The Next Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse is This Sunday

Yes, we know it’s Palm Sunday — but it also happens to be the second Sunday of the month, and we decided to keep to our usual schedule. Which means that all writers in or near the Research Triangle are invited to come to The Writers Coffeehouse this Sunday at 2 p.m. at at Quail Ridge Books (4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh).

Briefly, the Writers Coffeehouse is a nationwide set of free monthly networking events, originally started in 2002 in Pennsylvania by NYT-bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. All writers — young or old, published or unpublished, struggling or accomplished — are welcome at every meeting. As Jonathan says, we’re just “a bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing … with coffee.” (Note that you have to bring your coffee [or the beverage of your choice] with you, but there are a couple of places nearby that are pretty convenient.)

The Writers Coffeehouse

You can learn more about (and join!) our local group at the Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse Facebook page. But if you’re free on Sunday afternoon, we’d love to meet you!

And, rest assured: It doesn’t matter what you write, where you write, or how much you write, you’re welcome at The Writers Coffeehouse!

___

Reminder for anyone who missed the announcement, but I’m running a series of giveaways for Audible downloads of the Walking on the Sea of Clouds audiobook. The last giveaway drawing will be Monday the 15th, but you can still sign up at this link!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Hazard of Haphazard Songwriting

I debuted a song last night in the first RavenCon “open filking” session that illustrates that my slapdash approach to songwriting is often more slap than dash. (I don’t know if that makes sense, but I didn’t get much sleep so it’s all I’ve got.)

Anyway, with this particular song I’ve been having trouble with the transition from the chorus back to the verse — thinking it was a key issue, because keys are a thing that songs have but I don’t know much about (being pretty much theory-less when it comes to music). But then I played through it a couple of times by myself — here’s the chorus, if you’re interested —

Tommy’s up for fighting, Tommy’s up for risks
Never shies away from danger, or putting up his fists
So pick up your shillelaghs, boys, and bring ’em to the fight
‘Cause Tommy’s going to make a lot of noise in the spaceport pub tonight

— and I finally tried to count out the beat … and discovered that while the chorus is in 4/4 time the verses are actually in 6/8.

Did I do that? Apparently I did, and now I have to finagle my way out of (or around) it.


(Photo by Christopher Rinehart.)

I imagine other songwriters — those who have some amount of musical knowledge — think rather deliberately about things like keys and time signatures when they begin writing a song. Or, if not, then I imagine they figure that sort of thing out fairly early in the process. But not me! Me? I just do this for fun!

And it usually is fun. That chorus is fun (do you like it?). And the process itself can be fun, until I write myself into a proverbial corner and have to figure out how to cut my way through the wall. Not that demolition isn’t fun, because it can be … it’s just usually pretty messy.

Anyway, that’s one of the hazards of haphazard songwriting: having to figure out weird transitions and things. But, at least it’s fun!

___

Reminder for anyone who missed the announcement, but I’m still running a series of giveaways for Audible downloads of the Walking on the Sea of Clouds audiobook. The next drawing is Monday, so sign up at this link!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Writers, What’s Your Main Character’s Tendency?

A few weeks ago I posted about Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies” model,* and specifically how it revealed a mistake I made in my book on education** — not an error of fact, but an error of omission due to my own failure of imagination.

Since then I’ve been thinking about the Four Tendencies as they might apply to characterization in fiction.

To recap, Ms. Rubin identified four categories into which we sift ourselves according to how we respond to expectations — both our own, inner expectations, and the expectations we perceive that others have for us. Some of us readily meet expectations, and others of us resist expectations, generally as follows:

  • Upholders: Meet both outer and inner expectations
  • Obligers: Meet outer expectations, but resist inner expectations
  • Questioners: Resist outer expectations, but meet inner expectations
  • Rebels: Resist both outer and inner expectations

Like many such schemes, this one has its strengths and weaknesses (e.g., I wish she had explored in more depth the areas where the tendencies overlap), but I find that it has some excellent insights into our choices and behaviors. As statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful,” and the Four Tendencies is a quite useful model.

So how can this model apply to writing fictional characters?

Writer's Block I
(Image: “Writer’s Block I,” by Drew Coffman, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I think anything that helps us understand that mysterious thing called “human nature” is useful in creating characters who readers will find interesting and believable, let alone relatable and sympathetic. And understanding the Four Tendencies has the potential to make a big difference in writing characters who have clear motivations and consistent reactions to the expectations of the other characters around them.

