My publications (so far)

It wasn’t until midway through my first novel that I began to think about publication. I was in my early twenties, and didn’t know anything about it. Like most writers, I slowly began to educate myself on the different types of publications and the process of becoming published. After nearly ten years, I still have a lot to learn, but I am happy to say that since I began taking writing seriously, I have gained a bit of practical experience in publishing.

Publishing my own words and ideas is a very fulfilling process. It isn’t the same as relating your day-to-day experiences to friends on Facebook. Face it, nobody really cares what you ate for breakfast. This fulfillment comes from communicating an idea, an emotion, a complicated theory, a story, or some other form of insight about the world that few people would have readily come to on their own. While writing is fun, I am not one of those writers who claim to write for themselves. Words were made to communicate, and communicating with yourself seems a little pointless to me.

Ideas are like viruses and words are their genetic code. When someone is exposed to an idea, it sometimes takes hold, and that person becomes a carrier, propagating that idea to other hosts. I want my ideas to reach people, to spread, to replicate like a virus. Not all ideas are dangerous, and some can change peoples’ lives for the better.

Here are a couple of the ideas and stories I have already released into the world. Many of them will not spread, but I hope they will affect (infect?) some people eventually.

My stories.

Speaking of viruses, the latest of my published stories was about a virus that destroyed people’s self-control and drove them to violently seize anything they desired. The possessive irrationality would not leave them until they had what they wanted and hid it away in a secret hoard. The young protagonist must fight to survive among the Hoarders, but even the uninfected are not to be trusted. This short story is called Want, and I published it with my writers group, Alabards, as a part of a horror anthology.

In the first book of our anthology series, I published a short story called Blue and Green Horizons. This story is about a man who had become a paraplegic in the past year due to a sky-diving accident. He has very little memory of the incident, recalling only the blue and green horizon as he leapt from the plane. He still has no idea why he deployed his parachute so late. The story takes place on a trip to a friend’s wedding. They are taking the train because he doesn’t feel comfortable on planes. When the train derails within a tunnel, he is the only one who can save the other passengers, but first he must fight his own insecurities and come to terms with his disability.

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Off-kilter and Off-kilter2 available on Amazon

This isn’t my only experience in the area of self-publishing. For the past few years I have been printing beta-reader novels through Lulu. The only difference is that I chose not to assign it a ISBN or make it available to anyone else but me (technically it’s never published). I highly recommend this method for beta-reading as it allows the readers to see the book in their hand and in a professional format. If you choose to self-publish (I haven’t decided yet), then it will also allow the readers to comment on format and cover design. I also suggest inserting a couple of questions at the end of each chapter in the beta-reader version. This will allow the reader to jot down their impression for each chapter rather than try to recall everything at the end. I am currently preparing my novel Quotidian this way. It will be ready for beta-readers early next year. Please contact me if you wish to be a beta-reader.

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The working cover and title for my latest book. Seeking beta readers.

My laboratory notebook.

A couple years ago, I was in my last year of graduate school and I got fed up with the laboratory notebooks currently available. I liked to outline my experiments by making a flow-chart first, then I would write down the protocol, and then I could record and paste the results. No one laboratory notebook was organized in such a way and nor did they have dedicated spaces for a table of contents, title, dates, signatures, etc. So I decided to make my own.

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The back and front of each page. Available on Amazon and Lulu

After designing the lab notebook and ordering several for my lab, I reached out to the founder of several private schools in Atlanta. Her science lab needed just such a lab notebook. I made a few changes to the format and added her school’s logo to the cover (a cover that can easily be personalized and decorated), and so far they have ordered hundreds of copies for their kids. “They are a staple to the program now,” she says.

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The lab notebooks I made for the Midtown International School in Atlanta, GA separated by class and filled with the kids’ science experiments.

I would encourage all writers with some knowledge of self-publishing and book formatting to put that knowledge to work. You can make calendars, planners, cook books, etc, for your own personal use or to sell. There is no reason why anyone should be confined to publishing novels when they have all the skills necessary to dabble in other publishing formats.

My research.

