hindi’ language film. Great characters and plot, very suitable to the Indian milieu and context, as the celebrity culture and the so-called associated subculture is just about bursting at its seams here.”

…And This Floored Me

I’ve never been to India. My image of it has been shaped by such personalities as Gandhi and Mother Teresa, and its longtime status as a destination for seekers of enlightenment. My closest direct contact with India has been the occasional customer service call routed to Bangalore, speaking with someone whose accent leads me to suspect he/she was not, at birth, named Suzy or Steve … so no, they’re not fooling me, but because they’re so polite, so unfailingly earnest and guileless, and so committed to a positive outcome, I excuse this tiny falsehood and want to believe them anyway.

Plus I really like the food.

Contrast this with the kind of can’t-be-bothered stateside help who, if you dare walk in and ask for assistance, look at you like you’ve just chundered on their shoes, and want nothing more than for you to leave so they can resume parsing the complexities of Jersey Shore.

So … India. I know they have nukes, and the long, ugly legacy of the caste system. It still didn’t seem like the kind of place where Mad Dogs could happen.

Now, if I hadn’t had the blinders screwed so tightly to my head, I’d’ve already recognized that modern Indian society has ample capacity to be every bit as epically vapid and shallow as ours can be.

Just a couple weeks ago, via BBC News, I saw an article on the Indian trend of vaginal bleaching. I wish I were making this up. If you believe the commercial — and when would a commercial ever lie? — beautiful Indian women are being shunned by their mates until they, quite literally, lighten up.

Whether or not men this thick-headed should even risk passing their genes down to the next generation is another matter, but there’s probably a cool story in that, too.

Think Globally, Act Locally

To boil it down: What we have here is a situation in which a writer-director in Mumbai downloads one of my novels in e-book format, reads it on his Kindle, and despite its thoroughly American DNA, feels it has a significant resonance in his own world. And feels strongly that there’s a large audience who will resonate along with it.

I have no idea, of course, where this will lead, if anywhere. But I do know it couldn’t have happened even 5 years ago, when Mad Dogs was first published in hardback. Not like this. Not with this kind of rapidity, nor this kind of fluidity, in which borders and distance mean nothing.

Yet there’s something timeless going on here, as well. It’s a testament to the power of story, its ability to transcend surface differences and cut deeper, to the heart of shared experience and the bridge of unexpected parallels.

With story in hand, your reach can be longer than you think.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to engineer a thing like this. It happens if and when it happens. But there are a few things to remember and apply when trying to extend the length of your own reach.

You already have a home field advantage. If you’re reading this, odds are that you write in English. This is a huge advantage. English is the world’s dominant language, the language of international business, finance, and technology. And it’s only going to continue to spread, through all levels of global society.

Write as deeply from the heart as you can. Beyond the words, even, emotion is the true universal language. Content and context may differ, but our joys, sorrows, and yearnings … everybody speaks these. Very often, the things that seem most personal end up being the most widely relatable. Bullets and black comedy aside, Mad Dogs was as heartfelt as anything I’ve ever written, replete with overarching themes of brotherhood, betrayal, family strife, and the hunger for success.

Study Joseph Campbell and his legacy. If you don’t know Campbell’s work, suffice to say he spent a lifetime immersed in world mythology and identifying the core elements that universally connect to the human psyche. For a look at how this feeds into modern storytelling, check out The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. This book takes Campbell’s classic, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, extracts the core elements that underlie countless myths and fables from around the world and throughout the human timeline, and shows how they work together to form a kind of master storyteller’s template that nevertheless remains endlessly malleable.

Study Shakespeare. If ever there was a writer for all time, William Shakespeare has to be the one. There’s a good reason his plays can so readily be adapted to and reimagined for periods and places far beyond their origins: The depth and breadth of his understanding of the human heart is unsurpassed.

With story in hand, your reach is longer than you think.

And so, it must follow, is your grasp.

***** For a multifaceted look at one of the hardest questions we may ever face, pay a visit to my own blog, where we try to talk a potential jumper down from the ledge, with “When Should You Admit Defeat, Give It Up, And Go Eat Worms?”

[Photo by dullhunk]

Categories: Brian Hodge, Hollywood Tags:

Advice From An Editor: The Three-Word Non-Magic Formula

June 9th, 2012 Comments off

Writers in the early stages of their paths sometimes have misconceptions about what lies behind the publication everybody else seems to be enjoying:

Like what really matters is whom you know. That conspiracies and invisible walls keep newcomers relegated to the rejection pile. Or that writers — always female writers, go figure — have slept their way to this or that sale.

Not to deny the occasional aberrant exception, or the value of professional connections.

Still, in the main, it’s nonsense. Tempting, comforting nonsense.

It always pains me, somewhere northwest of the liver, to encounter writers who have made the irrelevant the focus of their frustration and energies. And I don’t know which effect is worse: that it reinforces a sense of helplessness, of events being entirely out of their control. Or that it takes the focus away from what actually does matter … the harder truth that some people would rather not face.

The event: A convention of creators and fans. When and where, exactly, forgotten. But that doesn’t matter.

The place: A panel of editors. The overriding topic, forgotten. That doesn’t matter either.

The question, from an audience member to multi-award-winning editor Stephen Jones: “What do I have to do to get into one of your anthologies?”

His answer: “Write better stories.”

