Ruminations on Writer’s Block, Job Hunting Scams and More

For some reason, it’s been like pulling teeth to get myself to sit down and write lately. I’ve managed to write a few scenes for the fantasy novel. I managed to write an outline for a new scifi novel I’m excited to start. But it’s been two months now I’ve been trying to finish this first draft, and the lay off just seemed to tip the scales of motivation to the “none at all” status.

I finally decided to force myself to start typing in the scenes I’d hand written. One advantage of that is I end up with a second draft of those scenes in the manuscript, because I revise as I go. Doesn’t mean I won’t edit and revise them later, of course, but it does tend to make them stronger as a base. Another advantage in this case was getting a vision for the rest of the chapter which allowed me to write rough summaries of the scenes needed. This won’t be the last chapter. I envision two or three more, but if I can get past this one it will definitely be a step in the right direction.

The normal way I get past writer’s block is to keep multiple projects going at one time. If I get stuck on one, I switch to another. I also give myself permission to write crap every now and then. (It’s not really avoidable so I might as well admit it.) This multiple project approach has really been great for me. I have yet to get stuck on two projects at the same time. I’m not stuck lately, I’m just unmotivated/uninspired. It’s hard not to be in the present job market. Looking for a job is less fun than ever. The competition is fierce and companies have the upper hand.

There’s also the lovely scams like the one where they recruit you to process client payments for a ridiculous amount of money, promising you earn this by only working 2-3 hours a day. They even go so far as to set up fake, fancy corporate websites with management profiles, etc. This a major scam though. It’s called a “money mule fraud” and the email reads something like this:

My name is Russell Born and I represent NEBS Group Company.

This letter confirms that the resume that you submitted to CareerBuilder.com has been duly processed by our HR department, and your skills meet our basic requirements for the Payment Processing vacancy.

NEBS Group Inc. is a world-renowned company founded and based in the USA, which deals with IT services, matching the needs of the market with the best employees available worldwide.

Payment Processing Agent position is:
– Part-time (on average 2-3 hours a day (Monday through Friday).
– Work at home (all communication is online).

What do you need? Internet access and e-mail.

This position is offered on a probationary period basis for a period of one month. You will receive training and online support while working and being paid.

Salary for the training period is $2300/month. In addition you will be receiving 8% commission from every payment which you receive from a customer and successfully process. Total income, given the current volume of clients, will be up to $4,500 per month.

After the first 30 days the base salary will be increased up to $3,000 per month plus 8% commission, so there is significant earning potential if you are willing to work with diligence and efficiency.

You may ask for additional hours after your probationary period, when you have earned a full-time position.

If you are interested in our offer and would like to learn more about the Payment Processing Agent position, please, send the form below to hr.nebs.group.russell@gmail.com
NOTE: This is not a sales position.

Our representative will contact you within 24 hours.

++++++++FORM++++++++FORM+++++++++++
First name:_____________________
Last name:___________________________
Country of residence:__________________
Contact phone:______________________
Preferred call time:_______________________
++++++++FORM++++++++FORM+++++++++++

We have found your resume at www.careerbuilder.com. This letter confirms that your resume has been duly processed and your skills meet our basic requirements for the Payment Processing Agent vacancy.

Best regards,

Russell Born
NEBS Group Inc.

The company name, of course, changes monthly as does the website, but these guys actually expect you to use your own checking account to process customer checks, only they’ll disappear after you pay for shipments, etc. and never pay you. Don’t fall for this. Providing them with your info and bank accounts may just promote further fraud.

It’s a scary world out there, no wonder I’m fighting depression with this job hunt. Who can you trust? Daily I get offers for free resume evaluations, and they always say that I have a weak resume and need their services. In fact, the resume I used an online specialty site template to help me design, doesn’t meet their standards. They, of course, can fix it for the bargain price of several hundred dollars. Like someone selling a service is even objective, right?

Anyway, such are the joys of present life for me. For what it’s worth…

Thoughts on Characterization and Sin

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

One of the reasons I write my characters the way I do is my belief in the depravity of man, which Lewis explains well in the quote above. It’s fun to think we make choices to do bad or good, but the truth is, I think our sinful nature is far more powerful than that. I know there are times I did/do things I never thought I’d do and, in fact, had planned not to up until the very minute they occurred. If my free will is dominant, how can this be? The Scriptures tell us that even when we try to do good, we fail. The Apostle Paul writes:

“For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Romans 7:19-24

This war inside us is a common factor in the character development arcs of fiction, whether the writer shares my belief or not. People are complicated creatures and I have seen far too many books by authors who either don’t believe this, don’t know how to write it or somehow can’t bear to represent it and thus present cardboard, watered down, unrealistic characters instead. This is not a problem restricted to Christian fiction, but I have to say it is far too prevalent there. Books like that just don’t ring true for me. In fact, they turn me off, so I won’t write characters that way. I just can’t.

In my fiction, bad guys are bad and good guys are conflicted. Beyond that, even the bad guys have some good qualities (most of them anyway) and the good guys have their bad sides. Because I want my fiction to be fit for the 12-year-old kids who are just discovering speculative fiction at the same age I did, and because of my faith beliefs, I don’t write sex scenes or foul language and I keep the violence focused on only what’s required by the story. But that also doesn’t mean my characters can’t be realistic. When a character curses, I just write “Bob cursed” and let the reader fill in the blank. We all have our favorite curse words anyway, don’t we (be honest)? And so, those would pop into our mind when we read that. Reading fiction is supposed to be interactive. That’s why over describing and telling are discouraged. The more the readers contribute from their own imaginations, the better their reading experience will be.

Besides, who can related to perfect characters? Do heroes need to express ideals we aspire to? Of course. Otherwise, they won’t be heroes because heroes are people we admire and want to emulate. But even heroes have imperfections and if we don’t write those into our stories, they won’t seem like real people.

Anyway, this is how I approach character. I am sure other writers have different thoughts on it and even different motivations but I hope most of us end up in the same place, because realistic, conflicted, imperfect characters are a lot more interesting to read about. For what it’s worth…

A Surprising Influence

As a writer, you often get asked whom your influences are. For me, that’s a long list, but one of them may surprise you. Although I am focused mostly on writing fiction, he is a historian. He’s not world famous or even best selling but in Western Writers of America and in the Southwest he is well known as a great storyteller, especially here in El Paso.

Leon Metz grew up in West Virginia but came to El Paso to serve at Fort Bliss and never left. He’s written some important books about local and regional history, worked as a historian at University of Texas, El Paso, is in demand as a speaker, and even has his own radio show. He’s also a heck of a nice guy and very humble, and reading his books brought history alive for me in a whole new way.

I met him when he came to be a talking head on the A&E; show “The Real West,” which I was working on. I was assigned to drive him around and we struck up a friendship and corresponded back and forth a bit. Then we lost touch, as happens between friends. Two years back, when I moved to El Paso, I determined to look him up and renew our friendship and he’s been a great encouragement to me.

Leon’s history books read like novels. They are full of rich characterization, scenery and rich historical details that bring the events, people and places of the psat alive. I had always found history fascinating, but reading Leon’s books helped get me excited all over again. In fact, when we moved down here, it was memories of the history he taught me through his books that set me off exploring and immediately appreciating the rich history of this new place we call home. I visited the old Concordia Cemetery where the famous gunfighter John Wesley Hardin is buried along with the man who assassinated him. I visited the downtown locations where Hardin had his office, the bar where he was shot and so many more.

Leon’s book “The Border” taught me so much about the history of the US-Mexico border region we now call home. It’s a fascinating study of politics, culture crossing, and history colliding. And it has had a profound impact along the miles from the Gulf Of Mexico to San Diego where in the border lies.

I had the privilege of copy editing and proofing his latest effort on the early days of the Mexican War. It was so rich and exciting to be among the first readers of his work. Of all the people I hope will be proud of my work, Leon tops the list. Such a privilege to read his work, to know him, and to call him friend.

Our influences can sometimes come from unusual places. For what it’s worth…

Self-Publishing

Well, it’s time to get back to blogging after another week of insane busyness. I’m not sure if anyone regularly follows this or not, but from the comments at least a couple of people have stopped in. Since I just had my first experience with self-publishing, and I try and make this blog about all things related to writing, publishing, editing, creating and reading fiction, it seems appropriate to blog on that experience.

First, a disclaimer. I don’t put much credence in self-publishing. Okay, I know that’s ironic coming from a guy who just self-published a book. Want to hear something more ironic? The small press which publishes the ezine running the stories told me after he heard I self-published that he’d like to publish them. (Still talking to him about that possibility so these few books may actually end up as collector’s items one day). I don’t give self-publishing much credence because the publishing industry as a whole doesn’t, and I share their reasons. Anyone can self-publish, and, in many cases, they don’t even have to hire a professional editor, copy editor, etc. So with self-published books, you don’t know what you’re getting.

Also, since self-published books are a dime a dozen and professionally published books are not, it is clear the ones people put money in and agents chose to represent have been vetted as standing out amid the hordes of possibilities, which means they are probably higher quality than the run of the mill self-published book. (Don’t yell at me. Of course there are exceptions!) So generally the pro-published ones can be bought with confidence that your money and time will not likely be wasted. We all know how that goes though.

The reason I chose to go this route is that I have queried a ton of agents about my novel, which gets rave reviews from readers, editors, and others but can’t see to land an agent, and I have yet to sell short stories to major markets, so I need to build my brand identity and name recognition. The best shot at doing that is at the two conventions I will attend this year: ConQuest 41 in Kansas City at the end of this month, and World Fantasy at the end of October. I will also try and slip out to Raleigh in August for National Science Fiction if I possibly can.

The goal is to give these books to agents, writers, publishers, and editors as swag. 13 pulp-style space opera stories, all 5-6 pages, 15-1600 words, with one chapter from each of my novels at the end and information on my website. If nothing else, I hope to sell enough to family and friends to support the swag copies, and one or two people might actually like the stories enough to take a further look at my work. If I get really lucky, I might get a reputation as a promising writer and generate far more interest than that. Either way, I have nothing to lose.

I chose CreateSpace because there was no set up cost. As long as I formatted it myself–and I spent a lot of time doing so and editing, reviewing, tweaking and still let an error through (AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH)–it only costs me shipping and cost to get the books. Selling them through Amazon’s distribution net keeps my costs down but gets me very little profit. Selling on my website gets me 4 times as much. But anyway, the point was, other than artwork, shipping and cost per copy, my overhead is very low. The quality is high. And it was fast.

A lot of sites offer you self-publishing with required set up costs from several hundred to one thousand plus dollars. I not only don’t have the money, I don’t see the point in investing that in something I will mostly distribute as swag. So this made sense for me, and although there have been some hiccups, it’s overall been a good experience.

The hiccups came in two ways. 1) Figuring out how to format the files to meet their technical requirements was tough because I had no idea what language the instructions were written in. They looked like English but read like anything but. 2) Once I did that, I had made some errors which only a person who’d done this before would know, such as making the pages you want facing the front of the book always odd pages, etc. 3) My artist is in college and almost failed to meet the deadline, so I hired another guy, and ended up having to combine their work into something that worked. Both are talented, great guys who do great work, but my deadlines were just ridiculously tight because I only decided to do this two months before I needed the books, and I still had to write the stories! 4) I set myself a stressfully short deadline.

In the end, I had to send proofs in three times to get the books right and still ended up with 50 books containing flipped pages in two spots. Not a major big deal for average readers, but for the swag-pros, I couldn’t live with it. To their credit, CreateSpace replaced those books for free, expedited shipping.

I will say it’s cool to see your book for sale on Amazon, and to receive books with your name and words on them even if they have minor errors. And I really hope they are well received by the recipients as they were by my beta readers. I am doing a giveaway on good reads to generate buzz and reviews, and who knows where this could lead. The stories start circulating in Digital Dragon online in July, and these 13 are just the first part. I hope to write at least another 13 more.

I’ll let you know how they’re received and how the various sales/giveaways go. For now, that’s how my first self-publishing venture has gone. For what it’s worth…

(To purchase The North Star Serial, Part 1 for $7.49 plus shipping, go to my website at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net)

Word Limits

I have been really neglecting my blogging duties lately. Apologies to anyone out there who actually wanted to hear from me. The reason for this, besides deadlines to write yet more release notes and update the user guides again at work, is that I have been writing a set of serial stories which will begin running in July in Digital Dragon Magazine online, and I decided to release them as a book and include chapters from my two novels. The idea is to get my name out there by handing them out at conventions to writers, editors, agents, publishers and whomever else strikes my fancy. But because one of the two conventions I have blocked out for this year happens at the end of May, so I had to rush the project through to be ready in time.

So in the past two weeks, I have written 11 stories. Not all that impressive given my usually daily output, but nonetheless good for me given that I was not working from an outline or mental plan like I usually do with my novels. Additionally, I was working with a 1500-1600 word limit, something I am not used to.

When I first heard of Digital Dragon, it was from the loop of Lost Genre Guild, in which I participate. Several others had stories accepted there and I decided to check it out. Though it doesn’t pay anything, I liked the family-friendly focus, so I checked out the guidelines. 1500 words?! Are they crazy? I couldn’t imagine writing anything so short. None of my short stories had ever been less than 2900 words, and that one was a rarity. Most were at least 4000. Many came in at 6500. 1500 seemed impossible. But nonetheless, I sat down and decided to give it a try.

The idea which came to me was of a space opera about a Christian starship Captain and her crew fighting pirates/raiders from a neighboring empire. Since space opera is my favorite sub-genre of science fiction, and the sub-genre in which my completed scifi novel falls, it seemed a natural. As usual, I chose to make the characters more Christian-influenced than blatantly Christian because I want to write for a wider audience, not just Christians. What came out of me was a story about a female Captain on her first command leading an inexperienced crew into battle. And I thought it turned out pretty well. TW Ambrose, the editor at Digital Dragon, thought so too and suggested I might consider writing other stories in that world.

About the time the first story, “The Korelean Raiders,” appeared in the April issue of Digital Dragon, I wrote a follow up story, and found myself stuck on the idea that I could indeed do a lot more with these characters. Not just that I had story ideas, but that I myself wanted to know more about them. An idea soon developed to write ten more stories, all earlier than the previous two and bring the characters from when they first met up to the current stories, setting up their relationships, the origination of the conflict, etc.

With all the stories, I stuck to the 1500-1600 word limit, knowing not only that Digital Dragon would like to publish them, but also that as a pulp-type story, it would work best. For a guy who dreaded word limits, I found it amazingly easy and as time went on, found myself having to trim less and less as I somehow found a natural rhythm matching the desired length. The advantage of doing a serial was to do character development and story development which just couldn’t happen in one or two 1500-word stories. I also added a couple of new crew members and one more major enemy character and devised a plot line I believe could sustain not just these twelve stories but perhaps 30 or so.

In any case, I encourage any writers out there to test yourself by writing to a limit. With 1500-words, every word really has to count. It’s tricky to balance dialogue and description, and thus, some of my stories are dialogue heavy, while others are better mixed. But I did learn a lot about precision writing and thinking through character arcs in small chunks of very few lines and words. I think it will make me a better writer, and I think it will make you better writers too. If nothing else, I now feel a lot better prepared to trim stories for specific market’s demands. That is a valuable asset in and of itself. I even took the prologue of my scifi novel down to 1600 words from 2900 in an abridged version which will be featured in the May issue of Digital Dragon.

All the stories so far for the North Star-Korelean saga will be available soon via Amazon and my website, but other stories are also available at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net. If you want, go check them out. Meanwhile, thanks for reading my thoughts on writing with word limits. For what it’s worth…