The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Kid in the Machine
When I was a kid, science fiction was everything to me. Partially because my family instilled a deep love of the classics (you know, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, basically anything with the word Star in it), I watched movies and read comic books, collected toys and built model spaceships. At some point I decided I’d like to tell my own sci-fi stories, and at a relatively young age, I began writing my first novel. I didn’t finish it, of course, didn’t even get past page twenty, but you know, intergalactic star port descriptions are real tricky.
Even now, I still love a good space opera. I never stopped being a fan, never stopped dreaming of distant galaxies and intergalactic wars. In fact, my appreciation for all things speculative and nerdy only deepened, especially once it became clear sports and girls were out, but Lord of the Rings marathons were in. I love that epic fantasy stuff, that twisted horror, that magical realism and those far flung futures, and don’t tell anyone I went to high school with, but I’d rather read a good comic than indulge in any kind of respectable adult activity. Bill paying, for instance. Never did get the hang of that one.
That’s me, I suppose, but I know for a fact on some level it’s you, too. In many ways, the things we’re fans of help define us. I know you’re still a dorky kid on the inside. I bet the inner you still wears braces and drinks juice from a box. What really does it for you? What gets you excited as a fan? Classical literature? Hard-boiled detective stories? The biggest mistake I see many established authors make as they transition from nobody to “somebody” status is that they stop being fans. It’s almost like the red curtain to the whole show gets ripped away from them, and they’re left staring into the cold, mechanical under-croft of the modern storytelling machine. Jaded, I think is the word. You must make me a promise, guys. If you ever get to that place, have yourself a good movie marathon or read a book series that has always been your favorite. A storyteller who no longer likes stories? Criminal.
Ancient sages and modern neuroscientists agree, our personalities are not exactly what we think they are. More of a patchwork, really, a cobble of external influences, internal pressures, beliefs, both valid and invalid, mixed with a healthy dose of daily psychological wear and tear and deeply recessed emotional ideation we’ve tried hard to suppress or which has simply faded into our subconscious minds during the natural course of things. In some lesser known systems of mysticism (since we’re clearly on the subject), our conscious minds are more or less counterfeit anyway, are in fact the byproducts of heretofore unseen spiritual forces that influence our thoughts, our actions, even what kinds of truths we cling to, as essential and impressively ordered as they seem. In concrete terms, you are a body, you are a mind, but you are so much more. You’re the hidden watcher, the presence behind the eyes, the witness and willing participant of the little dramas and tragicomedies happening all around you. If you’re a storyteller, you exist in even stranger terms, because you’re both the creator and the created, and the work you produce is not really yours, but rather is divinely inspired and orchestrated to flow through you.
I mean, all well and good, right? Philosophy and practicality are poor bedfellows. Because while you’re sitting in your cramped home office in the dead of night, staring with hollow eyes at your ten-year-old computer monitor—you know, the one with the cracked screen you can’t afford to repair because you chose to be a “divinely inspired” writer—the work is never as easy as you’d like it to be. I gotta tell you, for people who literally conjure something from nothing on a regular basis, writers can be a grumpy and sour bunch. Sometimes all the passion and love and internal lexiconic fandom in the universe isn’t enough to kill that 2:00 AM headache you acquired from yet another impossible deadline. Life is life, reality is staggeringly persistent, and even the most grounded and stable amongst us can have epic bare-knuckle freak-outs. That’s an industry term, by the way.
To wit, I recently stumbled across a long and uncharacteristically honest social media thread that got my wheels turning. I’m Facebook friends with a lot of people in the writing business, and though I don’t personally know the vast majority of them, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with like minded individuals who’ve chosen paths very similar to my own. The original post asked the question, Have you ever quit writing long-term? Did you regret it? Now people in our culture are often inclined to save face and amass a front when it comes to their careers. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that the way we make money says more about us than our emotional or mental states, our long-term habits and behavioral matrices, or even our unerring innate natures, who we were before we became. After all, nobody asked you when you were five years old, Who is the essential you? They asked, What do you want to be? Like, can’t I just be the kid with a juice box who likes Saturday morning cartoons? No, teacher says, you’re an astronaut, Cindy. Next!
