Getting in Writing Shape

Posted in Uncategorized on May 21, 2015 by JE Gurley

Getting in Writing Shape

After years of going up and down with my weight, I finally found a method (Not diet) that lets me eat what I like, and combined with portion control, exercise, and some self-restraint, I have lost 52# since January. Yeah, me! (Proper round of applause here). But this story isn’t about losing weight (Your Mileage May Vary). It’s about getting into better Writing shape.

Every writer has to start somewhere. Even Stephen King had bad days, although fewer than most. Some have years of High School and College English in their background. Others barely managed to pass Senior English Lit. This doesn’t affect you r ability to write, only how you approach writing. I’ve read too many books that require a dictionary or a summer refresher course to follow. That’s how some people write, how they learned to write. Personally, I write on a 10th to 12th grade level, using words most people are familiar with, while throwing in a few words that might require a quick Google search to define. That’s how I learned. I grew up reading on a higher level than my age and improved my vocabulary.

I have all the flaws most writers do. I forget how to spell words, forget the proper usage of a word, and tend to use flow more than outline as I write. This means more editing, but it’s my style. I think better off the cuff. It allows me to put more emotion into the words and phrases I choose. Writers have different methods of approaching the task of writing. The method isn’t is as important as the result.

Writing is an art, and like most art, requires preparation. The landscape artist Homer Winslow went to Paris to study before becoming a great American artist. J.S. Bach was born into a talented musical family, but he went to St. Michael’s School in Luneburg, Austria for two years before taking Europe by storm. Only a writer thinks he or she can sit down with a piece of paper and an idea and become the next great writer. It had happened, but not often enough to bank your career on it. Writing takes learning the tools, developing the skills, and avoiding the pitfalls of a new author.

I keep my copy of Strunk and White, my Roget’s Thesaurus, and my copy of Grammar for Dummies handy on my desk. Spellcheck and Word Thesaurus are too limited in scope to rely on solely. If it doubt, whip it out. I use them constantly. Sometimes I even remember what I read for the next time I need it. I have a long way to go to become the writer I want to be, but when I look back on where I was 8 or 10 years ago, I shudder. My Deep South upbringing didn’t help. We tend to mispronounce words, structure sentences awkwardly, and just make shit up when at times. I’ve argued with Spellcheck so many times I’ve wanted to shoot the screen only to find out later it was right and I’ve been wrong for 50 years.

Here are a few tips:

1. Writers should learn and understand sentence and paragraph structure. Learn the rules before you break them.

2. Learn proper punctuation. You can argue the use of the Oxford Comma, but you will have to use it at times.

3. Learn to properly use the most common misused words and phrases.

4. Learn to spell. Spellcheck only knows if you’re spelling a word in some language or the other, not if you’re spelling the one you want to use.

5. Learn proper use of verb tenses. Don’t confuse the reader.

6. Try to avoid -ily words like the plague. Adjectives are fine, but a good active verb can give a sentence more power.

7. Show don’t tell. This should be #1, but as I said, I use flow not outline.

There are probably a lot more rules I’ve forgotten about. I hope I’m using them correctly. I hope you do too. A good editor will look at a well-polished manuscript with a favorable eye.

Note – A well-polished manuscript will not make up for a poor story or a rehashed idea.

Keep writing.

Check out my website at jamesgurley.com

Writing Through Your Emotions

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2015 by JE Gurley

One of the biggest challenges facing a writer is attributing real emotions to our characters, to make them come alive for the reader. I call this writing through your emotions.

The best writing has always been a collaboration between the writer and the reader, a connection between the two that transforms the written word into perceived emotion. Romance, horror, science fiction, thrillers, comedy – all rely on eliciting an emotional response from the reader. Great writers have all had this ability. Carl Sandberg, Walt Whitman, and Maya Angelou created vignettes of life through their poetry, using carefully chosen words and well-crafted rhyme to make us feel what they felt as they wrote. Mark Twain, Stephen King, Robert Silverberg, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck – the list goes on and on. Each one was a master at conveying strong emotion through the written page.

For most writers, this is a difficult task. We often write in a vacuum, toiling away in our carefully constructed sanctuaries, cut adrift from the daily turmoil and tragedy that many must endure each day. We read about it in magazines or the newspaper or see it on television. We hear about it from friends. It can make us angry, sad, or frightened, and yet we have trouble expressing it. We write about pain, agony, and fear, but seldom create it with our language or our words. We are often emotionally crippled.

