Category Archives: John D. Payne

Shave and a Haircut

The thing about tension is, it wants to be released.  This is true not just for bowstrings drawn back to the ear, unresolved chords, or tectonic plates grinding up on each other in the world’s most excruciatingly slowed-down dance club.  All of life, every life, is about the release of tension.

Sometimes the release comes quickly.  Sometimes the stresses just continue to build, ratcheting up ever higher, long past what we would have believed to be possible.  (On a possibly related note, it took me eleven years to earn my doctorate.)

But all of us are bullets, shots in the dark.  We begin explosively, super-charged with unimaginable kinetic energy– as every parent of a small child knows.  Over time, we lose it.  Our trajectories curve groundward, our orbits decay, and we fall.

It is in this sense that mortality is a coil, in Hamlet’s famous phrasing.  Life is a spring, tightly wound.  Tension is what keeps it all going, what keeps this whole universe humming along. Sure, we complain about the stresses we endure day after day.  But in a way, they’re reassuring.  They let us know we’re still here, still kicking, not yet resting in peace.

I’m in no hurry to achieve entropic resolution myself.  Oh, I know I’ll get there in time.  All of us will.  What’s the rush?  Yet, on we run.  We can’t help it.  Tension propels us, speeding us toward that ultimate release.

I think this is true for stories, too.  We all know the unbearable agony of being wrenched out of the narrative before we know our heroes are safe.  I think that’s why parents grant their children the small mercy of finding a “stopping place” in their book (or game, or show) before they have to come help set the table.

We also know that in the very best stories, you can never find a stopping place.  It gets its hooks in you right from the start and doesn’t let you go until the end.  “It rips my life away, but it’s a great escape.

So, how do I make it work for me?

First, take a cue from Dean Wesley Smith and try exercising a little mind control over your readers.  Hang those cliffs.  Don’t make it easy for them to put your book down.

This doesn’t come naturally for me, but I’ve been experimenting with my preschooler.  He wants to hear stories every night, one from mommy and one from daddy.  And for the last few months, daddy’s stories have all followed a single hero (Percival Bunny-rabbit) in a continuous narrative, usually cutting off at the moment of maximum tension.

It’s cruel, I know.  And every time the boy flops back on his bed with a frustrated groan, or spends the next day begging to hear the end of the story, there’s a part of me that thinks it can’t be good parenting to torture him so.

But another part of me is delighted.

He tells me he prefers stories that have an ending.  So every few nights I give him a break and we come to a place where I can pronounce THE END.  But the very next night my boy is asking me if we have any “leftover stories.”  He can’t wait to find out what his hero is going to do next.  And neither can I.

Which is the second way I am trying to make tension work for me: keeping myself in suspense. I don’t like leaving things unfinished.  In fact, I’m like Roger Rabbit, positively vibrating with the need for  closure.

So I’ve been experimenting on myself, trying to use this tension as a driver.  Instead of stopping my writing for the day at a place where I’ve finished my scene and said all I want to, I cut it short and walk away.

The pressure of that incomplete ending, that unfinished chapter, pushes me to get back to the keyboard.  And until I do, the untold story is bouncing around in my brain– generating dialogue, action sequences, etc.  It itches at my brain, keeps me up at night, kicks me out of bed early in the morning to curl up on the couch with my laptop and punch out the lines that have been running through my head since my last writing session.

The experiment is still young, but it’s had some promising results.  I’m really excited.  I also am a little anxious, because we’ve got a new baby coming and I know that’s going to turn my whole life upside down (for the third time).  And then we have the end of the semester, and then summer (and attendant travel) is going to nuke my schedule, and then we’re going to move.

So even though I’m telling you this works, I really don’t know if I can even keep this up myself.  Will my new writing plan survive the month of March, or will it fall casualty to sleep deprivation?  Will I find the time to finish my novel, or miss my deadline and maybe miss my chance?  What will become of our peerless hero?

Find out next time, in . . .




Coming soon!

John D. Payne lives in Houston with his wife, two sons, and (maybe, by the time this post goes up) his newborn daughter.  (Still looking for names, so please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments.)  His hobbies include removing peanut butter and chocolate from the stupid white couches, blowing bubbles for little boys to chop with laser swords, and using a Mickey Mouse doll to do Pharaoh’s part in the Moses story (complete with Mickey voice).

