All posts by sboydtaylor

S. Boyd Taylor lives in Dallas, TX, with his loving wife and brilliant daughter. He practices internal martial arts, writes strange stories, investigates random languages (without really learning them), and tries to play guitar. He also loves Doctor Who, Monty Python, and nice days on the patio when it's about 75-degrees Fahrenheit.

I will be appearing at ConDFW this weekend, 2/19/14-2/21/14

To my (tiny) fan base (and to my much larger group of friends):
I will be appearing at ConDFW this weekend (2/19/14-2/21/14). Come check it out!

My panels:

Friday 6p-7p: The Foot is Mightier than the Pen
- Me and Adrian Simmons show writers what real martial arts looks like.

Saturday 4p-5p: Star Wars vs. Star Trek
-I will be on the Star Wars side.

Sunday 11am-Noon: Mining for New Ideas
- Where to find new iedas for your writing.

Looking without looking, seeing without seeing

When you look at a field, what do you see? Do you see “green” or “grass” or even just “field”? If so, you’re not really looking.

I am looking at one now, and I see at least five to ten different shades of green, at least 3 different shades of tan and brown, and everything bit of grass, living or dead, at a different length. Even grasses of the same species look unique. They clump together, run in strips or curves, and the leave huge open spaces. Fate and randomness has textured like the rind of an orange.

This field was once a building, a vast warehouse, and the foundation of it is still there underneath, and there are tiny bits of rubble just beyond sight. The bulldozers scraped the whole surface clean once, long ago, and so the field always looks like it has been plowed for crops where their teeth dragged and then overgrown even though it has never been plowed before.

But what really amazes me are the bushes. You don’t even see them when you look at this place at first — you look and you see “field” and that’s all, and all the bushes disappear from your eyes because you see a category, a shape, an abstract object instead of the thing itself. It is cruel and heartless dominance of the abstract over the real.

Really, it’s like Plato and Aristotle had it all backward, that the abstract, perfect world of “forms” is not a thing beyond or behind reality, but an instinctive creation of the mind, a simplification that the brain resorts to in order to be able to process all of the data and sort it and organize it in a useful way. The “shadows on the wall of a cave” are not the physical world at all, but the cognitive system of grouping, classification, and ordering that our mind uses to construct meaning.

Reality is always complex, textured, nuanced, with layers of history right there, visible under the surface, between the bushes and the blades of grass, but the mind cannot handle all of this information at once. It is too much. It is not useful, not relevant to survival or thriving, and it is discarded. And that is the way it should be. Usually. But sometimes you need to turn that filter off, and you need to see what is actually HERE.

Because sometimes the “perfect form” is not enough.

Because sometimes you need the truth, with all its various shades.

Because… sometimes… the world is beautiful.

Recovering from the house fire: stage 1

Since there is a high likelihood of both us and our insurance suing (redacted), the house rebuild has been delayed for legal-related niceties.

We’ve finally started interviewing custom home builders, and it’s like a game of pick your poison. One guy is really expert on building techniques and city code, but has the bedside manner of an axe murderer. The other guy is nice, but everything he wants to build is against code.

The delay also means we are chewing through our housing allowance far too fast, especially since rebuild always go over time and over budget. The company that’s supposed to converge all of this for us is also overcharging. They’re only supposed to get 15 percent commission, but somehow this crazy overpriced $3000 per month hotel room is costing us an extra $1000. At this rate we’d be on the streets long before the build was done.  So now we have to find out own apartment and file manually for reimbursement.  Another headache we don’t need.

But still, it’s slowly coming together.

Feeling Old Today

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Feeling a little worn out. Maybe the stress of the house post-fire is getting to me, the grind of listing every possession we owned and trying to figure out what it was worth; or perhaps it’s the slight,-pleasant-but-still-present pressure of getting the novel ready to sell that’s pushing me that little too far. 

I have not slept well since the house fire. Not well at all. I am not normally a bad sleeper, just a night-owl who burns the candle at both ends. But these days I have to be completely exhausted in order to sleep. And I’m a little snappier and grumpier than normal. I’m usually a laid back, meditative guy, so I weirds me out to be angry at all.

Still, it is an exciting adventure, too. The house fire has wiped our family’s life clean of accumulated junk, and the insurance has bent over backwards to help us, so we expect that we will have our house back soon, just a little newer and with a better floorplan than it had before.  And I’m learning things about how to sell a book I’ve never known much about before. 

Overall, I’m a little unsteady, a little unsure of myself. Inching along with all the insurance work and plans for my next novels. But hopefully soon I’ll be back to full throttle. 

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. My stats are like completely unimpressive, but that’s not shocking for an unknown genre short story writer.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Agents and House Fires and Such

As a general update, Tuesday, December 10, 2013 was a freaking crazy day:

At 11:00am, I receive an email from Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass agency offering to represent my novel. My first agent! This is something I’ve worked for years (decades) toward, a major milestone in my writing career. And she’s a great agent and a great person too. So exciting!

And then, at 5:00pm, my house burns down.

Everyone is fine, even the cats, and doing well. We have insurance, and likely will be fine. And we are holding up really well. The fire was so incredibly hungry and swift, 5 minutes either way on the timing of the fire (or, worse, if it had happened overnight) someone would be dead. From first smoke to inferno was just a couple of minutes. Six fire trucks worked for an hour to put it out, and two ambulances and just about every cop in the city were on site. We are very lucky.

The rest of it is just stuff: furniture, clothing, books, DVDs. It’s hard to get upset about that when things could’ve gone so wrong. 

Jennifer Jackson, who now represents me literarily, has a post about it here. 

Yes, we are sad about a lot of things: pictures, letters, and keepsakes, mostly. We also had my  mom’s collectibles (a vast collections of collections, uncountable reams of autographs from any science fiction movie or TV show you can imagine, rare science fiction memorabilia, records, stamps, boots, etc.), and the insurance will not come close to reimbursing us for that.

But, really, we’re looking at it as a new beginning, a chance to rise from the ashes (see what I did there?) better and stronger than ever.  

It’s strange, we’ve both had problems with depression in the past, but as long as we keep smiling and marching forward and looking for the positives in the situation, it doesn’t seem to drag us down.

Maybe that’s the real secret to happiness, huh? It couldn’t be THAT easy, could it?

Still, there are a lot of things up in the air. We’ve never been through this process before (and hopefully we never will go through it again!), so the sheer weight of the unknown is a stressor, a weight on the back, all by itself. But we are filled with hope rather than fear, and that is the important thing!

A lot of people out there feel compelled to help us because it’s such a terrifying story. Because death was close at hand. We think we will be fine, and we are not asking for help, but if you feel compelled to aid us for some reason, don’t buy us blankets or crackers or juice (please don’t!).

If we end up needing help, it will be for unexpected things, housing overruns, or build overruns near the end of the recovery process, months and months from now. 

Our YouCaring site is the best way to chip in.

And since I know everyone is curious to see what fire damage looks like, here is my shelf full of esoteric books on Kung Fu, Taiji, Qigong, and Languages (everything from Sumerian to Chinese to Sanskrit to Lakota Sioux Sign Language to Latin to Cherokee, and many in between).

 

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Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Practicing Compressed Description

Deliberate Practice is the path to mastery: breaking down an art, sport, or craft into individual skills and training each of those skills independently.

Continuing on my Deliberate Practice Drills for Fiction Writing series, I present a drill designed to help focus descriptive powers.

Set a five minute timer (or if you’re really fast, two minutes). Look around, pick and object, describe it:

  1. Capture the look of it as fast as you can
  2. If you have to, instead of describing the whole object, focus on one detail
  3. Stories are emotional journeys; every object in fiction should have some emotional impact on the reader, so try to realize some emotional truth, shade the description with an emotive tone, or even personify the object.
  4. Keep it short, one sentence to one paragraph, and definitely no more than three paragraphs even for the most complex scene.
  5. Repeat this at least 3-5 times in one session.

Tips

  • This is not about writing a story. You do not need characters, setting, pr any sort of plot… Unless you WANT them ;) Be true to the paragraph. Don’t hold yourself back.
  • If you get done in time, feel free to go back and tweak it a little. Play with the words. But move on when the timer goes off.
  • It doesn’t have to be good. This is about practice, about learning. About developing skill. My example below I am torn about: Is it good? I don’t know. It is as good as I can get it within the confines of the time limit, but that is all.

Example

He sits at his desk and stares hopelessly at the mousepad. The mousepad is him. Worn, faded, bulging in the middle. He remembers it once bore a Picasso sketch of a bull charging, but every trace of it is gone, worn away by time and stress like the man’s hair.