When I think about the main characters in Walking on the Sea of Clouds (now available in audiobook***), for instance, I think Stormie Pastorelli fits the pattern of an Upholder. She’s driven to succeed, and to help the lunar colony survive and thrive, with a strong “by-the-book” approach and a heavy insistence on living up to her high expectations of herself. I think her husband Frank, on the other hand, is an Obliger: he is ready and willing to do things that other people expect of him, even sometimes at the expense of his own well-being.

Of the other main characters in the novel, Barbara Richards is probably also an Obliger, and that makes her struggle about whether to stay at the lunar colony realistic. (It makes sense to me for two of the main characters to have that tendency, since Ms. Rubin points out that Obligers form the most prevalent tendency in society; honestly, I don’t think society would function if Obligers weren’t the largest group.) I think Barbara’s husband Van, though, is primarily a Questioner — perhaps with a bit of Rebel thrown in.

If you’ve read Walking on the Sea of Clouds, what do you think? Does that assessment sound right to you? How do you think I did in keeping their characteristic tendencies consistent?

If you’re a writer, do you think the Four Tendencies might help you better understand the personalities of your main characters, in order to keep their characterizations consistent? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

As for me, I’m working on a fantasy novel these days, and I’m keeping the Four Tendencies in mind as I try to figure out my characters’ motivations and their feelings about the expectations placed on them. I hope I’ll be able to make them seem realistic! But that, in the end, will be decided by the readers.

___
*Full (and somewhat unwieldy) title: The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too).
**Quality Education: Why It Matters, and How to Structure the System to Sustain It (a fairly unwieldy title of my own).
***Reminder for anyone who missed the announcement: I’m running a series of giveaways for Audible downloads of the Walking on the Sea of Clouds audiobook. Sign up at this link!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Research Triangle Writers! Come to the Writers Coffeehouse

Are you a writer, in or near the Research Triangle? Then you’re welcome to come to The Writers Coffeehouse this Sunday, 10 March, at 2 p.m.!

The Writers Coffeehouse is a nationwide set of free monthly networking events, originally started in 2002 in Pennsylvania by NYT-bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. As Jonathan says, we’re just “a bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing … with coffee.”

The Writers Coffeehouse

The Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse meets on the second Sunday of the month at Quail Ridge Books (4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh). All writers — young or old, published or unpublished, struggling or accomplished — are welcome at every meeting. You will have to bring your own coffee (or the beverage of your choice) with you, but there are a couple of places nearby that would love to serve you.

So, one more time: It doesn’t matter what you write, where you write, or how much you write, if you’re a writer in or near the Research Triangle, you’re welcome at The Writers Coffeehouse!

Hope to see you Sunday!

___

Shameless P.S.: As I pointed out in the Facebook group yesterday, if I’m smiling a little more than usual at this month’s meeting it’s because my novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds was just released as an Audible audiobook.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

December 2018 Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse

UPDATE, 8:30 local time, 9 December 2018: Today’s meeting is canceled due to snowy weather and poor road conditions. See everyone next month!

___

All writers, young or old, published or unpublished, struggling or accomplished, are welcome at the next RT Writers Coffeehouse meeting at Quail Ridge Books on Sunday, the 9th of December at 2 pm. We’re just a bunch of writers, sitting around talking about writing!

Come and tell us how you did with NaNoWriMo (if you did NaNoWriMo). Come with your gift suggestions, whether you want to suggest your own book or someone else’s. Come and spend some time browsing, and pick up some gifts for your family and friends. Just come!

The Writers Coffeehouse

Because the bottom line is, if you’re a writer and live in or near the Research Triangle, you’re welcome at The Writers Coffeehouse!

___
P.S. Don’t be shy: join the Facebook group, and share this post with any other area writers you know!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Answering a Writing-Related Question, and Admitting that I’m Badly Stuck

A few weeks ago I invited my newsletter readers* to submit questions they wanted me to answer — questions about anything: writing (stories or songs), editing, pastimes, whatever. I haven’t been very good at answering them in the newsletter, but I thought I might include some here on the blog anyway (probably as sporadically).

This one in particular ends up with a confession, which I hope will be good for my soul….

ASK
(Image: “ASK,” by Anne Thorniley, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

One reader asked: Is it harder to write a short story for an anthology, or a full novel?

