Stealing Time to Brainstorm

So in the last post I mentioned that I could bang out 1,000 words in 30 mins, but I needed to know exactly what I was going to write about. That brings me to today’s topic, Stealing Time to Brainstorm.

In perfect world, we writers would have unlimited time to invent new characters and worlds. We’d just sit back with our feet on our desks, hands laced behind our heads and invent and destroy worlds, all while wearing a Joker-esque grin. However, if you’ve got a day job and familial responsibilities, just getting that solid 30 mins to write can be a colossal effort. So how do you find time to brainstorm?

Well, you’re probably going to have to steal that time. Here are some places I’ve been able to take from:

The Commute – the drive to and from work is a great time to brainstorm. You can’t actually write, but if you’ve got a smart phone, chances are there’s a voice recorder app you can download for a couple of bucks. Myself, I use a little Sony voice recorder. Just chatter away and replay later. If you ride on a train, you can work on a notepad if you’re worried about having tech out in the open. I heard that Peter V Brett wrote the Painted Man on his smart phone while riding the train to work.

The Lunch Break – the 30 mins you get at the middle of your day is a good spot to brainstorm or jot down some ideas. Two things to remember when doing this. One, you need to work uninterrupted, so you might need to take lunch in your car or someplace your coworkers won’t find you. Two, make sure you’re back to your desk on time. You don’t want to find yourself with tons of time to write because you’re suddenly unemployed.

The Workout – exercising is another ideal time to brainstorm. Again, actually writing can be tricky, but your trusty voice recorder will do in a pinch. Keep in mind that you may sound a bit like an obscene phone call during replay, depending on the intensity of your workout.

Monotonous Tasks – dull repetitive tasks, like folding laundry, yard work, or doing dishes are ideal to mull things over. Plus, it makes for a great interview answer when you can say, “Yes, I came up with that scene while I was folding my Spider-Man boxer shorts.” Not that I have Spider-Man boxers. I don’t. Mine are Superman. Shut up.

So there you go, 4 places to steal time from so you can brainstorm ideas for your writing. Any other times you’d suggest? Sound off in the comments.

3 Tips to Maximize Writing Time

I’ve said before that I can write about 1,000 words in 30 mins. Thing is, in order to do that I have to know exactly what I want to write, and I need to be able to block out any potential distractions. Here are some tricks I’ve found help me keep on task –

 1 – Unplug from the Internet. As simple as this one sounds, it can be damned hard to do. “Hmm. I’m stuck on this scene, let me check my email real quick while I ponder…” TWO HOURS LATER… or “Gee, I need to look something up. Let me pop on Wiki…” SEVEN HOURS LATER or the deadly “You know, I think I’ll just fire up Warcraft and check on some stuff in the auction house…” THREE DAYS LATER….

If you’re working on a computer that’s connected to the Internet via an actual cable, unplug it. If you’re on wireless, disable your card (most systems have a hot key combination that lets you do that.) If you find you’re still giving into the temptation that is the Web, there are apps that will block you from getting online.

When I got serious about writing, I dual-booted my netbook to Windows and Linux. The Linux distro I used didn’t include drivers for my network card or wireless adapter, so it was impossible for  it to get online. Also, since I don’t know a damned thing about Linux, I couldn’t screw around with anything other than the word processing program that was on the desktop.

 2 – Block out the noise. Screaming kids, traffic, people with leaf blowers, all these sounds can knock you right out of your writing groove. Some folks listen to music while they write. If that works for you, rock on. But if you’re like me, music can be as jarring as the sounds you’re trying to shut out. Fear not, there is a solution. Get a recording of white noise (no, not the band). I have a recording of an air purifier that I listen to when I write. It’s a constant low hum that’s easy for me to mentally block out, and it covers any distracting background noise.

 3 – Write someplace you won’t be bothered. If you work in a cube farm and have ever tried to write on your lunch break, you know how well that goes. The lunch break should be sacred, where you can do whatever you want while enjoying your peanut butter and nutella sandwich. However, that one guy will always come over and interrupt you, despite the fact that your sandwich is clearly visible and broadcasting the “Fuck Off I’m Eating” sign. To combat this, I’ve found that camping out in an unused conference room or even going out to my car for the duration lets me get the words out.

So there you go, 3 tips to maximize your writing time. What other tricks do you have? Sound off in the comments.

The Author’s Pledge

If you’re a traditional, self-published, or indie author, raise your right hand and repeat after me.

I am an author.
I am a professional.
I will have my work edited before it is published.
I will never argue with a reviewer about their opinion of my work.

Most likely, you’ve already made this pledge without realizing it. If you have, awesome. If you haven’t, it’s time to think about how the world sees you. This past weekend, I went looking for additional sites where I could submit my books for review. I found a growing number of sites are declining self-pubbed books, citing either poor editing or poorly behaving authors as the reason.

Here’s the thing, folks. As writers, we can’t be the editor of our own work. We’re too close to it. We’ll miss things. An editor can help you find those weak spots in your work and shore them up, as well as catch any spelling or grammatical errors.

As for poor behavior, we need to accept that not everyone will like our work. That’s just the way of things. Pick your favorite book by your favorite author and then check out that book’s reviews on Amazon. Guaranteed you’ll find 1 star reviews there, written by someone who thinks this book you love is the biggest piece of crap that was ever penned.

That’s one person’s opinion. Sure, it’s disappointing, but you never argue with someone about it. I racked my brains trying to think of a time when a writer would be justified in arguing with a reviewer. The only thing I could come up with was if the reviewer said they hated your book because of the puppy eating robot in chapter 7, and your book doesn’t have a puppy eating robot. In that case, I think an author would be justified in sending off a short note saying, “Hi, thanks for reading, but I think you’ve got me confused with someone else.” But if the reviewer says they don’t like your book because of the plot, because they didn’t like the way you developed your characters, or anything subjective like that, you don’t say a freaking word to them about it.

To the reviewers out there, thank you all for reading. Whether you love or hate my books, I appreciate that you took the time to read them.

For the writers, have you taken the pledge? Sound off in the comments.

Hero/Villain Relationships

When you’re a kid, conflict between two people can usually be boiled down into a world of  black & white. You have Good Guys and you have Bad Guys. And despite the odds being stacked against them, the Good Guys trounce the Bad Guys, who are led away saying pithy things like “Curses, foiled again.”

As we grow though, those one-dimensional relationships aren’t as satisfying. So to spice things up, here’s a list of possible ways to introduce some gray into that black & white world.

Hero vs. Villain Who Thinks He’s in the Right

Some of the best conflicts are the ones where the villain really believes what he/she is doing is the right thing. Think Batman/Poison Ivy for this. Ivy is an eco-terrorist who believes that people and corporations who pollute the environment should be killed, usually via poison or turning them into trees. In Ivy’s mind, she’s doing the right thing, protecting the planet, and Batman is an obstacle in her way.

Hero vs Villain Who Thinks He’s a Hero

You can have a lot of fun when you go beyond a villain who thinks he’s right, and transcends to where the villain actually believes he’s the hero. Think Superman vs. Bizarro here. Bizarro is a backward copy of Superman, and on Bizarro world, the best way to help someone is contrary to what we’d think of as common sense. Case in point, when Bizarro encounters a kitten stuck in a tree, he believes the cat is harming the tree and chases the cat away. Supes always had his hands full trying to get Bizarro out of Metropolis and back to his home world. In this scenario, Bizarro genuinely believes that Superman is the villain, because Supes is trying to stop Bizarro from “doing good.”

Hero/Villain Love Interest

There’s something to be said for good folks being attracted to bad folks. Batman and Catwoman are the most famous good/bad couple out there. Bats usually recovers what Catwoman steals, but for some reason, she rarely winds up in Arkham with the rest of Gotham’s criminals. Why is that, you think?

Hero/Villain Friendship

Marvel Comics was big on having two characters who were enemies in costume, but friends out of costume. So Peter Parker and Harry Osbourne were friends, but Spider-Man and the Green Goblin were bitter enemies. When Spidey realized who was under the Goblin mask, he had to deal with the emotions of fighting and ultimately imprisoning his friend.

Hero vs Villain of Duplicitous Nature

This one’s fun because the Villain has a secret identity that he is either unaware of or can’t control. The Lizard from Spider-Man is a great example of this. Curt Connors develops a process to regenerate his lost arm using reptile DNA. But the process goes awry and turns Connors into a monster. Spidey has to subdue the Lizard without harming him so he can restore Connors to his normal self. This is different from the Villain Friendship entry, because Curt Connors has absolutely no control over what his alter ego does.

Any hero/villain combinations I missed? Which one of these do you enjoy reading about most? Sound off in the comments.

Thoughts on Ergonomics

There aren’t many occupational hazards to being a writer. Unless you write in a treehouse, a fall from a great height while writing is unlikely. You’ll never develop black lung disease as a writer. You probably won’t drown while writing unless you’re on a defective submarine, and it’s doubtful you’ll get shot unless your name is Richard Castle.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, however, is another story. It’s something that can really mess with a writer’s livlihood. I was diagnosed with it a few years back, and it forced me to make some changes in how I work.

The biggest change I had to make was my posture. I’m a sloucher. After thirty or forty minutes at the keyboard, I’ll be half out of my chair, stretching across the table to reach the keyboard. I was never the straight-backed-fingers-held-at-perfect-home-row-position sort of typist, and that’s probably what did the most damage. I have to make a conscious effort to keep my feet planted firmly on the floor, but it helps. This site talks a lot more about the specifics of how to keep good posture, and offers some advice on how to avoid fatigue.

I also changed my writing tools. I always liked the Microsoft Natural keyboards, but the latest models are too big for my hands. I found a company called Kinesis, and their keyboards can be customized to fit your hands and preferred layout. I’m currently using a Maxim keyboard and the thing is a dream to type on.

I also changed out my mouse. I found that even if I was just surfing the web, I had a tendency to lean forward on the arm that was mousing. I couldn’t break that habit no matter how hard I tried. So instead I switched to an Evoluent mouse. This mouse has what’s called a handshake grip, which repositions your arm so the bone is against the table. Now if I lean, I’m not putting pressure on the meat of my arm. That alone went a long way to providing some much needed relief.

Any of my fellow writers deal with chronic wrist pain or carpal tunnel syndrome? Sound off in the comments with what helped you.

Thoughts on Anti-Heroes

When I was a kid, I was taught that a protagonist was the hero of the story. As I got older, I learned that the protagonist was actually the person who moved the story along – they didn’t have to be a “hero.” They could, in fact, be anti-heroes.

That distinction opens up a whole new world of literary adventures. It means you can have an undesirable as your protagonist and it’s okay. The trick is to make some part of the anti-hero relatable or likable.

Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead has a vampire named Coburn as the protagonist, and he’s pretty badass. The thing is, he’s not altruistic or noble. He’s got his own agendas and goals. So what makes him a good protagonist? Well, Coburn comes across as a total douche to pretty much everyone he meets, but he displays tenderness and compassion for a young girl that he winds up traveling with. Through their relationship you see a bit of humanity in the monster. You get bits of insight into a part of Coburn’s nature that is both human and humane, and while you know he’s not a good person, you realize he’s a good bad person.

For me, the most powerful example of anti-heroism came from Doctor Doom. Back in the early 90’s, Marvel put out a line of comics set in the year 2099. Doom was featured in his own book, shown as having time traveled from the present to the future. In that future, the country Doom ruled,  Latveria, had all but forgotten its former monarch and was ruled by a greedy cyborg named Tiger Wylde. The comics follow Doom as he tries to wrest power from Wylde. And to do that, Doom has to win over the people. So he begins providing food for the hungry and medicine for the sick. I was disturbed when I realized I was rooting for Victor Von Doom. This was the guy who tried to kill most of my heroes, after all. If Doom’d had his way, Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four would have been demolecularized by some hideous device a hundred times over. And yet, there I was, cheering for him.

Having a villian with a lot of history (like Doom) be the protagonist of your story can be very powerful. But compare that to when Marvel tried to spin Spidey-nemesis Venom off as a hero. The upshot was Venom realized that many people out there are innocents, like he had been before Spider-Man hurt him. (Venom had a bit of twisted perspective on reality. Spidey rejected the Venom suit before it could take over his mind. That hurt the suit’s feelings. I fall squarely in Spidey’s camp on this one, hurt feelings be damned.) So Venom decides he’s going to protect innocents (but he still hates Spider-Man). This didn’t work for me because it was a total 180 on the character’s attitude. Venom suddenly goes from being obsessed with getting revenge on Spider-Man to having an altruistic world view.

Doom, on the other hand, is  always a smug, selfish bastard. He’s only looking to restore Latveria so he can seize power. He uses people to achieve his goals, and he’s brazen about it. Still, you find yourself cheering him on because he’s fighting an even bigger evil, and you want to see that evil displaced.

So my takeaway here is this. If you want to have a good anti-hero, exagerrate their negative personality traits, and make sure they have a lot of them. But then give them one thing, whether that’s a relationship or an inner monologue, that makes them relatable, likable and human, because that’s what’s going to make readers stick with them and cheer them on.

Anything you’d like to add on anti-heroes? Sound off in the comments.

4 Paid Apps for Writers

I wanted to round out my “Apps for Writers” series with a selection of paid apps folks might find useful. I’ll skip the obvious, like MS Word or WordPerfect (because, yes, surprisingly the word processing program from my 10th grade computer class is still for sale. Funny, that.) Here they are, in no particular order:

Scrivener – This app has it all: outlining, note-taking, character sheet templates and more. It’s a fantastic way to plot, plan and write your novel. Once you’ve written your masterpiece, Scrivener can export it in many different formats, including MS Word, .mobi and .epub. You can find a bunch of tutorial videos I’ve done here on the site, and you can pick up a copy here for $40 (Windows) or $45 (Mac) here

OneNote – OneNote is the unsung hero of Microsoft Office. In fact, most people who have Office don’t even realize they have OneNote. OneNote allows you to organize notes into virtual notebooks making it perfect for story bibles and managing your reference materials. Find an article on the web that’ll be handy later? Just drag it into OneNote, and everything including images and formatting is preserved. I use it extensively and heartily recommend it. If you buy it standalone, it’s $79.99.

WriteOrDie – There’s a free web version of this app, but the downloadable client has the advantage of not being tied to that behemoth distraction that is the Internet. Set a timer, say how many words you want to write in that time and go. If you stop typing for a few seconds, it beeps, flashes and otherwise jolts you back to work. Great for when you need to bust out a number of words in a short period of time. $10 from writeordie.com.

DropBox – Hey, wait a sec, Nick, didn’t you say DropBox was free? Why yes, it is. The free version of DropBox gets you 2 GB of space in the cloud, but there are paid subscriptions that let you expand that out to 50 GB or 100 GB, depending on your needs. 50 GB = $9.99/mo, 100 GB = $19.99/mo. Learn more here.

Any others you’d recommend? Sound off in the comments. Also sound off if you’re still using WordPerfect, because, well, wow.

6 iPad Apps for Writers

If you got a shiny new iPad for Christmas, you’re probably looking for some writer-type apps. Here are several that I use. Click on the app’s name to learn more:

CleanWriter – I’m big on distraction-free environments when I’m trying to pound out words. This little app gives you a clean writing environment. Turn on the Hacker theme and you get the old school green-screen word processor feel.

Notability – this is the end-all be-all of note taking apps. It lets you handwrite notes, type, take audio recordings, insert drawings or photos and more. Perfect for your story bible or research notebook.

OneNote – If you’re a Microsoft Office 2010 user and OneNote is your story bible/research notebook of choice, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’ll synch with the OneNote notebooks on your PC so your data will always stay current.

Storyist – The closest thing to Scrivener that I can find for the iPad. Storyist gives you the ability to create notecard-based outlines and then write out the text of your manuscript. It also has templates for character sheets, settings and more.

DropBox – This is essentially a folder out in cyberspace where you can toss your files and then access them from any device. So write some notes in Notability or jot off a scene in CleanWriter and then send it off your PC or Mac via DropBox. All the apps listed above have an option to sync with DropBox (except for OneNote, which uses SkyDrive from Microsoft). This’ll also backup your files to the could automatically, in case your iPad has an unfortunate encounter with your toddler.

Pandora – I usually don’t listen to music when I write, but I know there are a ton of people who do. Pandora gives you a personalized, streaming radio station tailored to your unique musical tastes.

Are there other iPad apps you use when writing? Sound off in the comments.

5 Free Apps for Writers

If you or a writer in your life is considering a New Year’s Resolution to write more, or be more disciplined about writing, here are 5 free programs that can help you.

1 – Q10
This is a bare-bones editor that looks and feels like an old school word processor, green screen and all. It has no formatting capabilities, no bells or whistles and is absolutely perfect when you just want to sit down and pound out 2,000 words. I wrote the majority of IMPERIUM using Q10, and heartily recommend it. www.baara.com/q10.

2 – DropBox
Backing up your files is a lot like flossing. Everyone knows they’re supposed to do it, but your dentist will tell you that not everyone does it enough. Seriously, ask your dentist and he/she’ll tell you you aren’t backing up enough. To help with that, there’s DropBox. This is essentially a folder out in cyberspace where you can toss your files and then access them from any device. It’s ridiculously easy to set up, and any files you put in that folder are automatically backed up. Quick and easy. Your dentist will be proud of you. www.dropbox.com.

3 – Calibre
If you’re tech savvy, it’s easy enough to create a .mobi file of your novel. However, there are a bunch of other formats out there (epub, pdf, etc) and taking the time to create each individual file is a colossal PITA. Enter Calibre. Among other things, this tool allows you to convert files from one format to another and then preview them to ensure they look good. http://calibre-ebook.com.

4 – PureText
Sometimes when you’re researching, you’ll copy a big chunk of text off the web and then paste it into your story bible. Then you spend 5 minutes cleaning up any screwball formatting issues that came through (why the hell is the left margin set to 5″?). For those moments, there’s PureText. Just press Windows+V and your text gets dropped into the current document, sans any formatting. www.stevemiller.net/puretext.

5 – Paint.NET
For the do-it-yourself cover artist on a budget, Paint.NET is a fantastic tool. It has many of the same features you know and love from tools like Photoshop, but without the hefty price tag. www.getpaint.net.

Any other tools you’d recommend? Sound off in the comments.

Captain America vs. Green Lantern

I missed both Green Lantern and Captain America in the movie theaters this past summer. I was able to rectify that thanks to the magic that is my PS3. I loved both these characters when I was a kid and was excited to see them brought to life.

I watched GL first and while it was fun it wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. Then I watched Captain America and was blown away. That movie was brilliantly done and I loved every minute of it. Once the credits were over and I’d seen the Avengers trailer, I started thinking what made Cap so much better than GL. The special effects were good in both films and I liked the casting.

That left the writing.

So here are three things I learned about writing from watching these films.

Characters Need Goals
In Captain America, Steve Rogers starts out as a 90 lb. weakling who wants to join the army. He tries a bunch of things to enlist and finally succeeds. Then he struggles to gain respect as a soldier, is injected with the Super Soldier serum and becomes Captain America. When he learns his friends have been kidnapped by Nazis, he goes off to help them. And ultimately, he has his final showdown with the Red Skull.

See the pattern there? Event. Boom. Event. Boom. Cap is always marching to complete another mission.

Compare that to Green Lantern. Hal Jordan starts out in a botched test flight. After getting reamed out by his employer, he finds Abin Sur, who gives him the power ring. He gets taken to Oa where he’s told about being a Green Lantern and the responsibilities that brings. He turns his back on it, goes back to Earth and sort of drifts through the movie until the final
confrontation in the end.

So the lesson here is drifting is not satisfying for your audience. A character needs to be moving toward a goal or desire.

Characters Need Good Antagonists
In Captain America, you’ve got the Red Skull. He’s a super-Nazi with incredible strength and a cunning intellect. He masterminds an organization called Hydra and in all ways he’s basically the anti-Captain America. His motives (global domination) stay true the entire film and he, just like Cap, is always moving toward a goal. That keeps up the tension because when you watch the villain attain his goals, you know things are going to go bad for the hero.

In Green Lantern, we start out with Hector Hammond, a nerdy high school teacher who gets psychic powers after being exposed to a fragment of a powerful evil being called Paralax. Hammond uses his powers to get revenge on his overbearing father and he kidnaps Hal’s girlfriend, but beyond that his “evil” is pretty tame. At the end of the film, Paralax shows up and starts destroying GL’s city. Paralax here is just a giant yellow cloud with a face. We don’t get insight into its motives or its wants, so while the destruction it wreaks is impressive, it’s not satisfying. Even with Hector Hammond, I found myself feeling bad for the guy rather than hating him as a villain.

Lesson – Villains need goals to march toward just like the heroes, we need to understand what makes them tick, and while it’s okay to have a sympathetic villain, he/she needs to come across as a villain.

Characters Should Behave Consistently
In Captain America, Steve Rogers doesn’t back down from a fight even when he’s hopelessly
outclassed. He stands up for what he believes in and is willing to sacrifice himself for that.
That holds true when he’s 90 lbs, when he’s saving his friends from prison, and when he has the final battle with the Red Skull.

In Green Lantern, Hal vacillates from being cocky and arrogant to being insecure and borderline whiny. There were times when I just wanted to shake him and yell “Damn it man, you’ve got the most powerful weapon in the universe on your finger. Grow some balls!”

Lesson – Characters’ actions and attitudes should be consistent. Of course, they should grow and evolve, but having a character be cocky in one scene and then timid in another is jarring to the audience.

Any other writing tips you’ve picked up from movies? Sound off in the comments.