Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fighting Writer's Block

You have a seriously wonderful idea, the kind to which Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes are attached, and you race to your keyboard to get it down before the muse leaves you without a word, page, or even so much as a muse-turd on your chair.  You begin to write, gleeful that your idea will be the greatest thing since Shakespeare wrote "MacBeth."  Then it happens.  You've written yourself into a corner, and you can't get out.  Or worse...You, as a writer, find yourself completely devoid of ideas.  Nothing perkolating in your brain, no little plot-bunnies...Nada.  What do you you?

Writer's block is the often-mocked but very real phenomenon that few people aside from writers can understand.  It's a need to write, a yearning to create, but the frustrating realization that you have no ideas or that ideas you've had have petered out.  I liken it to creative blue-balls.  As a writer, I've fallen victim to the dreaded brain-fart many times.  And yet, despite the cruelty of the muses, I still manage to write and get some decent work out there.  One of the most-often asked questions to professional writers is this:  How do you overcome writer's block?  The answer isn't simple, and it's different for everyone, but it's one I'm happy to share.

Writer's block, in my mind, comes when you're unable to focus or when you've got too much on your mind.  They sound like one in the same, but they're not really.  I'm a pretty focused guy, but I tend to  over focus on whatever happens to be going on in my life.  Bills, children, rabid were-chickens, it doesn't matter.  They're all things that distract your thought processes from what you really need to be doing, which is writing.  I have a great many things that I do to overcome writer's block, but they can all be boiled down into two categories.

  • Physical Activity - Let's face it, no matter what you're writing, you're still sitting on your butt typing somewhere.  There comes a time when your body demands activity, and your brain needs it too.  So find something physical to do.  Push away from your keyboard, peel your butt out of your chair, and walk away for a little while.  Even an hour.  Walk around the block, lift weights, jog, it doesn't matter.  Something that you can do to work the kinks out of your spine and "jog" your brain.  For me, there's nothing that pumps my creativity like Judo.  The martial art I study, Kajukenbo, incorporates Judo as a part of it.  So if I'm feeling stressed or blocked (mentally), I'll put on my gi and head to the dojo.  There's always someone there who wants to roll, and we'll take turns pounding each other until I can't breathe and I'm so exhausted that my body no longer wants movement.  In fact, it usually screams that it was sorry for wanting anything so silly to begin with.  But what comes out of it are plot points, dialogue, character development.  I don't know why it works, but it does.  Besides, I love the sounds of snapping cartelidge and screaming students.  For other people, a solitary jog is a good thing because the rhythmic beating of your feet as you run allows you to shut down most other functions and just concentrate on the story that's bugging you.  For others, it's deep meditation.  Find something, anything, physical to do to give yourself a break.
  • Write Something Else - But you're suffering from writer's block!  How can you write something else!?!  Easy.  You know how, when you're working on a story, you get that little giggling voice that throws all sorts of other ideas into your head?  Put your main story away and work on one of them.  Write an article on something you enjoy (or even that you loathe, thereby pounding your brain into submission), or even write a *gasp* blog entry.  You guessed it, that's what I'm doing right now.  Currently, I'm working on a story and I needed a break to get back to it.  Breaks are good...Trust me on this one. 
Above all, remember this:  Writer's block can only affect your productivity if you let it.  Don't be a slave to it.  Use it instead.  Find something to distract your distractions and, in the end, you'll discover that writer's block isn't something to be scared of. 

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Learn to Read...

Some of the greatest writers, I think, have a serious problem with reading.  Not that they're illiterate, mind you, but that, when called upon to do so, they can't read their own stuff.  Part of being a writer is promoting your work, and that means going to conventions and taking part in Q&A panel discussions and actually reading a snippet of your latest opus.  And while the story or section they're reading may be the best thing written since Richard Matheson put pen to page, they stand at the podium and stutter.  They read with all the emotional content of cardboard and stumble over their own words.  Now, keep in mind, I know award-winning poets whose work is of such a high caliber that it could bring tears to the eyes of the Sphinx, but when the time comes to actually read it aloud, they kill all the content.  Let me tell you about a few of the ways I've overcome this problem.

To me, it isn't so much reading your story as it is performing it.  The audience is there because they want to be entertained, want to hear your words, want to see if you have as much confidence in your own work.  So own it.  I've long said that everyone should, at some point in their lives, take at least a course on public speaking, or acting, or both.  My background is in theater, so getting into the heads of characters, especially those I've written, is easy for me.  When I'm on stage, at the podium, or wherever they have me, I don't just stand there and read the words.  I feel compelled to vocally act them out.  It draws the reader further into your work, and, as an added bonus, the feedback the convention promoters get will ensure they'll keep you in mind to invite back next year.  When you wrote the words, you felt something.  There was some emotion you were trying to convey to the readers.  Now is the time to let that out.

But, you ask, what about stage-fright?  There is a statistic running around that states that more people are afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying.  Absurd, perhaps, but true in my experience.  So how does one overcome stage-fright?  You can try all the old stand-by's like picturing the audience naked (which only serves to make me giggle like a maniac) or focusing an inch or two above the tallest person's head.  But to me, the only real way to get over stage fright comes in two steps.  First, you have to realize that the absolute worst thing that can happen is they (the audience) don't remember you at all.  And the second worst thing that can happen is they don't like it.  They're not going to kill you, they're not going to throw things, you're not going to spontaneously combust on stage.  What happens if they don't like it? Usually, they'll still smile, they'll still sit in silence or fidget, but that's about it.  I've yet to see someone at any convention, author panel, or reading stand up and yell "You suck!" or pull a Kanye West on an author.  It just doesn't happen, and even if it does, so what?  Anyone who would do such a thing is an ass-hat anyway, so what do you care?

The second way to get over stage fright comes in two parts.  First, practice.  Learn your material.  "But I wrote it" you say.  Sure, but make sure you remember it the way you wrote it.  Practice it over and over until you know it by heart and don't really need the book in front of you.  That allows you to connect with the audience by making eye-contact, which is something that Bella Lugosi used on audience members when he did the live stage production of Dracula.  The second part is also practice, but of a different sort.  You can see this one coming, can't you?  Get out there and actually do it.  Not your friends and families, not a room full of teddy bears and action figures, but in front of a live audience.  Take any opportunity to get up in front of a live audience to speak.  It takes time, but eventually the butterflies in the stomach will go away.

In your reading, get animated.  Jump up and down, scream and shout, cry, laugh...Show them the emotion you want your piece to have.  Writing is visceral.  Reading should let the readers see into that world and let them feel the story's heartbeat.

Until next time, WRITE ON!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Surviving the Con

Okay, hotshot. Your book's been published, and now you've been booked for a convention appearance or have secured a table at the next relevant convention. What do you do? Relax. Surviving the con is painless and is actually one of the most fun parts of this job. I have a blast at conventions, and you can too. Just use your head and follow a few simple guidelines:
  • Your Table - It doesn't take a genius to see that a visually unattractive table will not inspire folks to come by. Little things make a difference. For example: I use a black spiderweb tablecloth on mine. Sure, it's a minor thing, but it would surprise you how many comments I get about it. Also, no matter how many copies of your book (or how many titles) you have, don't clutter your space. Put out between one and three of every title, then stash the rest under your table. Make sure your space looks clean and professional. And props don't hurt at all. My table usually has my gargoyle bookends, a coffin that I use to hold markers and pens, and a candy dish that looks like a pile of skulls filled with Jolly-Ranchers. I know it's cheating, but it works. Make sure your price list is clearly posted, as is your name with "Author" below it. If you can swing it, go to Kinko's and get a poster made up of yourself and your book cover(s). True, it might be pricy, but it's worth it.
  • Your Appearance - Please, folks. You're a professional now. Look like it. They say clothes make the man (or woman), and, to an extent, it's true. I'm not saying that every convention is a suit-and-tie event, but I am saying this: Dress appropriately. Dress the way you want to be perceived, and be damned sure that's how you want to be perceived.
  • Your Fans - This is probably the single most important piece of advice I can give, so please pay attention here. WITHOUT THE FANS, YOU WOULDN'T HAVE A JOB. Fans include anyone who's ever even thought about reading one of your books, so consider everyone at the con the same way: The people who allow you to write. Show some appreciation for them because they deserve it. Be nice and friendly to everyone. This doesn't mean that you have to endure the indignant or possibly psychotic stalker that hangs out at your table for three hours, but you should smile at everyone, engage in polite conversation, and let the fans know that you appreciate them. I've been to cons with a host of celebs, and the best ones are the ones that never turn a fan away and always have time to talk to them. Among the best of them are Ari Lehman, Bill Johnson, and Roddy Piper. I've honestly never seen any of them be rude, turn down, or walk away from a fan, and I respect them for that.
  • The Other Celebs - That's right, the other celebs. You're one too, remember? You have to walk in with that mindset so you don't turn into a drooling fanboy when you meet your idols. In the hospitality suite (that magic room where they go when they disappear, to which you now have access), they just want to breathe without being asked for autographs or to pose for pictures. This does not mean that you can't talk to them. In fact, most of them are genuinely nice and down-to-earth and are interested in making friends. Not business connections, mind you, but friends. So introduce yourself, listen and talk, and be yourself. That's all there is to it.
  • Practice Your Patter - Have an opening line, a book description, or a prepared sentence or two that you can repeat without stuttering. It makes you appear more confident and more intelligent.
Above all, conventions are meant to be fun. Take your camera, prepare to meet some wonderful (and some weird) people, and have a great time. Remember why you're there: Because someone thought you were worth the time to appear, and because you appreciate the people who put you here: the fans.

Good luck!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tips for Independent Movie Makers

By now, everyone knows that I review stuff for Dread Central, the greatest horror-news site on the planet. Mostly I do books, but I pretty much review anything that winds up in my mailbox. Because of my work ethic, I've gotten to review some really wonderful movies. I've gotten to see movies that no one ever sees. I've also been subjected to some of the most banal and horrible things ever committed to tape. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to give a few pointers to independent film makers to increase your chances of actually being reviewed, and of getting good marks from me.
  1. Don't hire your friends as actors - Hear me out...What I mean is, don't populate your cast with your buddies just because they're your buddies. Make sure they can actually, you know, act. Nothing kills a film more than bad performances by the actors, and you, the film maker, have so many resources to cull talent. Local colleges, theater programs, hell, even CraigsList has a section where indie films are being cast. Granted, most of them seem to be porn...But I digress. The point is everyone...say it with me, everyone...has to audition. Cast whomever is best for the part. Your friends who believe in you and understand what you're trying to do will understand.
  2. Make nude scenes count - Nudity for the sake of nudity does not equal art. Nudity in general doesn't equal art. Granted, I for one enjoy seeing a naked body as much as the next guy. But in the case of making a movie, if you want your flick to be taken seriously, make sure there's a reason for that person to be naked. The random shower-scene is just cheesy, and having a girl in the flick just so she can show her enhanced bosom and die is just plain bad film making.
  3. Make the blood count - See above.
  4. Tell a good story - The script is what's important. Your movie could have all the coolest special effects in the world, could have the most beautiful actresses, and be slick and gorgeous, but without an actual story, you've got a pile of crap. A story has to have a plot, a beginning and an end, motivation, inciting action, conclusion...all those little things that some English professor somewhere tried to teach you. If you were paying attention, you're already past this point.
  5. Don't be hampered by a tiny budget - You don't need the latest and greatest cameras, light rigs, etc. to make a movie. You need heart, you need technique, and you need intestinal fortitude. I've seen some truly wonderful films shot on high-8 and I've seen some real garbage backed by the Wienstiens. Learn your craft. Watch movies (good movies) and learn from those film makers. Hell, watch the bad ones too and learn from their mistakes. You can learn an amazing amount about filmmaking from watching Plan 9 From Outer Space. Camera angles, lighting, composition...all these things are your friends, and all these things separate your movie from ninety percent of the garbage out there. You can do amazing things with just a camera, a single light, and a little thought.
  6. Be proud...But not too proud - When you're done with your movie, chances are you're going to screen it for your nearest and dearest, and most of them will tell you how brilliant you are. Enjoy it. Soak it up. Then get back to reality. If you submit your work to the public (i.e. film festivals, critics, etc...), someone is going to hate it. That's the nature of the business. No matter how much you've put into it, someone will call it a stinking turd, and it's your job to suck it up, smile, and move on. Don't argue, don't start an internet campaign against the critic, just accept his statement, acknowledge in your own mind that he's probably retarded or was an abused child, and move on. It's only an opinion. Remember what they say about opinions.
  7. Take care of your actors and crew - I cannot stress this enough. Don't be a dick. Again...Don't be a dick. Without your actors and your crew, you have nothing but you, a camera, and an unrealized vision. It truly is a collaborative effort. That doesn't mean suffer the idiot ravings of a Prima-Donna on your set. But be gracious to your actors and crew. Thank them for working with you. And when you're done, you'll have something that all of you can be proud of instead of another war story.
  8. Avoid stereotypes - Especially the bad ones. A cage full of giggling, drooling over-the-top lunatics is...well...cliche, lazy, and just not interesting. A cage full of giggling lunatics in which ONE is standing calmly, watching you and smiling...Now that's unsettling. The point is, if an audience has seen your characters in a hundred thousand movies before, they won't be interested in them. Give them something new, real, and original.
  9. Continuity is key - Remember the famous movie in which the lawyer changes clothes a dozen times in the span of one trial in one day? Go to this site: MovieMistakes. Sad, isn't it? Make sure there is someone on set who's whole job is to make sure everything matches. Trust me.
  10. Hire a local band - Unless you're Motzart, John Williams, or Danny Elfman, you're not a composer. The "music" that comes from you playing chords on your Cassio keyboard does not work as a movie soundtrack. Sorry, but it doesn't. But guess what? In every city, town, neighborhood, there is a garage band. There are local kids that are dying to get their sound heard. If you like them, approach them and ask them about using a song or two in your movie. Go (again) to the local college and seek out the music department. Guaranteed, there are at least a few folks there with some ideas as to what music would go with your opus, and they'll be happy to work with you for a credit in your film (and maybe one on IMDB...You never know).
Okay, these are just a few hints about making movies. I can't tell you how many filmmakers break these "ten commandments," and whose work turns up as steaming piles of bunny-dung because of it. Don't take my word for it, though there are others out there that are MUCH more knowledgeable than me. If you want to read what I pretty much consider the bible of micro-budget film making, get Gregory Lamberson's book Cheep Scares. There are literally thousands of books out there about indie film making, so grab a few and learn. Learn your craft, work hard, and remember names like Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg. All of them have one thing in common: They started off EXACTLY where you are right now.

Until next time...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

DEADLANDS Re-Released!

When my book, Deadlands, went out of print because the publisher closed its doors, I was sad, but I figured all good things had to come to an end. I mean, after all, it was my best seller, and (according to the publisher) it almost sold out of its first print run of 5,000 copies. So I thought that was it for my little zombie story. Then along came Dr. Pus and the Library of the Living Dead press. He said it just couldn't die (it's a zombie, after all...) and picked up the reprint rights. So here it is, new, fresh, and gorgeous, with a new cover, new layout, and two new short stories added to the back of it. I absolutely love this book and I'm proud to see it in print again! If you haven't read it, and would like to, head over to my web page, AmericanHorrorWriter.Net and get it through my bookstore, or you can get it directly from Amazon. The dead must shamble on!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Finding the Time

It's a statement I hear every day. "I'd love to *insert artistic activity here,* but I don't have the time." My general response to that is, well, then I guess you don't really want to do it, do you? Not to be cynical, but let me take you through a typical day for me: Up by 6 a.m., at work by 7:45, lunch for an hour around noon, home by 6pm. After that, there's the karate class, the children, dinner with the wife, and about a dozen other things that I do. The point is, I lead a really busy existence. So how do I find the time to sit down and write? It isn't easy, but here's how I do it.

I make time.

See, to me, writing isn't a hobby, or something that I do in my free time, or something that is a burden. It's something that I genuinely love to do. I don't find time to do it, I make time. It became a priority in my life, and so I set up my life accordingly. Now, I'm not saying that everyone in the world has to do what I do, but this worked for me. If it works for you, great. If not, figure something else out.

First, I decided that I was going to take this whole "writing" thing seriously. I gave it a priority status in my life, and moved on from there. For me, my priorities are 1) my wife and kids, 2) my job, and 3) writing. Everything else that I do comes after that. Period. Karate, music, television, you name it, it takes a back seat. Ask anyone who is serious about their craft (no matter what it is) and I'm betting they'll tell you the same thing.

Step two: Once you decide that you're going to pursue your artistic endeavor, take a look at what you really do in a day. You can't ignore the wife and kids. For me, that's my whole reason for writing. Without them, I'd be pretty directionless, and I love them dearly. So whatever activities I'm doing with them come first. Then there's the job. Well, that pays the bills (mostly), so I can't really stop doing that, now can I? So now what? How much television do you watch? And how much time do you spend surfing the internet (reading blogs like this one)? How much of that time is wasted? Surely reading this blog isn't a waste of time, but c'mon, television? Biggest black hole time-waster of all time, and it doesn't really stimulate the imagination. Instead of watching the latest episode of "Big Brother" or "Dancing with the Stars," go sit down behind your keyboard and let your fingers do the dancing.

Third and final step: Set a goal. How much can you write in a day? How much before you feel you've earned a break? Setting a modest goal will help you sharpen not only your writing chops, but also your time management skills. There is no magic number of how many words to write. Everyone's is different. Stephen King advocates something like 10,000 words a day, I believe. I'm nowhere near that prolific (yet) and I do have other priorities, so mine is a more modest 1,000 words per day. Come hell or high water, that's what I do. End of story. Lots of folks write more than me, and lots write less. But do the math: If the standard length for a novel is between 80-90,000 words, how long will it take you at that rate to complete a first draft? Oooh...The possibilities are endless!

The point is, if you want to do this, you have to train your brain to work for you, not against you. Time? P-Shaw...You have all the time you need. You just have to make yourself use it wisely.

Write On!