The Escape

This may sound strange, but when I get stressed out, I read books about the American Civil War: memoirs, journals, biographies, histories. For some reason, combat and camp life are equally interesting; reading about it always makes me feel better.

It’s an escape to some degree, yes, but what it comes down to is this: No matter how stressful or unhappy life can sometimes get, at least I know life is better for me than it was for those soldiers, who faced hardships far worse than I could possibly fathom: bad food, exhausting marches, seemingly endless tedium interrupted by sudden violence, the loss of dear friends with sometimes little or no warning, and the very real chance that a simple cough might turn into an illness from which they might not recover.  By comparison, even at the lowest ebb, my life looks pretty grand.

One of the more stressful times in my life occurred many years ago when my wife and I were searching for a house. At the time, the real estate market in Seattle was hot. Houses in our price range were going fast. That meant you had to be on call if a new house came on the market. Waiting even a day would likely mean it would be snatched up before you had a chance to see it. And if you toured a house you liked, it meant you had to make an offer immediately. There was no night’s sleep to mull over your decision. Frequently, with good houses that needed little or no work, there were multiple offers.

Reading novels kept me sane. I was at the time working my way through what would become my favorite book series of all time: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Before then, I could never read two books by the same author back to back. Even if I loved one book, I needed a little variety before I moved on to the next one.

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Not so with the Aubrey/Maturin series. I remember fondly finishing one book, closing the cover and setting it down, then immediately picking up and starting the next one with scarcely a pause. Luckily for me, there were plenty of books in the series.

After three months and forty-nine house showings, my wife and I purchased a home. By the end I remember being utterly grateful to Mr. O’Brian. He had given me a profound gift, offering me the means not just to escape reality but just enough distraction that life became bearable in a very stressful time.

I remember thinking that this, more than anything else, is what I wanted to do as I writer: to give someone the gift that Mr. O’Brian gave me. A place to go when life wasn’t comfortable. Characters to laugh and cry with, surrogate friends who I loved as if they were the most cherished kindred spirits.

Has a book ever done that for you? Where do you escape? Please let me know in the comments below.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

Scattering Seeds

Okay, here’s the scenario: You’ve been writing a while, right? You have a story you’re passionate about and you’ve been devoting your spare time to writing, editing, and generally educating yourself on what it takes to create a great novel, one that might get published one day.

You think you might benefit from some outside advice, maybe network with other writers, so you join a writers group. Now you’re getting to know people. They’ve read your stuff and like your writing. Would you mind reading their stuff? They’d really like your opinion. This would mean taking time away from your writing, but it’s only fair. They read your stuff, right?

You learn that in order to get published, it helps to have a platform, get your name out there, so you start blogging. And your blog is growing a following. People like what you have to say. Sure, it’s taking time from working on your novel, but the way you see it, you’re planting seeds, hoping something will grow. You never know who might read your blog. Maybe it will lead to something.

And it does. A fellow blogger likes what you’re doing and invites you to guest blog on her site twice a month. It turns out, she has a huge following. This would be great exposure for you, so you agree. Add it to your list of writing tasks. You’re planting seeds, hoping to see something grow one day.

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Then one of your writing buddies informs you that he’s starting a site featuring book reviews. It’s a paid gig. Not much, but it’s a writing credit. Something to fill in the blanks in your query letter. You sign on.

Someone at work hears you’re a writer and asks you to submit an article with him. It’s not a done deal, but it’s a possibility. He’s providing an introduction to the publication’s editor. A great contact, so you go for it. More seeds hit the ground.

Okay, you with me? Now, here’s the thing with the seed-planting metaphor. Planting seeds, the way a gardener plants seeds, is a very prescribed process. The seeds go in the right soil at just the right depth, and at just the right temperature, and exposed to just the right amount of sunlight and water. If the conditions are right, as they are for a seasoned gardener, it’s not long before flowers blossom.

The writing scenario described above isn’t really planting seeds, is it? It’s more like scattering seeds; flinging seeds around and hoping that one hits the dirt and gets lodged just deep enough so that the right combination light and moisture and heat will cause the seed to germinate.

It’s rare, but that kind of thing does happen, like in my scenario. But is the growth leading in the direction you want to go? Is the kind of plant life that’s coming out of the ground what you want to reap?

There’s nothing wrong with networking with other writers, getting your name out there, or earning publishing credits. Yet for those with “day jobs,” time devoted to writing is limited. Look at the pie chart of your time. How big a slice of that pie represents your writing time? Now how much of that slice are you devoting to writing your manuscript?

At some point, you have to reassess. It’s okay to say no to the guy who wants you to read his stuff. If your blog is taking too much time, scale back. If someone asks you to write an article on a topic that doesn’t interest you, just say no.

What story inspires your passion? Are you writing it?

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

What’s in Your Way?

I started writing fiction regularly in college. I remember that time well, especially the summers there in my bedroom, sitting behind the desk as a warm evening breeze wafted through the open windows. Even now I can put myself back there and recreate it exactly in my mind: the feel of the chair beneath me, the texture of the keyboard under my fingers, that tiny Macintosh SE screen lighting up the room, the scent of trees and river and freshly cut grass.

When I first started writing, conditions had to be perfect. My homework had to be done. I couldn’t have any crap piled on my desk. My room had to be picked up. Bed made. Clothes folded and put away.

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It occurred to me recently that maybe the reason why my writing sessions are so clear to me all these years later is because they happened so rarely. Conditions had to be just right before I wrote anything. Often, too many piles were stacked up between me and opening that word processing document.

Yes, those moments when I actually was writing, like those lovely, luxurious summer vacations described above, were romantic and pleasure-filled. But they were all too rare.

I think now about how my writing has evolved. When I’m in The Zone, I’m writing all the time: In the morning at my desktop, on the bus on my notebook computer, dictating on my phone as I walk to and from my bus stop, writing emails to myself when a compelling description or plot point or line of dialogue comes into my head. Now, I write on the go and fuck the piles and obligations and the perfect conditions that would ideally exist before I put fingers to keyboard. Now I just have to write.

What conditions have to exist before you allow yourself time to channel the muse? Does it have to be absolutely silent? Do you need long stretches of unbroken time? Do the kids need to be at school or at camp or daycare?

Is all that really true are or they just excuses? Do you really not have time to write or is there something more to it? Is there a fear keeping you from what you really want to do, one that you haven’t even consciously acknowledged?

Maybe it’s time to put all that aside, put your butt in the chair, and write.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

That Little Voice

Have you been there? You’re writing your novel and everything is going splendidly. You’ve created engaging characters, built tension, added a sprig of humor in just the right places. Then you hit that spot that you’ve been building up all through the first act, that scene that the readers have been waiting for since the protagonist heard her call to adventure.

You’re writing the scene you thought would captivate, but it feels flat. Everything that’s propelled you to this moment is beginning to slip away and that little voice in your head starts to talk to you: This sucks. Where is this going? What am I doing? All these cool things I have planned for the rest of this book, if I can only get past this scene.

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Doubt creeps in. You think, If even I’m bored with this scene, how can my readers get through it? Is this where I lose them?

Suddenly, you’re finding excuses not to write. If you do, you find yourself working and reworking that scene, trying to discover what’s missing, trying to make it shine. It’s not writing anymore. Now it’s work when everything before it came so easily. You’re losing the magic and you don’t know why.

There are things you can do to overcome this. Some people will choose to write, “Chapter 9: Boy Meets Girl” and move on. Others will step back an analyze their story for plot flaws or try to rework their outline. Still other will mentally talk to their characters and let them inform them what’s not working. There’s nothing better than when your characters start to speak.

For me, I get this feeling in scenes when nothing surprising is happening. Characters are saying and doing exactly what you’d expect characters would say and do in this situation. The magic is gone because it feels like a path you’ve been on before, like that last mile or two before you arrive home, the stretch of road that’s so familiar it becomes backdrop.

I ask myself, “How can I surprise the reader? What aren’t they expecting? How can I introduce a roadblock in this route that they think they already know?”

If you’re an outliner, this is going to feel uncomfortable. This might screw up all your carefully wrought plans. But it could just introduce an entirely new element to your story that adds depth and tension to the scenes you already have mentally plotted out.

Think about the novels you’ve read and the scenes that caught you so off guard that you couldn’t believe that the author did that. George R.R Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series excels at this and drives the story forward masterfully because you saw exactly where the story was going…  But you were wrong.

You remember those times when you were reading and something in the story made you gasp? Those surprises, that masterful slight of hand, is what your reader is going to remember when they close the book and long for your next story.

Challenge yourself. What is the reader expecting? Now how can you screw up their assumptions?

Start with your troubled scene. Now think, What if…

 

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

My First Author Interview

I’m a big believer of setting goals and writing them down, of creating vision boards* of experiences you want to have, places you want to go, belongings to manifest, and achievements to attain. Over the years, I’ve connected with a network of friends who have had countless uncanny experiences creating the life and life experiences they’ve taken the time to document beforehand. I’ve had countless successes myself.

Recently, one of those goals took place in reality.

Years ago, I decided that I wanted to be interviewed by Author Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Bill Kenower. I wasn’t published yet, did not yet have an agent, but I felt that it was something that could one day happen.

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I’ve listened to enough of Bill’s interviews over the years to be able to imagine pretty vividly what that experience would be like. I imagined it taking place in my study, with lights setup, cameras, Bill sitting across from me looking dapper and professional.

I imagined what questions he would ask, how I might answer. I took a screenshot of Author Magazine’s home page and Photoshopped my own picture in the Author Interview section, complete with my name and bio. I even went as far as sitting in the reading chair where I hoped the interview might one day take place, answering imagined questions out loud, as if it were actually happening.

That interview didn’t happen, not until years later. In the interim, I’d stopped visualizing the interview. I think that not-imagining time is important. One of the key ingredients of manifesting, I’ve learned, seems to be letting it go, forgetting about it, if only to give The Universe the space to make it happen.

Before I knew it I was sitting in the reading chair in my study, with lights set up around me,  cameras, Bill sitting across from me, looking dapper and professional. I had made it. It was here. It was really happening.

Yet even as it took place, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that it had already happened, that all that visualizing had allowed some aspect of my psyche to travel ahead in time and have the experience. The actual event was more akin to a deja vu than to something that was taking place for first time, like standing between two mirrors that were facing each other, looking into a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

Something of a higher order happens when we have a goal and document it, imagine it, feel it, live it as if it’s already happened. I challenge you to document your own goals and things you would like to some day experience. It need not be as elaborate as my efforts, for if there is anything I’ve learned about attracting a specific future reality is that it only takes as much effort as you think it will take to achieve.

If you have a moment, please check out my author interview with Bill.

*A vision board is a pictorial collage of goals. It might be a picture of an author at a book signing to represent you at your book signing, a picture of the Eiffel Tower to represent a trip to Paris, a picture of a sports car that you one day hope to acquire. You are limited only by your imagination.

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This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

When I Only Wrote for Myself

 

When I was in the second grade, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would have told you, “A desk!”

I’d been coveting one for as long as I could remember.  “For my whole life,” as little kids are fond of saying. I could imagine sitting behind the desk with a notebook and pencil and writing stories, either little comics or short narratives.

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My parents ordered the desk when I was in the third grade, after months of incessant pleading. It was supposed to be a Christmas present, but the desk that matched my bedroom furniture was backordered and didn’t arrive until six months later. On the very last day of school, I’d returned home and there it sat in my bedroom.

I wrote many stories behind that desk, either with pencil and paper, occasionally with the typewriters that we’d purchased in a garage sale down the street, then later with a computer.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it was like to write stories behind that desk, when I had no purpose other than the sheer pleasure of creating. Back then there was little if any expectation that anyone would read these tales but me, and yet that was enough. There was a story inside me that wanted to be captured, to be committed to paper and immortalized. Spelling and grammar didn’t matter. There were no rules back then. Only the story.

Then somewhere along the way, I wanted more: for others to read my stuff, to be published, to be “good enough” to be let in to the club of authors. Then there were rules, lots of them, and if you didn’t follow them, They wouldn’t let you into The Club. At some point, I wasn’t writing for me anymore. I wasn’t even writing for the audience. I was writing for the agent, the editor, the beta readers.

When did that happen exactly? Does this happen to all aspiring authors? Do we all go through that period of self-consciousness, following The Rules, telling stories the way we think someone else needs to hear them?

Can you remember a time when you wrote for the sheer joy of creating? How would your writing be different if you approached your writing sessions with that same unrestrained zeal? Please answer in the comments below! I would love to learn about your experiences!

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

No-More-Tears Revisions

They hammer it into you: The first chapter has to be perfect. The first page has to seize the reader’s attention. The first paragraph has to hook you. That first sentence has to compel you to read more.

Whole books on writing are devoted to beginnings. Entire workshops are dedicated to putting together a captivating first sentence.

How many times have you read your first chapter? How many times have you read your first page? We read our work again and again, until pathways are formed in our brains, until it is committed to memory and our eyes aren’t even reading the words anymore.

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Once we get to the point where we’re showing our work to another live soul, our writing–especially that first chapter–has become as familiar as the last mile of road before arriving home. Revising it, changing even a word, at some point just seems wrong. You’ve read it so many times, it is just the way it is supposed to be.

We give our work to friends, beta readers, book doctors, people in our critique group. Yes, we want feedback. Yes, we want advice on how to make the story better. But let’s face it, what we truly want to hear is, “This is wonderful! Exquisite! Don’t change a word!” Anything less is disappointing. (Admit it. It’s just the two of us. No one else has to know.)

So, what mental state must you get in to hear and react to feedback? Some would say, the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s the whole develop-a-thick-skin thing. (Is it just me or does the image of someone with thick skin sound disgusting?)

I would say, sure, practice does help. More exactly, the more you write, the less any one page becomes sacred, because you know what, baby, there’s always more where that came from.

What helped me look at revisions differently was watching a documentary on one of the Friends DVDs. Season 4, I think. The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at creating an episode of Friends, from writing to post-production.

One of the things that struck me about the process in particular is how mutable the script was. There would be a live reading with the actors around a table. Adjustments were made. In rehearsal, Matt Perry might ad lib a new line. The script was altered again. The cast perform in front of an audience and discovered what moments were getting laughs, what moments fell flat. Yet more revisions. The script was an organic thing. Something that grew and evolved.  In the end, it made for a better script.

In your writing career, you are going to hear criticism. Some of it will instantly make sense to you. Some you’ll resist.

Here are some suggestions: First, sit with the advice for a while. Let your brain absorb it. Unless you completely agree with the new ideas, it helps to sleep on it for a few days. Let your unconscious marinate in someone else’s way of thinking. Avoid trying out changes when you are in that mode of Resistance. If you don’t, whatever you produce, you’re going to hate.

You’ll know when you’re ready to take a stab at changes. You still might not agree with the advice, but the emotion behind it will have worn off a little. Then, give it a try. Challenge yourself to write something awesome, just to see if you can do it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll lose a little time. The new material falls flat and you go back to the way it was.

More likely, you’ll end up with something new, something that works better. It might be roughly the way you had it before, but tweaked in such a way that addresses the issue in a way that you or your critiquer hadn’t anticipated.

And if the new stuff doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’ll be a valuable exercise. You’ll have gained experience as a writer.

Check out that Friends documentary. It may change your perspective the way it changed mine.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp