Archive for the 'J.A. Pitts' Category

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Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Stress will kill you

Or so my doctor tells me. She’s pretty smart, so I guess I should listen to her. As I take an inventory of what is causing me stress and figuring out what I can eliminate, I am thankful we are finally at the end of another political circus. That’s the worse.

I don’t know about you, but man I am so glad this election season is winding down. I don’t care who you wanted to win any of the zillions of offices, amendments, or initiatives. I just glad we can turn our attention to de-stressing and simplifying our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I have deep and detailed political opinions, but I just don’t want to churn through those for a while.

Today, I’d like to discuss something that has been praying on my mind under the cacophony of political rhetoric and posturing. I want to talk about stress management.

Most writers I know have to have day jobs to make ends meet. Working full-time with a family, as I do, adds to the level of busy. Then adding a writing career in whatever time is left takes the last vestiges of rest and relaxation you can possibly muster.

So, you start burning the candles at both ends, skipping not only sleep, but generic down-time which your brain and body so desperately need. You drive toward deadlines, real or self-inflicted and before you know it you hit a wall and burn out sets in.

I have experienced this more than once in my life and it’s debilitating, frustrating and counter-productive. When you sit at the keyboard and try to produce words and nothing happens because your brain refuses to move out of neutral, it’s time to assess the situation and make a change.

That change may be as simple as getting some exercise (you should always be exercising), make sure you are eating a healthy diet, and take some down time. Naps are good. Reading is wonderful. Watch a movie, go for a walk, do a puzzle, veg in front of a video game. All of these are very helpful in resetting the creative switch in your brain.

Forcing yourself to produce at this point is frequently counter-productive and can lead to even longer periods of inactivity if you do not take the proper care of your mind and body.

I’m realizing as I write this post that this has been a rather stressful year for me. I’ve written posts here that relate to this problem from different aspects. I think it’s time for me to get back to the gym, take a few things off my plate, and make a promise that I will stop over committing and guard my free time with vigor.

After all I have novels to finish. Apparently some of you want to see book four in the Sarah Beauhall series sooner rather than later. I’ll go catch a nap and watch a show. By this weekend I’ll be back in the saddle and working on Hearth & Home with a distinct urgency.

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Trust the mirrors

While most people will agree that writing is a solitary endeavor, I’d like to point out one very important aspect of your social network.

My friends and I call it trusting your mirrors.

Due to human physiology, we cannot see out the back of our heads, so we can never truly see behind ourselves.  We can’t tell where we’ve been with a clear view.  But if you have a group of trusted confidants, then you can not only see behind you, but you can get the old “objects in mirrors appear larger than they are” aspect of it and really get a good look at what you’ve been doing.

Take a new story, for example.  You write it, and if you are like most writers I know, you immediately think that it sucks.  It doesn’t matter if it’s fresh off the hotplate of creation, you know, deep down, that it has negative value, you’ve wasted your time, and that this is the last thing you will ever write. Mainly because someone will finally figure out that you are a fraud and the entire house of cards will come tumbling down.  Or, you know, worse.

Not everyone goes through this roller-coaster of self-doubt and recrimination, but let me tell you, I know veterans with thirty years of sales who still think like this when they finish something new.  We are all meat puppets with a chemical soup battery in our heads that controls our emotions and our thoughts.  Who can blame us for panicking and expecting the worse.  It’s survival instincts.

But, if you are a very lucky person who has enough good sense to find like-minded individuals as well as a diverse base of support, than you can trust them to be your eyes in the back of your head.

They become your mirrors and they can show you a view of yourself that you cannot see.  This is an amazing gift, let me tell you.  Finding someone who you can trust to be honest and who has your best interest at heart is worth more than a Hugo, a Pulitzer or even a NY Times Bestseller slot.

Because you will always have to write the next thing and the world is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of place.  A single success or failure will not define your career.  If you surround yourself by good souls and put in the hard work you can maximize your success and minimize your pain.

Trust the mirrors, watch when things are larger than they appear and don’t forget to let those around you protect your flanks.  It’s what friends and family are for.

If you are not careful, you may end up having a very fulfilling life with good friends, good writing and high expectations.

And probably some wine, but that’s a different post.

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
The Dangerous Dream

Sometimes you want something small, something you are worthy of.  Maybe you even want it bad enough to go after it.  You work harder, you look for angles and you push toward a goal that seems reasonable.

Sometimes you want something that appears to be totally out of your reach.  Something so unfreaking awesome and yet so hilariously out of the realm of reasonableness that you just shrug and walk away.

And sometimes, when you reach for your dreams, you fall.  You come away battered and bruised and you decide that life has taught you a very important lesson and that you should learn that you have limits and you need to keep your dreams to the realm of possibilities.

The truth is — and this should scare the living daylights out of everyone here — there is nothing out of your reach.  NOTHING.

I’m a published author because I wanted it bad enough to make it happen.  I had faith.  I did the hard work and I believed in the dream.  I refused to let little things like a decade of rejection get in the way.  I ignored others who told me my writing wasn’t good enough.  By all that is wholesome and pure, I ignored those idiots and kept my dream alive.

How dare anyone tell you that your dreams are not achievable.  Never listen to someone who tells you that you should settle for what you can have.  I don’t care if you want to be an astronaut, the President of the United States, or if you decide one day that the reason you are unhappy is because despite the biological evidence, you really are a woman (or a man).

I swear to you that you may have pain, you may walk through fire, but you have got to live for your dreams.  When you stop dreaming you start dying.

I’m a writer, damn it and I will put my work out in front of people until all of them know the truth.  I only have three novels on the market but that in itself exceeds some people’s dreams.  Dare to dream bigger, shoot for the moon.  You need to gather all the energy you can muster and push it into your dreams.  I will break into the NY Times best seller list some day.  I will become a full-time writer.  I will stand in front of my fans and accept awards.

And I know all of this because my dreams are powerful.  My dreams have teeth.

You are worthy of joy.  You are worthy of big dreams.

Do something, right now.  Stand up and declare to the world that you will not be kept back by those who are afraid.  You will reach for the stars and you will, come hell or high water, you will achieve the unthinkable, the unfathomable.

Eschew the fear, abandon the doubt.  Take a deep breath and let the possibilities fill you to overflowing.

Then roll up your sleeves and do the hard work.

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Answering Interview Questions

1) Do you write every day? 5 days a week? Only on weekends?  When I’m on a project I write everyday, 7 days a week unless some family obligation gets in the way and even then I tend to write something in the cracks somewhere.  When I’m between projects I tend to hibernate and not write any fiction, just read as much as I can, blog, do social media, etc.  Right now, I’ve had a crazy busy summer so I’ve not got any where near the writing done that I wanted to, but I’m climbing back on the saddle and will write several days this week and hope to get back into the steady rhythm here soon.

2)What comes first for you, usually. the character, or the story idea?  90% of the time for me with short fiction it’s the character.  Sometimes its a scene that just appears in my head and I have to write it down to see if it is going anywhere.   On rare occasions, when I am writing to a themed anthology, I’ll come up with the story idea or McGuffin first.  That’s how Black Blade Blues started.  Mythos first, then sword, then character.  Subsequent novels in this series are started based on a central idea that the characters struggle against.

3) Do you/can you work on more than one project/idea at a time?  As we are learning, no one truly multi-tasks.  When I’m on a story, I work that story.  This is why I find it so hard to read and write over the same time frame.  Typically if I start reading a story or book, I stop writing until I’m finished.  I’ve been working on that with a little success, but for me it’s hard enough trying to hold the entirety of a novel in my head when I’m writing.  When I start adding a different story I’m trying to manage and follow, I run out of storage.

4) Favorite mode of getting the words down…desktop, laptop, Alphasmart, pen and paper? Definitely my laptop.  This is the second laptop I’ve had that was dedicated solely to my writing and I love it.  No games, no major distractions.  I don’t even have my Tweetdeck loaded there.  I do a bit of email and internet searching, but that’s it.  Just writing and the business of writing.  As for Pen and Paper.  I leave that for role-playing (which I unfortunately have not done in years).  I just can’t read my own handwriting after the fact.

5) What do you feel is your biggest strength as a writer?  Character and emotion.  This is where I feel most comfortable.  I’ve been told that I write powerful characters.  I think overall story structure is where my growth is most pronounced.  Weaving a lean and coherent story has been a wonderful growth experience for me.  I tend to want to cover every possible moment and action to the point I cut a lot before I go out to beta readers.   Comments from readers have led me to believe that I’m improving, so that’s good enough for me.

6) Do you have a Dream Project or idea that’s sitting in the back of your mind that you hold there as a “someday I’ll write that” sort of thing? Interesting question.  I have a backlog of stories I’d love to write.  I have ideas for a dozen more novels just waiting for me to get around to writing them.  There was one novel I struggled with for years and had decided I just wasn’t skilled enough to write it.  It came back up all the time.  Just recently I’ve discovered that the reason I couldn’t write it is because it’s a cliche and the plot structure was not coherent enough to carry a full novel.  That was an interesting epiphany to have.  As I grow as a writer, I find that that I see things like this faster.  I’ve got a lot of growth ahead of me and I’m looking forward to the journey.  So, no, I don’t have a Dream Project at this point.  To me they are all Dream Projects.  I’m still overwhelmed with the fact there are books with my name on them in the local bookstores and are being read world wide.

Saturday, August 4th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Think like an old man

My grandfather told me this story.  I have no idea where he heard it, but I like to share it with folks from time to time.  It’s a story I need to remind myself of far too often.

There was this old man who was known far and wide as the greatest wood cutter in all the land.  He lived a quiet life in the deep woods enjoying his twilight years.  One evening, a young man showed up at his door step and challenged the old man to a wood-cutting contest.

“I’ll prove I’m the better man,” the young’un declared. “Starting at sunrise tomorrow I’ll be right here in front of your cabin and we’ll chop wood until sunset.  At that time, whoever has cut the most wood will be declared the greatest woodsman.”

The old man just smiled and nodded.  “Sunrise then.”  And went to bed.

The next morning as the mists hung heavy along the forest floor, the young man arrived and called the old man from his cabin.   As the first light of the new day broke across the forest they began.

All that morning the wood chips were so thick that the young man couldn’t see the old.  After a couple of hours, the old man paused to drink a bit of water and rest.  The young man just laughed and cut wood faster, spurred on by the old man’s weakness.

By noon the old man had stopped again, ate a bit of bread and had more water.  The young man cut faster, hewing the wood with perilous strength.

Twice more the old man paused and drank or ate.  The young man wolfed his food, guzzled his water and went back to the cutting, his axe flying so fast it was a blur.

By the time the last rays of the sun winked out for the day, the young man stepped back admiring the mighty pile of wood he had cut.

He turned to face the old man and the gloating jibe died in his throat.  The old man’s pile of wood was twice that of the younger man.

“I can’t believe this,” the eager young man said.  “I worked harder than you with nary a break.  My axe was a blur.”

“True enough,” the old man said, shaking his head.  “But every time I rested. I sharpened my axe.”

I love this story.  It reminds me that when I take some down time, read a book, watch a movie, lay on my deck and watch the clouds skate across a deep blue sky, I’m not shirking my duties.  I’m not wasting time.  I’m sharpening my axe.

Are you taking care of the most important tool in your life?  Are you honing your blade, readying yourself for the next round of cutting?

Too few of us do, and too often when we do, we allow guilt to eat at us.

Better to be rested and ready.  Unwind, let go, learn to breath again.  The work will be there, I promise you.  There is always a challenger in the wings, another crisis for you to take care of, another deadline.

But if you do not take care of yourself, if you do not sharpen your axe, you will work like a demon and get less and less done over time.

Breathe deeply, put on some amazing music and let your shoulders relax for a while.  Do something frivolous.  Trust me on this.  More days than naught, I’m the young man, muscling through on grit and blind determination.  It’s time I start learning to be the old man and deal with the important things.

Life is just too damn short to do otherwise.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Comfort Zone

As a writer and a human being, I find myself wanting to fall back to the safe place.  Going outside my highly regulated and conditioned world is not something I do very often.  Let’s face it.  There’s monsters out there.  I think we fall into two major categories as people — Risk Takers, those who crave the unknown and Wardens, those who want to make sure home is safe and secure.  I fall into the second category in most circumstances.  I love my routines.  I’ll eat the exact same meal from the exact same restaurant served by the exact same staff over and over and be happy as a clam.  I love the routine of going to work in the morning, coming home in the afternoon, having dinner with my family, kicking back with a good book, my writing, a quick game, etc.

Oh, there’s house work and car pools, but in general it’s the quiet life for me.

But as a writer, I have to dare to be bold.  I have to look for those places where I’m complacent and poke at the weak spots.  I have to challenge myself to take greater risks, do grander things.  I have to build worlds so far from mundane that you the reader will want to lose yourself among the warriors and robots for a little while, until it’s time for you to fall back into your routines.

I saw this Venn diagram recently and it makes me think of how I approach the various aspects of my life.  For my day job, I’m a risk taker.  I push the boundries and take chances.  I know the risk/reward system very well after several decades in the working population.  It’s vibrant and real.  I understand (mostly) how things work.  I can’t abide or account for the politics involved, but I can even navigate those waters.

The writing, however, is a different world.  There are so many aspects to a writing career.  Daring to write exciting and emotional novels is one thing.  Learning to put yourself out there like in blogging and marketing is a totally bizarre and foreign thing to me.

This week I took a step totally outside my comfort zone.  Really it was a few weeks ago, but the podcast just went live last Friday.  I was interviewed by this awesome podcast out of LA called Between the Sheets.  It’s totally not safe for work or small children.

This podcast features five women who are totally okay with who they are and are not afraid to talk about anything that comes into their minds. It’s both terrifying and liberating.  I think I hold my own in the interview but these women have no problem overlapping their comfort zone with that place where the magic happens.

That’s what I’m striving for in my work, my writing and my life as a whole.  I took a risk, put myself someplace I thought I’d never go, and I think I’m a much better person for having played in someone else’s playground for a while.

So, you have to ask yourself, are you playing it too safe?  Are there things you could do to shake things up?  What fear is holding you back?

I’ve been invited back to join the Between the Sheets folks anytime I can make it down to LA.  Being with them live would be awesome.  I don’t think it’s possible to die from embarrassment, but I’m sure I could exceed expectations.  I look forward to reaching new audiences, trying new things, exploring avenues I’ve never known, or been afraid to try.  Who knows where it could lead?

Oh, and I drew that Venn diagram on my whiteboard in my cubicle at work.  After a few days I came back to find someone wrote on the board that I was their hero.  You never know when you are going to inspire someone else to take a chance.

I think I’m ready for a bit of adventure.  This may be addicting.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012 by J.A. Pitts
Teh Crazy

Look, I know individuals personally who act like they’ve lost their damn minds sometimes.  If you start talking about their hot-button subject, they will lose all sense or decorum and rant like an old-time revival preacher.  It can be about religion, politics, sports or even whether or not the world “irregardless” is legitimately a word.

You can’t let these people get up their full head of steam or you’ll be picking brains and bone out of the carpet for weeks when someone finally snaps.  It’s never a pretty scene.  And if alcohol is involved it’s even uglier.  Practice your intervention skills before it comes to this.

In the real world, people get Teh Crazy.  We’re funny that way.  We are passionate and not always rational.

But, bear in mind, that’ s the real world.  In the real world, crazy stupid shit happens all the time.  It’s as predictable as the weather (more of a probability than an actuality).

When you are writing, however, you don’t get to use that level of temporary insanity or you’ll lose your readers.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure there is someone out there with enough chutzpah and savvy to pull it off and will take this as a dare to try.  More power to ya.  But in general, when you are dealing with fictional characters you have to give them enough internal consistency for the readers to follow without suffering a terrible case of whiplash.

If you want your character to rant about sports, give us some indication they are a sports nut.  If they are a religious fanatic who preaches in the grocery store, damning someone for the sin of High Fructose Corn Sweetener, you had better give the reader fair warning, or they will drop any empathy for that character like a hot shell casing.

Sure, you can have all kinds of nutso people in your books and stories.  Just give us enough build up, enough justification that when the wack-job comes out, we are not totally surprised.

Unless, of course, you intend to shock and awe us.  In that case, you’d better have a damn good reason, or your audience will be flipping back to the next story in the magazine, or drop kicking your novel in favor of the next “HOT NEW THING” to come off the presses.

Unlike the real world, your written world needs to allow for a level of logical cohesion that will drag the reader along for the roller coaster ride without losing them along the way.

George R. R. Martin does some very bad things to his characters.  If you’ve read the Song of Fire and Ice series, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  But, no matter how dastardly the deed, there is always some motivation, some player spinning the wheel behind the scenes that justifies the actions taken.  You don’t have to like it.  But the man knows how to twist a character.

Think about your own character (if you are a writer) or the character you are reading, if you enjoy story without the psychosis of being a writer.   When you find one that works — even if they drop their cousin George into a wood-chipper — examine what was the justification given by the story?  Find that thread.  If the book is worth two shakes, there is a level of cohesion there that allows you to go along with it, without tossing the book into the fire.

Do your character’s actions flow from the events of the book?  Keeping it fresh, is not an excuse to suddenly change how a character behaves.  Show us in the prose.  Plant clues along the way, so when your pretty blonde cheerleader turns out to be a alien robot from another dimension who happens to burn down orphanages, you’re reader will look back and say, “man, I should’ve seen that coming.”

All the good stories do this (in my humble opinion).  It’s one of the key things that can make or break a story.  And it’s really not hard to keep straight.  Think about how your weird uncle Hugo acts at the New Year’s Eve party and fill in the reasons along his life that justified him standing in the punch bowl, reciting Elizabethan poetry while wearing a tutu.

Then it’s a story you can sell to a reader.  If he’s just bat-shit crazy, save it for the water cooler chatter.

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