I thought that was a great question, and I wrote back right away with a partial answer. As I thought about it a little more, I realized that even though I’ve found short stories to be generally easier — just because they’re less complex than novels and we get to “the end” faster — they’re still challenging for a couple of reasons.

First, for me personally, short stories are hard to write because I tend to write long (which makes editing blog posts and newsletters into quite a chore). Within science fiction and fantasy, a short story has a limit of 7500 words—beyond that and you’re into “novelette” territory. But anthology editors often ask for even shorter stories! In fact, one editor only wanted 6500 words and I thoroughly busted the limit; thankfully, he liked the story enough that he didn’t ask me to cut very much.

Second, I find short stories for anthologies to be particularly challenging depending on how tightly focused the theme of the anthology is. Some anthologies have broad themes, like the Star Destroyers anthology that came out earlier this year. The working title and the theme of that anthology changed a couple of times, but in general the stories were supposed to address operations — and particularly battle operations — aboard starfaring ships. Even with that rather broad idea, it took me a good while to figure out what story I wanted to write!

I have a much harder time coming up with stories when the anthology theme is very specific. One of the hardest stories for me to write was for Chuck Gannon’s Lost Signals anthology, because it had to take place within the specific bounds of his “Caine Riordan” universe. I think it was difficult for me because I had a terrible fear of messing something up in his universe. That fear may have been a little overblown — as most fears of that type are — because he wouldn’t let that happen, but it was compounded by the simple fact that I didn’t want to let him down if the story didn’t fit into his universe. I rather liked the story I wrote, but I had such a hard time writing it that when Larry Correia asked me if I wanted to write a story for one of his anthologies I thanked him and told him I didn’t think I could do it.

Which leads me to my unfortunate confession: I haven’t written more than a few words of fiction since finishing that story. I’ve tried. I’ve got ideas, and notes upon notes, but the idea of trying to compose, of trying to bring these ideas out of my head onto the page, has become anathema to me. Even my songwriting has suffered. In fact, that’s part of why I started back up on blog posts: to see if I might find a way out of these doldrums.

I’m stuck fast; struggling against it has worn me out; and I hate it. And here’s the deeper, more frightful confession: I’ve begun to wonder if something in the process of writing that story damaged some part of my creative self.

But that’s probably a topic for some other day.

___
*You can also subscribe to my newsletter. I’d be pleased if you would (and I’m always willing to take new questions!).

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Once More Unto the Blog, Dear Friends

I’ve been away from the blog for a long time.

Maybe you’ve noticed; maybe you haven’t. Maybe you care; maybe you don’t.

But I’m back, and it’s back. Or we’re back. (Or something!)

I don’t have much of a plan or a purpose, just things I still want to say and this handy place to say them. Maybe more people will come visit; maybe they won’t. I’m going to try not to worry about it too much.

As my high school English teacher wrote in my yearbook, “Our beach is a lonely beach, and few come to see our castles. But, on we build.”


(Image: “Sand Castle, Cannon Beach,” by Curt Smith, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Stop by and visit anytime!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Pride of Doing

Pride sometimes gets a bad rap. Often its bad rap is deserved. But sometimes pride is important.

For those of us raised in the Christian or Jewish traditions, or even marginally aware of some of the Old Testament’s aphorisms, pride’s place as a “deadly sin” is solidified in the book of Proverbs:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

That usage, as I interpret it, is related to hubris, i.e., excessive pride, the kind of pride that exudes from puffed-up ego rather than solid character. In contrast is a lesser degree of pride, the type that is useful and necessary to everyday life and especially important to success in everyday life: the pride of doing something well.

This is not the pride of being — being good, being smart, being beautiful, being talented — but the pride of accomplishing, the pride of making, creating, discovering. The pride of doing is the pride that derives from building up the world. The former pride, the pride of being, only builds up ourselves.

The pride of doing, and doing well, is vital. If we had no pride in our work, for instance, we wouldn’t show it to others for their evaluation, their approval, or especially their purchase. When we have worked diligently and produced something of which we are proud, our degree of pride is likely to be proportional to our work’s value — if we have judged it properly. Not that we don’t see the flaws in it, but that we are rightly proud of having produced something of quality. That is, we are more likely to receive recognition or compensation in the open market for work we are proud of than for work we disdain. It only makes sense that if we are not proud of what we have produced, chances are others may not find much value in it.


