All posts by Alan Tucker

Dealing With the F-Word (Failure!)

Failure.

The word can evoke as many strong reactions and emotions as another F-word that isn’t appropriate for polite company.

Why is that? We fail every day. (I just missed my mouth with an almond because I was concentrating on my computer screen too hard. Fail!) Yet, the prospect of failure can cause the very thing we’re trying to avoid, or even keep us from starting something we might find incredibly rewarding.

Happy funny messy eater

I believe the fear of failure is instilled early. Parents are so afraid of damaging their children’s self-esteem, we’ve created things like participation awards and have graduation ceremonies for kindergarten.

Boy painting

Now, while these things have a certain cuteness factor to them, what they don’t teach us is how to fail, or more importantly, that it’s okay to fail.

I coached youth soccer for many years and one thing I always told my players was that mistakes are good things, because they give us an opportunity to learn. Blind luck can sometimes produce a perfect result the very first time we try something, but luck isn’t reproducible. It’s only by practice — trying and failing and trying again — that we can truly master something. Even then, we are often still subject to failure.

Soccer, in fact, is what inspired this post. I was watching the Copa America championship game this weekend between Chilé and Argentina. Lionel Messi, who plays for Argentina, is arguably the best player on the planet — possibly the best player ever — yet, the game went all the way through overtime without a score for either side. When that happens, a winner is decided by a series of penalty kicks. One player places the ball on a spot, twelve yards from the goal, and has a single kick to score against the opposing goalkeeper. Now, the goal is eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide. It’s a lot of space for one person to cover and the kicker scores a goal most of the time. Piece of cake for the best player in the world, right?

Not this time.

Messi missed his penalty and Argentina went on to lose in the shootout.

The story, and lesson, however, don’t end there. How did Messi react to his failure: the first time he’d ever missed in a penalty shootout?

He RETIRED!

Yes, the pressure on him was enormous and the loss was devastating, but his failure was not the sole reason for the outcome. Other players had chances to positively impact the game and the result during the match, but they, too, failed.

Is this how we wish for our children — or ourselves — to respond in the face of failure? To quit? To give up?

How do we overcome failure?

1: Own It.

Recognize your mistake and own up to it. When confronted with failure, our first instinct is often to deny it or shift blame.

Car crash

Resist this impulse, take responsibility, and…

2: Embrace Your Opportunity to Learn

Dissect and diagnose your failure. Where, exactly, did things go wrong? What can I do to achieve a better result when I try again? Many times we will need help from an outside source with this examination. Asking for that help can often be as difficult as the failure itself, but benefitting from someone else’s experiences is usually less painful in the long run than making all the mistakes yourself! Then…

3: Define Success Before You Start Again

This sounds like it should be step one, but I think we need to try something once to establish just how difficult a task it is before we try to set goals for ourselves.

Hypothetically, let’s say a budding, not-so-young writer discovers a book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and sees the success J.K. Rowling had with it, then says, “Heck, I can do that!” and sits down to pen his first novel. Well, I think we can all agree that’s a recipe for failure if we’ve ever heard one. I certainly wouldn’t know anyone who has done that. *Rolls eyes and mutters*

Regardless of how easy something looks, we have to remember one key detail: If it was easy, everyone would do it. If everyone isn’t doing it, then perhaps it isn’t as easy as it appears at first glance. Why do you suppose 80% of the populace thinks “they have a novel in them if they only had the time to write it.”? If they actually sat down and tried, most would quickly reassess the difficulty of the task.

So, set goals which take effort to achieve, but aren’t so lofty as to be impossible to reach straight out of the gate. And stop to reassess often to determine if outside help might be required, or if the bar for success needs to be adjusted.

It’s been about seven years since I published my first book, which took nearly ten humbling months to complete, and I’ve written five more, plus one novella (ghost written for someone else) to date. I’m still failing and learning from those failures and I’m sure I’ll continue to do both. Ms. Rowling’s top spot hasn’t come under much threat from my direction… yet! But, I’m not about to give up and retire.