Advanced Tip

Instead of just doing objects, try doing the whole room or a person.

More to come!

Deliberate Practice Writing Drill: Shading Emotion in Sentences

I said before that I had several Deliberate Practice Drills to share. Well, actually, I’m always coming up with more, so could theoretically post these forever. Here’s one I used the other day, trying to increase control and precision in the emotional content of my sentences:

1) Write a very short, very rudimentary Core Sentence, like, “He was happy,” or even, “She ran.” Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object is best.
2) Write at least ten variations of this Core Sentence. Each variation must contain the Subject, Verb, and (if there is one) Object of the Core Sentence. Remember, the goal of this exercise is EMOTIONAL content.

Tips:
A) Focus on conveying emotion, especially changes in emotion and subtle shifts in tone. Remember, a story is an emotional journey.
B) Try to keep adjectives and -ly adverb use low. I don’t believe in purging them all, rather I suggest you treat them as your most precious jewels. Save them. Be spare with them. Overusing them just makes your writing gaudy, just as a necklace of huge diamonds, sapphires, and pearls jammed together without though would be gaudy. Rather, string them onto the line of the sentence — really, onto the line of the paragraph — only when they really make it shine.

Example exercise:

Core Sentence: “He was happy.”

  • He thought he was happy.
  • Then, one day, there came a moment where he thought he was happy.
  • For a moment, he thought he was happy.
  • Before the influenza took her, he thought he was happy.
  • Even while she was dead, she wondered if he was happy.
  • She wondered if he was really happy.
  • Was he happy? She wondered.
  • Sure, he was happy.
  • She was happy about being dead, and he was happy for her.
  • She seemed happy, and he told himself he was happy about it.
  • He was happy until night came.
  • He was happy until night came because with the night came the darkness, and with the darkness came the loneliness, and with the loneliness came the rusted, serrated edge of his soul scraping at his heart.
  • Etc.

The goal of this exercise is to drive yourself further and further toward precision, either by subtly changing the emotional tone and meaning of the sentence (ex – “He thought he was happy.”, which contains doubt, regret, perhaps a hint of willful self-delusion), or by expanding on the core sentence (the last example above).

And this is just a simple, passive sentence.

A final tip:
Don’t hold back on these sentences. Turn off your inner editor. What I mean by that is don’t be shy about trying something new, whether subtle, bold, or bombastic. Learning is about failing, and this is where you fail, safely. I’m not sure if the last example above, about the night, is good or absolutely horrible, and I’ll be honest — it doesn’t matter. I wrote it, I pushed myself in a new direction, and that will eventually make me a stronger writer. Also, my sentences are repetitive, some of them tiny or negligibly different from the ones before. That’s natural, especially at the beginning, when you are warming up, but even that is useful — sometimes a subtle, almost invisible shift in tone is exactly what you need.

More to come!

The Path to Mastery: Deliberate Practice in Fiction Writing

If you know me, you probably know how many hobbies I have, how many things I am trying to not just be good at, but MASTER: seven different styles of Kung Fu, Fiction Writing, several different languages, sword fighting, being a good parent, etc.

Despite apparently being spread thin, I am damn good at all of them: I’ve got 28 medals in Kung Fu from various national and international tournaments, I’m an excellent sword fighter, I’ve got published short stories and am >this< close to having a major agent for my novel. What I have not mastered, I am slowly mastering.

And how do I do it? A little something called DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Deliberate Practice was first discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success. If you’ve ever heard the “10,000 hours rule”, that mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice it comes from this book. But people get that wrong all the time — it’s not 10,000 hours of practice. It’s 10,000 hours of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

If you read “Outliers”, and I have, he talks at length about the difference between just practice and Deliberate Practice, and even theorizes that Professional Athletes are actually “geniuses”, geniuses at physical activity because of their constant Deliberate Practice, and that our culture could have geniuses in science or arts or writing or whatever just as easily, but, since we don’t monetarily incentivize those activities the way we do sports with multimillion dollar contracts, and since there are no training regimens designed for them, geniuses occur in mental fields much less often than in physical ones.

“So,” I hear you say, “If I want to be writing geniuses we need to do some Deliberate Practice, right?” Wrong. You need to do A LOT of deliberate practice.

“Fine,” you say, “I’ll write. A lot. And read. A lot. Problem solved.”

Wrong again. But don’t be discouraged, this is a common misunderstanding, made by people who are invested in the deliberate practice movement. An example:

Author Justine Musk has a very cogent article defining Deliberate Practice, here. It’s a really good summary. I recommend it. BUT… She then goes on to post her recommendations for Deliberate Practice, here… And they are pretty much what you came up with alone.

It’s almost surreal: if you read her practice recommenations and then you read the description of Deliberate Practice in “Outliers,” or even the definition she herself provides, her exercises don’t match up with the book. Why? Because here is the key piece of information she’s forgetting:

Engaging in Deliberate Practice is BASICALLY THE SAME THING as doing a drill in sports.

In sports, the smaller the drill, the more focused it is on ONE TINY PIECE of the mastery puzzle, the more effective it is when repeated. People training to be pro tennis stars spend hours and hours perfecting the JUMP on the serve. Not the swing, just the jump. They train the swing SEPARATELY and alone. They also spend hours and hours practicing their back hand at the net. Just the back hand. Quarterbacks in American football practice their snap, practice then throwing the ball through a tire, practice dodging linebackers. Hockey players practice puck handling skills, physical agility skills, shooting accuracy drills, and even a skill as small as getting back onto their feet as soon as they fall down on the ice (they fall down a lot!).

This is what Musk has missed — breaking the craft of writing (or, if you will, the “sport” of writing”) down into its tiniest components, so that each component can be consciously mastered and then folded back into the primary skillset.

You’re probably thinking: “Okay. That makes sense. But how do I do it? How do I apply Deliberate Practice to fiction writing?”

You design and complete drills. A lot. A whole hell of a lot. Repetition repetition repetition. And then you write stories, and you try to bring what you have learned to bear.

“But what drills? How do I design them? I’m confused!”

Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I have a lot of drills I already use that have worked for me, and I’ll share them. For each one, try it every other day for a week, and if you don’t like it, if you’re not learning anything or feeling mentally stronger, dump it and move on.

“But you mentioned designing my own drills too. That sounds scary!”

It’s not. Once you’ve got your feet under you, once you’ve been drilling and writing for a while, and you know what YOUR writing weaknesses are, think about what sort of drills you can do to make yourself stronger. Then try it, and share!

Other Deliberate Practice posts:

Finding Your Voice in Writing (or How to Develop 2 or 3 Voices of Your Own)

“…and remember to believe in magic or I’ll kill you!” – The Magic Bunny

One thing I’ve seen endless posts on is “Finding Your Voice”, as if there is a magical voice that is yours — and one day you’ll just run into your voice and BOOM you’ll be a real writer with a real style.

First I need to be clear here. I’m not sure if this is a revolutionary view, but it is certainly MY view and I haven’t seen it anywhere else:

I do NOT believe that if you keep writing you’ll just accidentally run into “Your Voice” and then you’re done and the quest is over. In fact, I don’t believe that a writer has a single voice at all. No, indeed, I believe a writer has as many voices as he/she decides to DEVELOP, and each of those voices will be unique to the writer. 

You see, VOICE is a TOOL. Each voice is slightly different, sure, and each one has different strengths. That’s why having multiple voices at hand is extremely useful — each voice can be employed in a different story or even in a different chapter in the same novel in order to heighten certain effects.

Voices can be short. Brutal. Rhythmic. Human skin stretched tight on drums.

Other voices twist and writhe about and keep diving into different holes until you can’t see where they’re going in the dark tunnels of mind and then in one heartbeat they leap out at you and grab you like you’re a rabbit and shake you once, twice, thrice and leave you bleeding and twitching in the mud.

They can be anything you want. Quick, sassy, velvety, violent, whatever.

But all voices have two elements in common:
1) They are composed of words
2) In order to use one, you have to DEVELOP it first

There’s that word again. Develop. Why do I keep saying “develop” when everyone else says “find”? Well, first let’s discuss how most writers develop a voice.


We are all, to some extent, built in with a certain voice and a certain style. It is an amalgam of what we have read and enjoyed, mashed together with whatever you remember from English classes, plastered over with yours or someone else’s opinions on Grammar (Strunk and White, anyone?). The problem is this style we start out with (usually anyway) just isn’t good. Go back and look at your last failed short story, or — if you’re established now and none of your stories fail — go back and look at one of your early short stories from high school or junior high. See those stilted lines. Why are they stilted? What’s going on? Why does that high-school/college/whatever prose seem impossible to disentangle even though you’ve rewritten entire BOOKs now?

Why? Because the style/voice in that piece is in conflict with itself. It wants to be the way you talk and think. It wants to be the way Hemingway talks and thinks. And don’t forget your Composition teacher or your favorite SF writer or Strunk and White either. It’s a vast CACOPHANY of OTHER voices, all struggling to be heard. All drowning each other out.

Why does it take people 1, 3, 10, or even 15 trunk novels to finally find a winning voice? Because it’s a lot of work to overcome those voices, especially when you don’t know that you’re trying to write like other people and follow all these built-in rules. Struggling blindly like this, it’s amazing anyone develops one voice much less two or three or more. No wonder it feels more like you “find” your vioce than a conscious decision to “develop one”.

Sure this process works. Eventually. If you don’t give up. Plenty of writers have gone through the process and ended up writing well or even dazzlingly. The problem is, this is the hard way of doing it. “Writing Like Other People” is exactly the process of DEVELOPING voice, yes, but you can speed the process up.

Let me show you how.

Say you really like Cormac McCarthy. You’d like to write a bit more like him, adopt a few of his flourishes. Good on you, he’s a great writer. A Pulitzer and a National Book Award are hard to argue with.

But how do you do it?

Step 1) This is the obvious step. You’ll need to READ him.

Sadly, this is where most writers’ plans on developing a voice END. You read “The Road”, “Blood Meridian”, and “All the Pretty Horses”, and think “Well, I hope that rubbed off.” But strangely, it doesn’t seem to work. So maybe you read again and again (pleasant but not strictly necessary). This is similar to brute-forcing your way into a password-protected computer. Hard, brutal, and it may eventually work, but it will take time.

Step 2) Define WHAT YOU LIKE about him.

In this step you are defining to yourself EXACTLY what you like about the author. This equates almost precisely with WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN from the author.

Me, I like the lack of commas and apostrophes and quotation marks. To me, the streamlined prose falls straight into my brain faster and with less effort without all the noise. You may HATE this, though. If you do, don’t put it on your list. Me, I also like his use of “and” to connect long lists of very simple sentences in All the Pretty Horse. I love his vast vistas that yank directly at your soul in Blood Meridian. I like his short, terse, chopped up prose in The Road. I like his images that burn like fire in your mind.

Your list might be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than mine. That’s okay. We might like him for different reasons, but that’s why you do this:

So you can figure out what you need to focus on.

Step 3) Figure out HOW your author does the things you like.

This is the hard part. Sometimes you have to call in friends or relatives or even other writers to look at a passage and help you noodle HOW or WHY this unexpected sentence works or how he crafts this particular list of images. Where are the roots of them? How does he marry the words syntactically?

Like I said, this can be pretty hard, but all you need is one to three bullet points to keep in mind about any stylistic element.

Step 4) Write an inspired piece. Preferably three. And then try it on a novel or a novella to let it really sink in. (This is, like step 1, is something that many writers do, but without steps 2 and 3 it usually falls apart or reverts to your previous voice.)

Sounds simple, right? I’ve been reading McCarthy, so I should write a Western. Actually — no. I don’t recommend that at all. I actually recommend taking elements from TWO DIFFERENT WRITERS and doing your best to mash them up. That way you don’t get too trapped in one author’s vein. That way YOU can take the elements and make them YOURS.

An example, my short story “Teddy Bears and Tea Parties” ( http://www.amazon.com/Teddy-Bears-Tea-Parties-Horror-ebook/dp/B005H5AI5U ) was my second attempt at mixing McCarthy’s style from The Road with Paul Jessup’s blend of surrealism and postmodernism. It sold to ChiZine. I did three stories in this vein, each in a different setting and working on different elements of voice and theme, and of them #1 sucks and is trunked and #3 is still making the rounds and seems to get me more personalized rejections and “please-submit-again”s than any other story. Still, it may never get published. But that’s okay. All three of these were experiments, and I learned staggering amounts from each of them.

Step 5) Do it again if you want to. There is always something to learn out there. Melville’s ability to send shuddering meaning into even the whizz and smoke of a rope. Chabon’s ability to express the entire history of a tenement building that has nothing to do with the plot and still keep you hooked.

After all, these are your saws and your lathes. Keep them sharp!