(Image: “Vulcan Forging the Thunderbolts of Jupiter,” by Rubens, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Working hard and producing something of which we can be proud, then, is an important component to being successful. It doesn’t guarantee success — nothing does — but we increase our chances of success if we judge our own work fairly and honestly and our level of pride reflects its value.

In truth, being able to distinguish between things that are shoddy — things of which we should not be proud — and things which are excellent — things of which we should be proud — is an important skill. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses that skill because the only way to develop it is to have enough pride in our work to show it to someone who will give us honest feedback about its strengths and weaknesses, and then to be willing to listen to the feedback and make adjustments.

In my professional life I regularly see the work of writers who seem unable to distinguish good work from bad as it pertains to their own results. Whether they make the distinction when it comes to others’ work, I have no idea; but like those who suffer from the “Dunning-Kruger Effect” these writers display inordinate amounts of self-confidence and pride, having produced relatively mediocre work. In contrast, many of my writer friends — even some of the most successful — are actually quite humble about their own work (even work of which they are justly proud).

So, pride of doing is important in that we want to produce things that make us proud; however, that pride should be informed, accurate, and truthful. Otherwise, our pride will go before our destruction, at least so far as our work is concerned.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

GW4GP: What’s It All About?

Have you ever been in one of those moods where you’re evaluating your life and trying to make sense of things?

Early last year I was in such a mood when I found myself driving through South Carolina and reflecting on what I do. I don’t recall what book I was listening to at the time — something related to entrepreneurship — but part of it talked about developing a clear sense of mission: not at all unusual for a book like that, except that I was more in the mood to think about it than usual.


“My crystal ball is cracked, no magic images appear.” (Photo by Christopher Rinehart.)

Anyway, on that trip I came to the conclusion that my mission, my vision, my purpose in life is to write Good Words, for Good People. I like to think that’s what I actually do, but at the very least it’s what I want to do, what I intend to do.

I know that I don’t write perfect words. I don’t write anything like great words, or monumental words, or world-changing words. But I think I write good words — whether they come in the form of stories or songs or ideas, whether you encounter them here on the blog or in my newsletter or in a book or magazine or CD or speech.

“Good” in that they are adequate to the task, usually well-suited to the occasion.

Perhaps “good” in that they provide value for the investment of time and treasure.

And hopefully “good” in the sense that they make the world, or some small part of it, a little better.

I know sometimes I fail, and what I write is poor: poorly worded, poorly constructed, poorly thought. At other times, whether I succeed or fail will be … questionable. For instance, some things I write may challenge you, contradict you, even upset you, and you may assess them as being poor while others assess them differently. That’s okay, because I can’t (and don’t) expect anyone to agree with me all the time — as I’ve written about before.

But from the perspective that I am trying to produce “good” words, I’m comfortable saying that

  • My CDs aren’t perfect, or even masterful, but they’re pretty okay
  • My book on education isn’t the best thing ever written on the subject, and it won’t change anyone’s life who reads it, but it’s pretty good and (I think) is worth a reader’s while
  • My novel may not be the best thing anyone reads this year, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste — what is? — but it’s a pretty good near-future science fiction story, and some people have even found it to be moving
  • My newsletter is no paragon of excellence, but I try to keep it friendly and conversational (plus, if you subscribe I send you a free song, a free story, and a free e-book)

So, then, Good Words — that’s one thing.

But Good People — who are they?

To my way of thinking, pretty much everybody qualifies as “good people” — certainly you do! We may not agree on much, we may barely get along, we may not even like each other very much, but we’re all doing our best, the best way we know how, and the vast majority of us are trying to do things the right way, so far as we know the right. We’re not just trying to do well, but most of us are trying to do good. And I’m serious about you fitting that category, even if we’ve never met, because I sincerely believe that anyone who takes the time to read something I’ve written, or listen to something I’ve sung, or think about something I’ve said, is “good people.”

That’s GW4GP. The more I’ve thought about it, boiling down what I do and why to its very essence, what came out of the mental crucible that day was quite simple (and perhaps even a bit elegant): I write; and what I write, I hope, are Good Words, for Good Peoplelike you.

Thanks for reading!

___
P.S. If you’re of a mind, I hope you’ll visit and “Like” the “Good Words for Good People” Facebook Page. Thanks! GWR

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather