An Open Thank You to Neil Gaiman

Few artists suffer in solitude quite like writers. While many actors, directors and others struggle to find success in full view of the public, writers often find themselves typing away in a dark, lonely office, hoping that next batch of words might make their dreams come true. In this life, even the smallest affirmation can mean worlds. Last summer, I received such affirmation.

This is my open thank you to Neil Gaiman.

Now you may be wondering just why this wannabe writer is thanking Neil Gaiman. Well, we need a little backstory for that.  My name is Eric Hanson, and my dream is to write professionally. It’s something that already takes up a decent chunk of my time. When not juggling numerous personal projects in both the pipeline and on the backburner, I make extra money covering scripts for International Screenwriter’s Association, and writing for the online magazine ScreenHub Entertainment with my friends.

I must confess to having not read an original Gaiman novel yet, but still consider myself a big fan. StarDust remains one of my favorite fantasy films, and the recent Amazon series Good Omens was some of the most potent and important religious satire I’ve seen in some time. It’s with Good Omens that our little story begins.

I consider myself a Christian. In spite this (or rather because of it), I’m an avid supporter of progressive ideals like LGBTQ rights and environmental preservation. I have quite the dislike for fanatical and hateful ‘Christian’ circles. Being grouped in with such loud mouthed bullies is embarrassing to say the least. So you can imagine I quite like a good bit of religious satire. When done well, it not only ruffles the feathers of Bible Belt Bigots, but it can also balance humor with true Christian values. Good Omens, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and his close friend Terry Pratchett, encompassed all of these things.

The six part miniseries was overflowing with delightful characters, humor both crude and classy, and more than its share of provocative ideas delivered with a laugh. It even paid homage to my favorite Satan themed horror film, The Omen. So naturally many parishoners of the Church of the Wet Blanket hated it. For a less paranoid Christian, Good Omens was full of endless delights. Hard up for material at ScreenHub, this seemed the perfect topic for my latest article.

As someone who got the joke, I thought it might be fun to write an article detailing why Good Omens was actually a good program for those of faith. The article, which can be viewed here, was well received by my colleagues at ScreenHub, but come promotion time, all of us braced ourselves for the barrage of fundamentalist backlash we would no doubt recieve. We did the usual things like sending it to Reddit and a few movie forums. On a whim, I went to Gaiman’s official Twitter account, and sent him this tweet.

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I honestly wasn’t expecting it to rise above the usual cacophony of fluff that crowds Twitter. Gaiman had no doubt suffered a barrage of angry tweets from religious nuts since the release of the show, so I expected it to get lost in the shuffle. Then something happened. Viewership on the article started going up. Quite a bit actually. I was actually nervous to look at the responses, firmly believing most would be angry accusations of heresy. Instead, it turned out my article had been read by none other than Neil Gaiman himself.

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The impact this tweet had cannot be understated. Gaiman, one of the greatest authors of this era, not only read my little article, but liked and shared it. To him it would have been nothing more than a quick read and the tapping of a few keys, (or likewise for whoever handles his social media), but it sent me on a one way trip to the clouds. Though the rest of my day was spent lugging 50 pound bags of mulch in the sweltering Midwest summer, I couldn’t stop smiling.

This happened all the way back in July of 2019. So why has it taken me until October to write this? Truth is, things have been pretty busy in the months since that tweet. Some of my writing projects, a few scripts and a horror novel, had been gathering dust. Still high off the article’s success, I figured why not open them up and finish a project for once? Within a month of Gaiman’s tweet, a script I’d been working on for the last few years was finally completed. As of today, that horror novel and a second script are undergoing rigorous editing.

But there’s more. Shortly after that script was finished, anything seemed possible. After sending out a few letters, I received a job writing an article for a local paper in Toledo. It was my first experience with in-person journalism, an effort for which I was paid. It was a mere sixty dollars, but it was sixty dollars for creating something on my own. The pride was so overwhelmng, I just couldn’t part with the stub.

So, to Neil Gaiman, or whoever runs his social media account, if you ever read this, from the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you.

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I think about your tweet often, and wonder how big an impact it had. Maybe it was the motivator for finally finishing that script some fifteen years in the making. Maybe it was the inspiration to finally reach out to a paper and land a freelance job. I don’t know. What I do know is for the first time, it made me wonder if maybe these twitchy fingers of mine had something valuable to say. That question alone was enough to help me wade through those clouds of smothering self doubt to find my keyboard waiting for me. That tweet is now enshrined on the door to my office/workspace, nestled right above the envelope containing the stub from the paper. It’s the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing I see as I drift off to sleep. Sometimes all it takes is a simple gesture to keep us dreaming.

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With four words, Gaiman reminded me there was still something worth dreaming for.

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My Outlining Process

Outlining is one of the more difficult parts of the writing process. This is where you first take whatever ideas are bouncing around inside your head and attempt to form something resembling order. Everyone has their own process to do it. Me? It took me a while to find my sweet spot. I’ve since found it, and would like to share what to me has been a lifesaver.

My first bit of advice with your outline is don’t be afraid to make it something tangible. What do I mean by that? I used to outline exclusively on a computer using word and paint documents. It worked decently enough for a time, but one of the things it created was a sense of rigidity. If it was on a word or a paint document, it seemed somehow less appropriate to move my bullet points from one space to another. In other words, it kept me from experimenting. So when it comes to your outline, never be afraid to make it something you can touch and manipulate with your hands. Believe me, it helps.

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The first thing you need is a staging area for your outline. Some people work better with smaller spaces. Some like bigger areas like the entire floor of a given room. I prefer a healthy middle ground, so I got me a magnetic white board. This is the place where my stories find a sense of order. In order to do that, you first need your tools. Fortunately the tools are easy to come by, even if they add up to a hefty price tag.

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This box contains my outline kit. In here I have hundreds of push pin magnets of seven different colors, a set of larger magnets, some pens, a pair of scissors, strips of printing paper, and several plastic bags.

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Staging the board is perhaps the easiest part of the process. This is where the larger magnets come in. The larger magnets are meant to represent the traditional three act structure, which is the story mode in which I prefer to work. The space between the first and second magnets represents my first act, so I need to make sure by the end of that, the audience is aware of what’s going on. The space between the second and third magnets is the first half of act 2, at which point the heroes are usually in it for the long haul. After that between the third and forth magnets is the second half of act two, which takes the characters to their lowest point. The space between the fourth and fifth magnets is the final climactic act where the heroes go through their final push, either finding victory, or perishing.

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The paper, scissors and pens are for the creation of bullet points. Whenever I have an idea, I’ll write it down on one of the paper strips, then cut the note off the paper strip so it can be placed on the board. It’s here that the note is placed with the magnets. In the event I don’t like the idea or can’t find a way to put it on the board, I’ll place it in one of the plastic bags, where I have one for each of my current projects. If I’m ever hard up for ideas, I always dig around one of the bags. Sometimes an old discarded idea might end up being useful.

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You may be wondering why the magnets are different colors? The different color magnets was something I discovered quite by accident, but it has since become one of the most essential components of my outlining process. The magnets represent a character’s perspective. To be more specific, red represents the protagonist, blue is the secondary lead, green is a third lead, yellow is the villain, and so forth.

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Say I have a scene told from the hero’s point of view where they fight the villain and learn a great truth at the same time. Both occur back to back and are from the hero’s perspective, so they’re held up by a single red magnet. Since it’s the final fight, I’ll place that towards the end of the board. The color coding of the magnets allows me to see, at a glance, how well represented each of my characters are. If red is my lead, yet most of my board is green, then I’ve got some problems, and will work to adjust the plot and make sure the lead has greater representation.

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These color coded magnets allow for great experimentation. Say I think that perhaps one of those segments is better told from the villain’s perspective? I can easily switch it out for a yellow magnet instead of a red one, not altering the paper in any way. Another way to experiment is moving the scenes. Originally I had my hero learn a great truth during the climactic battle with my villain. But say learning that truth earlier is what motivates our hero to fight? In that case, moving the magnet further down the board towards the first act may be a good experiment.

