How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)

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The Writing Process Blog Tour Continues

March 26, 2014

Thanks to Claire Gebben for inviting me to this tour. Claire was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and penciled her first novel at age ten. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDS e-zine. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.

Now, on to me.

What am I working on?

Hair of the Bear is the sequel to New World. It’s in the final editing stages and will be available Real Soon Now. These books take place in a fantasy wilderness derived from American folklore and lumberjack tales, a rich cultural source almost totally untapped by fiction writers. Lucky me!

Ninja Girl will be available shortly thereafter. The draft is finished and needs editing. It’s about a teenaged girl who discovers that she has super powers. She learns that ninjas throughout history have always been women, and she’s introduced to a secret society and its quest to save the world from another secret society. But she still has to survive high school. It’s borne of my love for Joss Whedon’s work, of course.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have a science-fiction writer’s taste for implications — pushing ideas as far as I can to see what new insights arise — and a thriller writer’s taste for danger and a pounding pulse. My characters are usually faced with mind-bending scenarios, which they struggle to deal with so they can avoid being killed.

I often write about power. My characters are often enormously competent — flawed, of course, broken sometimes — but talented and capable in some way, and they often find themselves granted enormous powers. Perhaps through technology or magic. Then we get to see what they do with that power. Will they fail? Abuse it, destroy themselves? Or will they rise to the challenge?

Why do I write what I do?

I draw a lot of inspiration from writers I love, both novelists and screenwriters. Awe can be motivating. But I think I draw more inspiration from writers who stink, or maybe from good writers who blow it. Nothing sticks in my imagination like witnessing a poorly executed idea. I’ll worry that thing like a toothache, and twist it and twist it and twist it, until I have my own story to tell.

How does my writing process work?

Some writers don’t plan much, because they are afraid that if they take the time and effort to plan a novel, their creative energy will be used up so when they sit down to write page one, they won’t want to do it.

You know what uses up my creative energy? Writing the draft. When I type “THE END,” I’m pretty much done. I sure can’t turn around and rewrite if the draft doesn’t work. So I plan and outline a lot, with notes and index cards on a corkboard. And rather than deplete me, the act of planning charges me up. By the time I start a draft, I’m ready to explode. And when I finish, I’ve got something that’s pretty close to being right.

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That’s it! Now, if I had done my job right, I would have found a couple of writers to link to next… but no luck. Writers are often too busy to blog, so I’ll just pass the buck to my partner this week, Stephanie Lile.


A Writer’s Commencement Speech

September 5, 2013

Last month, I graduated from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts with my sparkly new MFA. My fellow grads were kind enough to elect me as their commencement speaker.

Among other things, I said this:

There are benefits to a writing career. Nicholas Taleb, in his book Antifragile, says that in most careers – teacher, banker, janitor – the unexpected is bad news. (He calls this the “turkey problem”: most turkeys are fed and cared for, day after day – it’s very predictable… until Thanksgiving, when those turkeys confront the unexpected.) Most professionals don’t like surprises, because the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is downsizing, budget cuts – sudden unemployment. And what’s the best surprise they can hope for? A Christmas bonus? A three-percent raise? Teachers, bankers, and janitors crave the status quo.

Writers love surprises. We struggle to escape the status quo, because in our business, that’s called “breaking out.” For us, the unexpected is good news. We don’t get downsized. For us, the biggest, most career-changing surprise possible is sudden best-sellerdom.

Plenty of turkeys are optimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future. Plenty of writers are pessimists, but wouldn’t be if they could see the future.

A lot of people seem to have enjoyed the rest of the speech as well. And trust me — the line about lentils was really, really funny.


Write or Die, etc.

December 27, 2012

I’ve found a couple of great writing tools lately, and I want to pass them on. Both are by a guy called Doctor Wicked. Normally I would hesitate to recommend anything from someone with a name like that, but it’s the internet age, and apparently, that sort of thing is okay now.

One is a proofreading program, what I would call a bot editor, called EditMinion. You paste your work in, and it makes suggestions. It’s borne of the universal frustration created by the mentally challenged spelling and grammar checkers found in Word and similar programs, and designed specifically to catch what the checkers miss.

But how good can a bot editor be? Don’t you still need beta-readers? Don’t you still need a good critique group… with humans in it?

Of course you do. But a bot editor may show you things that your human readers missed. And bots are fast. I like clicking a button and getting results instantly, because I can consider those results while waiting three weeks for that email.

I can’t declare that something like EditMinion (or even impressive, expensive bots like Nina Davies’s Autocrit) will make you a better writer. But I do think that they are pretty neat.

And information tech improves quickly, so in another year… watch out. They might be smarter than you.

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Doctor Wicked’s real masterpiece, though, is a little gem called Write or Die. I’ll quote his description of it:

Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences…

The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

When I sit down to write, it takes me forever to get going, and when I get stuck with the need for just the right verb, I stare at the wall. Then I’m relishing the glory of the previous scene or daydreaming about the upcoming chapter, and ten minutes have gone by.

I’m a daydreamer. It’s what made me a writer in the first place. But it costs me a lot of hours in the chair to get a novel down. Write or Die happens to be just what I need to crank my words-per-hour up to a reasonable level. It keeps my fingers striking those keys.

Or else.

Consequences:
*Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
*Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
*Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself.

Write or Die screenshot

I used to write in four-hour blocks on the weekends. Nowadays, I get the same wordcount in a handful of ten-minute sessions, because if I stop typing, my computer screams at me. It doesn’t sound fun, but strangely, it is. And I can sneak writing time in on weekdays, which is boosting my weekly wordcount.

It feels a little funny saying it, but I will: Thanks, Doctor Wicked.

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If you’ve got a program or website that helps you write or edit your work, please mention it in a comment!


Book Promotion Shouldn’t Make Your Head Explode

March 21, 2011

Look, I’m a huge fan of new technologies and the power they grant to artists like us. I’ve even gushed about my favorite fiction-writing innovators.

But this stuff can make you crazy. I’ll admit that as fast as anybody. I think my friend Lindsay Buroker captures the feeling nicely:


Make your own Author Swag

February 22, 2011

I came into a bit of cash and spent it on some self-designed goodies at Zazzle.

Ah, author-generated marketing! No, not really. This sort of thing is too expensive to be part of any sane business plan for promotion.


But spending money on swag like this is a chance to affirm your faith in your ability as a writer and your certainty in your future success.

They’re conversation pieces. Your friends will see them and ask what the hell you are up to. And you owe it to yourself to get comfortable about sharing your writing progress with your buddies and colleagues.

And they are wicked fun.

Here’s a mug with some tease copy for the novel I’m writing now. Do you ever wake up with cool descriptions of your novel in your head? I do, and I write that stuff down.

Here’s the other side.


Here’s a pin with a graffiti catchphrase from the novel. The main character keeps finding this scratched into park benches and spray-painted on bridges, etc.

Sort of like “Frodo Lives!” or “Who is John Galt?

This is the biggest, cheesiest hack in all my html history. Why the hell can’t I space these stupid pictures properly? Argh!

And this mysterious glyph on my book bag is a QR code, a two-dimensional bar code that usually encrypts website URLs, although they can encrypt any text (such as your latest short story). I’m strangely drawn to them — I think they look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. If you have the right app installed, you can point your iphone at one, and be taken to a website. This one, of course, sends you here.

You can create them for free here, and proofread your work here.

Lastly, here’s a t-shirt I can wear to Write On The Sound conventions and NILA Residencies. Wearing my blog on my sleeve, more or less.

(By the way, if you want a brilliant and Zazzle-free way to promote your published novel, check what marketing genius Seth Godin suggests. And if your novel is electronic, then check with Lindsay Buroker, who proposes something similar.)


Hack Your Brain, Bypass Writing Blocks

September 30, 2010

SMOKE is a game to engage your creative mind about your character by playing with metaphors. This is great for steering around creative blocks by skipping logical thought entirely. Some of your answers will be silly, but that’s okay, because some won’t. And some might give you the insight you were looking for.

Presented by Peter Elbow in Writing With Power, possibly adapted from John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist. (Although I learned it from Bruce Holland Rogers.)

1) If your character were a color, what color would he/she be? (WAS a color, not the character’s favorite color)

2) If your character were an animal, what animal would he/she be?

3) If your character were a piece of technology, what piece of technology would he/she be?

4) If your character were a mode of transportation, what mode of transportation would he/she be?

5) If your character were a food, what food would he/she be?

6) If your character were physically constructed out of a particular material or substance, what substance would he/she be made of?

7) If your character were a type of weather, what type of weather would he/she be?

(You can make up more questions like these on your own. There’s no limit.)