I was surprised to discover that my day job also provided me with practical publishing experience. Throughout grad school and my post-doc, I have been constantly constructing, writing, editing, and then publishing research papers. Science writing is very different from fiction writing in both style, tone, and wordage, but it still requires extensive planning, editing, and communication with editors and publishers.

My largest published work is my dissertation. Anyone who has ever written one will agree that the formatting is almost as tasking as the writing.img_20160927_131022192
While my 20ish articles and reviews are something many will likely never read, they are at least reaching other researchers who can build off my research findings and theories to help probe a little deeper into the mysteries of biology and disease. According to ResearchGate, my publications have been cited nearly 200 times in other publications since 2013.

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Take home message.

With that, I will leave you with one last consideration. Building your publishing presence is just as much about quality as quantity. Just because you have written something doesn’t mean that it is ready to be released into the world. I am proud of each and every one of my publications, but I still see a lot of room for improvement. Many of my readers will see it too. So unless you are confident that you know how to format a book, design a cover, and edit a story until it gleams, I suggest you take the time to learn how or to consult with professionals. Otherwise your reputation as an author will be marred by your haste to release your stories and ideas into the world. For example, I never could have created the amazing covers that grace the front of our short story anthologies, so I reached out to an old friend and graphic designer who had the skills and eagerness to take on the project. Thank you, Matt.

There is a common mentality among authors and artists to keep everyone ignorant of the project until it is ready to be released. Perhaps it is a fear that other people’s opinions or meddling hands will corrupt it in some way. These works most often fail because nobody has any stake, interest, or investment in the project. Getting beta-readers, cover designers, editors, and other writers involved in the project, even to a small degree, will link them to the project. These people will be the ones to help market the book once it is published because they can proudly say they read it before anyone else, helped edit it, etc. It can only benefit the author to bring others into the fold, especially if it means a more polished and marketable product.

The science of killing your characters

research-at-work               *** This post may contain some detailed and disturbing descriptions***

I spend a lot of time thinking up ways to kill people. Normally this might classify me as a psychopath…if I weren’t a writer. Let’s just hope the FBI makes that distinction if they ever get a glimpse of my search history.

This is a very important subject for writers to research, not just to add realism, but because death, or rather the avoidance of it, is one of the most common motivations for characters. Pretty much every adventure, horror, mystery, tragedy, and drama story uses death or fear of death to some degree. Death is, understandably, the greatest universal fear. It means the end of everything (unless your story contains elements of the afterlife), and there is no coming back from it. Even the bravest of heroes and heroines are cowed by the prospect of imminent death. It makes the bravest of men and women weep and pray to be spared, and it can provoke irrational and reckless actions in the most learned and patient of people. It is the most useful tool in the writer’s toolbox for creating suspense, surprise, and horror.

When writers are given the ever-important task of describing the stakes for their main character, most of them are common iterations of the word “death.”

  • Save the _____.
  • Survive the_____.
  • Fate of the _____.
  • Destroy the _____.
  • Loss/end/demise/etc.

Death is often featured in the opening of a story to spark the initial conflict, and it can be used to conclude the conflict at the climax. It is important then that death be portrayed accurately when it finally does strike, especially in these two all-important scenes.

I watched the first few minutes of a movie the other day and I couldn’t bear to watch any more than that. The victim in this opening scene of the movie had a huge hole punched through their chest. Despite their heart and lungs likely being destroyed, the person was able to spend the next couple minute saying their farewells. I’m sorry but you can’t talk without lungs, nor can you stay conscious for more than a few seconds when your heart is turned into mush. Unlikely deaths can cause an audience to laugh or roll their eyes, which is often not what an author is going for.

In this post, I will discuss the most common types of death featured in fiction. It is, by far, my longest post and pretty heavy on the science; my apologies.

Death by poison.

If your protagonist or antagonist has to kill someone without casting blame on themselves, they will either hire an assassin, wear a mask, or choose poison as the murder weapon. Sadly, poison has been a bit overused in fiction as a means of causing death, and often it is used inaccurately. The poison itself will only be effective at the right dose, in the right vehicle (solution, powder, etc.), and by the right mode of entry (breathing, eating, drinking, injection, etc.), so it is important to do research. Simply coating a bit of it on an arrow tip will probably not work.

Also, almost anything is considered a poison at the right amount. Put a tiny bit too much harmless potassium in someone’s IV and they will go into cardiac arrest. Since potassium levels naturally spike after death, such a poisoning would be impossible to detect. There are a lot of poisons, so for the purposes of this section, I will focus on the ones that are interesting to me.

Succinylcholine is a common one used in fiction. This paralytic is often toted as the best to use if your characters want to get away with the murder. First thing to appreciate about this drug is that it has to be injected into the muscle or vein; eating it is useless. This poison functions by imitating a common neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is how nerves tell muscle to contract. When injected with this paralytic, classified as a depolarizing paralytic, the muscles contract and spasm uncontrollably and prevent the muscle from repolarizing in order to undergo subsequent contractions. The patient is paralyzed within a couple minutes and dies within a few minutes after that because they are unable to breath. It is nearly undetectable because it is quickly broken down into choline and succinate, two molecules found in abundance in the body.

It might surprise you that the poisons cyanide, azide, and the gasses carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, and hydrogen sulfide all work in the same way, by inhibiting Complex IV of the electron transport chain in the mitochondria. This protein is the main reason why we need to breathe. Almost all the oxygen you take in will be used by the mitochondria by this protein, which dumps 4 electrons onto oxygen to make water. This is the final immensely favorable reaction required by the mitochondria to drive the highly unfavorable pumping of protons into the inter-membrane space of the mitochondria. Once an electro-chemical gradient is established, those protons pass through Complex V to drive the production of ATP, the molecule that ‘powers’ most cellular functions. With ingestion of sufficient cyanide or azide, and breathing of the gasses, the victim will die by lack of energy production, a complete suffocation of all the individual cells. It may interest you to learn that rigor mortis, the stiffening of a body at around 12 hours after death, is the result of the body’s muscles finally running out of ATP. In the muscle, ATP is required to relax the contractile machinery and to keep calcium from constantly flooding into the cell and causing contraction. The relaxation of the body afterward is due to the degradation of the myofilaments causing the contraction. During my day job I study mitochondria in muscle, so I can tell you that there are hundreds of potential inhibitors of mitochondrial function to chose from.

Botox is not simply a way to prevent wrinkles, it is also the most toxic poison known to man. Produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, this protein prevents the release of acetylcholine, often causing death by rendering the victim unable to breathe. But if small amounts of this toxin can cause death, why is it used in cosmetics and medicine for all kinds of diseases and conditions? It is all about containing the spread of the toxin. If an injection hits a vein rather than an intended muscle, you better hope someone can put you on life support. The muscle weakness can last for months.

Last but not least, Russel viper venom. Of all the millions of poisons to choose from, why this one? Because I find it fascinating. The venom is a direct activator of Factor X in the blood, the enzyme that converts prothrombin to thrombin and activates coagulation. In short, it turns your blood into a thick sludge. This can, ironically, cause you to bleed uncontrollably because all your clotting factors and platelets are used up.

I haven’t gone into a lot of symptoms for these poisons, primarily because there are so many of them, but I do advise writers to look up dosage, symptoms, and cause of death to make sure they get it right. There are many other poisons, but this post is already going to be too long. If you have questions about what poisons to use in your story, shoot me a message and I can help you brainstorm.

Death by blood loss.

If stab wounds, severed limbs, and internal bleeding feature in your work of fiction, it is important to consider blood loss. Depending on the location of the injury, bleeding may be quick or rather slow. Blood will clot fairly quickly if the bleeding is slow. A wound to an artery will likely be required to cause death, so make sure that arteries are present in the area your character is stabbed. The average adult human body contains about 5 liters of blood, which is the same as about 8.5 bottles of soda (20 ounce variety), but they will have died and their heart stopped beating long before all of that blood ends up on the floor.

The most common symptoms of blood loss are cold, pale, and clammy skin, racing heart, a tinge of blue in the finger tips, fading vision, and unconsciousness. Unless something else is going on in the body, most of the time they won’t just trail off and die mid-sentence with their eyes open as seen in pretty much every movie out there; they will instead go unconscious.

I’ve worked in two different blood banks and wrote my dissertation on mitochondrial function in human blood cells. I have drawn and processed quite a lot of blood for transfusion and analysis. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn I’ve seen more blood than most surgeons ever will. In case you don’t have this much experience with blood, it will be important to look it up and familiarize yourself with its appearance and properties. For example, the red in blood is due to the hemoglobin in erythrocytes (red blood cells) which are in suspension in circulating blood (about 40-45% of total volume), but when the blood has been allowed to settle (30 minutes to an hour) the greater half of the blood volume will sit on top of the packed red blood cells. This fluid is called plasma (or serum if it has clotted), and it is usually golden or straw-colored in appearance, but this will depend on many factors. Also, unless the victim is somehow injected with anticoagulants, the blood will most likely clot within 30 minutes. Clotted blood has the consistency of Jell-O, especially if it is a fresh clot, and it will shrink and harden over time.

Death by pathogen.

Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites are the most common types of pathogens. There are nearly a million different species of pathogen that can infect mammals, and each of them might have different symptoms and can be deadly, or have no symptoms at all and live symbiotically with their host. Some won’t survive on a surface for more than a second, some can last years. Some can only be transmitted by blood, some by mucus membranes, and some by the fecal oral route (yes, eating poop). Some, like parasites, may have multiple life cycle stages that occur in different animals. They are fascinating to learn about and even more fascinating to use as tools in fiction.

I won’t say much on this subject because it would take an entire book just to cover the basics. I will stress, however, that the most common symptoms presented with these pathogens are not really due to the pathogen, but the result of our own immune systems trying to combat it. Most of these deaths are caused by your own body which kills you in its attempt to kill the invader. Granted, many pathogens will generate and release toxins of their own, or get inside your cells to evade the immune system, or even tinker with your DNA, or commandeer your cell’s own machinery for its own ends. These tiny organisms want to live just as much as we do.

Fever is a common means by which your body tries to eradicate the invaders, but it can fry your nervous system if it gets too high. Your body often tries to repel invaders by producing a lot of mucin in your airway epithelium and goblet cells which is secreted, mixed with water, and comes out as coughs and phlegm of various colors. Mucus can then congest the airway and prevent the lungs from absorbing enough oxygen, resulting in death. Interestingly, the green in pus and mucus is not a result of the bacteria, but myeloperoxidase, an enzyme of neutrophils (a common white blood cell) which converts hydrogen peroxide (also produced by these cells) into hypochlorous acid (bleach) to help kill pathogens.

Death by radiation.

From a nuclear blast, to cosmic rays, radiation can come in many forms and many of them behave differently. Depending on the type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, ions, protons, etc.), they will have different effects on the body. Some, like alpha radiation, are so large (a helium nucleus) that they are unable to penetrate skin. Others, like gamma rays, can rip through the body, cutting apart DNA and generating oxidants. When DNA is damaged faster than it can be repaired, the body will shut down and then die over the course of 24 hours to several weeks, depending on exposure. The cells that replicate the fastest in the body will be the first to go, including those that line the mouth, lungs, hair follicles, and gut. Vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache, loss of mental faculties, hair-loss and many other symptoms can result in as little as a few hours. The immune system is reliant on the proliferation and function of many immune cells (like lymphocytes and neutrophils), and when they can no longer provide their essential functions, the body will be subject to infections. Cancer can also result from DNA damage to important genes controlling the cell cycle.

There is a common misconception that radiation will contaminate other items, thus allowing it to be spread from one irradiated thing/person to another. This only occurs if the radioactive isotope is what is being spread. There is also a common misconception that taking iodine will help you survive radiation exposure. This only helps if the radioactive element is iodine 131. Taking normal iodine will prevent the harmful radioactive isotope from being taken up by your thyroid. Granted iodine 131 is a common fission byproduct of uranium and plutonium, so having some iodine might be useful in such situations as a reactor breach or nuclear blast.

Before deciding on this mode of death, it is important to look up symptoms for each exposure level as well as the type of radiation that will result from the event.

Take-home message.

There are many ways to kill your characters, so many ways in fact, that you don’t really need to make stuff up. I’ve only listed a few scenarios here, but they are near infinite. Why go in to this kind of detail? Well why not? You can teach your readers something as well as describe something that is visually captivating. That’s a win-win in my book. If you need help figuring out where to start, feel free to contact me.

Aweology

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The science of awe.

According to a review of one study, awe-inspiring sights elicit global activity of the autonomic nervous system, but shuts down parts of our parietal lobe, which contains our sense of self and our own boundaries and those of the world around us. In short, our brains are broadening their sense of scale, trying to encompass the vast and beautiful world. This is perhaps why awe also makes our own problems and worries seem insignificant in the grand scope of things. This same review cites a 2012 study showing that awe alters our sense of time, making us feel like we have more of it to spare, and even motivates us to spend more of that time helping others.

We also use awe to describe a sense of fear. This is also a process involving the autonomic nervous system, causing our heart and breathing to speed up, and in some cases, freezing us in place even as danger barrels toward us.

Becoming numb to awe.

Last month I was sitting in the middle seat on a flight to Atlanta from Seattle. I fly a lot, but certainly not as much as the man sitting in the window seat next to me. At one point during the flight, he lifted the blind and peered out for a few seconds before starting to close it again. The one and only time I spoke to the man was to keep him from closing it and to ask if I could take a picture. How he could have peered out the window at such a sight without taking the time to appreciate it was beyond me. The picture barely does it any justice.

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The ability to recognize beauty and feel fear is something most of us have. Unfortunately, it is also something we can become numb to with repeated exposure. In my novel, Quotidian, the day is repeating, but not just any day, the last day, the end of the world. The characters experience danger and destruction every day and have ceased to be awed by it, and even death has become something routine.

Make their jaws drop.

From a sun setting over a field of flowers to the plume of a radioactive mushroom cloud, these sights, like so many others, can inspire awe. But there are different levels of awe:

  • There is the kind that makes your jaw drop and stare speechless for a time.
  • The kind that gives you chills.
  • The kind that deserves a nod of appreciation
  • And the kind we assign to everything else that barely warrants noticing (in the words of Emmet from The Lego Movie: “Everything is Awesome!”)

It is important to aim for the mind-blowing sort of awe in writing. Why? Because readers have become so overstimulated, that anything less than that will barely register. This concept is important for writers to grasp. If our target audience experiences the same conflicts, the same wonders, love stories, horrors, scifi dramas, etc. they will lose that sense of awe.

Some strategies.

Nowadays it is difficult to create an original plot.

Rather than racking your brain for a new story to tell to awe your readers, try presenting a similar story in a unique way. As my brother is fond of saying, “do it in a way that nobody has ever done it before.” This can be as simple as changing the tone or mood of your story, or changing something about the world, or show things from a new perspective. For example, the scene of a large open field is boring until you put on a pair of glasses that invert your view of the world, and suddenly it feels like you could fall into the sky. This can reawaken your reader’s sense of awe even thought the primary plot and conflict is little different from others they’ve seen before.

My own strategy is to open the reader’s eyes to the inner-workings of things. It is only when you understand a magician’s act, that you can appreciate the complexity of the sleight of hand, the talent, and the training involved to pull it off. It is the same for sci-fi. Only when you truly understand the hazards of space travel do you become awed by the accomplishment of traveling to and landing on another planet.

As I was trying to describe this awe, I realized I didn’t need to, I’ve already written about it. This is an excerpt from my second book of The Abyssian series:

There were two types of awe, I surmised. One that was inspired by the unknown, the majesty and mystery of the world the God-of-All had built for them. This was a powerful sort of awe, I knew, I had felt it before and could see it kindling in the eyes of those praying around me. The second type of awe was wholly different, the opposite in fact, but no less powerful. It was an awe of knowing, at least in part, how the world worked. From the weather, the formation of mountains and seas, to the inner workings of the human body, it was an awe of knowing how this last had managed to survive and even thrive among all the rest. It was this awe that I felt burning in me as I stared at the cluster of men and women who had managed to carve out a peaceful and quiet existence from the stones of the cold and unforgiving northern mountains.

No matter your strategy, it is important to chase the awe factor. As Brandon Sanderson says, “err on the side of awe.”

 

Can you think of any other strategies to awe a reader? I’d like to hear from you.

The creativity proclivity

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As writers, we have a penchant for creating things. Seeing something of your own imagination brought into the world provides such a sense of satisfaction that, for many of us, it has become a drug. When we need a fix, we simply pull out our computers or notebooks and let our imaginations spill out onto the page. We can create entire worlds and cultures, magic, and new laws of science, but sometimes we encounter writer’s block, or the act of writing is no longer enough to satisfy the craving. To keep withdrawal from setting in, many of us seek a creative outlet in the real world. If you suffer from this creation addiction, here are some tips on how to expend your pent-up creativity in a safe and productive manner.

Arts and crafts

One of the easiest ways to sate your creative impulses, is to take up arts and crafts. This includes any hobby that involves the creation of objects, not the intangible ones to which we writers are accustomed. Whether it involves glue, thread, needles, wood, metal, or glass, or paint or graphite, these mediums can be used to exercises your inner creative muscles.

I have tried my hand at lampwork (melting glass with a torch), pen making, sculpting, whittling, mold making and casting, and many more. But for me, the most satisfying form of arts and crafts is etching. I have etched images and text into metal (saltwater etching and electroplating), glass (chemical) and wood (wood burning), and even cloth (screen printing).

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An aluminum saltwater etching I made for a friend, quoting the Space Wolves Catechism from Warhammer 40K

Until recently, I have been doing this the hard way, but I came across this laser etching service called Ponoko, where I can have all kinds of materials laser etched to create key-chains, jewelry, game pieces, prototypes, etc.

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Insect wings cut and etched into acrylic by Ponoko. I gave these to my girlfriend who enjoys making earrings.

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Leather key-chains with a P kissing an M for me and my girlfriend, Megan.

Food

There is no creation as immediately gratifying as food. While you can enjoy food cooked by anyone, that urge to create something is not satisfied unless you do it yourself. Heating a microwave dinner or mixing a couple ingredients provided in a box don’t count. I don’t have a wealth of culinary skills, but I do like to experiment in the hopes of coming up with a new taste. I get the most enjoyment out of cooking something from scratch. Take a pizza for example. It takes no creative effort to order one or heat it in the oven. Instead, try making the dough yourself (water, yeast, flour, and some sugar and salt), the pizza sauce (tomatoes, salt, and herbs), and then cheese and toppings. I’m proud to say that I’ve made an entire pizza from scratch a few times, including the cheese. I hope that one day I will be able to plant, reap, and process my own grain into flour, too. Want an adult beverage with your pizza dinner, stop by a home-brew supply store and brew your own wine, beer, mead, or cider.

Growing your own herbs, fruits, and vegetables is also a rewarding process. Even if the plants are decorative, allowing them to flourish provides the same sense of accomplishment.

Creating with friends and family

If you are a mother or father, congratulations, you have successfully brought life into the world, you are a creator. I do not advise expending your creative urges in this manner all the time, however. Instead, try the following collaborative projects:

– coming up with stories at bedtime

– create your own board or card games

– start a band and write music

– come up with science fair projects

– have art projects or arts and crafts nights

– play Minecraft or other sandbox games

– DIY projects around the house.

At work

If you have a job where you are paid to create (e.g. engineer, artist), then you probably aren’t lacking in creative outlets. In the lab, I get to make figures and schemes and presentations to accompany my research data. For many of you, there will be many opportunities to exercise your creativity at work. You can volunteer to put together a logo, a presentation, a memo, an advertisement, or anything else that requires a bit of imagination and implementation. If your job doesn’t offer those kinds of opportunities, it can be as simple as making cookies for your colleagues, customizing cards for special occasions, or decorating office space or attire, designing a business card with interesting graphics, or printing t-shirts for company getaways.

I once made a motivational poster of my boss peering down the barrel of a Nerf gun, with the words “stay focused” written beneath. Soon, everyone in the lab was requesting motivational posters with their own sayings. I also cultivated a line of petri -dish Jade bonsais that have since been spread to multiple labs as a window seal decoration.

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To supplement your writing

Of course, these creative projects should not impinge on your writing time, marketing, or other author responsibilities. However, you can supplement your writing with these creative projects to help sell your brand. You can focus your arts and crafts on making things specific to your fantasy or scifi world. If you describe a piece of jewelry or attire, try to make it. If you have a saying, motto, or logo, or book cover, print it on t-shirts, mugs, poster, etc. Perhaps you can sell these items on your website, or offer them as giveaways. That way when people show off these items, it will further advertise your book. You can even draw sketches of your characters, paint a scene, draw a map, or design a cover for your book.  Do you make music and have a bunch of audio equipment? Turn your novel into an audiobook. If you like to cook, make the dishes you describe in your world and write a cookbook. Not only will you be able to describe the taste of such a dish in detail, you can describe the making of it.

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A leather cover for the first round of edits of my first book.

It is difficult to be creative in today’s world; everything is made for us, processed within an inch of unrecognizable and provided with instructions as simple as “just add water.” It is no wonder the simple process of creation eludes many of us on a day to day basis. Writing can only satisfy our addiction for so long before we begin drawing inventions on the back of napkins or building a castle of epic proportions on Minecraft.

Are you an creation addict? How do you expend your excess creativity?

The Write Right Rite

This isn’t a post about homonyms, it’s about the rite of passage we all must take in order to become better writers, to write right. Contrary to popular opinion, people aren’t born great writers. Anyone can become a talented and successful writer so long as they possess the following traits:

  • The passion for reading and telling stories
  • The creativity to come up with those stories
  • The dedication, patience, and persistence to write, edit, and market those stories
  • The willingness to read, practice, and learn the craft
  • The humility to learn from your mistakes and accept criticism and feedback

If you are reading this, then you will likely agree that these last two traits are crucial to any writer who wants to improve. In the beginning, most writers are blinded by their own accomplishment, that act of putting so many words down on the page, that they fail to see their own deficiencies. OMG, they say, I am doing what all those authors in bookstores are doing, I am writing a novel. Once I finish, my book will be right up there with theirs. It is not their fault; they simply don’t realize how difficult it is to become a successful author, and their friends and family all insist it’s a work of art. They don’t know that they have just embarked on a life-long journey of self-improvement. Who knew that writing was considered an entire craft? How hard can it be? They’re just words, right?

birds.pngIf only it were that simple. Pretty soon these fledgling writers will leap from the cozy nest they were born in and try to soar to the starry heights of the literary skies. Unfortunately, many of them will plummet to the ground, their little wings incapable of bearing them up. Those that do rise will find that a cruel tempest lies between them and their goal. Once the reality sinks in, many writers will give up and lock their stories away where they can no longer embarrass them.

It takes a lot of courage to face your inadequacies as a writer and choose to stay in it for the long haul. And it won’t be easy. Today’s authors are encouraged to find their own unique voice and original story lines, yet produce writing that meets the standards of the industry. It is a narrow path to walk. If you stray too far from the norm, you will be criticized or ignored entirely, but if you adhere too firmly to the standards of the genre, you will be accused of chasing trends and your work will be viewed as derivative. Today’s author must stretch the limits of the genre’s boundary in order to find their niche.

The quickest way to learn the craft, is to do your research and seek writing advice. At one time or another, most writers will join writers’ groups or participate in online writing websites and forums, or follow blogs (cough…this one… cough). There they can absorb the hard-won wisdom of writers who have already been through the process. All writing advice is subjective, however, since it comes from an author with their own unique voice and target audience.  What will work for one person may not work for another. The advice may still be useful, as it has already gone through the extensive process of trial and error. Learning what advice to accept and which to disregard is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as a writer.

You can read all the advice in the world, but it won’t make you a better writer without practice. It takes time and effort to produce quality writing. Consequently, many writers consign their first novel to the bin, proclaiming it their ‘learning or practice novel.’ Like most rites of passage, this one is particularly discouraging and painful, but is often necessary in order for writers to improve their writing. In a recent newsletter, one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, admitted to having written ‘numerous books,’ many of which were ‘very weak,’ before he sold his first novel.

Someone once told me that writing is a practice in shoveling a mountain of ‘crap’ (she didn’t say crap), and that every time you write you decrease the height of the pile. Only when the pile is gone, will the writing be free of ‘crap’. However, there will always be writers who do plenty of writing but are incapable of facing their inadequacies, who won’t listen to advice, strive to improve, read books, or learn about the craft. They will continue to churn out undeveloped stories and poor writing, and accuse the world of not understanding them. These unfortunate writers, don’t see the mountain of ‘crap’ they are standing on, and instead produce more of it in order to look down on the world from an even greater and loftier height.

Have you ever recalled a memory, but rather than experiencing it through your own point of view, you look upon your actions as if from third person? I am no psychologist, but I like to think this happens because, subconsciously, you can no longer identify with your former self. Something in your values, your mentality, your self-image has changed. You should strive for this feeling with your writing. If you can look back on something you wrote 5 years ago and see no way to improve it, then you are not doing it right. Writing as a hobby or as a career, requires continuous learning. Read more about the craft, learn more about what your audience wants, read over your reviews or go in search of critiques. There are always ways to improve, and as writers, we should use every opportunity to produce quality and enjoyable writing for our readers.

The science of writers’ retreats

It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been writing. Last Friday I left on a writers’ retreat with a couple members of my critique group to the beautiful San Juan Islands in Washington state. If you are a writer and haven’t been on a writers retreat or joined a writers group, I highly recommend it. I’ve been to a couple of writing retreats over the past few years, and there is a science to getting the most out of them.

Go to write and go with writers- If you think you can get some writing done on an ordinary vacation with family or friends, chances are you won’t get to sit in one place for very long. If you are like me, you get distracted very easily, so you will need to surround yourself with like-minded people with similar goals. Join a writers group. There is something about sitting in a room with other writers that helps me stay on track. Perhaps it is the clicking of keys as they type, or the thoughtful expressions they wear as they stare beyond the physical world and into their imaginations, that spurs me to stay focused and keep pace. A writers’ retreat is really just an extended writers group meeting, where you occasionally toss around ideas and advice or ask for a certain word or expression that’s been eluding you. Make sure to go with people you know and get along with. Also, come to a consensus about what type of trip it will be. If someone is looking forward to a weekend away from distractions in order to write, while another thinks of it as a social outing with friends, neither will be particularly happy with the outcome.

Go to an inspiring and cozy location- Chances are that you will need to take a break from your writing. Ideally, the purpose of that break will be to reflect on what you’ve written so far and prepare you to write the next scene. Taking a walk along a forest trail or a warm beach, is the perfect recipe for inspiration. But if the scenery is far more beautiful than the indoors, chances are you won’t want to come back in and write. You should avoid places with too many nearby activities. If there is a movie theater down the street, a casino, or a theme park, their proximity will distract you from your goal. Chose a comfortable and homely dwelling that will help you escape the bugs, the heat, or the cold, a place you will want to stay in.

Set the mood- If you write best with a bit of music in the background, by candle light, or while wrapped in your favorite comforter: do it. You’ll need to come to an agreement with the other writers before blaring your inspiration mix, or at least wear headphones. You don’t want to be responsible for distracting another writer.

Go prepared- Hunger, headaches, sunburns, bug bites, and innumerable other distractions, can easily be avoided. Bring whatever medicine and sustenance you might need to counter these distractions. You don’t want to be a downer to everyone else in attendance. Take a break from writing to cook or order some delicious food. Delicious being the key word. Let yourself indulge in some comfort food and perhaps some wine, to make the trip even more idyllic and inspiring. Brew some coffee or otherwise be prepared to wake up early and get things done; it might be a vacation, but you still have a job to do.

Bring a few things to work on- If you aren’t making any headway on your current work-in-progress or if you lost your passion for it, take a break and work on something else. Writers retreats don’t happen often, so it would be a shame to walk away without anything to show for it. You should also feel free to start something new. Bounce a few ideas off of your fellow writers, write an outline, and start typing.

Many say that writing is a solitary occupation, and I say that those people have never been to a good writers’ retreat. Have you been to a writing retreat? Leave a comment if you have anything else to add to this list of considerations.