This is the way I’ve been outlining for the last year, and it has worked like a dream. Basically you keep adding scenes and magnets, slowly closing whatever gaps you have until finally the board has a full outline. From there, you’re ready to go into much more specific scene breakdowns, and then it’s time to start writing prose. It has worked out very well for me. Were it not for this method, I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish the second draft of my book.

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Seen here is the current incarnation of the board, where I’m outlining three projects. Up top is the fantasy novel, which is being given more space. Below that are outlines for two scripts, one of which is finished and the other of which is still developing. This board allows me to work on multiple projects at once. Every time an idea for one comes, it will find its way up there with a magnet, all while leaving the other staging areas undisturbed.

Outlining may seem tedious, but if you find a way that appeals to you it can be one of the most energizing and fun parts of the writing process. It’s a lot like digging up a skeleton, then slowly putting the pieces together to see what great beast emerges. Not all writers outline. Me? I can’t do without it. To those who have never outlined their work, it’s certainly something worth trying. My method works well for me, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe somewhere out there is a process that’s right for you.

My Fantasy Begins to Stir

When this blog began in 2014, I had one goal in mind. I wanted to promote a fantasy book series I was writing. At the time, I thought this work in progress was nearing completion and I’d have it out within a few years. Since then, a lot has changed.

One of the big realizations I made was this large and complex world was, at the time, beyond my skill level as an artist. In order for it to reach its full potential, perhaps it was a good time to let it take a break and focus on other projects. And that’s what I did. A horror novel has finished its second draft, a script is about to undergo its semi final draft. Yet out of every story currently ticking the back of my head, this fantasy story is without a doubt the most near and dear to my heart.

That’s why letting it rest was one of my best decisions.

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The original story concerned a dragon who finds himself blackmailed by a group of ragtag heroes who need his help. The dragon begrudgingly agrees, and finds himself whisked away on an adventure more challenging than he could have imagined. We did a lot of work on this story, from some impressive concept art to highly detailed illustrations, all done by some very close friends of mine. I’m humbled and warmed by the fact that they stuck with me for so long, and continue to enrich my life with their company.

The work my colleagues did was impressive to say the least, and did help capture the pulpy adventure feel I desired for the book. But during this time, as my writing skills developed, so did theirs. The earlier work was still impressive, but by the standards of what my friends have accomplished today, the work is but a stepping stone to something greater.

The cherry on top of all this is since we took a break, we could actually re-evaluate the designs of a lot of the characters. Previously we were afraid to change things based on all the work we’d done. After a break, we could once again experiment. We have begun this process, and the results have thus far proven most promising.

But that’s just the beginning of the substantial changes the story has gone through. Since then I’ve been introduced to other narrative works that have provided much inspiration for the creative process. One of the most unlikely of these was Black Rain, a cop thriller from the late 80s that I fell in love with upon my first viewing. Not exactly what one would expect when seeking inspiration for high fantasy, but I always had a taste for the unusual.

I’ve also made another important decision. Before, I’d bragged that I hadn’t read a lot of high fantasy as to avoid its influence on my own story. Now I’ve come to realize that was a flawed way of thinking, and that many of the classics should be viewed as teachers with a variety of valuable lessons for any author. I’ve since read The Hobbit, and will soon delve into the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarillion. After that comes A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter, Dragonlance, and more. Not a bad lineup when trying to make my own fantasy smoothie. All will have valuable lessons to teach.

Even after that, there’s still more. The overall tone and feel of the story has changed, still maintaining its adventurous feel with some added gravitas. Characters have gone through drastic re-evaluations and evolutions to the point that they barely resemble their counterparts from a few years prior. This is a good thing, as an overly meek character and an ill placed comic relief are both vastly improved even in the conceptual stage.

Since this story’s humble beginnings and a four year long slog through a flawed draft, I’ve developed a much clearer vision of where I want this tale to go. Gone is the simple tale of a dragon getting blackmailed into heroics. Hopefully, it’s something far richer.

Today, work on it will continue. My outline board lies ready in my office. Slowly but surely, I’ll begin decorating it with my special brand of color-coded pins, organizing the ideas a little at a time. It’ll be a long, no doubt frustrating process, but as my recently completed novel has taught me, the journey is always worthwhile.

How It Feels to Finish a Draft

Yesterday morning, after a session lasting a few hours, I completed a second draft of a horror novel I’m writing.

Now, given the long and turbulent history of this blog (much of which has been removed from the public), me saying I completed a draft of anything probably doesn’t mean much. I must have proclaimed proudly that my previous book book was finished no less than six times from the years between 2014 and 2018.

A lot has changed since then. After a nice education, years of frustration and failure, and writing professionally for the last three years, I’ve learned a lot about the craft. I’ve even learned a lot since the completion of my previous draft, to the point that the stack of pages I finished last year is vastly different, and inferior, to the stack I have now.

The story I’m currently working on has been in my heart for a long time. Since at least my high school days. Back then, I wasn’t a terribly good writer, and often stumbled with a story shortly after the idea was formed. It combines a lot of my favorite things, including horror, urban gothic, dark fantasy, police procedural, all with a pinch of werewolves to give it an extra spice.

Is the book done? Not yet. There is still a little work to do in order to polish it, from better character development and dialogue to making sure the prose is effective without being pretentious. And given this current block of pages is some 134,000 words long, there will need to be a lot of cuts before an agent takes it seriously.

I’ll have to lose a lot of what I love in the story, but doing so will ensure that only the best remains behind. The editing process on this is one I look forward to, even though I have a lot of darlings to kill.

In the meantime, the manuscript and me have earned a short rest. I have no less than six other projects demanding my attention, one of which is already nearing completion itself. I think I’ll get that one finished before heading back to this story. After that, there will be plenty more to do.

I do feel very different about finishing this one as opposed to my previous misfires. Back then, I felt a swelling of almost delusional pride in the work. Now, I look at the stack of pages before me, and can’t help but feel exhausted, and full of a grateful humility. Hopefully that’s a good sign that my evolution as a wordsmith has taken me in the right direction.

‘Backspace’ Is Your Friend

I’ve been writing regularly for the last seven years now, and though I have yet to get a piece of fiction published officially, I have learned some valuable lessons about the craft of word smithing. One of the most crucial lessons is never underestimate how much simply hitting the backspace button can help you.

Starting any writing session is a difficult task. Few feelings compare to when the words flow freely. Still, there are times when you can struggle to find your voice, so no matter how many words you manage to churn out, it might just not feel right when all is said and done.

A lot of feelings come after such a session. Feelings of inadequacy and doubt have assaulted many a wordsmith after an unsatisfying couple of bouts with the empty page.  To a writer, it’s comparable to a black eye. Looking at an unsatisfying bunch of pages can leave you wondering just how do you fix such a thing?

My advice is don’t bother. Just hit the backspace button.

We do get attached to our words, and deleting a page of material, or twelve or thirty, does create a sinking feeling, no matter how flawed those words are. But sometimes, a complete re-take does yield better results than simply editing the offending material.

During my current book, this has happened several times. I recall writing an entire chapter’s worth of story, building up to a very important scene where my characters meet for the first time. But it just wasn’t right. I thought about how I could edit it in order to fix the scenes, but every idea I had fell woefully short. I couldn’t continue on, because everything that happened since would be tainted by the previous chapter, not unlike a row of tumbling dominos.

So, with a heavy heart and a fair bit of apprehension, I did the unthinkable. I deleted the whole chapter and started over. How did that feel?

There are few times when I’ve felt better. Deleting the previous material was an oddly liberating experience. No longer was I confined to my previous material. I was on free open pages that I could mould into whatever I wanted. I struggled through the first attempt at that chapter for over a week. The second attempt both took less than half the time to finish, and was twice as good.

It was the fear of backspace that killed my fantasy novel. Rather than do the brave thing and re-write it from the ground up, I was too afraid to get rid of the previous draft. Doing so effectively put me in a cage where the story would only improve as much as the previous draft allowed it. Had I the courage to simply start over, then all the wonderful ideas that have come since would have been born that much sooner.

It can be a very scary thing to delete a lot of your work, but if those words are holding you back, you shouldn’t be afraid to cut ties with them. Save them in a separate document, sure. But don’t be afraid to set them aside if your manuscript is suffering from them. Try not to look at it as getting rid of your work. Rather, it’s getting rid of unnecessary clutter. Once you do that, you’re left with a slew of new possibilities.

My New Mission

A warm hello to all you WordPress Writers.

It has been some time since I started this blog, and some time since I checked up on it. This last break took me about a year to complete. But now I’m back, and I have a new mission.

When I first started this blog, it was purely for promotion of my own work. Looking back on my older posts now has been a fascinating experience. I’m a much different person than the kid who started this blog in 2014. Back then I was a naive dreamer who believed in himself to a fault, and made the rather brazen decision to move out to the big city and take it by storm. Late 2014 through early 2018 were some of the most painful, yet informative years of my life. I moved back to the country in March of 2018 a much wiser person, taking with me all my dreams, and a nice side job covering scripts for writers with ambitions not unlike my own.

Much of this blog’s history was devoted to a passion project, namely a fantasy novel that went through several iterations but never quite got to where it needed to be. I ended up deciding to shelve the novel for a time to develop it properly, and then went on to work on another book. As of this post, the second draft of that book is almost finished, and I couldn’t be more excited.

I will share progress on my own work from time to time, but that’s no longer this blog’s mission. I want to help other writers who are where I was four years ago, and perhaps impart some of the wisdom I’ve picked up since then. I’ll talk about how my writing methods evolved, how my outlook on writing has changed, and other things that helped me improve as an artist. I’ll also share my insights as a script reader for competitions, and let you know some of the common mistakes I see, and how you can overcome them in both screenwriting and prose fiction. And don’t be surprised if you see the odd post about a recently viewed book or film. I’m a pop culture junkie, and sharing a story is one of my favorite past times.

For the purposes of this new mission, I’ve spent the last few hours going through the site, removing pieces that were no longer relevant and completely refurbishing overall presentation of the page. It’s been hard work and there’s still a lot more to be done, but this has nonetheless been a worthwhile journey.

In the meantime, come on in, pull up a seat by the fire, and lets get to work. I hope to connect with many of you who are struggling to figure out what you want to say with your work, and let you all know that no matter how bad it may seem, never give up the dream of mastering words. Remember, this is not a place where you’ll be talked down upon. I’ll struggle right along with you. So without further delay, let us begin.

Welcome to the Writer’s Forge.

Blog Overhaul

Well, I’m back in the saddle as far as this blog goes, and some of you may be wondering why the options at the top of the page have gone down.

The answer is there’s about to be some pretty big changes around here.

I’ve removed a number of tabs from the site, ones dealing with old scripts, the first three chapters of the novel I’d been writing, and an entire page dedicated to world building on my fantasy universe. I’ve removed all of these as I feel they no longer reflect my skills, and the project they were for is getting some much needed rest before I go after it again.

This entire blog is going to be re-worked into one that isn’t specifically devoted to Never Heroes, but rather a writer’s blog in general.

I’m currently debating whether or not I’ll be removing the concept art pages from here. Perhaps they’d be better to keep under wraps until an art book is released, if an art book is released.

I’m not ashamed of this project, and it will be finished. You can count on that. But looking back at this blog a few months after taking a break, and I look at it now as a testament to who I was three years ago, a kid fresh out of college who was still a little full of himself. That’s not who I am anymore, and that’s what this page needs to be. The content will still be saved for my own purposes, so somewhere down the line I can look back and have a good laugh. But you guys will be getting something totally new, and hopefully more representative the current state of the author.

Damned if I know exactly what it’ll be, but we’ll figure something out.

Looking forward to seeing you soon, and happy writing.

Where Have I Been?

It’s been over two months since I checked in to this little blog, so where have I been?

A lot has changed for me since my last post here. I left Los Angeles and moved back across the country to the Mid-West. I’ve moved in with a close friend of mine, got another job, picked up my secondhand work doing script coverage, and have been overall really, really busy.

So what of the writing dream? I know you’re all wondering just what became of the very thing I’ve been chatting about since this blog started back in 2014.

Rest assured, that dream is more alive than ever.

Los Angeles made it very difficult for me to concentrate. It can be hard to get a word out while choking in a sea of smog and traffic. Moving back to the Mid-West has been something of a writer’s dream come true. It’s far less crowded, far more quiet, the rent is cheap and resources are plentiful. This has put me into a world free of stress and troubles. Because of that, my writing has picked up rather nicely. Moving back here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Since getting back here I’ve completed another short story, and am about a third of the way done with a horror/thriller novel I’ve been working on. I’ve been reading a lot too. I recently finished Stephen King’s Misery, which was as the reviews called it, a ‘white knuckler.’ I also dove headfirst into Crichton’s Jurassic Park for the first time, which was a similarly gruesome and unexpected surprise. Am about a third of the way through reading that. I think it’s a testament to the benefits of books that my writing style has vastly improved since taking up novels again. I’ll also be reading The Dark Tower, The Talisman, and Black House, before delving into the world of Middle Earth with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I’ve also been doing more paid work in writing, picking up the pace with script coverage and making more money than I ever have in the past. I’ve already made my rent for the month, which will make this the first time that reading and writing have been able to pay for my living expenses, an important milestone in the life of any artist, and something I’m deeply proud of.

Most importantly, I’m a different person. I may not be that much older than when this blog started in 2014, but those three years of being beat down, depressed, and challenged have given me a lot of time for reflection. I was a vain kid out of college who assumed I was the smartest person in the room. Turns it I’m a whole lot dumber than I would have liked to think I was. But realizing this has been beneficial as well. Knowing that has better allowed me to see the flaws in my writing, and work very hard to improve on them. I’ve found the key to my evolution was some much needed humility, and I intend to keep it.

It’s actually kind of funny to look back on most of this blog’s posts, which are dripping with way too much self assurance and not enough contemplation. I wasn’t growing as an artist because I believed, rather vainly, I was already a master. Realizing I still have a lot to learn has helped reveal the mountain still in front of me. Now the real climb has begun.

Will be getting back to you soon, and I hope reading this has been as pleasurable to you as it was for me to write it.

One Chapter Down & Chapter 2 Starting

It has been an interesting and turbulent time in my life to be sure. I started this blog three years ago as an ambitions optimist with big dreams. Three years on and none of those ambitions have come true and I’m now a high strung depressed wreck of a person. About the only thing about me that has improved is my writing.

The coming weeks will bring some big changes. I came out to Los Angeles to chase my dreams, and thought I’d find a home in this bustling metropolis. Instead I found a place that was as cold and apathetic as the asphalt was hot on a summer day. I now look to my coming journey back to the midwest with a lot of apprehension and very little hope.

But my writing IS better. Even though my life is slowly but surely turning to a mound of fecal matter, I still know that much is true. Earlier this week I began writing a book, hopefully my last go around of a project that’s been in my heart for many years. This morning I finished the first draft of my opening chapter.

I’m surprised by how quickly the words are piling on. So far we’ve reached some 21 pages and just over 7500 words. The first days were a bit off. I wrote eight pages, four of which I liked and four I thought were garbage. I threw the latter away and got to work again, and then something just sort of clicked and the gears started working. It has pretty much been my only reliable source of comfort these last few years, something that I do hope will turn into a career.

I’ll keep you all posted on progress. If things go at their current pace, I should have another chapter or two done by week’s end.

Thanks for reading and see you all soon.