November 4, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
Facing the Critic Within
We’ve never seen him (or, her – for me it’s a him) but we’ve all heard his voice. Call him the voice of doubt, the inner critic or, heck, call him the natural thief of confidence and productivity. It all means the same thing. It’s that nagging voice that comes from within. I hear it all the time. After all, I believe that I am my harshest critic.
Self-criticizing can be very detrimental. It can stifle creativity. It can cause you to doubt your abilities and the work you’re doing to the point where it slows you down or even leaves you completely unproductive. It can cause image issues, relationship fears, and often leads to full-blown depression.
All this to say that the critic within needs to be taken seriously and managed appropriately. To avoid the downward spiral that leads to self-destructive behavior, it is my humble opinion that the critic needs to be listened to and responded to because it can’t be all-together avoided. If, instead, we can harness the criticism and re-direct it into self-improvement, we will become happier and more successful people. So, how do we do that?
First, we must accept the fact that no one is perfect. We aren’t, never will be, and expectations of perfection are both ludicrous and harmful. Goals are great but keeping them realistic is critical so that we set ourselves up for success.
Next, we need to identify the motivational source of the voice. Is this coming from a place deep inside where we know we have room for improvement in a certain area? Or, is this coming from a place of pain? A place of deception? For some, the critic within comes from a place where they have been hurt in the past.
For example, a boy that was teased as a child for being overweight can grow up to be a man who feels fat no matter how much time he spends in the gym or how many times he passes on the French fries, opting instead for the kale salad. That’s when you know the voice is a liar and needs to be kicked out of your life. Choosing the gym and the kale salad made the man a better version of himself than accepting his “fate” as a fat man and eating French fries while watching The Biggest Loser in tears would have. But, he already made that improvement so, continuing to listen to that voice would only mean inevitable self-destruction. Time to move on.
As a Christian, I also believe that the voice within me can be the Holy Spirit shining a light on dark spots in my life that need to be exposed so that I can improve. So that I can become the man I was created to be and live the life I was created to live. That’s a voice I want to listen to because it makes me a better person and, ultimately, a happier one.
As a writer, the critic within can make my work better. Again, I just need to learn to harness it and use it for good rather than let it overwhelm me and take me down the path of self-destruction. Like me while I’m on this side of heaven, my work will never be perfect. And, also like me, there’s always room for improvement. We are all works in progress. And, until my books are in print, I’m trying to improve every little detail until I have to let go.
The bottom line is that the critic within can be a good thing. Or, it can be your worst enemy. The choice is up to you. One thing that’s for sure, we all face that voice from time to time. The trick is in how we decide to handle that standoff.
September 12, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
Finding the Inspiration to Write
I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I might do a post on finding inspiration to write. So, as promised…
Personally, I find inspiration all over the place and in any number of different ways. Particularly when it comes to finding what it is I want to write about. That can truly come from anywhere: a news story, a song on the radio, a conversation with a friend . . . I’ve already written posts about what inspired my first two novels but, this might be a good time to bring it up again.
The inspiration for The Four Corners struck as I was driving down the 101 freeway in Southern California and thinking about all the different lives that were being lived by the people that surrounded me at that moment. Specifically, I began to think about the home-lives of the people in the houses and apartment complexes that I was passing by. It struck me that some were happy homes and some were not. That led to pondering the many differences and, conversely, the many similarities that existed between them and what led to the contrasting outcomes. Ultimately, I realized that a lot of those households could be changed if the people in them were faced with an extreme circumstance that forced them to realize and admit to both themselves and to each other, how much they loved one another. Those thoughts led to a book. And, now I’m currently writing the next book in the same series, The Four Corners of Darkness.
Although the inspiration for The Gift of Tyler also hit me in the car, it was a completely different experience. For one thing, I wasn’t alone. In fact, I wasn’t even driving. I was in the backseat and my parents were in the front. I was visiting from Los Angeles and we had just been to dinner. The song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five For Fighting came on the radio. I had heard the song many times previously but, for some reason, the lyrics resonated with me on a far deeper level than they ever had before that moment. I was taken by the idea that being the most powerful person (human or not) on the planet could be difficult and extremely lonely. From there, I wondered what it would be like if someone grew up thinking everything was normal and then suddenly found themselves in the position those lyrics were referring to. A person in that scenario would be faced with a choice between using that power for the common good or for selfish gain. Three weeks later, I had completed a screenplay for The Gift of Tyler. In a couple of months, the next book in The Gift of the Elements series, The Gift of Rio, will be released and I’ve already outlined the third book, The Gift of Matthias.
The main takeaway is the simple fact that there is no way to know when or where the inspiration for a great new story is going to strike. But, when it does, it’s unavoidable. It’s also awesome. You wouldn’t want to avoid it if you could. That’s why it’s always smart to keep a notebook handy. Or, a voice recording app on your smartphone. Whatever works best. Just don’t miss the opportunity to grab a great idea while it’s there because they can be as fleeting as the memory of a great dream.
Then you begin the much lengthier process of turning that brilliant new idea into a full-fledged finished piece of work – whether it be a short story, a 600-page novel, or something in between. I’ve already done a blog post on writer’s block so, I’ll try not to be too redundant. My main point in that post was that I find writer’s block to be little more than a myth. Sure, some days writing comes easier than others. That can be as simple as mood. And, some pages are easier to write than others. It’s all part of the process.
Sometimes, you just need to clear your head. This can mean temporarily moving on to another project, whether the project be something else you’re writing or pulling some weeds in the garden. The bottom line is that a writer needs to let the process run its course without letting difficulty become an excuse for laziness. As I said in the writer’s block post, “Do whatever it takes: A walk in the woods, a lengthy prayer, some journaling at the beach, or, maybe you need the inspiration that another artist can provide – a song with a similar feeling to the one you’re trying to write about.” Even another book, a movie (could be just a scene) or a TV show that you know hits you with the same type of emotion that you’re trying to convey. I’m not suggesting plagiarism. Far from it. Don’t copy. Just use that other piece of work to get you where you need to be mentally and emotionally so that you can do your own work and convey the story and the message that you set out to from the first moment where you were originally inspired to write whatever it is you’re writing.
Find what works for you. And, it may be different on different days, with different projects, and on different pages. That’s okay. Again, it’s part of the process. Every great piece of literature and/or art has a story of its own. A journey that the writer or artist took to bring it to life. Don’t be afraid to take it. Embrace it. No matter how frustrating that experience can sometimes be, when you look back, it will also be part of the joy that piece gives you. And, whatever you’re working on can become the inspiration for someone else. Or, maybe even for yourself at some point.
That’s the beauty of art, of writing, and of being an artist or a writer.
September 12, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
Writer’s Block — Real Problem or Mere Myth?
Let’s immediately get something out of the way, I can’t stand the term “writer’s block.” Perhaps it’s the connotations that come with the word block. I think of words like “blockade” and maybe the closest phrase, “mental block.” This conjures up images of total isolation and permanence. Because of this, the answer to the proposed question is that I tend to think of “writer’s block” as essentially a myth. Or, maybe even an excuse to be lazy and procrastinate.
Don’t get me wrong, some pages a lot easier than others. But, if you grind it out, you always get through the tough ones. Sometimes, it is even necessary to walk away. I’ll often go workout or take a shower so that I can think about what’s slowing me down. Most of the time, I have it figured out by the time I’m back in front of the laptop. It just takes some mental wrestling. Typically, that fight makes it all better anyway.
Occasionally, an artist just needs inspiration. This can be obtained from any number of sources. Do whatever it takes: A walk in the woods, a lengthy prayer, some journaling at the beach, or, maybe you need the inspiration that another artist can provide – a song with a similar feeling to the one you’re trying to write about. Perhaps I’ll do a post on inspirations for writing down the road.
For now, just know that you’re not alone when you hit a page that causes you fits. We all go through that. It’s one of the reasons I struggle with rules that writer’s often put on themselves. I’m sure it helps some. But, for me, it feels unrealistic. Rules and boundaries can stimulate creativity. But, they can also stifle it.
I happen to be naturally self-disciplined. So, I need to give myself freedom. It’s far more helpful than boxing myself in would be. But, that’s not true for everyone. I know a lot of writers that demand 10 pages a day from themselves. I can’t do that. Today, 20 pages might pour out of me and tomorrow it could be an excruciating exercise in self-torture to crank out 5. I think that’s okay. The pace for writing each chapter or scene is bound to be different.
As long as the inconsistent pace doesn’t become an excuse, I’m fine with some days being more difficult and seeming less productive than others. Some of those “less productive” days, for me, have paradoxically been the most productive because I’ve written the least but I’ve also written the best. Every writer is different. Every piece of writing is different. Find your own balance of freedom and boundaries. Figure out what works for you and helps you accomplish your goals.
In the end, the grind is part of the process and it’s the quality of the work that matters most. At least, that’s true for me. That’s why I tend to think of “writer’s block” as little more than a myth.
August 15, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
5 Books I Think Would Impact Me As A Writer But I Haven’t Read Yet
Alright, I’ll admit it. This is kind of a weird topic for a blog post. But, there are many books that consistently get recommended to me and I haven’t gotten around to reading them all yet. I’ve read a lot of them (some good, some not so much) but, for whatever reason, there are a few that I just haven’t tackled. Several are even sitting on my bookshelf just waiting to be read. So, this is a list of the books I know I should read, and intend to at some point, to get better at my craft.
From what I understand, this is about getting back to basics and remembering that sometimes simple is better. The “back to basics” is probably one of the reasons I have put off taking the time to go through this book. However, even professional athletes need to return to the fundamentals from time to time. I’m told this is a must read for writers at all levels.
John Gardner has written several books on the craft of writing but, I’m told that this is the most important. It also contains a quote about the writer’s gift that I have loved ever since I read it on the wall of the tasting room at the Redhook Brewery while on a tour about fifteen years ago.
This is, apparently, a contemporary approach to good writing that helps the reader understand the importance of writing clearly while teaching them how to know when to follow the “rules” and when to ignore them.
Of every book on this list, this is probably the one I can’t believe I haven’t read yet. It’s a masterclass by one of the most prolific and popular authors of all time. I must read this book! Almost everyone else has, it’s sold over a million copies for crying out loud!
This is an absolute classic and it’s embarrassing (not quite as embarrassing as the Stephen King book though) that I haven’t read it. It’s short, too. So, there aren’t any good excuses. Almost every writer I know has this on their shelf.
July 28, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
The Inspiration Behind “The Gift of the Elements” Books
Music, and the often-accompanying lyrics, has been a source of inspiration in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad introduced me to songs like “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean and the Tommy Sands version of “Sinner Man” (although I now prefer the Three Dog Night and Nina Simone renditions) when I would ride with him in the car on trips from the northern suburbs of Seattle to the southwestern tip of Washington State where he spent one weekend a month serving in the Coast Guard reserves at Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco. The time with my dad was priceless and the music he introduced me to on those trips began my love affair with song lyrics. The love affair allowed me to branch out into different genres of music and gave me an appreciation that threw a wider net than it otherwise may have.
I fell in love with the stories those lyrics told and the emotional impact they could deliver. As I got older, however, I started noticing that certain songwriters are poets who deliver that impact more consistently than others. Not all lyricists are created equal. Some of my favorites over the years have included Willie Nelson, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Johnny Cash, Brandi Carlisle, Lecrae Devaugn Moore, Bob Dylan, Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel, Jason Emmanuel Petty (aka, Propaganda,) Hank Williams, Hank Williams, Jr., John Legend, Toby McKeehan, James Taylor, Merle Haggard, Kevin Max Smith, Bernie Taupin, Leonard Cohen, Alan Jackson, Rich Mullins, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Paul Simon, Michael Tait, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Chris Tomlin, Stevie Wonder, Adele, Chris Cornell, and recently both Zac Brown and Chris Stapleton. It’s an already ridiculously long list that could go on and easily become ten times as long as it already is.
I left one important name off that list because it’s the most critical one when it comes to “The Gift of the Elements” series. That name is Vladimir John Ondrasik III.
I was in the backseat of my parents’ car on the way back to their house after having dinner and the song “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” by Five For Fighting came on the radio. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. It may very well have been the 100th. The song got a lot of airplay following its release in April of 2001 and this was at the height of the song’s popularity. However, for some reason, the lyrics impacted me in that moment more than they ever had before. Perhaps it was because “Smallville” had started airing around the same time. I honestly can’t remember if I had even seen the show yet at that point. But, whatever the reason was, I listened to the song and began to think about Superman, this being of immense power, more as Clark Kent than I ever had before. It struck me, on a deep level, how difficult and lonely that life could be.
Then I began to think about what it would be like if you had grown up without those powers but suddenly, they began to develop with the onset of puberty. That would be, in addition to lonely, completely terrifying. But, once you accepted what was happening to you, you’d have to make a choice. Do you use those powers for selfish gain? Or, do you use them for the betterment of humankind as a whole?
I was told once that my writing seems to have a common theme of redemption. Maybe that’s why the lyric that struck me the hardest was “I’m just out to find, the better part of me.” It’s thoughts like that that stick with you. They give you a thread that can spin off into a whole new piece of work. It did for me.
In fact, three weeks later, I had completed a screenplay called “The Gift of Tyler.”
It wasn’t until about a decade later that I pulled the script back out and began to develop it. Through that process, I dropped the whole puberty element and also decided I liked the idea of something larger happening around the world and experiencing it through one of the few people chosen to play a major role in it. This could possibly have been influenced by how brilliant I thought M. Night Shyamalan’s concept was for the movie “Signs.”
Then I put that polished script away again and decided to write my first book, “The Four Corners.” By the time the book was finished, I had gotten married and left Los Angeles after about fifteen years and moved back to the northern suburbs of Seattle to be close to my family. With “The Four Corners” out in the marketplace, I knew I wanted to write another book. I decided to wait on the sequel to the first book and write something new. So, I sat down and developed a 7-book game plan for a series called “The Gift of the Elements” based on “The Gift of Tyler.”
Chronologically, “The Gift of Tyler” is the fourth story in the series. However, the first four books all stand alone since they are individual stories about the four people chosen to play a major part in that global event. It isn’t until the final trilogy in the series that those four characters interact with one another. So, I wrote “The Gift of Tyler” first and then followed up with “The Gift of Rio” which is chronologically the first book.
I’m finally writing the sequel to my first book while I also do the final edits on “The Gift of Rio.” But, I’m already anxious to get back to “The Gift of the Elements.” The entire series carries themes found in the song that inspired it all and they still manage to touch me deeply, the same way they did in the backseat of my parents’ car that day.
Vladimir John Ondrasik III (aka Five For Fighting) hasn’t gotten a shout-out in either of the first two “Gift” books. Perhaps, I’ll throw him a bone in “The Gift of Mattias.” After all, like the man said, “even heroes have the right to dream…”
July 10, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
Five Books On Screenwriting That Have Influenced All Of My Writing
I grew up wanting to write novels, pretty much from the time I began to learn how to read. However, in my teens and throughout my twenties, I was distracted by the allure of Hollywood. So, most of my “writing education” came through learning how to become a screenwriter. I studied it both in and outside of school and the following five books became influencers. I don’t have any regrets about my years of “distraction” because I believe that studying the art of the screenplay provided me with a much stronger sense of strong dialogue and story structure than I would have had without it. So, whether screenwriting is your goal or not, for anyone who wants to create great stories, I would highly recommend the critical education the following five books provide.
The first book on the list is the first book on screenwriting I ever read and one of the most influential books on the subject to date. When you study the structure Syd Field lays out and then turn on a DVD, you can practically set a stop watch to most movies in the modern era and watch the precision unfold.
This inside look at the movie industry is an equally fascinating and entertaining read. The most educational part, however, comes with the peek into Goldman’s own creative process. After all, the guy wrote “Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride” — he knows what he’s doing!
Perhaps the only book to rank as high as Syd Field’s in terms of influence, McKee offers an even more comprehensive look at the methods behind creating a great script. Quite simply, it’s a master class on the craft of writing for the screen.
As a writer, when someone asks my what I’m working on or about one of my books, my tendency is to want to go into a long explanation. Kosberg taught me how to whittle my ideas down to as few words as possible. If you can accomplish that feat before you even begin writing a script or a book, you’ll have the heart of your story at the forefront of your mind throughout the entire journey.
Equally masterful as Syd Field or Robert McKee before her, Hunter takes the basics you learned in the four previous books and shows you how to polish your lump of coal into the diamond you always knew it could be.
July 7, 2017 (re-posted with permission from cselston.com)
The Inspiration Behind “The Four Corners” Books
For my first entry in this new blog, I thought it would be appropriate to share the inspiration for my first book and its upcoming sequel. So, without further adieux, the inspiration behind “The Four Corners” books…
I was driving down the 101 freeway just North of Los Angeles, California, somewhere between Studio City and Sherman Oaks about twelve or fifteen years ago. I was looking out the side window of my Jeep Wrangler and, as I passed by a sea of houses and apartment complexes, I don’t know why I was thinking about this but, I was thinking about all of the unhappy home environments that exist all around us. I thought about the fact that a lot of people who feel unloved really are in fact loved. They are just in an environment where the people who love them either don’t know how to say it or show it, or they’re too wrapped up in their own problems to recognize the problems they’re causing in the lives of the people they love by simply not expressing the love they really do have deep down. Sometimes, we just overcrowd that love with so much self-created, negative clutter, that no one can see it because it’s like a wonderful gift hidden in the back of the closet where no one can enjoy it.
That got me thinking about how quickly someone’s attitude could change if they were faced with losing the person or people they love. Somehow, that translated into this fantasy world called Kadosh, which is a Hebrew word that means “set apart for a Holy purpose.” In the books, people are being yanked out of the real world and separated onto islands, presumably, for eternity. So, while God intends for these people to love one another, the fact that they are not doing that in the real world gives the demon ruler of this fantasy world the ability to pull them into his realm where he can keep them apart from one another.
Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder. And, in an extreme situation like that the aforementioned gift is going to find itself through the clutter in a hurry. Then what do you do? When love and regret overwhelm you like that, you can’t keep it inside. You must let the people you have those feelings for know about it. In the case of the Snyder family in “The Four Corners,” that means an incredible journey lies ahead. Ultimately, the risk is worth the potential reward.
The sequel, “The Four Corners of Darkness” is inspired, at least in part, by a one-act play I acted in while attending college at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. I think it was called “Doors” but I can’t remember for sure and I have no idea who wrote it. But, the play was about a bunch of people trapped in a house and they couldn’t get out. The doors were locked and couldn’t be opened, the windows had bars on them… It was an allegory about sin and salvation. Ultimately, someone from the outside had to come in and show them the way out. In the same way, while the Snyders and a bunch of others find their way back home at the end of the first book, the youngest child, Kinsey recognizes the responsibility that comes with that accomplishment. He knows they must go back and show those who didn’t take the journey with them the first time that there is, indeed, a way to get back home. And, that’s the book I’m working on right now…
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