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Yes, better is subjective. Better can be a tricky thing to judge about yourself. And better has some powerful enemies. Like complacency. And self-satisfaction. And the urge to stop and stick the label “Good enough” on something when being just good enough … isn’t.

While you’re overcoming those, you do have some yardsticks to measure yourself by. You do have a basis for comparison.

The yardsticks: All the books that light you up inside. All the work that made you not only want to write, but believe you really could. All the stories in an editor’s previous volumes that you would’ve been competing against, and maybe did.

The message: “If I’m going to get here, I have to be at least this good.”

The formula: Write better stories. Write better novels. Work your butt off. And don’t stop.

Sometimes it really is that simple.

And that’s what makes it so hard.

***** In the latest at my own blog, you’ll find a first-cousin of this piece, with “Getting Published: 5 Ways To Increase Your Chances Of Beating The Odds.”

Categories: Brian Hodge, editors Tags:

5 Undying Myths About Published Writers And Their Eerie Powers

May 9th, 2012 2 comments

“What’s that, you say? Please send you my six volumes of unpublished gothic poetry? I’d be delighted!”

To the unpublished writer — and maybe there’s another level here we’ll call underpublished — life on the other side of the divide can seem like a place of rarefied air.

This can lead to some erroneous assumptions about what writers farther down the path can actually do for someone still at the trailhead.

I doubt I know a single veteran writer who didn’t, at some early point, reach out to touch some of that mojo and see if a little might rub off. I certainly did. Most accomplished writers, I’m convinced, won’t hesitate to give others the benefit of their experience, when asked.

But if your expectations are unrealistic, or based on erroneous assumptions, this will, at best, lead to a fruitless exchange. At worst, it could completely undermine what might have been a valuable association.

Myth 1: Publishing is a tight-knit cabal intent on keeping you out.

Some people apparently believe that the publishing world is structured like a coalition of country clubs where everybody with a byline periodically gets together to compare elbow patches on their tweed jackets, then circle the wagons and blackball everyone else.

This can, perversely, be more comforting than this unappealing diagnosis: that if you’re not making any headway, maybe it’s because your stuff isn’t ready for prime time. Yet.

Another possibility: You know how you’re always hearing about people losing out on job opportunities because prospective employers know how to use the Internet too? And can see what these people are really like? Editors are more likely to shy away from someone whose online conduct makes him look like a paranoid sociopath with rage issues.

You only have a certain amount of time and energy. Devoting them to conspiracy theories may mean you’ll never lack for company … although it will never advance your cause.

Myth 2: Authors are eager to read the unpublished, unsolicited work of strangers and will drop everything to get right on it.

They’re not. Sorry.

Most of us already have reading lists that would take 3 lifetimes to get through even if all we were was a head in a jar, with one finger on the outside for turning pages.

Another reason? Fear of accusations of plagiarism. We live in a litigation-happy world where anyone can sue anyone else for anything. Including “stealing my ideas.” If this is a factor in a writer’s refusal to read your work, it’s no reflection on you. It’s simply a policy in place to deny that one buzzing human mosquito out there an entry point to sink his proboscis. It’s easier to fend off a potential accusation by establishing a clear precedent of not reading unpublished works, period.

Now, why ask a stranger or distant acquaintance to read something in the first place? Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of it…

Myth 3: It materially matters whether a writer tells you if something is any good or not.

We all need validation. We all want to know, early on, whether we might actually have something going, or if we’re just deluding ourselves and wasting our time.

Except, in my experience — and I bet I’m far from alone in this — the person who’s asking for an honest reaction is really prepared to hear only one answer.

Yet even if they get an appraisal that raises their hackles, so what? It’s just one person’s opinion at one point in time. And one person’s opinion, in a vacuum, doesn’t mean much.

It’s just a verdict. This isn’t what a hopeful writer really needs. In truth, if it’s so early an effort that the writer can’t even tell whether it’s any good or not, then the odds are that it’s not publishable. As is. But could be, with more work.

What a hopeful writer really needs here is detailed feedback, possibly on an ongoing basis. This isn’t something that a working author is in a position to provide on demand. It’s time-consuming and takes a lot of focus. Most working writers are too busy with their own work to act as an unpaid editorial advisor.

The alternative? Classes. Workshops. Reading and critiquing groups. None of which, thanks to the Internet, have to be based close to home. These may not provide the immediate encouragement or ego boost of having the writer give some piece of work a thumbs-up, but in the long run, they’ll do the writer more good, by providing actionable feedback.

Myth 4: Published authors can hook you up, no sweat.

“I just need a publisher,” someone once told me.

As if I could tell this querent right where to go, and done deal.

Contrary to popular belief, authors aren’t plugged into the system in any broad sense. Their connections are often limited to a relatively tiny sphere of active participants in current projects. They don’t necessarily know, or even need to know, who’s reading for what, who’s buying, who may be a likely candidate for a particular manuscript. This is what agents are for.

Oh, okay, I just need an agent, then. Could you…

Not so fast. Working relationships like these are valued, and virtually all working writers are sensitive to how insanely busy editors and agents are. And are reluctant to add to their workload with continued referrals. To expect otherwise is to put the writer in an awkward position.

I can count on one finger the times that I’ve actively interceded, sending a novel to a likely-to-be-receptive editor. But in this instance, the writer had been a friend for years, and someone whose work I’d admired for even longer, who’d published numerous pieces of short fiction, and had a lot of people anticipating what she would do for a first novel.

At most, I expedited what was already destined to happen as a result of her own hard work.

These things do happen, certainly, but when they do, they’re more likely to happen because a friendship or association developed naturally, without expectations. And because they were earned through years of sweat equity.

Myth 5: Published writers don’t care about anyone else and are only out for themselves.

Which is sometimes the conclusion after all else fails.

Again: Most writers, I’m convinced, are willing to give others advice and the benefit of their experience. They want to see others do well. They want to see hard work rewarded and new talent flourish.

But, realistically, they can do only so much. Their time is short and their influence limited.

Ironically, the people I’ve felt most compelled to assist, in whatever small way I could, were the ones who asked for the least.

These are the ones who seemed to understand — by their actions, and not just lip service — that one’s time is a valuable resource.

That the hard work and legwork were up to them, and nobody else could do it for them.

In short, these were the ones who had already mastered the art of professional conduct, regardless of how many times their bylines had seen print.

They got it, and this was obvious in how they presented themselves.

In my experience — and I bet I’m far from alone in this, too — there are 3 kinds of people who ask for advice:

(1) Those you never hear from again, because what you’ve told them sounds too much like more work.

(2) Those you don’t hear from again right away, because they’re too busy acting on the advice they’ve received.

(3) Those you do hear from again right away, because you must’ve been holding back before, and there really is more you can do for them, if they’re just pushy enough.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

***** For a potentially too-close-for-comfort look at the writing life, please check out my own blog’s latest, “A Survival Guide For Writers In Love (And Those Who Love Them).”

Categories: Brian Hodge, etiquette Tags:

How Committed Are You, Really?

April 9th, 2012 Comments off

They found a dead man in the New Mexico wilderness the other day, lying peacefully beside a cool stream. He went out for a run and never came back.

It probably wasn’t news where you live, but where I live in Colorado, it was top-headline material in the Sunday paper. It should’ve been an April Fool’s Day joke, but wasn’t. He was local, sort of, when he wanted to be. His name was Micah True, née Michael Randall Hickman, but a lot of people knew him best as Caballo Blanco, Spanish for White Horse.

I wasn’t one of them — don’t get the wrong idea. I knew of him only through the printed page, a book called Born To Run. I’ve raved about it ever since, as one of the favorite books I read last year, and among the books I got the most good out of.

Without Caballo Blanco, there never would have been a Born To Run. The events at the heart of this wonderful book would never have happened. He was the most indelible of a gaggle of indelibly larger-than-life characters, and probably — and, paradoxically — both the easiest and hardest to understand.

The Cliff’s Notes version: Two decades ago he dropped off the face of the civilized world, retreating to some of the most inhospitable country on earth, bonding with and learning from some of the planet’s most reclusive people, eventually becoming a kind of flesh-and-blood myth. He lived to run and ran to live. He made running the center of his existence. He sought out the people who do it better than anyone. He bridged worlds, with running as a common language.

By the end of the book, I was trying to imagine his future. It was impossible for me to imagine anything other than more of the same. He’s going to die out there — I really did think this, out there being Mexico’s Copper Canyons or someplace almost as remote. It wasn’t an ominous thought, just a nod to what seemed like a logical inevitability. But I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen within a matter of months.

No, But If You Hum A Few Bars, I’ll Fake It

I began this thinking of Caballo Blanco as one of the most committed individuals I’ve ever heard of, but already I’m squirming away from that. Maybe it wasn’t so much a matter of commitment as it was an honest conviction that there were no other options, at least none worth considering. As presented in Born To Run, he seemed to be a character who recognized his unconventional path with such clarity that he was oblivious to the approval and good opinions of others. Even the people of the Mexican outback thought he was crazy, or maybe not even human.

At first.

He seemed like someone who’d heard his call, and heeded it, and kept heeding it while the rest of the world caught up to him.

And yes, of course that takes commitment. There are always paths of less resistance, and hills that aren’t as steep. But first it takes clear vision, and the willingness to see who and what you really are. It may take courage to accept that, and even more to shrug off the need for the approval and good opinions of others … especially the ones who have a ready-made box for you that they insist is just your size.

After that, well, what else is left but the journey?

I’ve told this before, but today it bears telling again. Pat Fish, proprietress of Tattoo Santa Barbara, who left a mark on me that goes all the way through, once told me how another legend-in-his-own-time, Ray Bradbury, gave her the one critical tool that helped her recognize just the road ahead.

“He came annually to speak to the journalism club at my high school, it was the Ray Bradbury chapter of Quill & Scroll, and he said one year something so profound it changed my whole life: that inside yourself you have an internal gyroscope that hums when it gets near the things you love, and leans you towards them. So if you learn to pay attention to this you never have to do a stupid job, you figure out what you love to do and then make it how you make money.”

All great journeys begin with the sound of a hum.

Which Came First: The Ending Or The Beginning?

I have long tried to live this way — to live as authentically as I can. I heard the hum, the One Great Hum against the background of secondary hums, and there could be no mistaking what it was.

And I take immense joy in the reports of others who say the same. I’ve lost track of the number of people — writers and otherwise — who’ve said that things began really working for them only when they put this singular ambition at the center of their lives. That what made the biggest difference was when they boldly committed their souls.

