CTRL-A & DELETE

I just caught myself hitting  CTRL-A & DELETE with touch-typer speed and precision.  No hunting and pecking for that odd combination of keys required.  In case you’re not a complete computer nerd like me, the key sequence highlights everything on your screen and deletes it.  It’s the quick and easy way to start over with a clean slate, or the modern equivalent for ripping the sheet of obnoxious writing from the typewriter, wadding it up, and pitching it toward the trashcan (only not as cathartic).  For whatever reason, this time I paused and thought about why I did it.  It must have been the third or fourth time I had hit those keys in the preceding five minutes but I hardly remember doing it.  I only remember trying to get an article off the ground and not liking my results.

I had started an article I wanted to publish on Medium.  You see, I’ve been “saving up a couple good ideas” for pieces I believed had some legs and could launch my Medium presence with a bang.  Saving an idea is a silly notion, I know, but that’s the reality of how I thought today.  I wanted this to be a great piece, though, and I was not meeting my expectations.

As I re-read the first six or seven sentences of the article (for the third or fourth or fifth time), I judged it as unworthy of a venue where I could expect people to pay to read my work.  So with a flash of thought, my fingers twitched and the offending words were obliterated.  As I pondered my action I tried to figure out on what grounds I based my judgment.  I was, and still am, at a total loss for anything that made sense.  I simply did not believe it measured up to other articles I have seen on the site but I can offer no concrete evidence as to why I believe it.

My actions were obviously a symptom of publishing fear.  Somewhere, deep inside me, despite my strong words and bravado, despite my month-long record of posting blog content, I am scared of how the public will judge my work.  I don’t want to be laughed at or ridiculed.  I don’t want my work to be found wanting by the internet literary mafia.  Instead, I expect it to strike a chord with every person who reads it.  I want it to move them enough so they not only reward me with their dollars but they are compelled to tell all their friends about the wonderful article they read.  What tripe.  I know the futility of approaching the work with some sort of “greatness goal” from the outset.  It’s just not how it’s done.

“The writer’s job is to write.  Let the public and the critics decide what to do and think about your work,” says every guru on the internet.  With clear instructions like that, why is it so hard to separate yourself from thinking about how your words will be perceived?  It’s a conundrum.  There has to be a trick to dissociate yourself from the feelings of inadequacy and impending doom.  If I can find that trick I’ll retire a millionaire.

In the meantime, I need to end the habit of judging my work as I write it. The CTRL-A & DELETE cycle must be broken.  I suspect I am not alone in fighting this problem.  I also suspect it will be similar to the addict giving up the needle or the bottle. There will be a few relapses, but my resolve shall remain strong.  To ensure I do not wimp out and delete the next great article I conjure, I commit to writing and publishing an article on Medium within five days.  You should do the same!  If we can’t do that, maybe we should pry the DELETE key off our keyboards!

Where to Spend the Writing Time?

I have a problem. It seems I keep creating them for myself. This time, it’s a question of how best to spend my writing time. I have publicly committed to publishing articles on this blog (at least 365 by January 1, 2019), but I also need to work on my fiction and other projects. How does one decide where to spend the time when there are multiple competing projects, all of which are worthy of the effort?

Time is scarce. Between work, family, studying, sleeping, and writing, the day is beyond booked. Some writers believe there is plenty of time available in the day and that the real problem is doing the writing. That’s backward to me. The writing is easy, provided there is enough time available, and that’s always the rub.

In my quest to figure out how to make better use of my time I did some experimentation. It turns out that as long as I have a “road map” of where I want to go with my work, I write at an average pace of about one thousand words per hour. When I do not have a well-defined plan, however, I’m slowed to three hundred to five hundred words per hour, and my satisfaction with the work is typically much less. The obvious solution is to spend time writing only when the plan for the work has been completed. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Planning takes time, too.

I estimate I will need to write approximately one hundred eighty thousand words to fulfill my commitment to my blog. That’s akin to writing a large novel. If I properly plan each article, that amounts to one hour per day that I must spend to achieve my blog goal (plus the time it takes to plan what I want to write).

I have two fiction pieces I want to write, too. Each of them will require about twenty thousand words each. That’s another forty hours of raw work, plus the planning time, rewrites, and editing. All together, I will probably spend one hundred fifty hours on them.

The yearly total is about three hundred fifty hours of work for my writing. Per week that equals almost seven hours. Where does one find seven hours per week? The question before me, then, is to determine if I can justify putting forth a significant amount of effort over the next year to accomplish all my writing goals or if I should reevaluate my commitment to publish 365 blog posts and spend the time focused on fiction or other projects.

To make matters worse, my interest in my fiction waxes and wanes, as does my interest in writing for my blog. I find it difficult to sit down and slog through five hundred words for a blog post when I am more interested in working on a story, and vice versa. The bottom line is I’m not sure where I want to go with the work right now and I’m not at all certain that there will ever be a perfect answer. How do people manage the competing interests for their writing time?

How to Hate Your Writing But Ship It Anyway

Every writer hates their work to some degree. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who has never questioned the quality of what they write. It seems to be a universal phenomenon. Yet magazine articles and books get published, websites get their copy, and there are certainly enough commercials on television to conclusively prove someone’s writing is worthy of the public’s attention. So why do you hate our own words? More importantly, how do you overcome this feeling so you can ship your product? It requires a simple commitment to yourself.

Making the commitment starts with defining the emotion you feel when faced with the decision to publish. Is it really hatred? It’s not likely that you truly hate your own thoughts. Perhaps it is mere dislike? Rather than dislike, maybe it’s better described as distrust. I can understand a lack of trust in what I write versus what I think. The root of distrust is fear, so maybe we should just call it that. Fear makes the most sense, too. You are scared of sending your work into the world and having it found wanting. I know I think about that pending judgment every single time I publish an article or submit a manuscript to a publisher. That’s why fear is the best description of my feelings toward my work. Your description may be slightly different, but you can figure out exactly what it is if you try. Doing so allows you to structure your commitment to minimize the effect of your emotions on your actions.

Once you have your dislike appropriately labeled, devising a strategy to overcome it is fairly simple, but not always easy to follow. In my case,  the strategy is to be bold. I just damn my fear and send my work out. I have tried to manage the fear by having friends review my work before I publish but that sort of thing never works. Your friends have a hard time telling you the truth when your work is terrible. I’ve also learned that if I allow myself any possible way out of shipping, I’ll delay sending my work out (sometimes permanently). Instead, I acknowledge I have committed myself to publishing my work, either personally or via a third party, without exception. Everything I write gets shipped. There is no hiding my work on my hard drive or in the depths of a drawer. With my commitment I have removed any personal choice about publishing it. It goes out. Like it or not. I give myself adequate time to perform revisions and editing, and then off it goes, good, bad, or indifferent.

Such a commitment sounds too easy, too contrite a solution to be feasible. Perhaps it is, but it works for me. If you doubt the power of such a simple act, you may not fully understand the depth of my commitment. It may help you to conceptualize it by comparing it to taking a trip on an airplane. Once you’re on the plane and it starts shooting down the runway, you’re going along for the ride whether you like it or not. There’s no changing your mind and ringing the bell to tell the pilot you want off the hurtling death machine. That’s the sort of all-in mentality you need to have with regard to your own commitment to publish your work. It does not remove the fear, but it does remove your ability to tell yourself “no.” That’s the secret sauce.

After you ship the fear and loathing do not fully go away. To continue the airplane analogy, once the plane leaves the ground and you’re headed into the skies you have to relax.  It’s the same when you publish your work.  What else can you do? Worry about what every visitor to your website thinks about every piece you’ve written? Not hardly. Once you have posted it on your blog or sent the manuscript off to your agent or editor, it’s done. You may still hate what you wrote, or, as in my case, fear the judgment of what you wrote, but it’s out of your hands now. Move on to the next piece.

Over the past decade, I have written hundreds of pieces for my work and personal pleasure. On the occasions where my work was made public I had the fear of judgment. I still do. Not all of my creations were treated kindly by those who read them! It sucked. I wanted to quit writing. I wanted to delete the offending pieces. I didn’t die, but I did quit publishing for a long time. It was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made, all over what some mutton-head thought of a tiny article on the internet. I vowed never to make that mistake again, and I promised myself I would travel the path of publishing every single thing I write from now on. I hope you slap your fear into the corner and follow me on the journey.

5 Ways to Find Excellent Writing Ideas for Science Fiction

One of the most difficult tasks we writers face is continually coming up with good ideas for our work.  I wonder how many hours I’ve spent over the years, my mind blank, staring at an empty screen or page.  This is one of the universal experiences all writers share, no matter the genre of their work.

The times I’ve been at a loss for an idea and turned to articles such as this one for some inspiration did not end well.  All I found were some vague guides that really didn’t provide any true insight or help generate a good idea.  They offered empty advice like “pose a what if question” and “pick two random things and compare and contrast them.”  The problem with the vague advice is that I was still the one who had to come up with the details.  I wanted some help with those!  I want specifics, damn it!

This article is the first in a series of articles that will provide the blocked writer some concrete, genre-specific methods to develop a good idea for their writing.  Today’s genre: Science Fiction.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres.  There’s something about a good space story that has always made my imagination run wild.  I know not all sci-fi deals in space stories, but my favorites certainly do! Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Z. Williamson are my favorite authors in the genre, though I’ll try anyone’s work at least once.

If you’re itching to write the next great space novel, here are five ways to help you find some excellent ideas for your science fiction.