And I hope Mr. Messi reconsiders his decision and continues to offer his services playing the beautiful game for Argentina in the future. I, for one, will mourn the loss if he does not.

_____________________

TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction series, beginning with Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

WebsiteFacebookTwitter | Goodreads

What’s Your Book About?

Uh, it’s about three hundred pages.

*rimshot*

As authors, how many times have we been asked this simple, seemingly innocuous question? “What’s your book about?”

Oh my God!As much as we may hate it, the question is an important one. Yet, how can we boil down something we’ve suffered and agonized over for months — or even years — into one or two non-Faulkneresque sentences?

Let’s take some well-known books and ask the dreaded question.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

An abused orphan boy is summoned to a wizard academy, embarking on a journey to fulfill his destiny.

Charlotte’s Web

A story of true friendship between Wilbur the pig and Charlotte, his spider savior.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A family of four brothers and sisters step through a closet into a world where they must defeat an evil queen to save their friends and find their way home.

“But, Alan,” you say, “those books are so much more than that.”

Of course they are! And so is your book. But, here’s the thing: when someone asks you that question, it’s not an invitation for you to audition as the narrator for the audio version of your book. If you can’t give them some idea of the story in five seconds or less, their eyes are sure to glaze over while they internally berate themselves for ever asking you the question in the first place.

Here’s another one from a somewhat less famous book:

Jenni and her eighth-grade science class are sent to another world where they are transformed into magical creatures in order to battle an evil shapeshifter.

When parsing your own work, try to concentrate on three things: The characters (protagonist), the conflict (the antagonist), and one thing that makes your book a little different from most.

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Middle Grade Fantasy, FREE for your ebook!

In my line above, for A Measure of Disorder, Jenni and her eighth-grade class are the protagonists, the evil shapeshifter supplies the conflict, and being changed into fantastical creatures is something that sets the story apart from many others. I could have chosen to highlight the ecological themes in the story, or the societal pressures the characters encounter within their own group and also in the new world they discover, but, seriously, who wouldn’t want to read a story where a bunch of kids get turned into dragons, fairies, and elemental spirits?

Actually, lots of people.

Here’s the part where it gets hard. (And you thought writing that logline/elevator pitch was the hard part!) Not everyone is going to like, or be interested in, your book. There. I said it. However, you shouldn’t let that fact discourage you, either in your writing or in your willingness to answer the question: What’s your book about?

One of the beauties of the world we live in is its diversity. Nothing is universally liked. Not even kittens or ice cream! (I know, right? But, it’s true.) And, as a result, not everyone is going to like your book. But that’s okay! Have you liked every book you’ve ever read? Chances are you haven’t. Did that make those books you didn’t like terrible trash that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on, or the electrons used to display them on your ereader? Most likely not. Go read some of the negative reviews on books you loved. You’ll probably be shocked at some of the responses.

So, go and bravely craft your answer to the dreaded question! And don’t be discouraged if everyone you encounter doesn’t do backflips of excitement and joy upon hearing that answer. You’ll eventually find your audience.

One question at a time.

_______________________________

Alan Tucker, author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of DisorderA Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as the science fiction series, Tales of Uncertainty (Knot in Time, Abandon Hope, and the newly released Going Solo), is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

Visit the main website at AlanTucker.net for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

The Accelerating Advancement of Technology or, What the Heck Are Snips?

Originally, I intended to write this post about gender roles and identity, considering that’s been in the news a lot lately. The nursery rhyme, “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” had popped into my head as a cute lead in…

“What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails.”

But, that got me to wondering. What the heck is a “snip”?

I mean, I know that a snip is a small bit of something — a cutting — but how did that relate to the context of the poem? The rhyme is old. Maybe snips meant something else back then.

“Look it up!” I hear the voice of my mother, and countless teachers through my years of schooling, say in my head.

In those days, that meant dragging the enormous, hernia-enducing dictionary off the shelf and rifling through its thin pages by using those half-moon notches that separated each section by letter. Remember those?

Snip

And that would likely have been the end of it. I would have been enlightened by a couple of snips of information (see what I did there?), but been no closer to the answer I’d been seeking, although number three seems like it might fit, except that it refers to girls, oddly enough.

(I took this image on my phone, which I then emailed to myself. How many years ago would that sentence have made no sense whatsoever?)

Today, however, when confronted with the question, I simply type in the words “snips and snails” and receive this: SnipsandSnails

Wow. Almost 400,000 instances of that phrase dredged up in less than a second! After a few clicks, I quickly learn that the original rhyme probably read, “snips of snails,” and that other words like “frogs” and “snakes” have been substituted for “snips” down through the years. Another possibility is the word may have been “snigs”, which was a word in the Cumbrian dialect for a small eel, according to Wikipedia. What’s a “Cumbrian dialect” you ask? Well, all you have to do is click the helpful link to find out…

As a writer of fiction, I often ponder the future and the past. Where have we been and where we are going. Through computers and the Internet, we have nearly the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips. Things we take for granted today, like Google, didn’t exist only twenty years ago! It’s become so prevalent in our society that the company name has become a verb, synonymous with my mother’s, “Look it up,” from my childhood.

Gutenberg developed the first printing press in the mid 1400s. The first electrical computers were invented in the mid 1940s. Pocket calculators appeared in the 1970s. Desktop computers became commonplace in the 1980s and the Internet (the World Wide Web) blossomed in the 1990s. It took around 500 years to make the leap from the printing press to computing, but only about a tenth of that time to get from those first computers to where we are today.

The term “Technological Singularity” is used to describe a computer with the equivalent brain power of a human being, also known as artificial intelligence. Some scientists believe laptop-sized computers, available to the general public, will have the computational capacity and storage of the human brain within five to ten years. This doesn’t mean those computers will be sentient — that technological leap is still nebulous in time frame and affect on the world — but you will have the equivalent of another brain’s worth of computing power on your desk or in your lap.

Our children are growing up in an Internet-driven world, just like me and my peers grew up in a television and telephone-driven world. My parents grew up in a radio-driven world.

What kind of world will our children’s children grow up in?

Science fiction writers attempt to be visionaries of the future. When we watch the original Star Trek series from the 60s, we see Kirk with a flip-phone for a communicator. In the 90s version, The Next Generation, we see the crew members walk around with multiple tablets and iPads. (Why did they need so many?) The shows portray a time hundreds of years in the future, yet some of these technologies appear today — even have been surpassed today. It’s becoming more and more difficult to create stories that stand the test of time because our technology is advancing so rapidly.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Humans have never been closer to performing acts of magic in our history. To Gutenberg, our current state of technology would likely be considered nothing short of magical. Who’s to say we won’t be able to conjure up a meal, or travel somewhere across the globe, or across the galaxy, at the snap of our fingers someday?

I had a recent reviewer of my science fiction series say, “typical hokey science, but enjoyable story,” and I had to laugh. Some aspect or another of conventional science is disproved almost daily. Any of you remember when people thought taste buds for salty, sour, bitter, and sweet resided in certain areas of your tongue? Yeah. I was taught that in school. We even did an experiment regarding that when I was in sixth grade and I remember thinking it was bogus then. Yet, that was the accepted “science” of the day. What scientific facts are we teaching now that will seem just as silly in thirty or forty years?

Technology is making the lines between science fiction and fantasy blur. Characters like Gandalf might become reality in our future. (Though he’ll probably only look like that while he’s cosplaying at a comic book convention). So, don’t be afraid to insert fantastical elements in your futuristic stories. They aren’t called “flights of fancy” for nothing!

Maybe someday we’ll actually build boys from snips of snails and puppy dog tails.

Girls from sugar and spice and everything nice? Nah, that’ll never happen.

The Personal Nature of Language

I spent three and a half years in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

In those three and a half years, I learned many things about the world and about myself. The last thing I learned was I didn’t want to be in college anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things — always have. I had just grown tired of doing it in that particular environment. I had been working toward a degree in English Literature, largely because, at the end of my sophomore year, my counselor informed me I had to choose a major in order to continue. English Lit was the degree I was closest to fulfilling from the mishmash of classes I had taken to that point. Yes, that was truly the determining factor, because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I was interested in everything. Why the University thought it necessary for me to choose one area of study didn’t make sense, yet I had to play by their rules, even though I (or more accurately, my mom) was paying for me to be there. I had courses in biology, physics, three semesters of calculus, psychology, history, religion, and philosophy under my belt. I also took creative writing, Medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian literature, as well as courses in linguistics, two semesters of French and one of Russian. I even spent three semesters in the drama department as extra-curricular — Charlie Brown with wispy red hair? Yes, it was a thing.

Suffice to say, language and how we communicate has forever fascinated me. I also had a year and a half of Spanish in high school and was tutored in Japanese for several weeks as part of a job I had subsequent to leaving college. The variety of the spoken and written word around the world is astonishing. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ wildly — sometimes to the point of confusion and miscommunication. And don’t get me started on the British Isles, South Africa, India, and Australia, all of which purportedly speak a language dubbed “English”.

Dictionaries give us a basis of understanding, but even they morph and change as language evolves. New words are added each year and the definitions of old words are adjusted in some cases if their meaning or usage has changed over time. Words and definitions can vary between brands of dictionaries. But, why all the confusion? Why isn’t something like the way we communicate more structured and immutable?

Because language is personal.

ScarletDressYes, many aspects are fundamental. If I describe a woman walking down the street as wearing a red dress, we all will conjure a picture in our minds. That picture would be different for all of us, but we should all be able to agree on the basics: woman, walking, red dress. But what if I said the dress was scarlet in color? It’s still red, but the word “scarlet” will evoke different images — different emotions — within each person, based on our experiences. A young reader might be encountering the word for the first time and have to ask about its meaning or look it up. A fan of the movie Gone With the Wind might first conjure an image of the glamorous Miss O’Hara upon seeing the word. Someone who recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may react negatively toward the word given its use and meaning in that story. Same word, different reactions. What if I used “crimson” instead? Again, more disparate meanings and feelings toward the word — and, by association, the woman wearing the dress — because of the individual experiences we each bring when we read or otherwise communicate.

As a senior in high school, I took AP English and one of our assignments was to read The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoyed the story and during one of our discussions about the symbolism and allegories within the work, my teacher mentioned an interview with Hemingway where he claimed he simply “wrote a story about a man and a fish.” In other instances, he, of course, talked about the deeper meanings within the story, but the quote got me to thinking. We all bring our own frames of reference, biases, and experiences when we read a work and can’t be certain how an author truly intended the reader to feel as they progress through a book. In fact, while doing some research for this post, I ran across an article where some scholars feel Hemingway had been so heavy-handed with the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, he might have been poking fun at the critical literary community. That shines an entirely new light onto the story.

Which brings me to the reason why I never finished that English degree.

As I took higher level literature classes, I noticed a pattern. Analysis of the assigned pieces drilled deeper and deeper, investigating why the author chose a particular phrase, or even a particular word, at a certain point in the work. I even remember a lecture on what happened during a dash — yes, a dash, just like these — within a story. At that point, I realized my professors had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Language is too personal to make absolute statements about intent and meaning. We can, more often than not, agree on basic premises when we communicate with one another, otherwise the world would be like the biblical Tower of Babel. But, for me, or anyone else, to say with certainty all an author meant by using a certain word at a particular point in a three hundred page novel just doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking Picasso why he placed a particular brush stroke where he did and why he chose that particular color. Maybe he had a specific reason, or maybe his brush slipped and he thought it looked good. Seeing deeper meanings in a piece depends as much on the viewer, or the reader, as on the artist.

Sometimes, the dress is just red.

TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction series, beginning with Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

WebsiteFacebookTwitter | Goodreads

A Certain Point of View

One of the things that’s always fascinated me about people, and by extension writing, is the fact we all see the world through our own eyes. On the surface that may not seem astounding or provocative to anyone else, but let’s examine it a little deeper for a moment.

You’re walking on the sidewalk of a busy street in your town when a fender bender happens at the intersection ahead of you. Dozens of people saw the accident, including yourself, yet if all those people are separately asked to recount the details of the incident, a wide variety of stories will emerge. Some accounts will even directly conflict in certain details of the event, like the colors of the cars or who was at fault. All the people witnessed the same incident at the same time and all are telling the truth — at least, the truth as they saw it. (Here’s a short, interesting exercise in eyewitness fallibility if you’d like to learn more.)

How does this pertain to writing? Storytelling is all about perspective. Who is telling the story? What is their age, their background? Were they an active participant or did they merely observe it? These questions pertain to the narrator and are fundamentally important to how a story gets told. Writers also have tools like tense (present or past) to manipulate how a story is conveyed to the reader. Think of the possibilities like a nesting doll.

Russian dollsThird Person Omniscient is the outermost doll. This one encompasses all the rest. It sees and knows everything. Heroes, bad guys, this viewpoint can get inside anyone’s head and find out what’s really going on. (Just don’t try to do it all at once!)

Third Person Limited is represented by the next couple of layers, depending on the number of narrators. Some books are told from multiple characters, yet each one can only present the story from their own perspective. Other books have only one narrator who only imparts information that they know to the reader. While we can often see inside this narrator’s head, the third person perspective still positions the reader as an observer from the outside.

First Person, Past Tense introduces the next level of intimacy. The story is told to the reader directly from the mouth of the main character. Thoughts and emotions, as well as observations are shared, but strictly from the viewpoint of that character.

First Person, Present Tense is the deepest level of reader/narrator connection. The reader lives the story, moment to moment, just as the protagonist does. Everything is immediate and the technique works well for action scenes, but can seem unnatural or forced during quieter, more mundane sections.

As a writer, this last choice might seem to be the best to engage a reader and it can work to great effect. A recent, popular example is The Hunger Games. But this perspective can be extremely limiting as well. An example of this can be seen in the movie version of The Hunger Games where they added scenes with the President conversing with his staff in order to supply some back story and create more tension.

To stick with only one viewpoint can elevate our empathy for the main character, but it’s also easy to lose sight of the forest amongst the trees. I believe this is a main reason why first person narratives are more predominant and popular in middle grade and young adult literature. As we grow, we first develop a sense of self before gaining an awareness of others. In my opinion, it’s easier for young readers to identify with a first person narrator because that’s how they view the world. Things that occur outside the sphere of awareness of children are largely ignored. A missed dessert because of an unfinished plate of vegetables can be high drama for a toddler or even a first or second grader. Everything can be a sign of the apocalypse, even for those in their teens — which is also a reason why I think dystopians are so popular with the younger crowd as well, but that’s a subject for a different blog post 😉

The story you want to tell will often lead you to your choice of perspective. If the action is centered entirely around a single character, first person might be an excellent fit. If you have a larger cast of important folks, some version of third person may be a better vehicle to work with. The main thing to remember is no one has a monopoly on the truth. We all carry our own versions of it and experience things in personal, unique ways.

I’ll leave you with a short animated video featuring a singing Obi Wan and Yoda, explaining “a certain point of view” to a bemused Luke. Take care and go out and find your own truths today!

 

TuckerPenny1010smAlan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction novel, Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.

“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”

Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!

WebsiteFacebookTwitter | Goodreads