Yet, for all that, there are times I wish I hadn’t heard the hum. Or that I’d heard a different hum. Or that, while the hum was fine, I’d been more worthy of it. There are times when I wobble and doubt, and maybe listen for another hum that just isn’t there. There are days like that. We all have days like that … don’t we? Then it all comes around again, and something happens that leaves me glad I didn’t hear anything else.

It occurs to me that the most ineffectual times of my life have usually been when I’ve lost sight of this. When I’ve hedged or diluted, when I’ve let the focus blur and the center has not held. The flipside is true as well: that some of the greatest triumphs have come from sticking with something just a little longer than a better pragmatist might’ve taken to give up.

Somewhat notoriously, William Faulkner stated that writers are congenital liars, convinced they “can create much better truth than circumstance can.”

Fine. Lie to the rest of us, lie for the greater good, lie for the sake of a better story…

But don’t lie to yourself. Not about who you are and what you’re here to do, if you’re lucky enough to have seized upon these things.

“Begin with the end in mind” — common advice, but you always hear it small-scale, on a project level. For the sake of argument let’s stretch it out for a lifetime.

Imagine the great end, whether it comes to you in your bed or rush-hour traffic or beside a cool New Mexico stream. Then imagine what comes next. The gatekeeper at the delivery door checks the paperwork from the original order and frowns at what he sees. You know how these clipboard guys are. Everything has to match up just so.

“Are you sure?” he says. “This is you? No, this doesn’t look like you at all.”

Who wants to hear a thing like that? How about this, instead:

“Yeah, yeah, come on in. And put your ID away. I’d know you anywhere…”

It’s a start.

***** For a wee nightcap, you’re invited over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, where the latest post clears up a little reader misperception, with “When ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ Is A Good Thing (If Not Necessarily Good Grammar).”

[Photo by Falashad]

Categories: Brian Hodge, inspiration Tags:

Logic: Without It, Your Story May Have A Serious Neurological Disorder

March 9th, 2012 Comments off

“No, my lord! If we don’t let him go now, how will the enemy know when, where, and how to attack us?”

Even though life doesn’t always seem to proceed with anything resembling logic, fiction generally has to. If it doesn’t, the wires start to show, and it becomes obvious that you’re just making it up as you go along. Which you are, totally … except most readers and viewers aren’t keen on being slapped in the face with a reminder.

Let logic lapse too many times, or too flagrantly, and you will pay a price for it. Your work may be rejected altogether. Or if it does make it to an audience, some of them (along with reviewers) may call you out on the offenders. And it’s embarrassing when that happens. I recently went through OCR scans of my first two novels, for new editions, and took the opportunity to fix a spot in each one that drew fire their first time around.

Better, though, had these slips never appeared at all.

Anatomy Of A Screwup

When lapses in logic occur, it can be for any number of seductive reasons: We get lazy, we’re stumped for viable ideas, we want to make it easier on ourselves or harder on the characters, we’re just not thinking … or without the lapse, the momentum stops or there’s no story at all.

Here are some of the common symptoms of logic failure:

  • You repeal the laws of physics and/or nature.
  • You violate basic human nature.
  • Characters suddenly start acting wildly out of character.
  • You break your own rules established for your fictional world or universe.
  • You ignore the obvious easy solution in favor of the dramatic difficult.

Mind, now, any of these can be pulled off in grand style. But this is nearly always the result of a lot of subterranean effort to make it work … not laziness or carelessness. And then there are people like David Lynch, who’s made a long career out of doing films that, for the most part, don’t make a lot of sense on the surface.

Most of us, though, can’t get away with that. For most of us, logic is another item in the long list of things we need to be alert for as we scrutinize a semi-finished work, to see how well it’s hanging together.

To that end, here’s a quick demo of sniffing out lapses in logic, and speculating on how they might be fixed.

Case Study: The Lord Of The Rings

The filmed version, that is. Some lapses will also apply to Tolkein’s books; others, maybe not. I’m not bashing either here. I love this story and these movies dearly; so much, in fact, that in my home, ever since they were all available on DVD, we’ve spent most New Year’s Days vegging out with the whole extended edition marathon. It’s only because I’ve seen them so many times that their warts chafe.

(1) Lapse: The entire quest journey doesn’t even need to take place.

I can never watch LotR without wondering why they couldn’t just saddle Frodo on one of those magnificent eagles that Gandalf periodically calls in, and airlift him straight to Mount Doom. The whole thing could’ve been handled between second breakfast and afternoon tea. The eagles are great, but they do seem to be brought in only when there’s no other way out of a predicament.

Workaround: How to write the eagles off? I could be wrong, as it’s been a long time since I’ve read The Hobbit, but I seem to recall them being portrayed in this earlier novel as aloof and not much concerned with the affairs of humanity. Thus they could refuse the request. Or maybe Gandalf fears that, being animals, they might be unpredictably susceptible to the ring’s malign influence. Either way, this option could be cleared from the table at the council of Elrond, when everyone’s arguing over what to do. It would take 3 or 4 lines at most.

(2) Lapse: Aragorn stops King Theoden from killing the traitorous Grima Wormtongue and the entire population of Edoras just … lets him go???

This may be the most egregious lapse in the entire saga, because it isn’t merely passively illogical, but actively stupid. Not only does Aragorn physically restrain the land’s king from hacking Grima into two well-deserved halves, but gives this rationale: “Enough blood has been spilled on his account.” Umm, yeah, and payback’s a bitch … unless the story needs you to hurry back to Saruman and blab about everyone’s plans and vulnerabilities.

So they all stand around and watch Grima snarl, run off, steal a horse, and ride back to their enemies, all but calling out, “Vaya con Dios, my friend!” It’s kind of excruciating.

Workaround: Two parts here. First, sparing Grima’s life. The land of Rohan is based on Anglo-Saxon culture, which recognized a rudimentary right to trial. If Grima suddenly invokes that right, that would give Aragorn logical cause to intervene … but more for Theoden’s sake than Grima’s. A king who butchers a man invoking his right to trial, in front of his people, could be gravely diminished in their eyes.

Next, getting Grima away. It’s conceivable there could be a second conspirator in Edoras who releases him from captivity. Or: Saruman has already shown, through the king, that he has the capacity for mind-control; he could flex this muscle again, targeting a guard, long enough to let Grima go.

(3) Lapse: Aragorn releases the spectral army from their oath of service while the biggest confrontation — the assault on Mordor — is still to come.

Another puzzlingly short-sighted decision from the future king. Aragorn risked his life to enlist this ghostly army of cutthroats, without whom the good guys would’ve been crushed at Minas Tirith and Pellinor Fields. And then? “Thanks, fellas! We can take it from here. We’re only heading into the heart of darkness, with reduced numbers, against even more overwhelming odds.” What’s the rush? These green dudes have been in limbo for centuries, so another few days shouldn’t hurt.

Obviously the alliance has to dissolve; otherwise, ultimate victory comes effortlessly. Still, there was a missed opportunity here to tighten the screws and heighten the direness of the situation.

Workaround: This could’ve played better, for more suspense, if Aragorn comes out of the Minas Tirith victory fully expecting the spectral army to be with them until the end, but instead its leader confronts him, demanding their freedom. Not because Aragorn intended all along to give it this early, but because he was overly restrictive in his choice of words. In short, he conscripted them for the battle, not the war, and now has no choice but to release them or be dishonored as an oathbreaker.

(4) Lapse: Is Arwen immortal or isn’t she?

There’s a scene in The Two Towers when Elrond apparently taps his gift of foresight to describe a bleak future for his daughter Arwen should she remain behind in Middle Earth, rather than sailing into the west with the rest of the elves. It includes an eternity of widowhood after Aragorn’s death in old age, and it clearly upsets her. However, this seems to contradict The Fellowship of the Ring, when she surrenders immortality and chooses a mortal life.

Workaround: I’ve seen people complain about this as a continuity goof, if nothing else. Eventually I got to wondering: Does Elrond even know she’s done this? I suspect not, but with this much room for doubt, the issue was sloppily handled. It could be clarified by either having her blurt out what she’s done here, or mention earlier to Aragorn that she intends to keep this decision a secret from her father.

(5) Lapse: Over 3000 years, Middle Earth seems not to have advanced in weapons technology one bit.

Bonus round, this one. I’m grossly overthinking this — sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief — but still, it’s interesting to contemplate. In both the prologue and the rest of the story, people go to war with exactly the same weapons: swords, spears, bows-and-arrows, maces, etc. This bears no resemblance to our own civilization. In theirs, Saruman’s bomb and the ring itself are clear aberrations. I can buy it that, in an agrarian society, daily life could remain in stasis in perpetuity, but when it comes to killing each other, we seem to never stop looking for bigger, more efficient ways to get the job done.

Workaround: If you were to touch on this, Gandalf would be the key. He’s lived “two hundred lives of men,” so he’s obviously going to have a longterm perspective. He’s also prone to philosophizing in quiet moments. I’d be very interested to hear his take on this issue, even if, as is sometimes the case, he doesn’t have all the answers. I would wonder if he might have sensed some underlying consciousness in their world that limits their capacity for mass destruction, so they don’t destroy themselves in their baser moments.

Sure, I know … a complete fantasy.

But you can dream, can’t you?

***** Agreed, that was a lot to take in. Take a breather anyway, rehydrate, and come on over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, for a look back at “The 3 Words That Forever Changed The Way I Write.”

Categories: Brian Hodge, craft Tags:

How Better Happens

February 9th, 2012 1 comment

This is for the ones who despair. This is for the ones gripped by the feeling that it will never get better. That they will never get better.

I promise you this much: It can. And you might. That’s the best guarantee you’re going to get. Can and might. There’s only one certain guarantee, and that’s how to make sure that it doesn’t and you never do:

Quit. Whatever you’re doing, just stop right now. I mean it. Put down the pen, close the Word file, toss the notebook in the trash, click that folder full of story files and half-formed dreams and punch the Delete key like you mean it.

There, now. Just relax. Breathe. Doesn’t that feel better?

If it does, if it genuinely does, then go ahead and empty the trash, real or virtual, stop reading right now, and go about the rest of your day, the rest of your life. You’ve just been spared years of toil, doubt, and heartache.

But if it doesn’t feel better, if in fact it feels kind of awful, then you’d better fish those temporary discards out of the trash before something bad happens. Clutch them to your breast and promise to never treat them — or, more importantly, what they represent — with that kind of disrespect again.

Respect is important, because there’s work to do.

The Agony And The Ecstasy. Mostly Agony.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been digging among my roots. I’ve just finished prepping my first two novels for new editions. Both predate my migration to word processing, so I’m working with files generated by OCR scans of the original books. You have to proofread these things. Carefully. Sometimes OCR software has a whacky sense of humor about what it thinks it sees.

I’ve had no need to look at either of these novels for more than twenty years. Now that I have, I can honestly say I would’ve been happy to let them sit another twenty, if only to spare myself the daily torture.

I thought these novels were awesome at the time. And they still have their moments.

But now they’re like that TV show you used to love as a kid. You know the one I mean. The one you were absolutely nuts for, that you couldn’t get enough of. The one you’d run miles to get home in time to watch.

The most merciful thing you can do is never watch it again, ever. It never holds up. Better to leave it alone and let the sepia-toned memories remain intact.

Here’s how I described my reaction to this process the other day, in a new Afterword to one of the novels:

“Here and there are bits that make me glad I wrote them, that wouldn’t look or feel out of place in later work, but mostly I just groan a lot and want to bang my head against the desk, unable to believe that this was the published draft.”

Which sounds polite for general company, but really, it’s more like this prayer:

“Please, oh Odin, god of battle and poetry, please make it stop! And if you can’t make it stop, make it better. And if you can’t make it better, please send your ravens to pluck out my eyes.”

Yeah, that bad. To me they are.

There are a lot of things about these formative works that should console me: That agents thought they were worth representing. That publishers thought they were worth publishing. That reviewers said good things about them. That there are readers who remember them fondly, maybe even loved them the way I did, and that even now there are publishers who want to bring them back into print.

While I’m enormously grateful for all that, I can’t say there’s much consolation in it.

But then there’s this. This summation of the gulf between then and now, of all that’s come in the interim, and all that’s still to come. This may be the finest thing you could ever say about yourself when comparing where you began with where you are today:

I would never write that now. It would never even occur to me. Or if it did, I wouldn’t write it in remotely the same way.

It’s so clear: Things got better. I got better. Mostly as a consequence of not stopping. Not stopping, and an unrelieved sense of dissatisfaction.

Through The Looking Glass

Pure serendipity. The other day, not even knowing what I’ve been up to lately, my longtime friend Clark Perry cued me into the quote below. Clark is one of the few spawning salmon who made it all the way upstream, past a million belly-up floaters who gave out, to get hired writing for TV.

We were there at the very beginning, for each other’s origin stories. We saw each other through years of the exact process that Ira Glass, host and producer of Public Radio International’s This American Life, describes in this clip from 2009:

“…all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there’s this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.

“Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you’re just starting out or you’re still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work … It’s only by going through a volume of work that you’ll close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions …

“It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.”

Except there’s one thing Glass doesn’t address here: Okay, so how do you fight your way through?

The Good Fight

People analogize the creative process and the crucible of improvement in different ways. Me, I like finding the parallels with, appropriately enough, fight training. It resonates.

If you’ve never done any fight training, just know this much: The bag work, the mitt work, kicking pads and drilling your footwork and head movement … it’s all just theory. True practice comes when you take what you think you know and match it against something that hits back. And when you start sparring, it’s a humbling, humiliating experience.

How did this guy just hit me six times and I couldn’t do anything about it? What openings did he see that I wasn’t even aware of? That I couldn’t see on him?

Simple. Once he (or she) was where you are now. He was the one getting hit six times. She was once the one without the experience to spot the openings.

It’s nothing personal, this pounding you’re taking. Or if it is, it’s personal in a good way. You and your sparring partner are actually there to teach each other. True, it’s a hard way to learn. It’s also the only way.

Your partner got through it by doing what you have to now: find something to love about the process. Something you love more than you dislike the discomfort. Something that never gets old, that keeps the experience alive and fresh for you. Something that keeps luring you back from the pits of discouragement.

You get through it by learning to live for the little victories. Maybe next week you only get hit four times in a row. Or she swings and you’re no longer there. Or you nail him with a sweet counter.

And so it is with writing, with every other creative endeavor.

Everything you think you know from books, from blogs, from classes … it’s all just theory. Everything you work up behind closed doors and leave there in the dark, that’s theory too, just another kind … still something you haven’t yet put to the test.

True practice comes from putting it out in the world, daring to risk the vulnerability that goes with this. Feedback readers, critique groups, submissions. Especially submissions. That’s when the ordeal begins. That’s when you have to find the thing you love enough to keep you going despite the rejections, the cheap shots, the indifference, and the clear-eyed recognition of the gap between your work and your ambitions.

That’s when you have to learn to live for the little victories. Do you know how many successful writers have had their day made, their week made, when a rejection came with a personalized note of encouragement from the editor? All of them.

That’s how better happens. By increments and milestones and thinking in timeframes that most people don’t have the patience or guts for.

So put in the time. Take the hits. Keep going.

It does get better. And so will you.

***** Sure, that was a lot to absorb. Take a breather anyway, pack a light lunch, and come on over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, and glean some ideas for 2012 from “Rock Your Writing This Year With The 30-Things Challenge.”

[Photo by Eric Langley]

Categories: Brian Hodge, inspiration Tags:

The Same River Twice: On Rewriting Your Past

January 9th, 2012 Comments off

[What do you get when you cross a Storytellers Unplugged deadline with an exhausted writer who’s just finished a near-30,000-word novella that ran several thousand words more than expected? Today we get a redux: the very first column I did here, in June 2006, and which I recently tapped as supplemental material for a multipart series at my own blog.]

Several months ago, when the decade-old Hellnotes was still doing business as a weekly newsletter, before transmogrifying into a blog this May — transblogrifying, I suppose should be the new word — fellow contributor E.V.B. fired off a salvo in his monthly column that was aimed squarely between my eyes.

Well, no, it wasn’t. It would only feel that way if you were paranoid. E.V.B.’s “Writing 101” installments were full of excellent information and pointers for fledging writers, and often of value to experienced writers, too … and I just happen to run counter to one of them right down to the twisty double-helix of my being.

This particular installment dealt with writers going back to revise previously published work. E.V.B.’s position was unreservedly anti.* In a nutshell: If your work was good enough to have been published once already, leave well enough alone, get over yourself, and move along. There was a strong implication that any feeling a writer might harbor that he or she had grown in the interim and could do greater justice to the work the second time around is, well, kinda pretentious.

With apologies to none, I’ve always been one of those who refuse to leave things alone if time and greater objectivity conspire to make me see room for improvement.

Hang around long enough, and editors and publishers start to ask you for reprints. “Free money,” I’ve heard this called, because you’ve already done the work. All you have to do now is say, “Yes, thanks!”

If only it were that easy. As I’ve said elsewhere, “Whenever it’s time for a story to be collected, or reprinted in anything that comes much later than a year’s best roundup, I take another trip through it and almost invariably it sweats off a few more ounces. It serves the story well, I think, and keeps me from feeling as though it’s merely been dug out of mothballs.”

My tendency to tinker is much more prevalent when it comes to early work, and I would be surprised if that wasn’t the pattern with other chronic tweakers. Just as no one emerges from the womb fully formed, writers rarely start out with their voices fully manifested. After what must be a few million published words by now, I’m still working to refine mine.

One’s voice on the page is a product of evolution, honed through long use and critical self-appraisal. It often requires us to admit that while our works may have been good enough for somebody to publish, nevertheless, our ideas can be better and our ambitions bigger than our means of executing them.

Writers are not all of a single mind when it comes to post-pub revisions, nor should they be. If you feel that a story or a book should remain unchanged, forever reflecting the stage of development you were in at the time … well, to quote Yul Brynner, “So let it be written. So let it be done.” This is your Way, and it is faultless.

It just ain’t mine.

Around the time of E.V.B.’s column, I was spending a string of very late nights going through my 1996 novel Prototype and, I suppose, daring to imply that I really just might have grown as a writer.

Prototype was the last of four novels that came out of what I fondly remember as the Dell/Abyss years, and is slated for a hardcover edition this autumn. I’d salvaged the original computer files from a vintage floppy, which wasn’t entirely cooperative, and I needed to go through them to make sure nothing had gone horribly awry inside.

Offhand, I don’t recall if I started polishing the text on page 1 … but close enough. Reading this old work felt as though I were looking at a time capsule peppered with small but frequent sins that I’ve since tried harder not to commit. At least not as often. And a time or two, even I couldn’t figure out what the hell I’d been trying to say.

When the hardcover edition comes out, some readers will be reading it for the first time, and to them it will be entirely new. There’s no reason they shouldn’t have the best work I can deliver. I wrote the original text to the best of my ability at the time, but my best is better now.

Other readers will be returning to something they liked well enough to read again. They’ll find a novel that’s no different in content — their memories of it won’t be betrayed by characters doing things different this time around — but I hope they’re rewarded, even if subliminally, by a familiar novel that’s a bit more polished.

Here’s what it comes down to: The Dell/Abyss edition represented me in 1996. And the upcoming edition represents me now. One byline, but in a sense, two different writers.

There’s an old saying that you can’t step into the same river twice. As the water flows endlessly past, the familiar debris is swept away, fresh debris washes down from upstream, and all the while, the river has carved at its banks and resculpted the unseen silt and mud of its bed. It lives under constant renewal.

And so I have a hard time letting a work, especially an early one, wind back into print without wanting it to reflect something of what time and later work have done to whatever skills I may have. It’s no better a way than opting to not change what’s been set into type already, just a different one, coming from perhaps a different perspective on what one’s creative work represents: a static snapshot from the time and place it was written, or something drawn from a river.

It’s why Walt Whitman continued to update Leaves of Grass for nearly 40 years, why Stephen King redid the first book in his Dark Tower series, why chefs revise recipes until they’re perfect, why musicians remaster old recordings when new technology can make them sound truer to life, why George Lucas reworked the original Star Wars

OK, bad example. But you get the idea.

Of course, we could’ve just scrapped every bit of the foregoing and defaulted to another old saying you may have heard, attributed variously to Jean Cocteau, Paul Valery, and Oscar Wilde, and whose subject alternates between art, poems, and books. But let’s take the broadest one possible:

“Art is never finished, it is merely abandoned.”

Or this one from Robert Cormier, which has its own appeal:

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”

* While I wish I could print excerpts rather than summarize, the request to do so went unanswered.

***** That multipart series at my own blog that I mentioned? An epic reader-request fulfillment, it’s a comprehensive look at taking a work from its first draft through to the last, with all the revision stages in between I could think of. It wrapped up last week after four parts and a followup postscript, “A Fine Line Between Polish And Overkill.”

[Photo by Gonzo fan2007]

Categories: Brian Hodge, craft, editing Tags:

The Latest Best Argument Against Perfectionism

December 9th, 2011 Comments off

We all have certain foibles whose antidotes we can’t be reminded of too often. One of mine is perfectionism.

I can’t really say when it started, but for years I’ve wrestled with periods of self-imposed expectations so acute that they verge on paralyzing. Putting something down becomes excruciatingly difficult, because, well, what if it doesn’t measure up? I have standards, ya know.

Intellectually I understand the folly of this. I know better. That nothing comes out so bad it’s beyond repair. With the written word, you always get a do-over. In the moment, though, just try telling that to the fear.

But, like the same coin always turning up In your path, there’s a polar equivalency I’ve kept running across during the past couple of years:

The opposite of fear is love.

And wouldn’t you know it, that’s what usually brings me back around and sets things aright again. The love of the game.

The latest reminder comes courtesy of Tim Ferriss’s Four-Hour Blog, whose most recent installment is primarily an excerpt from a new book, which in turns references another. The key passage:

“The author cited a University of Texas in Austin study of goal-oriented and process-oriented people in the workplace. Unexpectedly, it was not the hypercompetitive Type ‘A’ people who were doing more for the company, making more money, getting more raises and promotions. It was the folks who were enjoying their job.”

Forget about the outcome for now, is the main call-to-arms. The outcome will take care of itself, and nearly always for the better, if you instead focus on the process of doing.

“Focusing on the process lets you access your greatest skill and increases your fun.”

And wouldn’t you know it, that’s what usually hits the reset button and banishes the fear: falling in love with the process of storytelling all over again. Remembering why I started doing it in second grade and never stopped. Remembering that it should be fun.

Mostly the love, though.

Simple? Sure. Obvious? Obviously. But tough to remember sometimes.

And the reminders keep me going.

*****Speaking of process, you’re invited over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, where we’re in the midst of an epic reader-request fulfillment, “From The First Draft To The Last.” Part 1 and Part 2 are up, with the final installment to come early next week.

[Photo by shmooth]

 

Categories: advice, Brian Hodge Tags:

Go Farther, Faster, By Limiting Your View To Three Steps Ahead

November 9th, 2011 Comments off

“Begin with the end in mind…”

Sound advice, that. Sound strategy. The rationale being that if you don’t know where you’re going, how in the name of Zeus can you be sure you’ll actually get there? Where, exactly? The end of an as-yet-unfinished novel comes to mind, for starters, but that’s just one entry on a really, really long list.

Then again, I can think of at least two pitfalls in clinging a tad too tenaciously to this approach:

(1) The grinding day-to-day reality of the distance in between. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge of covering all those points between A and Z. Or consumed by every grungy little details you think you need to get locked down before embarking, even though details keep expanding fractally.

Eventually, overwhelm = paralysis. While obsessive planning becomes an insidious form of procrastination. I confess to being a repeat offender on both counts.

(2) If your vision is continually locked on that spot 1000 yards ahead, you run the risk of falling on your face because you’ve tripped over what’s right in front of you.

The antidote? Begin with the end in mind, most definitely.

Then refocus.

The Power Of Three

It came a couple of days ago, like validation, in an e-mail newsletter from financial writer Ramit Sethi:

“Read what’s necessary to complete the next three steps in front of you, then take action.”

This was in the context of entrepreneurship … but then, most writers would do well to see themselves as creative entrepreneurs who inhabit a variety of roles, many of which would’ve been nonexistent for the authors they came of age reading.

And I say validation because this newsletter arrived within 24 hours after I’d completed the biggest and most involved — and most daunting — phase of giving my website a total overhaul and from-the-ground-up reconstruction.

Now, web designer is most assuredly not among my specialities or natural inclinations, but I had to take it up anyway. This meant doing a lot of things I’d never done before, which in turn meant finding out how all these things I’d never done before actually get done.

And the three-step limit was pretty much how I’d proceeded through the entire project.

The World’s Population Of Triplets Can’t Be Wrong

It might take a neuroscientist to explain why, but there’s just something about three that keeps things optimized.

Phone numbers come in three segments.

Traffic lights have three statuses.

Primitive peoples often don’t even see the point of higher sums. The Yanomamo, of the Amazon rain forest, conceptualize just three numbers: one, two, and more than two.

The most common form of the multivolume storyline is the trilogy.

The pinnacle of athletic endurance is the triathlon.

In August of last year, I even did a piece here called “The Three-Step Process To Surprising Your Readers.”

For whatever reason, three simply works to our advantage. Three is easy to grasp, yet still feels substantial. It’s more than a paltry one or two, less than an unwieldy four or five.

So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to push this from theory into practice, like the creative entrepreneur you are.

What are the next three steps of, say, being your own webmaster?

The next three steps in implementing new ways of connecting with your readers?

Or starting your own blog?

Or finding out what you need to keep that research-intensive novel in motion?

Or, instead of exhaustingly outlining your novel to the very end, what’s going to happen in just the first three chapters? Then the next three after that?

Three steps: Name them. Define them. Own them.

Ready. Set. Go.

***** If you leave now, I’ll hurt myself. Your presence is cordially requested over at my own blog, Warrior Poet, where some of the stuff above gets a more thorough hashing-out in “A Better Way Of Managing Your Author Website.”

[Photo by Marina Montoya]

Categories: Brian Hodge, craft Tags: