Monday, July 23, 2012

I Must Go, My Planet Needs Me

Well Earthlings, it's been fun. Now that my plans for world domination have come to fruition (you'll be feeling the effects sometime in December), I'm afraid I have to return to the planet Xzythlrul for my mission debriefing. It was nice to have infiltrated you.

I keed! Actually, I'm going on vacation. As you read this, I'm probably relaxing by a lake, tossing a frisbee, or eating fireside s'mores. Unfortunately, one thing I might not have is internet access, so I'll probably be MIA from the blogosphere for a while. I'll be back next Wednesday, right in time for IWSG.

In the mean time, watch this, this, and this. Play thisListen to this. I'll be back before you know it.

photo credit: Onur T. via cc

Monday, July 16, 2012

My First "Viral" Experience and What I Learned From It

Sometimes when you finish writing a piece, you get a certain feeling. A good feeling. It's a feeling that makes you think, "I may have hit a home run with that one." Last Monday, I got that feeling with "10 Bruce Lee Quotes That Can Improve Your Writing." I hit the publish button and crossed my fingers, hoping that sensation would translate to happy readers and perhaps a few more hits than usual. For the most part, that's what I got. 

The comments I received that week told me that most of you guys and gals (who are awesome) seemed to enjoy the article, and my pageviews were even a little higher than average--but only by a little. And that was just fine by me. I went about my week as usual, thankful for the small nudge and looking forward to writing the next entry.

Then late Friday night, I logged in to take a quick gander at things and saw this:

Pageviews (in Gazillionty Bajillions)

In the space of a few hours, my blog had garnered more views than in the entire month of June combined. "Oh my," thought I. "Something has happened." 

That something turned out to be my first taste of a semi-viral blog entry. After some investigation, I found that my Bruce Lee article had been discovered and shared by a few folks on twitter, eventually finding its way to @AdviceToWriters, who tweeted it to more than a hundred thousand people. That one tweet got over a hundred retweets, and my link ended up being passed around by tons of people, most of whom I'd never met or spoken to before. 

To say I was pleasantly surprised would be a vast understatement. I really can't tell you how thankful I am that so many people enjoyed my post enough to share it with their friends and followers. Seriously, thank youNow that the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled, the question is what have I learned from the experience? Allow me to tell you in list form:

Everybody Likes a Good List

But we already knew that. Yeah? I mean, you're reading one right now.

Enhance Your Content With Yourself

For a long while, I've been debating just how much I should stray away from the topic of writing and veer into my other interests. Before that Bruce Lee article, I'd considered writing about my martial arts obsession many times over, but I'd usually end up talking myself out of it. After all, most of my readership comes from the writing community, so it probably wouldn't serve to talk about something that might turn them off. 

Then it occurred to me that I could have the best of both worlds. The answer lied in finding a way to combine my interest in martial arts with my blog's primary subject. It worked, and resulted in my most popular entry to date by a long shot. So don't be afraid to bring more of yourself to the table.

Attack From Different Angles

I love writing about the craft, but let's be honest: there's already a lot of great writing advice out there. It's a subject that has been explored very thoroughly over the years, and I'm not exactly preaching from the same pulpit as Stephen King or Ray Bradbury. In many ways, I'm still a n00b myself. This can present a challenge. 

No one wants to regurgitate content that's already readily available, and no one wants to read the same thing over and over again in different places. Embracing the previous item on this list allowed me to come at my subject from an angle I might never have thought of otherwise. I think one of the reasons so many people liked that article is because it delivered common, easily digestible advice that was flavored by its unique approach. Uniqueness is attractive, and it shows.

Social Media Works . . . When It Wants To

For the most part I'd already embraced Twitter, but after my experience this past weekend, I'm even more convinced of how powerful it can be. It was crazy to look at my "Bruce Lee" search stream and watch tons of people I'd never met link to my blog in real time.

But the interesting part of this experience is that it wasn't a tweet of my own that got the ball rolling. I did tweet about the article shortly after I posted it, but the "viral" snowball happened days later, without any action on my part. In other words, self-promotion didn't mean didly in this instance. The links were spreading on the merit of the article alone. So if you want to go viral, worry about how strong your content is before worrying about how well you're promoting it.

Forge a Title that Catches Eyes

I'd be remiss if I ignored the obvious fact that "10 Bruce Lee Quotes That Can Improve Your Writing" is an eye-catching title. While I had no idea just how many eyes it would ultimately catch, I knew that my homerun swing began with those first nine words. If you'd like to follow suit, be sure to craft a title that is simple, to the point, and enticing to the reader.

Bruce Lee is Awesome and Everybody Knows It

I mean, seriously. The man beat up Chuck Norris for crying out loud!

Thanks again to everyone who was tossing my link around. I hope some of you have chosen to stick around and see what else I have to offer. I'll do my best not to disappoint. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

10 Bruce Lee Quotes That Can Improve Your Writing

When I was a child, the movies Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport instilled an obsession with martial arts that still lives in me today. These days it manifests itself mainly through my love of combat sports, but those early heroes still hold influence on me. One such legend is Bruce Lee.

I doubt I need to tell you who Bruce Lee is. He was one of the biggest pop culture icons of the 20th Century, starring in (and in a few cases, writing and directing) some of the most memorable and influential martial arts films of all time. What you might not know however, is that he was also a philosopher, incorporating his views on life and self-mastery into a distinct martial arts style of his own creation that is still taught today, Jeet Kune Do. He believed that the commitment to passion, discipline, and determination necessary to master the martial arts could be taken away from the context of fighting and applied to just about any aspect of life. As an instructor, he didn't just teach his students how to kick high or punch hard--he taught them how to carry the things they learned in the gym into their daily lives.

When you think of writing advice, it's probably not very likely that his is the first name to pop into your head. But when you read the ten chunks of wisdom that follow, that may change. Most of these quotes were originally about martial arts or life in general, but I think they have tremendous value for writers.

#1. "Showing off is the fool's idea of glory."

One mistake that a lot of new writers make is to flaunt their vocabulary at the reader. I once encountered someone on a writing message board who exclaimed, "I don't care if it turns my readers off. They should aspire to reach my level of vocabulary." If that made you facepalm, we have something in common!

While I believe continuous work on your vocabulary is essential for wordsmiths, the point is to expand your palette. You want as many tools in your toolbox as possible, so that you know the right word at the right time, not so you can beat your poor reader over the head with big words.

#2. "Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind."

Every time a rejection letter lands in my inbox or someone criticizes something I wrote, I do my best to bend with the wind. Don't be one of those authors who feels the need to rebut every negative comment or review that your work receives, whether you're just starting or you've been doing it for decades.

Will there be people who take the wrong impression and jump to the wrong conclusions with your work? Of course. But stiffening up to those people won't help you, especially in the internet age, where your words may come back around to haunt you. The best possible thing you can do is take it in stride. Focus on why the comment was made rather than whether it's "right" or not.

#3. "Take no thought of who is right or wrong, or who is better than. Be not for or against."

Something that's always bothered me is the amount of "teams" there are in the writing world. Literary versus genre, novels versus shorts, self-publishing versus trade publishing . . . isn't it all a little silly? Don't we have something better to spend our time on? Writing, for instance?

We writers have quite enough stacked against us without drawing lines in the sand amongst ourselves. Success in this industry is damn hard to attain. I say we stop all the bickering. Let's focus on building each other up instead of tearing each other down. I reckon we'll all be made better for it.

#4. "Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successfull personality and duplicate it."

It's very tempting to take a look at the best seller list and think to yourself, "I could have written that." And that's not necessarily a bad thought. Hell, it's probably been the reason a lot of people pick up the pen in the first place. But be careful when entertaining the thought of emulating someone else's work and style, whether it's the current trend or the all-time greats.

I'm not saying you shouldn't welcome influence from authors you admire. Not only is that a good thing, but it's pretty much impossible to avoid. But I think you should work to develop your own style as a part of that process. Don't just model your writing after your literary heroes--add their influence to the foundation of your own unique voice. It's a process that will take years (I'm still working to find my own), but I think it's damn important.

#5. "If you put limits on everything you do—physical or anything else—it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there; you must go beyond them."