John’s debut novel is The Crown and the Dragon.  His stories can also be found in magazines and anthologies such as Leading Edge, Tides of Impossibility: A Fantasy Anthology from the Houston Writers Guild, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. For updates on his writing and stories about his kids, follow him on Twitter @jdp_writes.

All About Attitude

A guest post by John D. Payne

John Payne cover (1)

I was single for a long time, and not by choice. I was sick of dating by the time I was 21, but wasn’t married until 36. It took me 15 years to get noticed at a party by a beautiful, funny woman who shares my love of Firefly and tolerates my love of that greatest of all Canadian contributions to the culinary arts: poutine.

What had I done to catch the eye of my own personal Princess of Power?  Well, aside from riding a sweet tiger to the party and looking great in furry briefs, I had managed to figure out two important truths. First, finding a partner isn’t about trying to figure out what someone else can offer me (such as an escape from the meat market singles scene), but about becoming the kind of person that has something to offer to someone else. Second, a smile is sexier than a mope. (Sorry, Team Edward.)

A lot of getting noticed as an author is about these same changes in attitude.

Consider conventions, like the recent Dallas Fan Expo. I go to these shows to sell books. But if I get focused on the numbers, then I don’t sell well. My smile becomes strained and I start to look as desperate as I feel. If people notice me when I’m in that frame of mind, they’re going to do everything they can to avoid my gaze and escape before I can even open my mouth. That kind of treatment makes anybody feel lousy, so pretty soon I’m viciously cycling. No good.

For me, the cure is to remember that I really do love sharing great stories. Whether they’re mine or not, I really enjoy introducing someone to a book they’re going to love. So instead of pushing my book to every single person I talk to, I actually listen to what they say when I ask them what they like to read, and then try to make a recommendation that will really knock their socks off. In no time flat, I’m enjoying myself again. And my book usually end up flying off the table along with all the others I’m recommending.

Thinking about what I have to offer others is not just a great way to get noticed at conventions. My book was recently included in an ebook bundle.  Part of the reason I think they included me was that the curator has seen me promoting other people’s books on my Facebook page.

(By the way, if you haven’t checked this out, do yourself a favor. Fifteen bucks gets you thirteen books, including fantastic novels by Cat Rambo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Tobias Buckell, and many others.)

Another important shift in attitude for me has been switching from a default assumption of failure to one of success. In dating, I used to go into relationships with the thought that most of them fail. That’s true, statistically speaking.  But I was a lot happier once I started assuming that each new relationship would be the one that would last a lifetime. Looking for reasons to stay in, instead of a justification for bailing out, helped me see a lot more good not just in others but in myself. And eventually I was right.

I try to approach opportunities in my writing career the same way. Four years ago this summer I got an email from an old writing group buddy who made indie fantasy and scifi films. They wanted to release a book and a movie at the same time as an experiment and wondered if I would like to write the novel to go with the film.

It was an intriguing possibility, but I already had plans that summer to change jobs, move (twice), get married, finish writing my dissertation, defend it, and revise it. So I said… Sure! And then we talked about particulars and hammered out a schedule and a contract that we could all live with. In other words, I looked for ways to make it work instead of excuses to stay out.

When I start by assuming that failure is the likely result, I am nearly always right. But being part of a self-fulfilling prophecy is not as satisfying as it sounds. On the other hand, when I start by assuming that there’s a path to success, I am not always right. (Or at least I don’t always find that path.) But often great things happen. And every now and then, something truly miraculous happens. Like the day my wife noticed me at a party, and every day we’ve been together since then.

So, I offer my fellow writers just two bits of advice. Get outside yourself, and show the world what you have to offer. And embrace optimism. Believing that things will turn out for the best is so crazy it just might work.
John D. Payne Bio: John Payne (1)

John D. Payne grew up on the prairie, watching the lightning flash outside his window, imagining himself as everything from a leaf in the wind to the god of thunder. Today, he lives with his wife and family near Houston, where he imagines that the clouds of mosquitoes have achieved not just sentience but malicious intent.
His debut novel, The Crown and the Dragon, was published in 2013 by WordFire Press. The movie was released in 2014 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. John’s most recently published stories can be found in Black Denim Lit, The Leading Edge, Tides of Impossibility: A Fantasy Anthology from the Houston Writers Guild, and the upcoming Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology.