Open Letter to Robert J. Sawyer

Dear Robert J. Sawyer,

I wanted to talk to you at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Gold Conference this year, but I never made it over to you. So much excitement, intrigue, and chatting with my tribe. Since I couldn’t speak to you in person, I figured I’d write an open letter, saying now much I loved, loved, loved your talk on Saturday night.

Yeah, it wasn’t all fuzzy puppies and inspiration, but what you said blew me away. My mouth hung open the entire time, and I kept glancing over to see if the publishing industry was sending in shock troops to pull you down from the podium. You were a firebrand, and dang, I kept thinking, “He can’t be saying this stuff. Someone is going to stop him.”

But no one did because you were speaking the truth. Authors are either abused or ignored much of the time. We get paid pennies for our words, even at the professional rate, and we don’t get raises. Pennies a word, like it was the 1920s while agents went from 10% to 15% and publishers are having record years.

I am signing up with the Author’s Guild and I promise to do my part for the resistance.

Yet, the problems authors face are legion. Part of the problem lies with us scribblers ouselves. Maybe all of the problem lies with us.

In this day and age, anyone can write a book and publish a book. I find that amazing, exciting, and wonderful. I think there has never been a better time to be an artist because distribution has been solved. The internet has opened the world up and as artists, we have a platform we can use. Yes, it’s never been noisier and books have never faced the competition we face now.

For example…

Dude, I can watch Sword Art Online on my phone. I can play amazing video games with mind-melting graphics day and night. And TV has never been better. Jessica Jones, man, Jessica Jones.

When I was a new writer, I heard Andrea Brown, the literary agent, speak and she said I’ll hear that books are dead, the publishing industry is in trouble, and it’s the end of days every year for the rest of my life. I will hear that the book business is a goner until I die. So being an author has never, ever been easy. Never.

If all writers wrote books as a business, I think the entire industry would be different. We would be paid better and things would be more fair. However, not all writers write to make money. That, I think, is the crux of the problem.

Some write for status, and I talked about that in a blog post for RMFW last year. I love that post. Here is the link.

Some write books because they love them, and yeah, they publish them, but it’s not really to make money. Andrew Weir wrote The Martian on his blog because he loved hard science fiction. He never really wanted to publish it, but his fans insisted. And he hit it HUGE!

E.L. James wrote because she wanted a sexier Twilight. And she hit it HUGE! And she admits she is not a writer. She just got stupidly lucky.

So what are we to do?

People will always want to read books. Books are magical, and you can’t get the same experience with movies, TV, or video games. Reading is a unique experience.

You are totally right in saying we need to unionize and demand to be treated fair. Whether we can all be loud enough to change the industry, well, I just don’t know.

For me, I am going to write and I am going to publish and I hope to transition to full-time writer at some point, but I have a day job. Like I said, I’m with you. We shall storm the gates of hell.

I’m a hybrid author, I have some Indie stuff, I have some small press stuff, and I’m looking to break into the big game to use their marketing arm, though I’m doubtful about that action working out.

It’s funny, any power I have as a writer comes from readers. Look at what Taylor Swift did with iTunes because she had the clout of her fan base. She forced their hand. I think really successful writers can do the same.

I have a series with Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press, and working with the WFP team has been great (the contracts are extremely author friendly). We are a coalition of independent authors who support each other, and what we do at sci-fi/fantasy conventions has proved very effective in selling books. I feel very lucky.

In the end, we authors do have power. Yeah, Amazon doesn’t have our best interest at heart, but having your own website and selling directly to the customer has never been easier. If I can get enough of a fan base, my options become greater.

So for me, it goes back to writing what I love, playing the game, and continuing the march forward. Staying open and aware to all of the possibilities.

But dang, what a wonderful keynote you made. Moving, shocking, and in the end, I did find it inspiring.

We are a beleaguered group of feisty heroes, marching against an army we have no chance of defeating. We are children of a grand legacy of artists, who have always been out numbered.

And yet, we will soldier on.

Because that is what we do.

Sincerely,

Aaron Michael Ritchey

 

The Myth of Craft

Craft. Meh

I don’t buy the myth that if only I learn all there is to know about craft, that I will immediately write a bestseller and everyone will love my books. I don’t buy it at all. Because I’ve read bad books and I’ve read good books and in the end, sometimes the craft was awesome, and sometimes there wasn’t any to be found. People who make money offering writing classes want you to believe in the myth of craft. Playing the odds, you will probably make more money teaching people craft than crafting books yourself. And there’s less fear involved. Says the grandmaster wizard writing teacher, “I will teach you how to write, but I won’t write books myself. That’s too hard and scary.”

I sometimes think what I just wrote in the ranty-paragraph above.

Not sure I truly believe it or not. I do know that more important than craft (or talent, which I’ll talk about next month) is the will to write the book. The game is for people who do it, not people who study it.

Better to write a bad book than not write the book at all.

Do you know what I think of when I hear people talk about the myth of craft? I think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating uses the textbook to chart the perfect poem. If we maximize plot and minimize exposition, if we chart the character arc along the y-axis, then we will have the perfect book and you will make millions!

However, let me make myself perfectly clear. I had to learn how to tell a story and I had to learn about character arc. My writing can get overblown and I LOVE saying the same thing over and over again, but in a slightly different way. I can easily gloss over details and play havoc with POV. My choreography can be iffy.

In the ten years of conferences, critique groups, and craft books, I’ve learned a ton and sometimes that really helps me. Sometimes I don’t think it matters at all. Let me repeat that. I don’t think my ten years does me much good.

Do you know why?

Because art is subjective, and I might create a perfect work of art, and people might hate it. I have two artist friends, one draws pictures that are filled with craft, the lines, the composition, all of that. They are perfect. My other artist friends draws messy sketches in a surreal kind of way, and they are far from perfect, but they have an energy, a duenda, that shines through.

So in the end, the game is writing books. Sometimes those books will hit it big, and sometimes they won’t, and I don’t know why. People who claim they do are trying to sell you something. Because selling you the dream of a successful book will probably make them more money than writing a successful book.

I will say this…before I learned plot structure, I wrote books readers couldn’t read. It was sad. My books were bad, though I loved them so. Now, I know how to hook a reader and tell a story and readers can read my books. It’s happiness, right?

No. I have friends who liked my early work better. Yes, they liked my uncrafted books when they were more about my barbaric yawp than a finely-crafted story structure.

In the end, write books. Write books you love. Write books worthy of your time. Is learning the craft of writing a bad thing? It can be. If learning craft is blocking you from the act of writing, then it is evil. Don’t use it as excuse.

As human beings, we learn in different ways. I’m a learn-along-the-way type of guy, so I wrote a book, learned a bunch, wrote the next book, learned a bunch, and so on. Other people study, study, study, and then write books. It’s all good.

I met a Colorado writer who never went to a conference, never read a how-to book, never went to a critique group. And he is far more successful than me.

There are no rules, people.

Except one.

People can’t read books you don’t write. So write books.

Go ahead and laugh at me…

So, as many of you know, I’ve been going to comic cons across the country, from Seattle, Washington to Hartford, Connecticut, to sell my books and to chat with people. Thank you, WordFire Press!

I found myself sitting on a panel discussing the various benefits and drawbacks of Indie versus traditional when someone said, “Above all, if you Indie publish, don’t make a fool of yourself.”

I immediately screamed to the heavens, “MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF! BE AWFUL! HAVE PEOPLE LAUGH AT YOU! DON’T WAIT FOR PERFECT!”

The other authors on the panel shushed me (I get that a lot) and the discussion continued. I should’ve screamed louder. I should’ve thrown chairs. I should’ve lit my guitar on fire and knelt before it’s burning remains.

Instead I shut up. Because I’ve been making a fool of myself for at least four years in the publishing industry and I figured I didn’t need to fight with my fellow authors.

But the truth? What I believe is the truth? No book is ever ready, talent doesn’t mean much, and you can keep yourself trapped in “working on your craft” for decades or more. Do all that, and you can avoid the fear of making a fool of yourself. Congratulations.

This is the big secret about the writing industry. It’s not about who knows the most about the writing craft, or the one who has the most talent. Nope, the person who wins at the writing game is the person who DOES it.

Lots of people talk about writing books, few people do it.

Lots of people finish writing books, fewer publish them.

So this game is for people who conquer the fear and do it, and who do it over and over.

Am I a better writer than when I started thirty years ago? Maybe. I’m older, and I think that helps. But what about the ten years of critique groups, ten years of reading writing craft books, ten years of writers conferences. Haven’t those made me a better writer and someone who knows craft?

Maybe. Probably. But in the end, it comes down to the fact that I did it. Over and over again, I took action. I wrote books, I edited books, I published books. Over and over. That’s the important thing.

Am I glad I didn’t publish the first thirteen novels I wrote? Even the bad ones? Sometimes I am. But I don’t think it would’ve mattered. I think if I had Indie published my bad novels along the way, it wouldn’t have mattered. Some people would’ve loved them, and some people would’ve hated them. That’s just the nature of the game.

I spent twenty years writing thirteen books no one will probably ever read, and I would rather have people read my not-so-perfect-books than not read them all. I wish I would've had the courage to risk people laughing at me sooner. But I was too afraid.

Rushing a book into publication might not be the smartest thing ever, but it's better than not publishing a book at all. And hmmm, I wonder how many New York Times Bestsellers were rushed into print? Makes me think of the Looney Tunes writers and animators. They were rushed and what they did was genius.

I don't rush books out the door, but I'm getting more courageous. Books need to be edited. To a point. But I can edit a book for years just because I'm too afraid to show it to other people because I'm too afraid of what they'll say.

But maybe I’m totally wrong on this. I don’t have an agent and I don’t have a big traditional publisher and I get some good reviews, but I don’t sell millions of copies.

I know some people are looking askance at me, wondering why I still try so hard every day, and I know some people have tried to read my books and couldn’t. For whatever reason.

So in that sense, yeah, I have mad a fool of myself.

But who cares?

Let ‘em laugh.

I will keep writing and publishing books, and they can laugh all they want. I would rather publish books that people laugh at than be trapped in my own fear.

This game isn’t for people who talk about it. It’s for people who do it.

So let’s all go DO IT!

And damn those haters who love to laugh.

Halfway and Unfinished

I was talking with a writer the other day. Those writers. You know the type. Shifty-eyed. Distracted. Stinking of gin and desperation. A nervous laugh and a hair-trigger sense of despair. Yes. A writer.

She was working on her first novel, and times were bad.

Why were times bad?

Because she was about halfway through the book. Now, being halfway is a good thing, right? It’s better than being on page zero.

That damn page zero. It taunts me.

But the problem is, she has been learning craft along the way, and every time she learns something she applies it to the book, which means she is constantly re-writing the first half of the book.

Which means if she keeps this up, she will never, ever finish because she is trapped in the miasma of her novel, stuck in edits and applying everything she is learning.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am iffy on the idea we can edit ourselves into a perfect book. There’s a popular idea that if we only edit a book enough, we can craft a perfect sculptured thing of Davidian beauty that will sell millions.

Maybe.

I’ve seen books written by half-witted alcoholic troll-like creatures reach the heights of Amazon. And I’ve seen lovingly crafted books of true beauty languish in the dungeons of obscurity.

Editing is necessary to a certain extent. But do you know what I think is more important than editing? Vision.

When I sit down to write a novel, I have a vision of the story in my head, and generally the vision is the climax of the book, when the hero is pushed to the limits, and things are bleak, and the villain is invincible! And still, somehow, the hero wins.

If I don’t have the epicness of the climax in my mind, I don’t write the book. And yeah, the climax might change, but generally it doesn’t. I know the book I want to write.

I have vision.

Can editing help me reach that vision? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve spent months editing a book to realize my first draft was better. I’ve been given dodgy advice to “improve” my book when really it was striking at the heart of my vision.

My advice to all writers is to write, every day, as much as you can. If it’s only three sentences, that counts. Write, every day, and follow the vision. Yes, you’ll be hit by craft stuff and editing stuff, but the vision should remain.

So vision is more important than editing. What is more important than vision?

Finishing.

I had an Icelandic friend who give some really good advice when I first started writing. He told me to finish the book, then go back and edit. Stop going to classes, stop reading up on craft, stop listening to the experts, and finish the book.

Then, during edits, you can apply what you have learned. But only for so long. There are no perfect books. Good enough is generally good enough.

Then again, there are no rules.

I heard a story about a guy who attended the same writer conference, year after year, for decades. He worked on the same book for decades. Everyone laughed at him for decades. Until his book hit, and when it hit, it took off.

There are no rules.

Except for one.

If you don’t finish the book, no one will ever be able to read it.

And Aaron Michael Ritchey Waves His Magic Wand! Poof!

I am going to wave my magic wand, and I am going to make all your writerly dreams come true.

Yeah, my magic wand. No sex jokes.

Like Sigmund said, sometimes a magic wand is just a magic wand.

Here I go.

Do you know that story you were so excited about but every single short story market rejected you?

Poof.

You sent in query letter after query letter on the short story, and bam, a total acceptance for professional rates, ten cents a word, and you were included in a “best of” anthology. Suddenly, a hundred literary agents are knocking on your door wondering if you have a novel they can represent.

You can thank me later.

What about that cover you weren’t quite thrilled with?

Poof!

You have the ultimate cover drawn by either Frank Frazetta or Michael Whelan. Your book cover could be a movie. No, seriously, and not a movie released in January to a limited audiences, but a movie released in July with Florence +t the Machine on the soundtrack. It’s such a great cover.

You can thank me later.

What about that agent who loved your story idea, asked for the full manuscript, then eighteen months later rejected you because the market changed?

Poof!

Ten minutes after reading the full manuscript, that agent immediately called his go-to guy at HarperCollins and you are offered a six-book contract including a movie deal, and you get to meet Joss Whedon who is interested in the project.

You can thank me later.

What about that time you Indie published a book you loved more than life, more than sleep, more than donuts? It sold five copies and a week later its Amazon ranking sank into the low two millions. It’s still falling and threatens to become Amazon’s least sold book of all time.

Poof!

The day after you published the book, the Amazon ranking shot into the top one hundred. By noon? The top ten. By twilight, it was number one across all of Amazon and across all of the major categories. Suddenly, there’s a Huffington Post article on your book! How can this Indie book be dominating Amazon for weeks on end? Someone from Amazon calls you to apologize because they don’t have enough money to pay you. They’ve never seen such a book break those records. A month later, Joss Whedon calls you, personally, to ask if he can turn your book into a Netflix series.

You can thank me later.

What about that book where you did your homework, sent out review copies, made people sign blood oaths, all to get at least fifty Amazon reviews on the release day? Then? Yeah, you had two reviews. Amazon removed one, and the other was a one-star review that confused your book with the latest from Chuck Tingle.

Poof!

Not only did you get fifty five-star reviews, no, you got a hundred reviews total. And more are coming in each day. Joss Whedon left a review. And the bots working the interwebs saw all those reviews and emailed everyone across the globe—anyone with an email address—a “Buy Me” promotion about your book. You sold gazillions.

You can thank me later.

What about yesterday, when you promised yourself you’d get up early to write that one scene, which you were originally excited to write? Instead of getting up, you slept in, then wasted what little time you did have on Facebook, and then the day hit and you won’t be writing a single thing.

Poof!

Wait…

Dammit. Nothing happened?

Let me try again.

Poof!

Still nothing?

Let me check out my magic wand for a minute (no sex jokes). It’s working. I mean, it did all of that other stuff.

Oh, wait. That’s right. I can’t magic you into writing your book. That’s something firmly in your control, and yeah, it can be rough, life is busy, and dude, the Preacher comic has its own AMC show. I know. How cool is all that?

The magic wand only works on things outside of your control.

All of the wonderful things I’ve done on this blogpost are possible. They happen all the time. Magic happens to writers who finish books and get them out into the world. Sometimes great big magic. Sometimes teeny-weeny magic. But magic happens.

So do what you have control over. Write those books.

No need to thank you. You know what to do.

Strike Me, Lightning! Dexter, Dreaming, and Jeff Lindsey

So who wrote Tarzan?

You don’t know?

I’ll give you a hint. He’s the same writer who wrote A Princess of Mars.

You know, John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tharks. Yeah, you know! Disney and the director of Wall-E did a movie called John Carter, which was awesome, no matter what people may say. People. Sheesh.

So many of you know about Tarzan, if not everyone. Fewer know about Barsoom. And fewer probably know the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s the author who brought Tarzan to life. And really, he’s one of the reason why I became a writer.

Okay, next question.

Who wrote Darkly Dreaming Dexter?

You don’t know?

I bet you know about the hit TV show which season after season thrilled a generation. Until the last five minutes of the finale which totally killed the spirit of the wholes series. But I digress. For those of you who don’t know, Darkly Dreaming Dexter is about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers. Genius, I know. I told the author, Jeff Lindsey, I kind of hated him for coming up with such a great idea. I got to meet him and hear him speak. Great guy. He referred to himself as the avatar of self-doubt. I'm totally stealing that.

He also talked about how everyone knows Tarzan, but no one knows ERB. And everyone knows Dexter, but no one knows Jeff Lindsey. Good and bad, that.

But as Jeff Linsdey talked about the history of Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which of course had tons of rejection and had tons of “suggested” re-writes, he mentioned something that struck me.

He said the writing game isn’t about talent, and it’s not really about luck, and it’s not about networking, or any of that. He said he didn’t want to seem too precious, but he thought writers were like people under a pristine blue sky waiting to get hit by lightning.

Not sure what he meant by seeming too precious. I thought it was a great analogy.

I might have the best, the tallest, the most magnificent lightning rod in all of creation. I might be wearing steel underwear. I might have done all of my research on the best place to sit in the field of writers to improve my chance of being hit by lightning. But the fact remains—the sky is blue. A storm is not in the forecast. It’s not research, talent, or luck that’s going to get my testicles zapped.

So what is it? Why do I venture out into the field and sit under a blue sky waiting to get struck by lightning?

Because I am pulled there. Well, I’m half-pulled by my vocation, my sacred duty to write stories, and I’m half-pushed by a deep desire to succeed.

Regardless, I’m choosing to walk daily into the field and sit down, open my laptop, and write books. Lots of books. I want to be in that field. I love writing books and hanging out with authors.

Why? Because when I write, I am doing what I was made to do. Not everyone likes reading and writing. Some people adore NASCAR. That is their sacred calling. I don’t get it, but not everyone is going to get me. Which is fine.

In third grade, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs and it changed my life. Reading about John Carter meeting Dejah Thoris on an alien world electrified me (Ha, funny, get it?).

My entire life, I have wanted to be a writer. My entire life.

Why would I walk away now? Because it’s too hard? Because I’ve failed? Because I’ve been ignored?

Dudes and dudettes, the hero is supposed to fail and struggle before they succeed. I’m in the right place at the right time engaged in the right activity. I’m doing what needs to be done.

Jodi Thomas, another wonderful author, talked about those who succeed in writing are the ones who can endure the most. Which means I will succeed. Might take a bit, and success might not look like I think, but the lightning will strike me.

And if it doesn’t?

Goddammit, I’ll make my own lightning.

Lessons From Ten Years of Writing

Yes, the lessons I've learned in ten years of writing. This is not to be confused with David Morrell's excellent book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.

So on my own personal blog, I’ve been meditating on the last ten years. In January of 2006, I joined an RMFW Critique Group in Evergreen (with Jan Gurney and Diane Dodge) and later that same year, I went to my first writers workshop in Big Sur, California.

So it’s been ten years since I got serious about this writing gig. If you want the full Ten Years of AMR experience, you can hit my blog. http://aaronmritchey.com/the-blog/.

So I’m going to bullet point the lessons I’ve learned in no real order. The first one is good, though.

  • Write the books you love. There is no guarantee that if you write the most marketable book in the world that it will go anywhere. Write what you love and excites you. Try to only work on projects that move you emotionally. That’s where the rich stuff is.
  • Know enough about the market to be dangerous and don’t be afraid to write stuff that defies the market. Be bold.
  • It’s more fun to write books people can read than to write books no one but you can read.
  • It all changes. The game changes. The market changes. Strategies change. It all changes.
  • A lot of this game is luck. Play the game a lot.
  • Know your enemy. The enemy is not the industry or other writers or any of that. The enemy is your own laziness, doubt, and fear. Fight that enemy by writing books.
  • Every writer writes in their own way. Embrace your way but stay open to change. If you ever get your hands chopped off, you might need to dictate your books. Or if you're a slow writer, contracts might force you to speed up. Stay flexible.
  • Holding your own book in your hand, your book, your words, never gets old.
  • Don’t comment on reviews. Don’t comment on good reviews and certainly don’t comment on bad. When your friend leaves an iffy reviews, don’t pester them for more details. Let it all go.
  • I can write more and revise less if I plot out my story. I use a Save the Cat outline. Use lots of tools.
  • Be gracious. If you are rich and famous, or if you are poor and struggling, be gracious.
  • Most writers are very nice. Most writers are completely fascinating creatures. The few who aren’t are easily avoidable.
  • Not everyone who has been supportive of you on your rise to fame will be supportive once you get published.
  • Books need to be crafted and they need an outside eye to cut, to smooth, to polish. Find trustworthy people to help you craft both the book you are writing and your writing in general. There is a number of ways to accomplish this: a critique group, a critique partner, beta readers, professional editors, et cetera.
  • A good critique makes you excited to improve the work and a bad critique doesn’t.
  • Embrace the awesome responsibility of being the final judge of your work. Don’t give away your power to those who might not care about your project, who might be jealous, or who might be blind. It’s your book. Be willing to fight for it.
  • Love writing, love your characters, love your worlds. Allow yourself to get lost in the process. Chris Devlin taught me that one.
  • When in doubt, fake it until you make it. If you don’t feel like an entrepreneur or a sales person? Fake it. Stretch. Pretend. The world doesn’t care about how you feel. It cares about what you do.
  • Find a community of authors to support you. When the industry drops an emotional bomb on you, call three different people and talk about it three times. The negative feelings will disappear. If they don’t, find three more people and tell them the story. We heal through our mouths.
  • Read contracts. Don’t sign them if you don’t have a way out or if you lose rights to your book forever. In the words of Prince, forever is a mighty long time. Avoid contracts where your soul is a line item.
  • Fight for what you believe in. Believe in yourself and your books. Fight for them, but not to the death. Life is better than death.
  • Don’t bash and critique other writers or their books. Unless they ask you to. Then ask them if they want the full-on spicy kung-pao critique before you unload.
  • Published books don’t need your critique. It’s done. Over. Be supportive and if you can’t be supportive, be silent. As a writer, avoid leaving scathing reviews. What’s the point?
  • Finish projects. There will always be a shiny new idea wearing red lipstick and a short skirt. Stay with your current project and finish it before you start buying the new idea drinks.
  • Plan the book, write the book, revise the book, query the book. If no one touches it, publish it yourself. And move on to the next project.
  • Do things that make you uncomfortable. Do things that scare you. Be heroic and remember, the dark moment always comes before the grand victory. We are blessed and damned as artists in this world. Embrace the journey. Because it will all be over soon enough.
  • Holding your book is holding the minutes of your life in your hands. And the best part? The books will live on, maybe quietly, maybe loudly, but they will live on. Writing books is cheating death.
  • Training to be an author should entail the following: torture (learning to handle pain), sales (learning how to sell anything to anyone), and taking holy orders (learning the discipline of an ordained monk). And maybe writing lessons. Maybe.

And so, those are some of the lessons I’ve learned. It’s been a good ten years, but do you know what? I’m looking forward to the next ten. I’ve never been stronger, I’ve never been wiser, and though much is taken, much abides.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Saul Goodman Wants Your Book

I was going to call this blog “Saul Goodman wants to review your contract” but then no one would read it because contracts are boring. And everyone knows that Susan Spann is the lawyer you want to work with. Duh.

Who is Saul Goodman? Come on, guys, he’s the lawyer in Breaking Bad. And if you don’t know what Breaking Bad is, it’s one of the most electrifying television shows ever produced that will devour the soft parts of your soul and leave you gasping like a meth addict overdosing on linoleum.

Better Call Saul is a spin-off/prequel to Breaking Bad and I’ve been watching it. At first, I wasn’t going to even bother because I like new content and Breaking Bad left me both satisfied and scarred. I had to seek PTSD counseling after that brain-spilling final season.

I can dig a good spin-off. I followed Joanie and Chachi to their own show from Happy Days. What’s Happy Days? It’s exactly like Breaking Bad only set in the 1950s and deals with soda jerks instead of meth addicts. Compare and contrast Tucco and the Fonze for homework.

While watching Better Call Saul, I pondered what I could learn about storytelling. What follows are my insights. In pseudo-legal document/outline form.

  1. In which, Aaron Michael Ritchey, hereafter known as the party of the first part, declares that voice trumps story.
    1. Part of the thrill of Better Call Saul is that it uses the same vision and voice of Breaking Bad. Even though the story is less intense, part of the reason why I like Better Call Saul is that I get to step back into the crime-ridden sleaziness of Albuquerque’s underbelly. The desert, the filth, the desperation, the violence, it’s like going home. If your home is San Quentin. But that was part of the wonder of Breaking Bad. This is one of the reasons why Roger Ebert gave The Godfather Part III a favorable review…it wasn’t that it was a good movie, but it felt like visiting family. In this way, voice can trump story.
  2. In pursuant to section one, the party of the first part, points out the importance of a “stakes character.”
    1. So as an audience, we know that the hero isn’t going to be killed. They are safe. Yes, a bunch of horrible things might happen to them, but they won’t be killed. And in a prequel, this is doubly true since we know Saul and his cronies live long enough to be in the next show. However, a stakes character is a secondary character that we like, that is in danger of dying, and that the hero loves.
    2. In Breaking Bad, the lives of Walter White’s family and friends were at stake, and in some ways, you could argue that Jesse Pinkman was a stakes character.
    3. Saul has his mentally ill brother, and really, the whole show seems to be revolving around Saul and his relationship to his family. It’s powerful and makes the show work. Saul might not die, but his brother? Well…
  3. Without any extraneous words, the party of the first part, hereafter known as the blogger, points to the power of the franchise/series.
    1. Better Call Saul wouldn’t have been made if it hadn’t been for Breaking Bad.
    2. That’s not to say Better Call Saul isn’t a good show on i’s own, but it relies so much on the built-in audience of Breaking Bad that I don’t see anyone jumping right in without watching Breaking Bad.
    3. This might have meant death for Better Call Saul in past years, but now, we have Netflix and other streaming service so if you are curious about the new show, you can watch the old show in a massive binge.
    4. People like to lose themselves into other worlds, however vile and troubling the world might be. The more content available, the more people can binge and the more they want. That is why I’m working on The Juniper Wars Series, which will have a massive amount of content, including short stories written by other authors set in the world.
    5. And since I’m working with WordFire Press, we are nimble enough to release books as close together as possible. Notice, Netflix releases their own content in one lump dose do people can binge watch. I don’t watch shows until I can watch as many as I want. Weekly? Please, girlfriend. This isn’t the days of Joanie loves Chachi.
  4. The blogger posits that spin-offs are powerful because if you have good characters, people want more of that character.
    1. So in essence, write good characters, and if people like that character (Who didn’t love Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad?) write more stories for them. We now have so many platforms for fan-fiction as well as the ability to publish multiple books and multiple stories whenever we want.
    2. Well, hopefully. If we own the rights.
    3. Be careful of contracts that limit you. And if you are signing away your characters and world, your intellectual property, make sure that the contract includes Auric Goldfinger amounts of cash and make sure they will provide you minions.
    4. I have a minion clause in all my contracts. But no one ever signs them so I never get minions. Dammit!

 

So yes, I’ve been enjoying Better Call Saul. And when I’m either drawn or repulsed by a story, as a writer, it’s my duty to ask why. Why can’t I stop watching? What is going on that has me hooked?

Then I try and use those same techniques in my own work. Funny, though, seeing what other writers do (or don’t do) is a hellluva easier than putting those techniques into my own books.

But that’s the challenge, people. If it were easy, anyone would/could do it.

Devil Baby – Louisa May Alcott’s and George Lucas’s Love Child

I’m sorry! I’m sorry I can’t stop talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’m sorry that so many people either love it or hate it or both and shake their fists at the firmament and there is the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth.

I loved episode VII. I was transported to that long time ago and that galaxy far, far away. And yes, it’s not a perfect movie (wow, those star systems are really close together to be able to see the super-duper doomsday weapon in the sky with the naked eye). However, none of the Star Wars movies are perfect. Perfect is not the game here, people. If it was, perfect would so stupidly easy to do.

Remember that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where the textbook claims you can map the perfect poem on a graph? Well, let me tell you, when it comes to art, throw your graph away and yeah, tear that textbook apart.

From Luke’s whining in episode IV, to C3PO’s constant (and annoying) chatter in episode V, there are a myriad of issues. However, Star Wars works at a gut level. Except for maybe episode II, but I won’t go there. The prequels are…different. They’re not like other boys.

How does this tie into Louisa May Alcott? Or is this just click-bait? Hmm, click-bait. Yum.

What is the devil baby (take it to mean unexpected and diabolically good) in the title of this blog post?

Duende.

Duende (sounds like a gynecological term) is actually a Spanish word for that special power some art is blessed with. If nothing else, the new Star Wars has duende as did episode IV. You can argue about all the others, but why else would people go see it numerous times? My wife, who is not a Star Wars fan, wants to see the new movie over and over. Because it has a passion, a sparkle, something undefinable (and ungraphable).

Can you plan duende? Can you map out the perfect story arc and the perfect character arc? You can try, but I don’t think you can. I think duende happens, sometimes by mistake by a newbie, and sometimes on purpose by a weary rofessional who got lucky.

I’m forty-five years old and I’m reading Little Women for the first time. I’m reading it to my daughters before bed, and we are loving it. However, I see all the flaws. It’s unabashedly preachy and the dialogue/dialogue tags are awkward and repetitive.

For example, here is what LMA loves to do:

“Long bit of dialogue goes here and it goes on and on and it really doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the characters,” she said, followed by a long description of activity which doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the story, not that there’s much of a story.

Louisa May Alcott wouldn’t do well in my critique group. We’d demolish her pages because her prose is so easy to pick apart. Like Star Wars is easy to pick apart. When I started Little Women, the book read like one of the stories my daughter wrote in the first grade. It’s four sisters talking and not much is happening and it’s sweet, yes, but um, not the most thrilling first chapter I’ve ever read.

However, Little Women has duende. I am astonished it was originally published in 1868 because it’s so accessible and I can relate so much to the family and the characters. I feel like I’m a part of the world of the March family, maybe like some crazy uncle.

How can that be? How can this old book have so much power? How can it break rule after rule and still work? I don’t know. All I can say is that I feel blessed to be reading Little Women, and I’m glad it survived the whims of time and the cruelty of the publishing industry.

So, as an author, what am I to do? I can try and craft my novels and aim for perfection, but at the heart of the matter, I don’t believe I can imbue my work with duende. I think it either all comes together or it doesn’t.

The only thing I can do is sit down and do the work. Maybe the book will shine, and maybe it won’t.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of courage and vision. Do I have the courage to pursue my unique vision of a story?

I think that’s where duende comes from—when the passion and love of the author shines at the heart of a story. George Lucas wrote a story he clearly loved. I think Louisa May Alcott did as well.

So, write the stories you love! And if you are lucky or blessed (or damned, arguably) that passion will shine and bedazzle billions!

Is Writing Getting in the Way of My Life?

So I have a spiritual adviser. I know that can be off-putting, but If it helps, you can picture me talking to Yoda. I mean, after all, Yoda was a spiritual guide for Luke and various other people who never listened to the green-skinned guru. Oh, well, we are a headstrong bunch.

My little green spiritual adviser asked if writing was getting in the way of my spiritual development. He’s unimpressed by me, which is good, because I am so damn impressive.

Is writing getting in the way of my spirituality?

Well, it makes me miserable, and since I’m a third Catholic, it counts as being beneficial. As my friend Jason Evans says, “All suffering is redemptive.”

To be clear, I’m not someone trying to get into heaven. I’m a guy whose natural inclination is to find a nice corner of hell and set up shop. I choose my suffering, and my spirituality is about me trying to suffer less.

Does writing help me suffer less?

Ouch. No. But let me continue…

You might have heard of a small film that came out in December of 2015. It’s called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I know, weird title, right? I think it might have something to do with Yoda, but I’m not sure.

I can’t tell you how much fuller my life is because of this one movie, which I’ve not seen at the writing of this blog post. It it fills me with a dreamy kind of hope, an excitement, a wonder.

I had to accept, early on, that writing stories is a selfless act and the world is better for the stories people tell. Even when the stories are sequels spun out of a story machine who’s only aim is to make as much money as possible. Even those stories matter.

When I write and publish books, I am adding stories to the world and I don’t know what will happen. And I can’t just write books and keep them hidden. I spent twenty years doing that, and those days are over. Lucky you, my practice books won’t see the light of day. But the practice is over, and it’s show time.

Writing doesn’t help me to suffer less. That’s not the point. The writing makes me strive harder, work more, and to really push myself to the very limits of my endurance, which makes me seek a power greater than myself.

The world is better for the stories we tell. And if I have stories to tell, I have a sacred duty to tell them.

I’ve had to pray and meditate more than ever because of the writing game.

I’ve had to reach out for help because of the writing game.

I’ve had to swim through frigid oceans of screeching fear because of the writing game.

Writing has made me a better human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s made me happy. Happiness is such an American ideal. Part of me is old school, yo, as in, I’m here to do my duty. Happiness may or may not come, but honor, courage, discipline, those are what I should focus on.

So I told my Yoda all that, and he was unimpressed, as he should be, because he knows I’m clinging to the writing business.

The real danger is that I have spent a lifetime, thirty years, in pursuit of this dream. Could I let go it now? If the divine muffin came down and told me to put the pen down, could I?

Our Buddhist friends would say attachment leads to suffering. And I’m not just attached to writing, I’ve superglued it to my soul. My query letters have been etched on my bones.

So, no, I can’t let go of it. It’s too late for me to stop, even if I wanted to. Even if I could.

But this is my calling, my vocation. I’m committed, for better or worse, even when it makes me suffer and I hate it so. Even when the dreams of fame and fortune flutter away and I’m left with an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,426,891 Paid in Kindle Store and even worse, an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,552,680 in Books. And no, I don’t want to see the Top 100 in books, thank you very much.

So, I’ll keep writing books. I’ll continue to suffer, since I like it for some odd reason, and I’ll continue to fight fear.

Because I am Jedi, like my father before me. And the work of writing stories matters more than my own happiness.

May The Force be with you. Always.