Monday, August 4, 2014

How I'm Progressing as a Writer

     I recently finished my 4th residency for my master's program and I've had some time to reflect on my progress as a writer. I've enjoyed every residency but each has its own flavor. After the first one, I wasn't really sure that the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program was going to work out. I'd spent several years prior to starting the program trying to improve my skill and my knowledge-base about writing as a profession and I felt like I wasn't learning anything new. My opinion on that changed after the second residency, but looking back now, I can see the cumulative effects of the program.

     After each semester I'd taken stock of how much my writing skill had increased, if at all. After the semester that ended last winter I felt I'd reached a new plateau, but after spending a full semester with Timons Esaias as my mentor, my skill seems to have gone up an order of magnitude, instead of incrementally. I more easily recognize patterns in writing that I couldn't see before. Common mistakes that a lot of writers make, especially on the first draft, stand out like a strobing beacon. This semester the thing that really emerged was understanding what it means to give a character agency, to really get under their skin and speak through their point of view, but that's only part of it. The craft of writing is making sense. I look back thinking I'd learned a few things, only to find a few months later that I've grown even more. I honestly thought that I was getting it before, but the more I learn the more I see that this is a journey with many plateaus.

     That's not to say that I don't screw up in the execution sometimes. But I can usually spot when I make a mistake much more easily. I know how to fix it. It's still hard to see all the mistakes in your own work. Having a writing partner that knows the craft is invaluable. I've learned something from everyone I've worked with from the very beginning of this odyssey.

     Knowing simple things like how to tag, basic grammar, and how to structure a story are all pieces to the puzzle. The more pieces that I gather and put in place the more the picture makes sense. I know this is a journey that will continue for the rest of my life, but I was surprised by how much more I am coming to understand.

     When I look back at how far I've come in the last six years it's pretty amazing. I have to say thanks to C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher, and Patty Briggs for not humiliating me on the very first piece I send out as a fledgling writer. I think I still have that piece somewhere, but it must have been horrible. They were so gracious and encouraging. I may have quit trying if they hadn't been so accommodating and wonderful. I'd submitted for a writer's conference at MISCON many years ago, and thanks to Justin Barba for putting me in their group. He was incredible as well, knowing that they were some of my writing heroes; he really hooked me up.

     But I didn't actually make it to the Con. I missed my flight after spending nearly $600 on a plane ticket. I overslept the very early wake-up call and arrived at the airport about fifteen minutes from departure time, but the airline wouldn't let me get on the jet. I could pay another couple of hundred dollars to switch to another airline or try later in the day as a standby. I drove an hour and a half back home and then returned in the afternoon for another try, but was shut out again. I was beside myself with disappointment and anger, just as much at myself as anyone.

     You have to understand that something like that never happened to me. I fly for a living, and I can't recall ever missing a show time in twenty seven years. But it happened. I called Justin and he said he already had my stuff and would give it to the group to critique but he couldn't make any promises. Justin is a great guy. I figured the authors probably had enough on their plate and nothing would happen.

     Surprise! I got a lovely email from C.J. and a packet in the mail with all my critiques in it. I couldn't believe it. C.J. actually gave me her phone number and asked me to call her so we could go over it together. I'll never forget it. She and Jane really helped put me on the right path.

     It still remains to be seen if I'll make it as a novelist, but it won't be from a lack of effort and a lot of help from others. I've come a long way, maybe far enough at this point to finish a sellable manuscript. I'm confident. I have a great support group in my family, the Seton Hill WPF alum, and my writing partners. I hope to make them all proud. I look forward to seeing what the future holds.

Clear Ether!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I Will Not Be Boycotting the Olympics

There has been a lot of grousing on the interwebs about the Sochi Olympics and how homophobic the Russians are; the fact that the village isn’t completed, or there may be tens of billions of dollars in graft and corruption. Several of my friends and people whose blogs I read are talking about boycotting Sochi.

I don’t get this.

How is any of that relevant to how hard the athletes have trained? They have devoted their lives to getting ready for the next Olympics. We can debate how important sports are. Or if there is any value in watching sports, but how does boycotting Sochi have anything to do with the events that are televised? The TV rights are bought and paid for. The tickets are already sold for the events. I have never spent a dime on anything related to the Olympics, and I don’t plan to now. About the only thing I can think of is that some Neilson rating number will get an infinitesimally small blip from me watching a televised event.

The Events themselves are often amazing. The athletes are a joy to watch. Their skill, honed through thousands of hours of practice and sacrifice, is a thing of beauty. And most of them are not getting paid for this and had to scrimp and save just to be able to barely get there. They want us to watch them. Many of them have prepared for this moment for their entire lives.

I don’t have to agree with anything the Russians are doing or have done to prepare for this in order to support the athletes. If you want to take the International Olympic Committee to task, or the Russian government, then more power to you. But the athletes aren’t responsible for any of it.

I’ll be watching as much as I can. Not just the athletes of our country, but all the countries. I do get a thrill from watching USA win, but the spirit of the competition and the devotion of these athletes is worthy of our admiration, no matter where they are from.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Some Holiday themed pics

The Turkey turned out perfect!

Our Suess inspired tree

The Red Tree

The Thanksgiving Table. 

This is such a festive and fun setting, don't you think?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First SentenceWired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every writer should read this book. It has great insight into how the brain and the written word interface and the avenue is via story. Fantastic learning tool for writers of all ability levels.

I was turned on to Wired for Story through an interview Chuck Wendig did with Lisa Cron in July 2012 for his blog Terribleminds. She gave us her views on developing story. Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain. She is a producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer, and also teaches a writing course at UCLA, but spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories. It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make our story click with the reader. They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind.

On Lisa's blog she touched on why books that get panned by critiques can still sell at amazing rates. It answers the question as to why books like 50 Shades of Gray can sell millions of books. I remember picking up The Hunger Games, because my wife and daughter love it, and reading the first couple of pages and saying to myself, the prose just aren’t all that, but next thing I knew I was 100 pages in and couldn’t put it down. Stephanie Myers' Twilight books have been criticized for not having elaborate prose also, but the one thing all of these books have in common is they tell a great story and in a way that touches those chords in the mind.

Wired for Story is broken down into twelve chapters with a cognitive hook and a writer's shortcut she calls the story secret for each chapter. She gives us concrete examples for each section of the book and breaks down what the writer is doing.

The concept is amazing -- we are designed to think in story form. It allows us to use a form of mental telepathy with the story teller, that when done right is an experience almost as visceral as the real thing. It allows us to learn by using the experience of the story instead of having to live through something to learn it the hard way. It has certainly saved lives. The takeaway for Lisa is that we need to hook the reader from the very first sentence. She opens up her book with some fascinating facts about how the brain filters the 11 million bits of information that are bombarding us every second. Wham, she has me right away. Learning through story has been saving mankind since the stone age.

Next, she explain in very clear terms what story actually is:
"What happens" is the plot.
"Someone" is the protagonist.
The "Goal" is what's known as the story question.
And "how he or she changes" is what the story itself is actually about.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change.
She continues with ways to hook the reader. Tidbits like "nothing focuses the mind like surprise" and "we are looking for a reason to care" and "we need to meet the protagonist as soon as possible" cut right through the b. s. and give us concrete clues. She describes the reasons we need to be clear in our writing so that the reader can anticipate what might happen next. That is what will keep them turning the page.
She also has an interesting take on writing style. She claims that "learning to 'write well' is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well is secondary." This probably won't go down well with literary fiction fans, but for genre writers the message is clear -- tell us an interesting story.

She describes the relationship of theme with plot and how tone is just as important has what you are saying. The key to the whole thing lies with emotion. It determines the meaning of everything. If we aren't feeling we aren't conscious, and we certainly aren't reading the book if it's not reaching us on an emotional level.

She breaks down the use of POV for conveying feelings and thoughts. She is not a fan of head hopping, because it is so jarring if done poorly.
She describes the essence of why showing is so much more effective than telling.

Cause and effect has its own chapter and it clearly delineates why each scene should ask "What is at stake here?" Everything needs to be connected together so that it can make sense. She also discusses how to stay focused on the cause and effect and still keep things unpredictable.

She closes the book with a chapter on revision and how to do it right, adding in the layers that take a book to the next level. This book is so chock full of useful advice, and I've only touched on a few things here. It should be mandatory reading for every beginning level writing course. She opened my eyes to thinking about writing in a completely different way. The tools are the same, but it's all in the focus. I can't say enough positive things about this brilliant book.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Reflections on my first Writer's Convention

I just got back from my first convention for writers. It was Context 26 in Worthington, OH, just north of Columbus. The Con is supposed to be focused on science fiction writing, but there was just as much fantasy content, which was fine. It's a relatively small Con, but they have a reputation for getting some fairly renowned authors and artists to attend. This year it was Jack McDevitt, Mike Resnick, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch. All novelists that I'd at least heard of, if not read. I'm actually a huge fan of Scott Lynch, and he was funny and warm.

It's a tricky thing being an unpublished novelist attending one of these things. As a writer you want to meet other writers as a peer, but you really feel like a pretender. A fan pretending to be a writer, just so you can get close to them and talk about what you loved about their writing, instead of just being a normal person. Of course writers love to talk about writing, especially what they're working on. The whole enterprise now is so focused on marketing yourself that it has really taken over the lives of some writers. This can make for some awkward conversations. How do you get past all of that, and have an actual conversation with your "peer?" Can we ever bridge the gap from fan to peer once we've met them as a fan? Alcohol helps a lot apparently.

I chose this Con for several reasons: it's relatively close (4 hours driving), some friends of mine were supposed to go, and several of the module presenters were teachers and mentors from Seton Hill University, where I am working on my Master's degree. This really made the experience so much better. I met up with another student and a few alums from my MFA program, and got to know one of the instructors much better. I had breakfast with the SHU teacher and he reminded me that Cons are for socializing. I'd had classes with him before and knew him a little bit by reputation and had spoken briefly to him at some social events we had back in Greensburg, but I'd never gotten past the awkward part before. He made me feel very welcome, and we got past the awkward parts, and actually got to know each other on a more personal level.

I am not bashful. I'm not a wall flower type. My wife says I could make conversation with a potted plant (not true), but I will only spend so much time standing awkwardly by myself at an event before I just cash in and go do something more productive with my time, like writing (or watching television because I really didn't feel like writing. Don't judge!) Fortunately, there wasn't a lot of that at this Con.

I think most writers, published or not, are fans of other writers. But it does make a difference when you approach an established writer as a peer. There is a comfort level there. But when you are standing in a line to get them to autograph their book, you give up something. You give up a different level of intimacy with them. It's funny to me, because in my other life you would define me as successful. I make a good income; have a wonderful family, and a large home. I am fairly far up the infrastructure where I work, at least locally, and so you can equate that with "established writer" in my peer group there. But that counts for nothing in the writer world. I am down at "newbie" level. I need some bona fides, some published books -- hopefully, some quality published books. I suppose the choice is not to get in line for an autograph. But I even get my books signed by my writing partners that are not well known, because I want to. To honor them in part, not just so I can say "I knew them when." Let me be clear though, the writers I met were all gracious and friendly. But there is still a distance that remained between us that can only be bridged by spending time with them, not in a line or right after an event, when all they really want is to go eat, or drink, or rest. I think all fans would love to be able to do this with the people they like, to see if they could be friends with them. It does take some of the mystic away, when you get to know someone better, so maybe they wouldn't like what they found. But the artist in question simply doesn't have time to be friends with everyone. There is a chance though that you can become friends as a peer, where you might be running in the same circles. I know even some bloggers or critics are friends with artists, when they keep running into them at these types of events.

This was the first of many Cons, I hope, and at some point in the future I may be asked to participate on the other side of the table. So I am trying to look at this from the perspective of someone that is successful as a novelist, and see how to prepare myself for what's to come -- a "field recon," in the words of that very same teacher that I ate breakfast with. I look to see what they write when they sign, and how they engage with the fan. It appears to take a lot of energy to do it right. I think the trick is to not get suckered in to doing too many things and wearing yourself out. But meeting other writers and fans is really a wonderful thing. Being able to share our love for something is legit.

I've already warned my wife that more of these are in the cards, and I'm honestly excited about the future.

Clear Ether!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Running and Writing

Chuck Wendig posted yesterday about his effort to start running, and it got me thinking about my own love/hate relationship with running. When I was a young man I loved to run and had speed, but I suffered from the same ailment as Chuck, Osgood Schlatter's disease.  I had to quit playing soccer and football, which was a real bummer for me, as my life was centered on sports back then. My focus switched to academics, and it proved to be auspicious. If that hadn't happened I likely wouldn't have gone to the Air Force Academy or became a pilot. Sports wouldn't have done that for me.

I did, however, start running again a few years after the onset of the disease, for therapy, once the pain stopped crippling me every time I ran. I had some bad days, where I could barely walk the following day, but eventually, I was able to run several miles without pain or any after effects. By the time I was a senior in high school I was running on the cross country team. I wasn't fast, like I was before the Osgood Schlatter's disease, but I was able to compete.

Fast forward through college and running fell out of my routine, becoming a time waster and an annoyance. I was too busy playing video games. If I gained a few pounds, enough to notice, I would run a few days in a row and loose the weight. I weighed all of 142 pounds back then. I abused my body with lack of sleep, smoking at least a pack a day, and drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol through my 20s. At 27, I quit smoking (first kid,) and gained 20 pounds almost overnight. I was not running, or doing hardly any regular exercise, but I was still in the active Air Force and had to maintain a minimum level of fitness. So I would ramp it up a few weeks prior to testing. Since then, I think I put on a little more than a pound a year until I hit 195 (I'm 5' 8"), and inevitably failed a fitness test.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Pimping a book: Lexicon by Max Barry

UK / Aus / NZ / SA

I just finished the audiobook version of Lexicon by Max Barry. It made my drive to Pennsylvania for the next residency in my MFA program a riveting adventure instead of drudgery.

I've been a Max Barry fan since he was Maxx Barry. I loved Jennifer Government, and I've made it a point to read every book he's written. Max's infectious, dark humor has always been a hallmark of his work, but the tone of Lexicon surprised me. It feels like an older, more mature brother of his other works. It's a blisteringly brilliant book. I was a fan before this novel came out but this new book puts Max into a different tier.

Be careful...reading Lexicon will compromise you, turning you into one of his proselytes for this heart-stopping thriller. It's a profoundly intelligent tale that covers a global conspiracy to use words as keys to unlock the human mind. 

The novel follows a young street hustler drafted into a secret organization, made into a weapon by careless inattention, and a seemingly innocent bystander, the only survivor of a horrific disaster. Usually his barb filled prose are more than enough for me but he goes for a different approach in this book. The normal tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek style is set aside for a more serious tone, elevating Max Barry into the upper echelons of science fiction writers. He has obviously done a lot of historical research to ratchet this story up several notches and combined with the philosophical undertones, it really messed with my head.  Barry jumps back and forth through the timestream, which serves to maintain a blistering pace and keeps you guessing who is one whose side and what's going to happen next.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Amy Acosta Hosts me on her Book Den

Amy Acosta was nice enough to host me on her website this weekend!
Check it out here: Amy's Book Den

I also have a new Author Page up on Facebook:
Todd R. Moody

Thanks for visiting both!

Clear Ether!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I Love It When a Devious Plan Comes Together

The idea for my new novel was birthed back in November. It started out as an idea that I was noodling around with and I'd put it on the back burner until January, when I decided to use the idea to craft my thesis novel. After a false start, I retooled and decided to try my hand at turning it into a Sci Fi Mystery novel. I'd never attempted anything remotely like a mystery before, so I did a little research on how the genre is approached and did my best to stay within those bounds. It was hard for me. First of all there is no dead body at the beginning. Bad stuff happens, but it doesn't start with a murder. I still thought I had enough to get there, but the further along I got the more it seemed to veer away from the mystery tropes. It was confounding me, but now I have clarity. I am writing a Thriller, not a Who Dunnit?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Plot Devices and Literary Terminology

Just a little fun with some terms:

Chekhov's gun
"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." – Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
It is a metaphor for a plot device or foreshadowing, which if shown or discussed should be used later.

Red herring
A false clue that leads the characters toward an inaccurate conclusion within the plot of a story, considered to be the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun.
The Chewbacca Defense is starting to come into the lexicon as a famous Red Herring It refers to a South Park episode and refers to using something so patently absurd that it makes no sense and creates confusion.

"[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers". 
-- Alfred Hitchcock
A plot device that provides the initial motivation for a character, and it may or may not end up coming back into the story at the end.