Author Archives: Tristan Brand

Future Wisdom

I’ve got a few things I’d like to relay to various past versions of myself.

To eighteen-year old me:

You love reading. You do it all the time, especially when you should be doing other things, like paying attention in biology, or sleeping (though, granted, that’s hard to do when you’re reading Stephen King). Half the time you’re not reading, you’re daydreaming about fantastical worlds, places, and people. Sometimes you even open up a word file and type a few sentences to start off a story.

Why then, have you decided you can’t be a writer? I know you think it’s magic, that it requires patience and care you don’t have, but you’re wrong. Writing is a skill like anything else. That it looks like magic at the end is a function of the time and work the authors put into developing it. You can do that too, if you only believe it’s possible.

Sure, maybe you don’t have time, with college just around the corner. But if you aren’t going to start writing now, make sure it’s for the right reason, and not because you’ve given up before you’ve started.

To twenty-seven year old me:

Great, you’ve just written your first novel! It has a plot, an opening, something vaguely resembling a middle, and a climax. You know it’s not exactly a Hugo winner, but you’re proud of it, and man, now you’ve got a plan and a schedule. Four practice novels a year for three years. Add in some critiquing, self-reflection, and a few workshops, and you think you’ll have it made!

The optimism is admirable, but it should be measured. There are difficulties in writing you don’t get yet, and you’re raising the bar so high it’s going to be hard not to fail to reach it. Again, it’s okay to stretch – but be sure you know you’re stretching. Writing is hard. Make sure you give yourself the time to appreciate that before declaring yourself the next Brandon Sanderson.

Finally, the immensely wise future-me has been kind enough to step in and give yesterday’s me some advice:

Yeah, your planned weekend of writing turned out mediocre, at best. Sort of like the rest of the year’s writing sessions. And yes, it hurts. You’ve got some hard problems to work through that you’re not going to solve over night. But remember that you have a vision and that people believe in you. It’s not going to become any easier, but every day you write – even when it seems like the writing sucks – is a day closer to the novel you know you’re capable of being done.

And don’t forget to have fun. After all, that’s the reason you started doing this in the first place.

Small Compliments

Writing is a quiet hobby. You spend hours lost in your own mind, spinning scenes together strand by strand. Novels take shape slowly, over weeks or months or even years. The only immediate feedback are the emotional echoes in your head as you write, which for me alternatively love and despise each word with little rhyme or reason. Often after a writing session I’m left vaguely frustrated, uncertain if what I’ve done had value.

One cure to such solitary angst is to find like-minded souls to talk with. I’ve found that my favorite moments as a writer come in those conversations, often in the form of unexpected compliments.

The first few years I wrote, every week or two I’d call up my best friend Sean, and talk through what I’d been working on. Sean isn’t a writer, or even much of a reader, but he’s a great listener and would sit in rapt attention as I rambled on about my worlds, my characters, my plot. He’d ask questions, make comments. Those conversations were vital to my writing sanity. They gave me perspective and made it seem like I was doing something real and worthwhile.

Then there’d be moments where I’d say something and Sean would say, “Oh, that’s really cool.”

I’d paused. “It….is?”

“Yeah. I’d love to read about that.”

A year or so after that, I signed up for David Farland’s Novel Revision workshop. As part of the workshop each student supplied the others with the first twenty pages of a novel. Every day we’d go through the selection as a group, making comments. I remember the first sample I read. It was an urban fantasy piece and it was phenomenal. The writing was crisp with a strong voice and a great hook. It could have come straight from a bookstore’s shelf. Shoot, I thought, thinking about my own pages and how awkward they were. What was I getting myself into?

I went through the workshop, getting great feedback on my own piece, but still feeling a bit out of place. It turned out the writer of the urban fantasy and I really clicked, and at the end of the workshop agreed to stay in touch. We were chatting after, and I mentioned to her how good I thought her stuff was and how I figured she had to have been already published.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I thought the same thing about yours.”

I laughed, suggesting that was very nice of her to say that. But she shook her head. “No, I’m serious. It’s really, really good. You should absolutely publish it.”

It’s funny how big an impact small compliments can have. I can say with the utmost sincerity that conversations like that have kept me going. Even this year, with the day job taking up most of my energy and my projects not progressing the way I want, I’m reminded, every once in a while, that those whom have read my work sincerely enjoyed it, and look forward to what I produce next. A small audience of readers, but proof that perhaps I can one day have a large one. But even if I don’t, I’ll at least know I did something worthwhile.

 

 

When Good Goals Go Bad

You’ve been there before.

Early January. A time of hope, of change. The year stretches out before you, a glittering road brimming with possibility. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you write down your goals for the year with gusto, hopped up on anticipation for the awesomeness that surely will come to pass.

Then, reality.

That was me this January, and reality came in the form of new responsibilities at my job and a new puppy. Both of which are very good things, but they came at a price. I had less mental time to devote toward daydreaming about fantasy worlds, which meant my writing sessions became less and less productive. A further blow came when it became clear the novel I’ve been working on the past two years, which I’d very very very much wanted to self-publish this year, needs a fairly substantial rework. I spent a month figuring out how to do said re-write, then realized I was too sick of it to contemplate going through with it in the near future. All of which threaten ye-olde death spiral where instead of writing I spent time angsting about writing which leads to less writing and more angsting.

But! All is not lost. Here are some principles I used to help myself rise above the gloom and return to productivity:

First, remember, it’s okay not to hit your goals. You made them in January, it’s now June, and as we know, time changes all things. Frankly, setting goals that will reflect all the uncertainty of the upcoming year is impossible. Your January goals may have been a reasonable direction at the time, but that no longer may be the case. In fact, not hitting all your goals is a good thing, because it means you’re trying to stretch. I’ve heard a good rule of thumb is to set goals expecting to hit about 70% of them on average. The number itself is arbitrary, but the idea is smart.

Second, give your goals a once-over. Maybe they don’t need to be thrown about, merely readjusted, or put on hold. That’s what I’m doing with the novel I’m sick of – not giving up on it, merely doing something else as a palette cleanser, so I’m all the more energized to dive back into it later.

Third, make sure you’re thinking long-term. For me, the best thing for my life right now is to build my non-writing career. I believe that long term this will mean more writing for me in the future, but that may mean sacrificing some writing for now. James Owen says it best: “Never give up what you want for what you want right now.”

Fourth, reflect on what happened. Sure, maybe it was due to life getting out of hand, but there often are other things that can be improved about your process. In my case, one issue is I was getting too hung up on getting the first draft ‘right’. My favorite writing tip is ‘you can’t fix what isn’t written’. I needed to remember that. I also think it’s key to try out mitigating strategies. I started experimenting with different outlining methods and both faster (and slower) writing styles to see how best to get the first draft materiel on the page.

Fifth, make sure you’re having fun. I wasn’t having fun for a while, and I decided I needed to fix that. I found a project I’d been aching to write for years but never quite found the time and declared that this summer would be that time. The amount of immediate relief, relaxation, and excitement I felt from that decision alone is hard to overstate.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t quit. Amid the ocean of writerly advice out there, there’s only one constant I’ve seen – don’t stop writing. Keep moving. If you’re an outliner, try discovery writing. If you’re a discovery writer, try outlining. If you normally write in third person, try out first. Change your genre, style, process, but whatever you do, find a way to sit down on the computer and write down something, a rambling blog post, a single sentence, even a single word. It won’t always be easy, but keep writing, and you’ll eventually weather every storm reality throws at you.

A Story Within a Story

SCoverslipS comes in a sparsely adorned slipcover, the kind you sometimes see when purchasing limited editions. Within the slipcover is a novel that that looks like it was pulled straight from a dusty old library, bound in brown leather and titled Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka, and stuffed with insets ranging from ticket stubs to letters. Open the pages and beside the typed prose you’ll find the margins covered in hand-written notes.

Not what you’d call your common novel.

S was conceived by film and television producer J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. As any viewer of Lost knows, Abrams likes puzzles, and that is exactly what S presents. V. M Straka is a fictional author but Ship of Theseus is a novel that stands on it’s own. In the world of S, the novel is found in a library by two university students, Jen and Eric, who pass the book back and forth, having a conversation via notes in the margins. Eric is a graduate student working with a renowned Straka expert whose certain the secret to Straka’s true identity is hidden within the pages of Ship of Theseus, and Jen ends up being his accomplice.

There are two stories here. The first is Ship of Theseus, which is a novel that stands on its own. Dorst mimics old-fashioned prose brilliantly, while still weaving together an engaging story. Ship of Theseus follows a man (referred to simply as ‘S’), who wakes without his memory. A chance encounter with a strange woman drives him and he sets out after her. His journey takes him aboard an eerie, otherworldly ship, has him joining a radial group, and eventually turns him into an assassin. S’s tale is surreal and sometimes ambiguous, but always compelling.

The central theme is that of identity, hinted at by the title which refers to a well known thought-experiment generally credited to Plutarch, where he asks whether a ship that is restored by replacing all of its parts remains the same ship. It’s a question that haunts S as he finds his identity stripped away at the start and then rebuilt, piece by piece.

The novel is itself the set piece for the second story, Jen and Eric’s hunt for Straka’s true identity. Ship of Theseus is rife with Straka’s supposed eccentricities, most interesting of which are codes hidden within the prose. An ambitious reader might even try to ignore the margin notes and decipher them themselves, though Jen and Eric do the work for us.

Adding to the intrigue are footnotes written by V. M. Straka’s supposed translator, F. X. Caldeira. F. X. becomes the key to the second storyline as Eric believes she holds the key to Straka’s true identity, and that she hid a way to find her through her footnotes.

Jen and Eric are more than literary detectives. Their lives intrude onto the edges of Ship of Theseus. Both are lonely for different reasons, and eventually they meet in person. It’s astonishing how real their relationship, gleaned only from scribbled notes, becomes.

S occupies many genres. Ship of Theseus has the trappings of literary fiction, touches of fantasy, and a lot of mystery. Jen and Eric’s story is as much romance as mystery. To me, the way S defies genre only makes it all the more interesting. It’s a puzzle begging to be unwrapped, analyzed, studied.

Most importantly, it works as a story. I cared about S. I cared about Jen and Eric. I finished the novel months ago and I can still feel them rattling around my head. This is a novel I’ll recommend to anyone, though I warn you I found it takes more focus than most. Still, it’s the most memorable novel I’ve read in the past few years and I believe that effort will be worthwhile.