Film and stage are both mediums that allow the actor or the director to express emotion through movement, sound, facial expressions, and scenery. Faces are the mirror to the emotions within each of us. How can we as writers present this face to the reader? The answer is surprisingly simple. Before we can convey emotions to others, we must first feel them. We must allow what our characters feel to become part of us, crying, cursing, laughing, or fearing with them and through them. We must become our characters. We must experience what each separate character feels, react as they would react to the situations in which we place them, and then choose the right words to express that emotion so that the reader knows exactly how that character feels. We must allow the reader to draw upon their own emotional experiences, transfer them to the character we create, and become a part of the story. We must allow, no, insist, that they cry, laugh, or feel anger just as our characters do. The written page must become the stage on which our characters act.

We can convey emotions through more than words. Each scene, each encounter can become a tool by which emotions leap from the page into the reader’s mind. Color, scent, taste, and sound are emotional hues available from our palate to paint emotion onto each page.

Show and Tell. These two terms are hammered into a writer’s head throughout their career. In Telling we become a bard, a campfire storyteller, someone who relates a good story to others but invest no emotional energy. By Showing,  by creating fully developed, emotional characters, we immerse the reader in the world we create. Use your anger, your sadness, your uncertainty to channel those same emotions into your writing. Not only will you become a better writer, the process itself is cathartic, freeing you, as a writer, from your own chains.

Death to Serial Movies.

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2014 by JE Gurley

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE good movies. I don’t watch every new movie that comes out, but a few just won’t translate to the small screen and the comfort of your home. They need to be seen and heard on the big screen in all their Dolby-inspired glory, hearing aids be damned. Long movies test my limits. No matter how comfortable the seat or how delicious the popcorn, I easily become bored. I really have to want to see a movie before I simply wait for it to come top Netflix or Pay-per-View. We, as viewers, are constantly bombarded by a stream of sequels, prequels, and alternative endings. It’s too much to keep up with. Now, we have the advent of the cliffhanger movies. The original thirty-minute cliffhangers of the 50’s and 60’s left the viewer eager for the next installment of Buck Rogers or the Lone Ranger. They were just a part of the afternoon theater experience. Lately, they’ve become all-consuming monsters.

I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies. I enjoyed the book better, but I did like the movies, especially the scenery, though I would have been just as entertained without watching every boring mile they walked or rode. I didn’t like paying for three movies just to follow a story. I got snookered again with the Hobbit Trilogy. I will watch the last one under protest. I watched the first two Hunger Games movies. I refuse to pay for two-movie ending. It isn’t worth it.I don’t care that much for completion.

Now, I learn that King’s The Stand will come to the big screen in four movies. Enough is enough. We’re talking about $50 for a re-made television special. Has something changed? Did The Walking Dude win this time? Will Randall Flag have a change of heart and reach reconciliation? Were the original actors so bad that a demand for new talent, new actors with new approaches, is warranted? I don’t think so.

No way in hell will I shell out the cash for this remake. I saw the new The Shining, the new Spiderman, the new Superman, the endless remakes of the endlessly boring Batman movies. Hollywood can take a great movie and destroy it with abandoned glee, but I have yet to see a remake that is superior to the original. Whatever happened to making a movie that doesn’t require a bank loan or an investment of time capital to watch?

Maybe I’m jaded. I still watch old movies whenever I can, even the ones I’ve seen twenty times. Old actors acted. New actors play themselves time after time. I admit Jonny Depp is great. He has a wide range of characters. He’s the exception. Most are like Keanu Reeves – lifeless and wooden.

I don’t mind serial novels. It allows the author to exploit his characters or his world. However, bringing serials to the silver screen is a bad experiment. It’s cheap and easy for a studio to film several movies at the same time and split them up, but the savings isn’t passed along to the consumer. We’re getting screwed. I say Death to Serial Movies!

Getting Civilized

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing on October 23, 2014 by JE Gurley

First, I want to apologize for the infrequency of my posts. I’ve been very busy. I began the year by taking my first real vacation in ten years, a cruise to Mexico with my wife, Kim. No computer, no phone – It was heaven. Then, I went to work. I completed and saw a new Kaiju novel through publication from Severed Press, From the Depths. Since then, I published a new zombie novel also through Severed Press, Jake’s Law. Both are doing great. Now, my second Kaiju novel through Severed Press, Kaiju:Deadfall, has gone through the editorial process and is due out very soon. While all of this was happening, I completed a science fiction novel, Occam’s Razor, worked with my friend, Al Sirois, to produce great cover art, and went through the whole Create Space procedure to complete my first real self-published novel. I’ve gone through Lulu.com a couple of times years ago, but that was amateur. I’m hoping using Create Space will open a new venue for me and expand my publishing horizon. I”m finally beginning to use all the technical options available for writers. I’m becoming civilized.

I’m 60-years old. I solved algebraic equations with a slide rule. I got my first calculator my second year of college. I grew up with a rotary phone on a 6-party line. My first computer was steam-powered. Not really, but it was ancient. I could play Pong on it and the first Zelda game. I’m the guy who refused to buy a Kindle until I was 58-years old, and even then I received it for my birthday. Of course, now I love my Kindle. I have a hundred novels and reference books on it. I even have a cell phone. Unlike Kim’s, it doesn’t text or connect with the internet. I only use it in my truck to ask Kim if I can pick up anything for dinner while I’m out I’m getting civilized or in case of an emergency, like a sudden zombie plague, but I have one.

Most of my novels sell through Amazon, Barnes&Nobel, etc. E-books are my bread and butter. I sell hundreds of e-books for every printed copy. I don’t see e-books replacing print any time soon, but I have accepted that it is here to stay and am trying to take advantage of it. Create Space works for small publishers. I am published by 4 small press publishers – Damnation Books, Severed Press, Angelic Knight Press, and Montag Press. I’ve had great experiences with all of them and wouldn’t hesitate to use small press again. Nor would I object to a fat deal with McMillan or Tor Books. Occam’s Razor is an experiment. I’m hoping it will pave the way for many more self published novels. Other writers seem to be doing well at it. Why not take a chance, I ask?

As we mature, we all throw away the things of childhood and become a little more civilized. I’m too old to ride the merry-go-round and not graceful enough to ride a skateboard. I can use the senior’s discount at the movies. I’m late at joining the technological age. I’ll probably never get a chip implanted in my brain or an LED watch embedded just beneath the skin of my wrist. I might not live to see the flying cars they promised when I was a kid in the fifties. However, I find it foolish to allow my Luddite tendencies to keep me from using every tool at my disposal to become a better author.

Space Age, here I come!

Disappointing Cons

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2014 by JE Gurley

Copper Con: FANtasm in Phoenix kind of snuck up one me this year. Lots going on. I did manage to go Saturday to take a look around. I was very disappointed. I went mainly  to drop off some books that were going to low income and homeless kids. That was worth the trip. The con – not so much.

I’ve attended several times. Copper Con isn’t the largest convention around, but it’s always been informative and lively. This year they moved the event to Avondale on the outskirts of Phoenix for whatever reason. The venue was nice, but when I walked in, I thought I had missed it. Instead of throngs of people milling about looking at displays, buying books, etc., I saw a few people sitting around. I felt like I was in a library. Yes, I like libraries, but they don’t offer much of a party atmosphere. I dropped off a few postcards, bookmarks, and business cards at a table to complement the two or three others that were there. It seemed no one was pushing anything.

The vendors room had one table with used books, a cutting weapons display, some embroidery work, a Star Trek display, a two-person signing table – It would have fit in my living room. Very disappointing. There was a gaming room, which stayed busy, a media/film room, Steam Punk how to build it lectures, writer panels, etc., but all very poorly attended. I went to an Asteroid lecture by David Williams of ASU and NASA fame. Quite good. Then I went to a Finding the Story panel with author Michael Stackpole and was among six people. Same thing happened at a panel with Stackpole, Marshelia Rockwell, and Jeff Mariotte, all great authors. Six people attended and two of those were con promoters. I’m sure the authors were as disappointed as I was.

I left with a bitter taste in my mouth. The officials say they’re going back to their roots, away from the Comicon-type event they had last year, Copper Con: Revolution. They say everyone wants a great convention but few people want to participate in setting up a convention, which is true. I don’t have the time. I write for a living. It is a sad state of affairs when a beloved convention, one of the few local ones, begins to fade. It’s not dead. This is a lament, not a eulogy. It may bounce back and flourish. I hope so. Writers and fans both need conventions. Phoenix needs it, It’s where  an author gets to see his fan base in other than a bookstore setting.

I have to admit I only stayed  from about 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 on Saturday. I may have missed something, but the entire atmosphere seemed very muted. No one seemed to be having fun. If not for fun, what is a convention for? 

Let’s hope Copper Con survives the change in direction.DSCN0355

 

Flawed Characters

Posted in Writing on July 21, 2014 by JE Gurley

In writing, I believe characters with flaws are the most interesting. People who, despite personal, physical, or mental problems, step up and accept the challenge, either to succeed or to fail, like real life. People are not Superheroes. In fact, Superman’s biggest flaw was his love for Lois Lane knowing any relationship would place her in danger. Flaws sometimes define a person.