The responses to that Facebook post surprised me. I expected a lot of business about I’m a writer this, it’s what I do that, and there were some comments to that effect, but by and large, most respondents had to admit that if they hadn’t actually quit, they’d sure thought about it once or twice. One older gentleman actually said he gave up his very lucrative writing career years before and hadn’t looked back since. Good riddance, that was the gist. Now why would that be? Is this the norm? Isn’t writing supposed to be a joyful act?
It is, purely so, but only when a person is free to pursue it without constant worry and stress. That thing about writers tending to become alcoholics? It’s a tad overblown, but it has a ring of truth. And that gentleman, he wasn’t the only one to chime in with similar enthusiasm. Now I am not what you’d call a seasoned professional, not really. I’ve published, I’ve faltered and thought I’d quit (several times, actually), and I’ve gotten back on the horse, back to the business at hand. Not because I had deadlines. There was no external pressure for me. Because I had something to say, new experiences I wanted to share, truths I wanted to communicate. And you know what gave me the courage to do it?
Star Wars. Star Trek. Battlestar Galactica. I hadn’t written in several years, long enough I found I was ready to be a fan again instead of a base, lowly, underdog creator. And being a fan, just like when I was eight years old, I found once more the desire to tell my own stories. I don’t begrudge a professional who is sick to death of the business and wants out for good. Truth be told, I’ve never been in that position. But I am intimately familiar with the love of these things, the passion, the unabashed joy. I’ve stoked those fires within myself my whole life, and I can’t imagine a day at least some part of me won’t thrill whenever I see Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star. Sure, it’s nerdy as hell, but it’s home, it’s the place I do my dreaming.
My advice to those who want out before they’ve said everything they want to say: go home. Go and be the dreamer awhile. Maybe even a long while. Dreams can manifest as surely as dawn follows dusk, Spock follows Kirk, Jimmy Olsen is Superman’s best pal. If you as a very impressive, very professional adult can’t touch base with the kid in the machine, apart from having my pity, you have my condolences. Rest in Peace, the guy or gal you really are. Consider the possibility the world is the lie, and that you were always the truth. Drive and the creative impulse are not inexhaustible. This is very true. It’s also true they can be recharged and brought back to tip-top fighting shape as certainly as Green Lantern charges his power ring.
Plus, you don’t have to lug around an alien lantern and swear an oath every time you do it. Unless you’re into cosplay, and in that case, why waste time reading some dumb article? You’re clearly needed elsewhere, space cop. Hi, my name is Jeff Bowles. I’m old enough for beer, but today of all days, I’d like a juice box, please.
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The Long-Term Effects of Rejection – No is Never the Final Answer
By Jeff Bowles
Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
To begin with, this article is written with the upstart in mind. The midnight worker, the weekend toiler, the writer who’s still slaving away in obscurity, penning story after story, unpublished novel after unpublished novel, and for whom the word ‘rejection’ has become a special kind of poison.
When I seriously started writing almost fifteen years ago–and by “seriously” I mean “cared enough to finish a single story and try to publish it”–I discovered pretty quickly that receiving rejections was almost as common as losing at a rigged carnival game. I couldn’t figure out why my writing wasn’t good enough, in what areas it was deficient, and to tell you the truth, it would be several years until such things were even remotely clear to me. Regardless, the absolute worst part of it all was receiving the rejections themselves, because I’m kind of a sensitive guy, and damn, they really tended to bruise the old ego.
Writers vary pretty wildly in how we respond to rejection. Some of us never seem fazed by it. Regardless of how often, how impersonal, and how heavy a solid “no” is, these guys seem to take it all in stride. I’ve never been able to tell if the impressive shrug of their shoulders is a put-on, but I do know one thing for certain: I cannot count myself amongst them. When I got rejections, I’d mope and whine and pout for hours or even days. Just ask my wife, who was my new girlfriend at the time. I’d turn into a real bear, and it was because it hurt so much. Like I said, sensitive guy. Plus, no one could get through to me about one very crucial thing: this is the way it’s supposed to be.
If you’re like me, and you tend to take rejection hard—or even if you’re not like me, and moving on to the next story submission is the easiest thing in the world—might I recommend a little tried and true advice. Accept your rejection phase as a given, and if you can go just one more country mile with me, learn to welcome it as a friend. Your rejection phase is helping to make you the writer you’ve always wanted to be. Your rejection phase is purifying your desire to write, and in so doing, allowing you to really decide if a writing career is what you want.
Because if it is, no amount of rejection will ever dissuade you. I thought I’d quit a million times. Now I realize there is no quit. No is never the final answer. And anyone who’s been publishing work for years and years will tell you rejection doesn’t end. Sure, you’re likely to receive less and less of it as you progress, but it’s not the kind of thing that disappears entirely. I know it hurts. Trust me, I’m with you on that one. But unless you plan on going all-indie, it really is a necessary part of your growth as a writer. Kind of a raw deal, I suppose. But then again, nobody ever climbs Mount Everest because it’s easy.
Now a brief word on indie publishing. A lot of older writers—and I don’t necessarily mean older in years, but rather older in experience level or maybe in their stance on traditional publishing—tend to believe that self-publishing inherently makes for worse writers. The idea being, of course, that without the resistance provided by steady rejection, a writer can never become all he or she is meant to become. I came up this way. I’d published dozens of times before I ever self-published on Amazon. The thing is, I don’t necessarily find it to be the case.
Sure, there is a lot of disposable material indie-published on the internet. And yes, I also believe adversity makes us better. But a writer can pick up all sorts of lessons and professional techniques in all sorts of different ways. Every time an indie author publishes something online and gets a few bad reviews, it’s not entirely unlike receiving a standard form rejection. In other words, the negative reinforcement can still become a positive.
All of this might lead someone to ask, what are the long-term effects of rejection? Well, this can go one of two ways. The majority of people who try their hand at writing will never even finish a single manuscript. Statistically, that is absolutely the case. Of those who finish, few will ever submit their work for publication. Now, those who do submit their work (or as the case may be, self-publish it) are likely to meet up with a little adversity. I’d say 90% of them will cut and run as soon as rejection gets too much to bear. But that remaining 10% will soldier on, and they’ll likely receive quite a bit more rejection in the months and years ahead. Is there a long-term legacy of rejection? Yes, there is, but it’s seldom a negative one. I think you’ll find one day that you treasure all those formal beat-downs you received.
Here’s what I would say. No matter how you ply your craft, regardless of whether you choose the path of the traditional publisher or the indie upstart, continuous work, practice, blood, sweat, and tears, are the only things that will make you better. Rejection is at times the name of the game, true enough, but it never has to be the final word on anything. Right?
Until next time, everybody!
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We’ve all seen the eBooks and courses out there that claim they can show you how to make your book a best seller. Many of them aren’t about writing at all, but rather about playing tricks with Amazon algorithms, padding the front and back mater of your book with promotional materials. Hack Your Reader’s Brain, by Jeff Gerke takes a different approach to making your book a bestseller. Gerke suggest that you write a good story that people will actually want to read, rather than relying on gimmicks to propel your book into a brief moment at the top.
Now, I can hear you saying, “Ugh! Not another grammar tutorial.” And you’re right. Books on proper grammar can put you to sleep before you know it. They are not exactly engaging reading. But, Gerke says that grammar isn’t what’s important. Poorly written books become bestsellers all the time. He asks how many Amazon reviews list good or bad grammatical practices as the reason for their rating. All I could think was that while many of my own book reviews may be based on the quality of the craftsmanship, most reviews that I’ve read are not. They are based on how the book made the reader ‘feel’, and how engaged they were with the story.
Hack Your Reader’s Brain shows you how to craft your story so that it delivers what your readers want – to be swept away into the world of your story and the lives of your characters temporarily. This is the one thing all readers want, whether because of a desire to escape our own world or one to seek entertainment, we all want to be engaged by the story. It’s why we picked up a book in the first place.
Jeff Gerke provides quality writing advice on crafting a novel with the potential to be a bestseller, and he does it in a laid back manner that feels authentic, putting you at ease and makes you want to listen. I give Hack Your Reader’s Brain five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)
A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.
Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:
This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.
Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:
This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.
Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:
Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.
Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.
This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.
Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)
When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.
Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:
When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.
Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2
When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.
Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:
This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.
The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.
Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)
This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Distinguishing Between the Two:
Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening? To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.
If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.
Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.
One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.
Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:
There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.
A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.
Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.
Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.