It's much easier to say the words "don't limit yourself" than it is to actually put it into practice. After all, we often limit ourselves without even realizing it. But one thing I've noticed is that a lot of new writers limit themselves before they even make it out of the gates.

Many will often hesitate to even call themselves writers. If you make the effort to sit down and yank some words out of the aether on a regular basis, you are a writer. You don't need to get a paycheck or see your name in print to earn that title. You earn it by writing. By refusing to grant yourself this, the most basic descriptor of what we are and what we do, you are telling yourself that you're not ready to do this for real. If that isn't a self-imposed limitation, I don't know what is.

#6. "A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at."

Every time I sit down to write, my goal is not to peel myself away from my work until I've written at least a thousand words. Now, I'm going to come clean and give a shocking admittance: I don't always meet that goal. Don't get me wrong, there are some days when I soar right past that marker and keep going. Sometimes I double it. But there are other days when I struggle to get even halfway there.

When that happens, I don't beat myself up. It's simply not productive. That thousand word goal is important, but the real objective is not to meet some arbitrary word count, but to get my butt in that chair every night. As long as that's accomplished, I've held my end of the bargain, even if the muse didn't hold hers.

#7. "It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."

This quote may contain the most obvious potential for application to writing in this entire entry. Have you ever heard a more succinct expression of the editing process? "Murder your darlings" comes close, but Lee's words strike at the heart of that essential piece of advice.

Be absolutely ruthless with your red pen when it comes time to whip your work into shape. Every word should serve the plot, characterization, or theme of your story. If it doesn't, it's useless fluff--no matter how well written and no matter how much you love it. It must go. Lower the axe.

#8. "If you love life, don't waste time—for time is what life is made up of."

This is a pretty obvious one as well, but it's not just about procrastination. There's an old thought out there that occasionally floats to the surface of the literary world that says you must have a certain level of "life experience" before you can expect to craft any work of merit. Hogwash.

I don't know about you, but ever since I learned how to speak I've had something to say. But I'm a pretty quiet guy, so I write. The forward march of time is callous and unforgiving. Don't put your writing on the back burner, ever. Don't wait for "the right time" to tell your story, whatever that may be. The right time is now.

#9. "If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you'll never get it done."

This is something that a lot of writers seem to fall prey to, myself included. Whether it's reading about writing, talking about writing, meditating on the craft, or even worldbuilding, sometimes I just spend too much time thinking about writing instead of actually putting my butt in that chair.
Don't mistake me; there's nothing wrong with any of those activities. I can't tell you how much I've learned by reading great advice from my mentors or having great discussions with my peers. But you know what else has made me a better writer? Writing.

#10. "Obey the principles without being bound by them."

This one's huge. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given is "know the basics," and I pass it along every chance I get. As a writer, you owe it to yourself to educate yourself on the building blocks of the craft, from basic grammar to the advanced tenets of style. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, but the stronger your foundation, the stronger your end result.

This doesn't mean, however, that you must handcuff yourself at every turn. A surprisingly large chunk of the craft is subjective, even at the mechanical level. The better you familiarize yourself with the mechanics of style, the more freedom you will have to ignore the rules when it's appropriate. When executed correctly, this can be a powerful tool in itself.

There you have it. I hope the next time you're channel surfing and you come across a kung fu movie marathon featuring ol' Bruce, you won't just roll your eyes at the terrible voice dubbing and hokey sound effects. I hope you'll think about writing. I'll leave you with a bonus quote from a martial artist of a different kind and different era. I think this is a suitable place for it.

"If you know the Way broadly, you will see it in all things."

— Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
original photo: Super Furry Librarian via cc

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

IWSG: Persist

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means it's time for the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in moments of insecurity.

I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own frustrations and insecurities when it comes to writing, these posts are going to start sounding very similar. So last month, I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement. With all of my IWSG entries going forward, I'll be offering an inspirational quote from someone I admire.

Today's quote comes from another writing giant that was directly responsible for my love of speculative fiction growing up. Along with Heinlein and Clarke, he was known during his lifetime as one of the "big three" in science fiction, and for good reason. I'm talking about Isaac Asimov, who had these encouraging words for unpublished writers still struggling to make some headway:

You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist.

There's not much room for interpretation with this one. Like much of Asimov's work, it's straight to the point and the message is clear: don't give up. Even in the face of repeated and monumental failure, even when it seems like the only fruit of your labor is cold, hard rejection, don't give up.

And outside of, "Just write the damned thing," I'm not sure I've ever heard a bit of advice more universally applicable for writers of all shapes, sizes, and shelves. You will never succeed if you aren't willing to persist. The road to publication is paved with rejection and criticism, so steel yourself before you drive it or you won't get very far. Thicken that skin, lace up your body armor, and plow head-first into the thick of your fears. Let failure roll off your back like water on a mallard's hide.

Hell, why not go one better? Treasure your failures. Keep every rejection letter you receive, not to remind yourself that you fell short, but as a token of your continued persistence. Every time you read the words "not quite for us," remember that you're the member of a select group of writers who got off their butts and conquered the fear of failure, one submission at a time. When acceptance finally comes (and it will, if you keep trying), you'll get to have yourself a celebratory bonfire if you'd like.

Me, I'm keeping mine. If I grow up to be a big famous author one day, I might even publish them. I think I'll call the book Persist, and dedicate it to the memory of Isaac Asimov.

Happy Independence Day. Welcome to Urf.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Androids Are Everywhere

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be taking a look at one of the oldest science fiction tropes in the book: androids.

According to most dictionaries, an android is an automaton built to resemble a human being. The term could thus be applied to a wide array of constructs seen in both fiction and reality, from any mindless robot that resembles us at the superficial level, to a perfect replica(nt) with practically indistinguishable features.

A prime cinematic example of the latter is Bishop from the movie Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 sequel to the Ridley Scott scifi-horror classic. For the most part, Bishop looks and acts just like any other member of the crew--not counting that fancy knife trick, of course.

Though androids are a staple of science fiction, we might be able to trace the roots of this trope much further back. Mythologies, religious texts, and prehistoric literature around the world have stories that feature artificial humans, built by way of mechanical or sometimes magical means, from the Golem of Jewish folklore to the "iron man" Talus of The Fairie QueeneThe Iliad portrays the god of mechanical arts, Hephaestus, as being assisted in his work by animated statues. They are described as "living young damsels, filled with minds and wisdoms" despite being made completely out of gold.

Meanwhile, folklore in Finland speaks of Seppo Ilmarinen, an immortal blacksmith capable of forging nearly anything. In some tales, he's even said to have built the dome of the sky. Alas, despite his prowess as the Eternal Hammerer, he has trouble finding Ms. Right. In one story, stricken with grief over the death of his first wife, Ilmarinen attempts to craft a woman out of gold and silver. He is successful, but finds his new wife too cold to hold.

The first appearance of a true android in fiction is arguable. The word was popularized by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's The Future Eve, but many earlier works feature artificial men, from Edward S. Ellis' Steam Man on the Prairies to Tik Tok of L. Frank Baum's Oz series.

The correct answer may be one of the earliest works in the science fiction genre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein's monster may also have been the first android to show a Pinocchio-like desire for genuine humanity in spite of his artificial origins (in fact, before Pinocchio himself), a trait exhibited in many later characters, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I've yet to create any androids of my own, though some of my stories have dealt with a pesky A.I. or two, including the one I'm working on right now. It's very possible my inner scifi nerd will one day lead me down a path that ends in androids, and I'm fine with that. While that path is certainly well-trodden enough to be considered cliche at this point, I still can't get enough of them.

And clearly, I'm not the only one. Human beings have been enchanted by the idea of artificial people since the dawn of the written word, and we haven't stopped building them in our fiction. The most recent example in popular fiction is Ridley Scott's Prometheus. While met with mixed reviews, even those with largely negative opinions of the film are heaping praise on Michael Fassbender's performance as David, the eponymous vessel's android crew member. While most point to this as an example of Fassbender's talent as an actor, I think it also proves that our fascination with this kind of character isn't going anywhere. At least not until the real androids are walking the streets.

Recommended Reading:
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov
Home Is the Hangman by Roger Zelazny

Recommended Viewing:
Blade Runner

Recommended Gaming:
The Journeyman Project
Mega Man