Captain Ahab’s thirst for revenge against Moby Dick, the whale that had scarred him both physically and mentally, defined him. He may have once been an honorable, God-fearing captain, but his encounter with the white whale changed him.

In some popular myths about Dracula, the suicide of his wife and the Church’s refusal to bury her on holy ground drove him to seek vengeance through the dark side. Speaking of the Dark Side, Darth Vadar falls into that category, following the Dark Side to keep his wife safe.

The flaw can be slight – a fear of the dark, or as in the Indiana Jones series, a fear of snakes. It can be less tangible – the fear of failure or the fear of caring too much. I think flaws of this type, psychological, are the most effective in writing. They can force a character to hesitate at the wrong time or to stop short of his/her goal.

Physical flaws can affect how the character goes about his goal, relying on others more than he/she would like, or overcoming these flaws through self reliance or ingenuity. Flaws, both physical and psychological, often define a character in others’ eyes as bad – retarded, slow, high strung, crazy, a gimp, scarred, withdrawn, handicapped – or as good – scarred and fierce-looking, doggedly determined, reflective.

Flaws can be used by the antagonists to beat down or humiliate the protagonist, allowing the hero to meekly accept the affront or defiantly challenge. Unflawed characters are one-dimensional and predictable and offer little for which the reader can cheer them on.

In writing and in life, approached flawed characters judiciously and with respect, because all of us are in some way flawed.

Winners and Losers

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 by JE Gurley

Life is a gamble. You pay your money and take your chances. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. All clichés but all true. Writing is the biggest gamble of all. A writer invests time and emotional energy to place words on paper and faces the inevitable voices of dissent, solely to present an idea or a story to others. Those unsuited for such a demanding life suffer considerable dismay at rejection by friends, peers, and the public.

I’ve written 15 novels to date. None have won Stoker Awards, Pulitzers, or world-wide acclaim, but some had moderate success, if measured by a exposure to sales ratio. My first novels sold a few hundred copies at most, usually by me personally. Later, as my writing skill improved and my social skills developed, I sold a few thousand of some novels. It seemed that elusive 10,000 books sold was within grasp.

Alas, it is still hit or miss. The novels that I really enjoyed writing, the ones I really expected to do well, didn’t. My fault? Publishers fault? Fickle audience? I don’t know. Even after 15 novels. My zombie novels sell well. Zombies are hot right now. Well, most zombies. One novel about Cordyceps fungus zombies was a bust. I guess people like traditional zombies. Horror seems to sell better than science fiction. I don’t think I’m that much better at writing horror, but my science fiction submissions can’t find a home. I keep trying, of course.

If I had thinner skin, I might have given up. Constant rejection is bad for the soul. Having some novels sell and still getting rejections for others is even worse. It raises doubts about one’s ability and makes them wonder if it’s worth the hassle. As for me, I would always write. It’s in my blood. I have to write. Sometimes I think it’s better to write it and then put it away in a dark box rather than try to sell it, but I usually do anyway. I certainly can write better. I hone my craft and vocabulary constantly. Every writer should. Words are tools of the trade, like a paint brush. I tried painting but I’m too colorblind. I play guitar. I’m pretty good, but at 60 I know I’m as good as I’ll ever get. I’ll never be a famous musician. Writing is my legacy, the tales I want people to read and see who I am, who I was. It’s an ego thing, I guess, but without ego, no one would subject themselves to the harsh reality of writing for a living.

I see friends do very well and I’m glad for them. I don’t quite envy them, (Maybe a little) but I do try to determine what they’re doing that I’m not. Perseverance seems to be the key. I’ve had a couple of novels – Ice Station Zombie and Judgment Day – that never leaped into the public eye, but still sell by dribbles. Over the years the sales add up. The more novels on my Amazon Authors Page, the more I sell. Slowly, but surely, the tortoise beats the hare.

If we judge ourselves as writers by winners and losers, we will eventually lose. Very few authors receive that six-figure advance, sell hundreds of thousands of copies, or sells a screen play. Most of us have to be satisfied with writing and selling in modicums. If we don’t love what we write, whether or not it sells, we will always be disappointed. Art for Arts Sake should be our motto. 

Never give up. Luck, serendipity, fate – call it what you will – still plays a part in success, but you, as a writer, have to be prepared for it. Poor writing might sell, but will never build a career. Never lower your standards or your goals. It is better to fail at being better than you could ever be than being less than you could. In a world of winners and losers, be a winner. 

                                                                                                                                                         J. E. Gurley

 

     

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