Independent Writing from an Independent Mind

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Ray Bradbury: Good exercise from a master?

Earlier this year we lost Ray Bradbury. It just so happened thought that this past weekend I came across a talk that he gave at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. He spoke for about ninety minutes. The time got away from me but I was quite intrigued. For one, it would seem that he was actually spending his whole time speaking extemporaneously, with no prepared speech. That did seem easy for him to do, if that was indeed what he was doing. He told stories of his long career. His stories were quite frank and quite honest and above all, they were damned interesting.

Ray Bradbury, over the course of his talk, gave the following recommendations for writers:

1) Before you sleep, read one essay, one short story and a poem;
2) Write one short story per week; and
3) Write essays often.

According to Ray this should help you to hone your overall writing skills and prepare those who are looking to be novelists at a later stage. He was pretty clear that he felt novelists should start out as short story writers. Maybe those of us who are serious should consider this advice.

If you’d like to watch Ray Bradbury’s talk yourself. Enjoy!:

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Why blogging is one of the best public relations tools for writers – Period!

A friend of mine was complaining that he doesn’t believe that he will ever make a mark with his writing (even though I am definitely not alone in considering him to be a good writer) because he believes he will never get the notice that he believes it will take to “gain fame”. Why? Because he doesn’t have a contract, he doesn’t have a marketing budget and most importantly he doesn’t have enough going on to get “noticed” by media. You can imagine that I had lots to say, and I will tell you about the first two point in later posts, but the point about the media I will address right now.

Folks, we are in the twenty-first century. You don’t have to have media behind you to start out with. You don’t need to be an extrovert. You don’t need anything more than the space between your ears and WordPress (or Blogger, Typepad, Posterous or Tumblr or whatever platform you wont to use). Two perfect examples are Gary Vayerchuck and Tim Ferriss.

Let me give you some solid reasons why using your blog can be better than traditional public relations.

You can direct your message specifically to the audience you are trying to reach

I know there are loads of magazines, television, radio, and yes, other people’s blogs out there. But what are you writing about? Now think. Are there any of these outlets that fit your message to a tee exactly? And even if there is one out there with 99% overlap with your audience there could be loads of reasons they might not run your message. You could be bumped by other news. They might not think your message is timely for them. It could be they have “too much” news for their current issue. (Yes, this does happen!) When you write your own blog post none of this matters at all. Your message gets out there every time.

You can say exactly what you want

Your message can be as long or as short as it needs to be (though you should be mindful of length). And you say exactly what you want. There is no editor to cut parts of your message away. There is no interviewer to misinterpret what you had to say. There is no reporter to get your facts wrong. You say what you need to say and what you want to say. And this is gold, my friends.

Your message gets delivered when you want it to

That’s right. If you have a Christmas message then your message goes out on Christmas. If you need to get to the presses right away, well, how fast can you type? With traditional media, again, you are on their schedule. When they release the story (if they release the story) then that’s when you get heard. Not when you take charge with your blog. You never miss a deadline – unless you, yourself, miss the deadline!

The price is right!

You can put your message out there for little or no money. The only thing you really need is persistence and sweat. And name me anything out there in this great big world that is worthwhile but not worth your persistence and sweat?

And you can get “followed”

People who like what you have to say and want to hear more will always have the option to get mail and RSS follow ups as long as you make sure that can happen. This means that the more you have to say of relevance to the people you are directing your message to, the more you will actually have an audience. That’s right. If you know who you are trying to reach and you direct yourself to them long enough, you will reach them.

To me, that is more than enough reason to keep turnin’ and burnin’ at your blogging. It will make sure that the right people will hear your voice at the end of the day. I promise!

What to do with all my books?

This is a question that had always dogged me throughout my life which was mainly due to the fact that I have lived a very mobile existence since I flew the nest. I having made homes in ten different cities in four different countries since 1985. I have always been a hoarder of books as I was also a hoarder of music. I am a major fan of both. Each time I have moved it seems that I lost loads of books and albums, not to mention having loaned a helluva lot of these out to have never been returned.

Now I am looking at the possibility of going mainly book free and it scares me a little and excites me at the same time.

I have been pretty public about the fact that after so many years I am finally, FINALLY, starting to read ebooks. When I reluctantly switched from my Nokia C-7000 (still a damned good phone) to my iPhone late summer I tested the waters by reading a few books on iBooks. And I was hooked! Now I own my own Kindle and am hoarding (and reading) loads of books again.

Oddly enough, I am reading more books than I did before – or at least in the past few years. Why? Because I always have books with me now. Always.

I read when I am waiting on a friend. I read at lunch. I read in the bathroom. I read on the airplanes, in the airports, on the Bangkok BTS (sky train), in taxis. And in bed. The bottom line is that I have found more places to read than I ever have before. And I am enjoying it. Last year, in Johannesburg, I bought a nice computer carrying pull along bag. I used to load it with six or seven books per trip. Not anymore.

So now what to do with my books? I realize that I have still to read several of them and many I don’t want to give up. So I am very reluctant to get rid of the books that are around my house. I also worry that if I got rid of the books around the house that I would discourage the children from reading. (Is that unfounded?) I have read several blogs from people who I have followed and respected who have claimed they were going completely "bookless" now and I have been thinking whether this is a real option myself, especially as an erstwhile writer. My mind isn’t fully wrapped around this yet. Going bookless could definitely unclutter my home and office. But I have always believed that the world was just so much better with books around.

Am I a dinosaur who is struggling against the inevitable or is my reluctance from a rational perspective. I think I will feel this out as I go along. But one thing I do know is that I am enjoying the hell out of ebooks right now and I am sure that this will continue.

Do you have withdrawals after finishing a book?

Today I got a bit of food for thought from some other writers that has had me wondering all morning.  Earlier I was reading a thread on Fluther from authors / writers who were answering the posed question:

Do you have withdrawals after finishing a book?

Why do so many authors get withdrawal symptoms after finishing their book projects?

Why do so many authors get withdrawal symptoms after finishing their book projects?

I have to tell you I was a bit amazed at the responses.  Nearly thirty different authors answered this question and virtually all of them reported some degree of withdrawals.  Although one of them remarked that it depended upon which book, none of the participating authors answered in the negative.  Even some of the authors claimed major withdrawals after finishing writing their book! This to me is quite intriguing due to the fact that I had a totally different feeling altogether, albeit a mixed emotion.  (Or maybe it was two feelings that intertwined?)

Let’s put it this way…

On the one hand I felt a great sense of accomplishment, completion and pride.  On the other hand I felt a bit incomplete because there was always something more that could be added to the book or changed in the book.  (Maybe this second feeling was similar to what these other authors were feeling?)

To me when someone says they are having withdrawals I have an imagine in my mind of a melancholy feeling of unfulfillment – sort of like being denied something that was within my reach before.  Again, I cannot report this on any of my writing projects.  I like to think of writers giving something to the world like a carpenter or master builder does.  So where does this “unfulfillment” that other writers appear to have come from?  Is it self doubt?  Can we equate the creative process to the high of taking drugs or drinking alcohol?  And why if so many other authors seem to get it am I seemingly immune to this?

When I think about the process logically one could equate it to the post partum depression that women have after giving birth, but again, not all women report this state.  So I guess my blog post today is more of a question that fascinates me.  Do you authors out there who have successfully completed a book get withdrawals?  What do you experience?  How long does the withdrawal stick around?  If you experience other emotive states than withdrawal what do you experience?

Writing the Humorous Novel: Q & A with Maclean J Storer

Warning!: This introduction will sound like I am plugging the next author and his book.  Well, in a way I am.  I believe in singing praises when they are due.  But the real purpose of this interview is to give insight into what is behind writing a good humorous novel.  So let’s get started…

Forward O Peasant by Maclean J Storer

Forward O Peasant by Maclean J Storer

I know of very few people who have completed one work and can be called a master at anything.  J.D. Salinger, possibly?  Nonetheless, Maclean J Storer’s debut Forward O Peasant will definitely be a cult classic and underground favorite for years to come.  The book has been getting great reviews in the expatriate community.  But better than that, Forward O Peasant has been receiving tons of word or mouth notice from expatriates residing in Asia, but especially in Southeast Asia, many of whom have been smuggling the book into Vietnam for friends or buying pirated copies in the backpacker areas of Saigon and Bangkok.  I was one of the first to have read this book (or at least I would like to think so) and have been singing its praises to all who want to listen.  That having been said, I know of one German in Cambodia who e-mailed over three hundred of his acquaintances telling them to get hold of Forward O Peasant and read it cover to cover.  As I have personally known the author since 1994 and since I have also tried my hand at writing humor (though in a much different format) I thought it might be good to ask him about what goes into writing humorous fiction.

And here is our conversation:

Gary Dale Cearley: How do you know when what you have written is funny? Where does the feeling come from?

Maclean J Storer: I always had the feeling that to write something funny, I would have to surprise myself. So when I read back over a scene or a chapter and it appeared as though it had been written by a better writer than me, I felt I had probably got it right. I also make a practice of reading my work out loud to myself, and when you do that, there’s no escaping it when you’ve written something dull.

Gary Dale CearleyWhere does your inspiration for writing in this particular genre come from?

Maclean J Storer: This particular book was based on personal experience. All the actions in the book either happened in real life, almost happened, or I was told that they had happened, or I felt that they should have happened. My task as the author was to try to make the four types of action indistinguishable from one another.

Gary Dale CearleyWho is your favorite humorous writer out there today and why?

Maclean J Storer: I like absurdist humor, and I think most of the best practitioners of that art have pretty much hung up their pens — Alan Coren, David Nobbs, Clive James, and the cartoonists Bill Tidy and Glen Baxter. Garrison Keillor is a special favourite of mine, and a fascination — I’ve never read another humorist who can be so funny yet so gentle.

Gary Dale Cearley: Your first book was loosely based on your experiences in living in Vietnam where you lived for several years and I understand you are working on a sequel. After this sequel do you intend to continue writing humor about Vietnam or will you move on to other worlds?

Maclean J Storer: I think two books about Vietnam will probably be enough. There are so many other targets for satire in the modern age, I think it’s time I turned my attention to the wider world.

Gary Dale CearleyWhat have been your harshest criticisms about the book?

Maclean J Storer: I have been accused of political incorrectness and bias, which I take as compliments for a satirist.

Gary Dale CearleyAnd on the other hand, what has been your most positive feedback?

Maclean J Storer: Many people have said that they found the book extremely funny, which is the main thing, and several others said they found it true to life, to the extent that they knew people who were exactly like the characters I had created.

Gary Dale CearleyFrom publishing Forward O Peasant, which was your first novel, what advice can you give to other first timers out there who are looking publish their own first book, which might be a novel or otherwise?

Maclean J Storer: Make your book the best it can possibly be. And that includes mundane things such as thorough proofreading and editing, which in turn means having a third party look at your work, ideally a professional manuscript assessor. It costs a bit, but at least you will get some honest feedback and advice. When you venture forth into the world of agents and publishers, you should use every trick you know, exploit every personal contact, and twist every arm you can. And keep a handkerchief handy for crying into when things don’t work out, as will frequently happen.

Gary Dale Cearley:  What has writing this book taught you about yourself?

Maclean J Storer: That I can successfully complete a substantial and difficult task no matter how many obstacles my self-doubt puts in my way. As some self-development speaker said, “Feel the fear, and do it anyway.”

What not to do when critiquing a writer’s work in progress…

Be truthful and be fair when criticising a work in progress...

Be truthful and be fair when criticising a work in progress...

We all know the story…

A friend who is also a writer has just given you some of his work to look over for contents and it is awful.  You can blow him off.  You can tear him down.  Or you can find some way to give him constructive criticism.  I struggle with this one all of the time but I have learned that there are a few things never to do…

1)      Do not recreate the work. Though you can give your opinion about the style of the work, in the end the final outcome should be left to the writer.   Even if you feel the work is totally awful you shouldn’t rewrite it for the author.  Give him some pointers but for Heaven’s sake, let him do the rewriting.

2)      Don’t blow the requestor off and don’t procrastinate in getting something back. Make sure that they know you are busy even if it takes some time to get back to them.  By doing so you will make them feel that you are disingenuous.

3)      Be fair and civil. You can be direct and to the point but at the same time the writing is not your own.  It belongs to the creator until it is in its final form.  Do not use spirit crushing words when pointing out the flaws in his work.  It will be a degrading experience for the both of you.

4)      Simplify. I have found that if there are fifty various mistakes in a work that a friend has asked me to look over then I will try to make my comments on three or four broad general areas and let them work out the kinks.  This can be eye opening for the other writer and generally pays lots of dividends for the both of you because it is a learning experience for one and a good counseling experience for the other.  Win win.

I can sometimes be quite harsh when looking over someone else’s work and I have had to strive for balance and understanding when asked to give opinions.  Often this is because I really want them to produce something of quality.  But at the end of the day it is much better to only show them the signs and let them finish the work when it is done.  You are taking on the dual roles of coach and cheerleader, not judge and jury.  And remember to walk that fine line: There is nothing gained by crushing somebody but at the same time if you don’t help them become better writers both sides lose!

Writing is Exploration

One thing I have learned as a writer, whether it is a book, article, web posting, blog or whatever it may be, is that writing in and of itself is an exploration of my mind.  This is not to say that I am actively looking into my mind as I write, although that might be fun to do some time, but what I find is that almost always in retrospect I have learned something new.

Many people would think that I am a very methodical writer.  I plan out what I want to write beforehand in most cases.  I do this for several reasons:

1)      I can easily keep the point that I start out with if I have already predetermined a structure;

2)      The planning helps me to write faster because I already know what I am going to write about; and

3)      Having the planned out or mapped out structure is one of the best defenses against writer’s block.

All that having been said, during the planning process I discover so much more about my subject when I am considering all the angles of the material.  Then I also notice that during the writing process itself, while I am banging away at the keyboard, my mind wonders throughout the subject matter and sometimes even crosses the borders into other subjects.  I normally finish my writing not only with a sense of accomplishment (for getting the words to paper) but also a small sense of enlightenment.

If you feel the same way whenever you do anything, whether it is writing a novel or pruning roses, then I say you are a lucky person.

Why it is good for authors to meet up…

I have been involved with an authors’ meet up for some time now.  It is a very off and on thing and as all groups go it has some falling outs with the members, mainly over structure of the group and what we are to do.  Personally, it is very hard for writers to put much structure into any such group unless they are all of the same genre, mindset and caliber.  Our group, the Bangkok Writers Guild, is a very informal group made up of mainly expatriates.  Some of us are very satisfied where we are in our status whereas others want to hit it big – have a blockbuster to make their name, so to speak.  Personally, I don’t feel the need to do this because the books that I have written are unique in their own right.  You won’t find many books debunking the Vatican Islam Conspiracy, nor will you find many books on bawdy Southern humor either.

That being said, if you plan to join such a group as ours I think you will find a great camaraderie with your fellow authors.  There is much to be learned from them and there is much to teach them as well.  For instance, unless you are in a major city full of authors and author wannabes, like New York City, per se, then your group will most likely be a rag tag group like ours.  But this is great!  We have writers in our group who are non-published, self-published, vanity published and traditionally published.  The whole gamut is run in our own membership.  So if one of us wants help with marketing, typesetting, illustrations, cover design, getting an agent, editing, finding a POD publisher, getting blurbs and book reviews – you name it – it is all right here in our group.  For an author there is no better master mind group than a group of other authors.  I have personally found a wealth of experience in our own people.

If you are not in a group already and you are serious about learning the business of being an author, whether you plan to self publish or land a contract with a publishing house, I recommend finding a group to build a nest in.  Participate in the discussions.  Learn what you can and impart your own knowledge as well.  And if there isn’t a group around you then try to put your best foot forward and start one yourself.  Use the leverage of others’ knowledge and experience to make you better at the business of writing.  Open your mind to it and you will see there’s lots of help out there for you.

I would love to hear from other writers’ experiences in writers’ groups. Do you have any experiences you would like to share?

Why I as an Author do Book Reviews

As many authors and readers already well know I have been a book reviewer for BookPleasures.com for a few years now and I also write reviews for many international publications.  Though my reviews have had thousands of readers around the world I still have had one or two people, including fellow authors, refer to my book reviewing as a “hobby” of mine.  But in fact I don’t and have never before considered my reviewing books as a pastime.  The reviews I produce are as much for my growth as a writer and author as they are to help the potential reader made an informed decision about a book.

Why do I say that?

Simply put I use the review process as my own exercise for improvement in the craft of authoring books.  And I recommend to any author who could commit the time and effort to get into reviewing as well.  Here’s a list of the four main reasons I am so into reviewing other authors’ books:

1) I grow technically as a writer – When I review another author’s work I am constantly learning from their style, the structure of their product as well as their editing and content.  I compare this to works that I have produced in the past and also see which ideas that might work on projects that I will undertake or are currently working on.

2) I grow as an author in the broader sense – There is so much to learn about the themes presented and how authors get their message across.  This is very important because you not only have to find a voice when you write but you must also have something to say in the first place, otherwise you are you are simply rehash and not interesting.  Then what’s the point of writing at all?  This is all about learning how other authors find their own message and deliver it in a way that is unique to their style and personality.

3)  I grow intellectually and personally – I learn the lessons of the books I am reviewing and internalize these lessons.  I look for the parallels in my life and seek the wisdom in the writing.  I want to know exactly the point, the raison d’être, the author had in writing the book and how the book can make its own change in the world.  I always try to pinpoint the connections I have found with my own life or the lessons I have learned and make these examples available to the book’s potential reader as well.  And these lessons aren’t only found in non-fiction books either.  Even fictional books that many would consider that are just for entertainment purposes have these lessons.

4) I promote the art of writing – There are so many books published out there annually, I have heard between 200,000 to 250,000 new titles every year, that it is incredibly difficult for the worthy books to be sorted and found in this huge pile.  This means that it is very hard for authors, especially new authors, to find their audience and be heard.  I consider it my duty as a reviewer to try to help the curious reader to know what they should expect from the books that I review and I try to make sure that deserving authors will find more of a readership through my efforts.

Though books are readily available in today’s world, many readers everywhere take that availability for granted.  But to someone who has written a book, we “know it don’t come easy,” to paraphrase Ringo Starr.  Authors spend a good part of their lives in researching their books, making business plans, outlining the scripts, doing the actual writing, editing, publishing, etc., and quite honestly much of the time it is a thankless job.  A well written, solid review is my way of saying thank you to all the other authors out there who have written the books that have made me what I am today.  This is why I would like other authors to consider writing reviews every now and then.

Where can authors post their reviews?  Of course, many places, but just a few:  Their local newspaper, a literary magazine, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Gather.com, their own blog, an online book club (Shelfari, GoodReads, WeRead, LibraryThing, etc.) or on some other form of social media such as Facebook, Gather.com, etc.

Honestly, if you are a writer doing a few reviews here and there is an excellent way to pay it forward.  Get the conversation started… Remember, what goes around comes around!

How many authors do you know who are characters in another author’s book?

I don’t know how many of you out there have not only written your own books but have been in a book by other authors as well.  Well, I have actually have been in other books by other authors, both fiction and non-fiction.  But in one of the new works that I have been churning away on I relate the humorous story of how an altercation that I had in Vietnam in 1994 turned into a scene in a Chrisopher G. Moore novel, Comfort Zone, which was released in 1995.  This story I am actually incorporating into an autobiographical humorous book.

How do you find yourself in another person’s book?  Actually, I guess simply by knowing the right people (authors) and I guess being in the right place at the right time.  Read between those lines:

Have an interesting story to tell.

I happen to know a few authors and have known them for a while.  This comes from the work that I have done, the travel that I have done, my interests and the places that I have lived.

I don’t know why this would be an aim of anyone in particular unless, of course, you get some kind of ego boost out of it.  I was just thinking about it today due to the fact that when I was writing the story about going with my friend, Stéphane Bulckaen, by cyclo to eat snails (or not to eat snails in my case) then having an altercation with the cyclo drivers.  It just so happened that after this event happened I went into the Q Bar in Saigon where the novelest Christopher G. Moore was having a drink.  Since I had met him before I relayed the story then some few years later a friend who read Moore’s book recognized me and this particular incident in his book.

I was not identified personally anywhere in the book and that is fine with me.  I think it is neat to be recognized in another author’s book by someone living in another country.  Now, let’s see if who can be the next reader to find me in another book!  Maybe you can get on Twitter and let me know!