from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

Before I left for Africa, I had already made up my mind that I would write a story about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My writing began during the first two months of my stay in Korogwe, Tanzania. It helped me to cope with the transition and helped put things into perspective.

My original plan was to write a fictionalized version of my adventures. As my time in Africa progressed, the things that happened to me became stranger and more unbelievable. I eventually switched to nonfiction because I felt that the actual events were at risk of being perceived as poor, overdone plotting by an amateur writer.

That’s how my memoir, THE PEACE CORPSE, came to be.

Returning to America in December of 2004, I figured I’d finish writing as quickly as possible. But life got in the way. I finally completed the book in March. Of 2011. On the plus side, I finished the book on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps as an organization, and that was kind of cool. It even had exactly 50 chapters, which was…a complete coincidence.

Once my friends and relatives help me fix all the typos, I started submitting it to literary agents. The responses I got were less than inspiring. They all said that there’s just no market for a Peace Corps memoir written by someone who isn’t famous. No matter how awesome or funny it is. And who doesn’t think feeding lizards to unsuspecting houseguests is awesomely funny, right?

The failure to get agented led me to the self-publishing route. I knew a little about it, and I’d read that some self-published authors were pretty successful. After all the trouble of writing it, I figured that I might as well put it out there and give people a chance to read it.

Interestingly enough, the actual process of self-publishing was fairly simple. I basically got all the useful information from various blogs, and after a couple of weeks, I had it properly formatted and uploaded to various bookselling sites. And people did read it. About 15 people per month.

So…the literary agents were right. There’s not a big market for my book. Plus, I realized that almost every volunteer had the same idea–if the multitude of existing Peace Corps books are any indication.

But mine’s the funniest. Trust me. Well, I bet it’s in the top five, anyway.

Of course, the cover might have something to do with the sales. Mine pretty much sucks. I designed it myself, and it really shows. Now, would I do it differently if I had to do it all over again?

Yes.

For starters, I’d keep it as fiction. Still using the first-person POV and with the same humor, but I’d have more freedom to explore plots and subplots without being constrained by events that actually happened. Also, I could write about things I was afraid to write about in a nonfiction book for fear of embarrassing anyone. All I have to do is disguise the characters sufficiently.

Secondly, I’m not knocking self-publishing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. To me, the keys to success seem to be (besides it being a great book) frequency and nature of promotion, number of books published, and reader perception. When it comes to promotion, self-promotion has its limit. And just as agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony, readers don’t want to invest themselves in an unknown and untested author of a single book. Most importantly, a book from an established publisher shows that it does meet some minimum threshold of quality.

Plus, at least with a traditionally published book you’re guaranteed to get decent cover art and an editor.

standard and nonstandard words

Just because a word appears in a dictionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it in your writing.

There’s a difference between “standard” and “nonstandard” words. For example, words like “alright” and “dunno” may appear in some dictionaries (on my computer “alright” appears correct, while “dunno” shows up as a mistake), but that’s simply because these are misspellings or contractions that have slipped into common usage. That does not mean they are correct.

The word “alright” is a short form of “all right”, and is so commonly misspelled it even appears in dictionaries now. But most good dictionaries will refer to it as nonstandard. What does that mean? Simply that it’s acceptable for use in informal writing or even dialogue, but not for formal professional writing.

For example, having a character say, “I dunno if she’s alright,” is fine. It’s part of dialogue, and can help the reader hear the voice of the character. But to say she was alright in the main body of the text is fundamentally incorrect.

Honestly, this is something I only learned of recently. In the past, I just assumed that any word in the dictionary was a word that I could use in my writing. But even though I use “alright”, “dunno”, and “ok” in emails to my friends or even in blog posts, I would never even consider using any of them in my scientific writing. And that’s the difference.

English is a fascinating language. And yes, new words are being added every year. The language is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules, and that any word can be used at any time. Context is important. Abbreviations such as “LOL” or “btw” should not appear anywhere in the book, unless it’s an excerpt from an email or message. Likewise slang should not be used unless it’s part of the dialogue.

I know that there are people out there who will disagree with me on this. That’s fine. But it’s important to mention that I’m not the one you need to worry about. If you’re a serious writer and serious about having writing as a profession, you’re going to have to deal with editors and publishers. And readers. And regardless of what you may or may not think is right or wrong, they are going to know what’s right and wrong, and they will judge you accordingly. And that’s why it’s important to know the difference between standard and nonstandard words.

the top ten mistakes of newbie writers

Writing is awesome. For some, the act of writing itself is it’s own reward. But for many, the writing becomes more than a hobby, and being published becomes the goal. The transition from a hobby to a career is not always easy, and newbie writers as a group tend to make the same mistakes. Therefore, I present to you the Critical Awesomeness Top Ten Mistakes of Newbie Writers (CATTMONW):

10. Pretentious words. Some people think it’s necessary to use obscure or overly technical words in their work in order to be “literary” or “sophisticated”. This doesn’t work if it leaves the reader confused about what you’re trying to say. Also, you must know the correct definition of every word you use. For example, I just learned that if you’re “rifling” through someone’s belongings, it means searching with intent to steal, not just “sifting” or “browsing”.

9. Reliance on comparison or clichés (rather than good description). Having characters shooting each other icy glares or running like the wind all the time may get your point across, but it doesn’t make for compelling reading. Come up with your own descriptions rather than relying so heavily on overused metaphors or phrases other writers have created.

8. Not giving up on your first book. It’s normal to have strong feelings for your first book. After all, you put a lot of time, effort, and passion into it. But sometimes, your first book is just a “practice” book. For a variety of reasons, it just might not be right. And that’s ok. The worst thing you can do is waste more time on it when you can be writing another, better book. Plus, you can always come back and rewrite it, or use elements that did work in future books.

7. Self-publishing when it’s not appropriate. Some rush to self-publish because they don’t have the patience for the traditional process of querying agents and revising for publishers. First, they might miss out on the potential for success in the traditional market offers. Second, by self-publishing an unfinished product, they will ruin their reputation in the Indie market and lose their readers. Self-publishing isn’t a fast and easy way to success. All books must go through the process of alpha/beta readers and multiple revisions. But for self-published books that won’t be edited by the publisher, a professional editing is almost always a must. And that cost, combined with the other costs of self-publishing, may be more than one expected. There’s always a trade-off.

6. Querying a book when it’s not ready. Likewise, the fact that you’ve written “The End” on the last page of your manuscript does not mean it’s ready to be submitted to agents. Regardless of how you choose to put your work out there, you should revise based on comments from alpha and beta readers. I wouldn’t say that all books should be professionally edited before they’re sent to agents. But if the feedback you receive is mainly about the grammar and style (regardless of the story), you might want to consider hiring an editor. Once your book has been turned down, you’ll have a hard time re-querying that book even if it’s been revised to perfection.

5. Responding poorly to feedback. Everyone who gives you feedback is doing you a favor, and you should thank them accordingly. Even people who hated your book and are flat-out wrong. They’re still providing insight into how a potential reader will regard your work. Friends and family don’t always make good alpha and beta readers because they’re not always objective and reluctant to give any criticism for fear of hurting your feelings. As a newbie writer, negative feedback is what you need most, because it tells you what you need to do to improve. All writers need a critique group or writing partners. And don’t worry about people stealing your idea.

4. POV problems. Many newbie writers are so in love with their characters that they want to tell the story from everyone’s point of view. Although they might think they’re doing multiple POV, what they’re doing is commonly known as head-hopping. And that can be jarring to the readers. Likewise, switching from first-person POV to third-person can take the reader right out of the story and should be avoided, unless it can be done expertly. And if you could do it expertly, you wouldn’t be a newbie writer, would you?

3. Too much focus on “building social platforms”. When you finish a book, it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, and it’s time to start promoting. In fact, it’s actually time to start the next book. If you want to be a writer, you should focus the majority of your time on writing. That’s how you’ll improve. Your social network should take up a tiny fraction of your time. And only done when it’s warranted. Building platforms and creating market presence are fine—but only when you have a finished product.

2. Following the market trend instead of writing what needs to be written. Too many writers are writing the wrong books for the wrong reasons. These days, everyone wants to write the next Twilight. Well, that’s been done, and it’s called The Hunger Games, apparently. YA books (especially paranormal) are flooding the market, and some agencies are refusing to represent them. Don’t force yourself to write something just because you think that’s what will sell. Write the story that’s in your head. And if it doesn’t sell, write another one. The literary market fluctuates, and someday your book may be the “hottest” thing.

1. Relying solely on other newbie writers for advice. If you want to be a professional at anything, you shouldn’t spend all your time looking at what other amateurs are doing. Good advice is good advice, regardless of the source, and you can learn a lot from people who are in the same field. But in the end, it’s the successful people you want to emulate. I came up with this list based on conversations I’ve had with professional writers and editors, but at the end of the day, I’m just another newbie writer myself. Still, I hope that this has been useful and instructive. Now that you’ve read it, I hope you’ll seek out professionals with far more experience than I have and learn what you can from them.

But most importantly, go and write!

writer’s anxiety

I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve never sat in front of my computer and not known what to write. But I do experience writer’s anxiety.

Writer’s anxiety is where I get so nervous about writing something, so worried that I won’t be able to write well enough or say what I want to say in a clear and interesting way that I don’t even get started in the first place. Instead of staring at a blank document and not knowing what to write, I don’t even open the document. I procrastinate. I read books, chat with other writers on twitter, or read other people’s blogs, but I don’t do any writing of my own.

And how can I call myself a writer if I don’t even attempt to write?

I’d gotten to a point where I was quite good at making excuses for myself. I didn’t have enough time. I wasn’t in the right mood. I had more important things to do. Finally, whole months were going by where I hadn’t done any writing at all. And yet, I still wanted to write. I still had stories and ideas and misadventures that I wanted to share with other people. I just wasn’t doing it.

Fortunately, I have a girlfriend who is patient, kind, understanding…..and a professional editor. And yes, I do realize how lucky I am as a writer to be dating an editor, but it doesn’t do much good if I’m not actually doing any writing.

Finally, she suggested I try the 30-minute writing exercise. The 30-minute writing exercise is exactly what it sounds like: block off 30 minutes of time, cancel out all distractions, and just write for half an hour. Don’t overthink. Don’t try to edit as you go. Just write. Let your thoughts flow through your fingers and onto the page in front of you.

Initially, I was reluctant. It usually takes me a couple of hours to write a blog post, and I was so convinced I had to be in the right mood to be “creative” and “funny”, I didn’t think I could do it. Well, I knew I could sit there and write, but I didn’t think I could write anything that other people would want to read under those conditions.

But that’s not the point. You don’t have to get it right on the first try. The key thing is that you actually do it, instead of just sitting there thinking about it. And after the 30 minutes are up, you stop and let it sit. Take a break, then come back to revise it or edit it. And generally, even if you didn’t plan it that way, you will end up with themes, ideas, or events. Sentences will naturally group themselves into paragraphs, and you’ll be able to come up with a strong opening paragraph and a solid, definitive conclusion.

I’m actually doing the 30-minute writing exercise right now. This is the second time I’ve tried it (the first was for this post), and I’m liking the results. For one thing, I’m actually writing again, but I’m also writing more efficiently. I can get more done, and in less time.

Giving me more time to spend with my girlfriend. Which I think was her plan all along.

taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

am I an Indie writer?

In his memoir on writing, Stephen King said: “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

Of course, he said this before the days of no-cost self-publishing.

To date I’ve sold 45 copies of my book. I’m pretty sure I could pay the light bill with that. But this does not mean that I’m talented.

While I would love to be respected as a writer, one thing I definitely do not want is to be known as an “Indie” writer. Because while I have met a lot of really cool self-proclaimed Indie writers, there are some habits within the community that I find pretty intolerable.

The first is the complete lack of integrity exhibited by some people. Yes a lot of these people have far more book sales than I do, but that doesn’t mean they’re more talented. Mostly it means they’re better at marketing and networking.

The thing I’ve noticed about a lot of Indie writers is they really band together. They ‘like’ each other’s Facebook pages, they follow each other on Twitter, and they write 5-star reviews on Amazon for each other. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing doesn’t seem to be a factor in any of this. They do this for each other regardless of how good or bad any particular writer is just so they’ll get the favor in return. The worst thing I’ve seen so far is an instance where one writer grumbled about getting a 1-star review on Amazon, so they all banded together and complained until Amazon removed the review.

Yeah, a bunch of Indie writers—who may not have even read the book—used their strength in numbers to shout down the voice of an actual reader.

I think it’s pretty sick, and I don’t really want to be a part of it.

Another thing that annoys me is the inability of some of them to take criticism. I mean, I can understand why they don’t like it when I criticize their lack of integrity, but if someone wants to have any hope of being a successful writer they need to be able to accept criticism on their writing. The way some of these delicate flowers wilt when you try to help them a little with their prose you’d think they’d been physically assaulted by a gang of rabid gorillas.

Which I would totally foot the bill for if someone could find a way to make that happen.

Because while they may have this little incestuous thing going where they ‘like’, buy, promote, and 5-star review each other’s books, in the long run they’re just hurting themselves by putting out poor-quality products with inaccurate and misleading reviews. Most readers are already wary of self-published books, and it’s only going to get worse if this trend continues.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten all that negativity out of the way I do want to say I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with Indie writers. I’ve had people edit my work and give helpful criticism, and I’ve edited stuff for other people as well—which helps me see my own writing through the eyes of an editor. And personally I think this is the best possible way for so-called “Indie” writers to support each other. By giving criticism, by editing, and yes by networking and promoting, but not in an insincere and superficial way. A high-quality book review is an invaluable thing for a novice writer, but it has to be sincere, and most importantly it has to be accurate. I wrote a piece on the importance of a good 4-star review, and I’m already getting some flak from elements in the Indie community.

I do want to be a writer, and I do want people to think of me as a “good” writer, but with the way things are going right now I really don’t want to be considered an “Indie” writer.

girl having sex with elephant

WordPress doesn’t tell me who specifically is visiting my blog, but the stats page does tell me what search engine terms people are using to find it. And the most common one, by far, is some variation of “girl having sex with elephant”.

Seriously. Although once it was “me having sex with elephant”. Maybe that one was the girl all the rest are looking for.

The reason this search query brings people to my blog is because I wrote a post I called the elephant in the room (and me trying to have sex with it), and for the meta tags I used keywords like “elephant sex” and “pachyderms”. Meta tags are how webpages are indexed on the internet, and help match keywords users type into search engines with appropriate webpages. At least, that’s how I think it works. I don’t actually know for sure. What I do know is that if you type girl having sex with elephant into Google without quotes, there’s over five million results. And my blog is the ninth one.

I always figured I’d be noteworthy for something one day. I just never thought it would be elephant sex.

The reason I’m mentioning this now is because as of today, I’ve been on Twitter for a week. And as a result, I really just feel like fucking with people on the internet right now.

I still hate Twitter. Twitter is basically like an unending series of Facebook status updates, except from people I really don’t care about. Oh yeah, and a lot of them are constantly trying to sell me something. “Buy my book!” “Visit my webpage (where you can buy my book)!” “Check out my interview (about my book, which you can buy on my website)!”

You know what? No. Fuck that noise. Yes, I understand that people only have 140 characters to work with, but I hate being told what to do. When I see “Buy my book!” the first thing that pops into my head is “No. Fuck you.” I don’t actually say it, or even type it, but that’s the general response I have to that sort of thing.

That said, I will admit that I’ve connected with some pretty cool people on Twitter.  But these were people who actually started a conversation with me, rather than just trying to sell me something. And yeah, in the case of one guy I did end up buying his book because he just seemed like such a cool person, but he also bought mine and his was 99 cents while mine is $2.99, so I won that round.

I do understand the marketing potential of Twitter. I’ve been posting on this blog once a week for over a year now, and it averages nine unique hits a day. I’m assuming eight of those are my mom clicking obsessively, but still. Yet in just the week that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve been posting links to my Videlicet Productions blog and it’s now averaging eight unique hits a day, and there’s only like three posts on there. And no elephant sex. So posting links on Twitter really does work.

The thing is, I know exactly what I need to do to really be successful, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I simply can’t pretend to be interested in other people’s crap that I really don’t care about. So instead I’ve just been having fun with people who share my weird sense of humor. Another author did a ‘flash’ interview of me on Twitter, and it quickly went horribly, horribly wrong. I also co-founded TweetCliffNotes, where we write book summaries based on poor recollections of books read 5-10 years ago in 140 characters or less (for example, WAR AND PEACE: “Oh no, the French! Aww crap I’m dead. The other guy gets married.”)

I’ve got a collection of short stories I plan to release early next month, but after seeing all the annoying crap other people do to promote their work, I just can’t bring myself to go that route. In fact, here’s the cover I designed for it:

yeah, this is seriously what I'm going withA lot of people have told me how important it is to have a decent cover, but I honestly think the quality of the cover should reflect the quality of the writing contained within.  And in this case, I think I hit it pretty much right on. But as my writing improves, I plan on having better and better covers for my books.

Obviously by “better” I mean “designed by someone other than me.”

You might be wondering who Sander Crane is. Well, Sander Crane is the pen name of an individual who doesn’t want his real name associated with these stories in any way, and that’s all I can say about that.

So will using this cover hurt my sales? Almost certainly. But it’s more important to me that the quality of the cover reflect the quality of the stories, so I’m going to go ahead and roll with it. But I am thinking my next project will be SmallGalaxy.

SmallGalaxy is the story of a football-size spaceship crewed by sentient cockroaches (which makes a lot of sense, if you stop and think about it), and I guarantee you it’s the greatest story about cockroaches ever. I say this with a pretty high degree of confidence considering my biggest competition is the delightful 1996 film Joe’s Apartment. I think it would be funny to write it, have a fantastic cover designed, get everyone on Twitter to ‘like’ it on Facebook and write 5-star reviews on Amazon, until the inevitable day that someone actually reads it and goes, “Wait a minute, this story is about cockroaches??!! Plus it really sucks.”

And then they will know how I feel.

priorities

I came to Australia specifically to focus on writing, but I didn’t count on how freaking expensive it is to live here. And while I do have enough money to live, I don’t really have enough to have much fun.

So I applied for a job as a Medical Scientist in Biochemistry at a hospital in a suburb of Melbourne called West Footscray. And as luck would have it, I managed to find a place to live in West Footscray as well, not too far from the hospital. And yeah, the job would definitely take time away from my writing, but it ends in early September and would also give me a little extra money so I could afford to actually go out and do stuff, which would be nice.

Well, I didn’t get the job. Which means I moved out to West Footscray for absolutely no reason. But hey, at least the rent is cheap and my housemates are really, really cool. So it’s not all bad.

Also, I did get offered another job.

Back in China.

Yeah, I ended up mentioning to my old boss that I didn’t get the postdoc I’d originally applied for in Australia, so he talked to our collaborator from my most recent research project and they somehow arranged it in a way I don’t fully understand for me to have a job as a Research Scientist at Beijing Normal University.

Which would mark the first time in quite a while that the word “normal” would be associated with me in any way, but regardless it was pretty flattering. I asked if I could start in November at the earliest, since my parents have already booked their non-refundable tickets to come visit me over here from late September to late October, and they said that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and no matter how I look at it I really don’t see what else I can do. If I get a job here in Australia, it defeats the whole purpose of coming here. But if I don’t work at all, I won’t be able to afford to have any fun, and I’ll be flat broke by the time I leave. If I must get a job, I’d rather do it in China, where I’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get more papers, and since they’re doubling my salary I’ll have plenty of money to have fun in Beijing. Plus I’ll be living downtown, which means I wouldn’t have to spend an hour standing on a subway to get anywhere interesting.

So now I have five months to become a commercially successful writer. Is this possible? Theoretically, yes. In his book on how he sold a million ebooks in five months, appropriately entitled How I sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, John Locke explains how to, well, sell a million ebooks in five months.

Now that’s good advertizing right there.

A large part of his foolproof marketing scheme involves Twitter. I fucking hate Twitter. But I like money, so I signed up. It was just as bad as I expected. I started “following” other writers, which is like stalking but way less interesting, and I was immediately put off by all the blatant and incredibly lame self-promotion a lot of them were doing. (This is not, by the way, what John Locke encourages people to do.)

I quickly found that I could not take any of it seriously. Yes I want to sell my stories and make my living as a writer, but I just can’t bring myself to do a lot of the bullshit things people on Twitter are doing to promote their books.

And I don’t know why I’m doing this exactly, but more and more I’m finding my efforts turning into a parody of all the advice I’ve gotten so far. I honestly can’t bring myself to take it seriously, but it’s actually kind of fun to not take it seriously. I created a new blog (I now have four in total) to promote my writing and editing efforts, and I’m going to stick with Twitter because I actually have met some cool aspiring authors on there and if nothing else I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of using the phrase “penis goes there” in casual conversation, but I just can’t bring myself to be pushy or insincere.

But I do have a request to make of everyone reading this: if you have the time and inclination, go ahead and post random, funny, inappropriate, relevant, irrelevant, or meaningless comments on my other blog. The funnier or more random the better.

I do have my priorities, and it’s more important to me to have fun and (hopefully) entertain other people as well than to sell books at any cost.

Just in case you missed it, the link to my other blog is here:

 http://vizproductions.blogspot.com/

vision

A few nights ago I watched the original Star Wars with my housemates. I’ve seen it dozens of times, but it never seems to get old. Hell, I could probably go watch it again right now and still enjoy it.

… …

Ok I’m back. Yeah, I still enjoyed it. It’s just that great of a movie. But really, why is it such a great movie? Even if you don’t like it personally, you have to acknowledge that it spawned one of the most popular and well-loved franchises ever. But what is it exactly that makes it so great?

It all started with a man with a vision. That man was George Lucas, and the vision was, well, pretty dumb. At least at first. Yeah, originally it was called “The Journal of the Whills”, the Force was a giant crystal, and Han Solo was a green-skinned creature with no nose and gills. But fortunately for us there were plenty of people who told Lucas that he had some good ideas but the overall product was too complicated, too hard to understand, and kind of stupid.

Lucas had to listen to these people if he wanted to have any hope of getting his movie made. So he made changes based on the advice he got from friends and colleagues, and the result was the series that we all now know and love.

Well, I love it anyway. I’m sure there’s people out there who don’t enjoy it, but they’re probably all just jerks or something.

Now imagine if Lucas had ignored his friends and just self-published “The Journal of the Whills” as a story. It’s quite possible that no one today would know anything about Jedi, the Force, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, or Boba Fett.

And that would be a real shame.

Some would argue that this would be a small price to pay if it meant the world was spared from the presence of Jar Jar Binks–and they’d have a fair point–but that in itself is another lesson. Because with the original trilogy (episodes IV-VI), Lucas listened to the people around him and the effort was more of a collaboration than the vision of a single individual, but with the prequel trilogy (episodes I-III) Lucas had complete control. And the general consensus is that the original trilogy is great, while the prequel trilogy pretty much sucks.

On the other hand, there’s also J.R.R. Tolkien. As far as I know he followed his own vision almost entirely, with very little input from anyone else, and he’s now considered the father of modern fantasy.

The reason I mention all this is that I just really, really love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. And, well, I do sort of have a vision of my own. I have a lot of ideas on what I want to do and how I want to present the works that I’m writing and editing, but am I like Tolkien and capable of producing something on my own that a lot of people will enjoy, or am I more like Lucas, in the sense that I need a lot of input from others in order for my ideas to be interesting to anyone who isn’t me?

I suspect I’m more like Lucas. Which means that as hard as it is for me to take criticism, I’m going to have to listen to the smart and talented people around me and make changes to my beloved stories based on their suggestions. Because I’d love nothing more than to create popular and timeless characters and worlds for them to inhabit, and if my vision needs a little tweaking from others, so be it. Better that than to create something that’s universally despised–or just not noticed at all.

But I still think a story about a spaceship crewed by sentient cockroaches who save the Earth would be awesome, and I’m not listening to anyone who says otherwise.

goals for Australia

Obviously I came to Australia for the sake of having interesting adventures on a new continent, but in addition to that there are some very specific goals I want to accomplish while I’m here. And like so many other times in my life I may have completely unrealistic expectations, so I’m going to go ahead and write my goals out here so people can laugh at me later when I fail to achieve them. Therefore, here are my Critical Awesomeness Goals for Austraila, or CrAwGoaFAus:

Become a better writer. This is the main one. I don’t think any amount of effort could turn me into a truly magnificent writer, but I think if I spend the majority of my time here focusing on improving my writing, I can at least become a respectably competent one. And I won’t say that my goal is to write a bestseller, or even get published, because those are things outside my control. But I can focus on reading at least three or four hours a day, and writing at least 2,000 words a day. Those are things I can control, and both will help me to make my writing as good as it can possibly be, which is all I can really ask for.

Learn to cook. The same goal I had when I went to China. Of course it’s slightly more likely to actually happen here, since at least in Australia I can read the labels on things and I don’t have scary people randomly shouting things I don’t understand at me in the grocery store like I did in Beijing. Plus the girlfriend of one of my housemates is a professional chef, and both my housemates can cook pretty well. I may pick up a thing or two just from proximity.

See as much of Australia as possible. This is going to be harder than I initially thought. Mainly because everything is so expensive here. Well, compared to where I’m coming from, anyway. As always I didn’t quite think my cunning plan all the way through, because while I technically have enough money to live here for a year, I don’t have enough to actually do anything, aside from paying rent and occasionally eating food.

I really should’ve come to Australia first, worked and earned money here, and then gone to China. Trying to earn money in China in order to live without working in Australia was just, well, kinda dumb.

Figure out relationship stuff. While I’ve made some fantastic and wonderful friends over the years, I haven’t had a good romantic relationship since 2002. And in a lot of ways that’s actually kind of a good thing for me, since I probably wouldn’t be traveling around the world and having stupid misadventures if I were in a committed relationship. Still, I feel like there are a lot of things I still need to figure out, because it’s unbelievably frustrating when I’m interested in a girl and she sees me as at best a friend, and at worst someone to be manipulated. I’m still not sure exactly what I want (which is another thing I need to figure out) but if nothing else I think I need to get better at making my intentions clear from the start.

Other stuff. Yeah, those are pretty much the main things. I have a lot of other things I want to do, like continue to study Chinese, maybe start studying Spanish again, type up a bunch of stuff I wrote ages ago by hand, maybe self-publish a collection of short stories, learn a programming language, and so on. But these things are secondary. If I accomplish them that’s great, but if not that’s ok too.

Of course, there is one other slightly important goal:

Figure out what I’m going to do next. I’m $80,000 in debt, and I need to start paying on these loans pretty soon. Apparently you can only get an ‘Economic Hardship’ deferment for three consecutive years, and that’s how long it’s been for me. So I need to figure out something. Playtime is almost over. Because yeah, I had this wild idea that somehow I could write a book in less than six months, get an agent, and get a large enough advance from a publisher to at least start to pay down my loans, but when I look at it realistically and objectively, I don’t think it’s very likely that I’ll be able to do this in less than a year. So I need to figure something out.

But not before I learn how to cook. Because you gotta have priorities.