  1. The easiest way to get your mind thinking about all the possibilities for a good space story is to talk to a bona fide rocket scientist (or as close as you can get to a real one).  Unfortunately, most of us do not personally know any real rocket scientists.  Luckily, you do not need to know the people in order to talk to them.  Get your Google on and find forums where people talk about space topics.  UFO reality sites are good sources of space-based conversation, astronomy forums have a ready supply of space geeks to trigger sparks in your imagination, and Reddit has numerous conversations about every kind of space tech there is.  The point is that when you participate in discussions on the topic, your brain will start to get creative with the subject matter.  So get social with people who are interested in spacey subjects and the ideas will follow;
  2. First, focus on humanity’s (or your protagonist’s) downfall and then reverse-engineer your science fiction idea. In other words, figure out what horrid thing will befall humanity in your story, or what frailty of the human condition will be exploited in your story, and then figure out what could cause it. Here’s an example. Imagine you want to write a story about the near global extinction of humanity and the survivor’s fight to live.  Think “War of the Worlds,” only that’s been done to death.  What else could bring about the end of mankind?  Rogue virus (I Am Legend)?  What about a parasitic alien species that came to Earth to use humans to replicate themselves (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Puppetmasters)?  Or maybe an alien race that wants to use humanity as biological Energizer batteries (The Matrix)?  Get the idea?
  3. I hate to admit it, but not all science fiction stories are space stories. Therefore I must also recommend that you talk to various professionals about some of the worst things they can conjure from their fields.  A good example would be to talk to an emergency room physician (or even better, a nurse or paramedic – they typically see and do more than the doctors and have better stories).  Sit down with one over a cup of coffee and have them tell you their horror stories from the graveyard shift.  Your imagination will be kicked into high gear after hearing what they deal with on a normal day at work!  I guarantee you will hear things that you will not be able to un-hear – which is awesome for someone trying to come up with a good sci-fi story idea.  And if you think medical-based stories cannot make good sci-fi reading material, try any one of Robin Cook’s many novels;
  4. Use a story idea that you like and adapt it to science fiction.  This is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to come up with a good idea for any genre, not just science fiction.  It’s also the most often used method.  As an example, consider the movie Titanic.  Two young people, coming together against all odds only to lose each other in a tragic shipwreck. Now put it on a spaceship and salt a few malevolent aliens into the mix. You can call it Titania (that’s the name of the spaceship, of course). Actually, you can’t. I just copyrighted it by publishing it here!
  5. If all else fails, break out your history book.  Believe it or not, human history is the source for all our best story ideas.  Look at the wars, the continental conquests, the plagues, the people and personalities involved.  A history of the twentieth century is nothing short of a primer on science fiction story adaptation.  Here’s an example: Ebola Zaire.  A virus that has a kill rate greater than eighty percent is tailor-made for a good sci-fi tale.  Throw in some malevolent aliens bent on conquering good old planet Earth for the exploitation of its plentiful resources and you have yourself a great story.  Put the two together and you’ll have a movie franchise (Independence Day)!

It is highly unlikely that you will find your next great idea via a random word generator website, or an emailed writing prompt.  Try these techniques instead!  Remember that your goal is to be a great storyteller.  Storytelling is a social experience that humanity has shared since we were living in caves and picking lice out of each others’ hair. Get out of your house and talk to people, or push your comfort zone out a bit and join some forums to get your sci-fi geek on and get social with people who love to talk about the same stuff you love.  You’ll be amazed at how many ideas you can come up with from the conversations you can have with others.  I hope this post helps you find and write the next great sci-fi novel.  And if you have some thoughts on how to come up with good sci-fi ideas, please leave them in the comments for everyone to use!

The Fear of Wasting Your Time Writing

It’s easy to commit to being a writer.  It’s a simple thing to make any commitment, for that matter.  People make commitments every day, but they rarely honor them.  Think of the countless commitments made on New Year’s Eve each year.  I’ll go to the gym five times each week.  I’ll eat nothing but healthy food.  I’ll ride my bike to and from work every day.  I’ll save ten percent of my salary every year.  You know all about the hollow commitments that are made but never met.  You’ve made a few yourself.  So have I. Continue reading “The Fear of Wasting Your Time Writing”

Why Start Now?

A friend asked me why I decided to start my site on the 20th of December.  He thought it odd.  He said, “wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until the 1st of the year?”  No.  Not at all.  I’m done waiting.  The question, however, piqued my interest.

While I agree the impulse for most people is to wait for some sort of universally recognized “start date,” waiting makes little sense to me.  I refuse to believe that beginning anything on some arbitrary date will make any difference in my (or anyone’s)  overall success or failure ten years from now.  Without a doubt, however, the belief that it matters persists among most people.   If it didn’t, no one would make New Year’s Resolutions.

The above aside, I’m curious as to why people, myself included,  put off chasing their goals at all.  After all, I waited half a lifetime to seriously pursue my own endeavors, and I certainly continue to procrastinate on some things in my life, so there must be some good reasons for it.  The least I can do is try to figure out why.  Google-fu to the rescue… Continue reading “Why Start Now?”