Author Interview – Jason McCuiston!

Today I have the pleasure of introducing author Jason McCuiston who will be sharing his thoughts on reading and writing, and details of his new book, Project Notebook!

As an author –

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: That’s a tough one. I think I can get them from just about anything. As a kid I spent a lot of time with Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and Vampirella in the old Warren monster magazines, as well as the four-color heroes of Marvel Comics. I watched a lot of sci-fi TV and movies and read a lot of fantasy novels. Add to that all the Westerns, monster movies, and war movies, and I’ve got a veritable hoard of story fodder inside my noggin.

Then too, I love documentaries and shows like Mysteries at the Museum that point out oddities in the real world. Usually it is one of these historical obscurities or dramas that sparks an idea that sends me rummaging through my internal catalogue of weirdness to formulate a story. That’s sort of what happened with Project Notebook when I learned that the Pacific Northwest was a hotspot of UFO sightings weeks before the now famous Roswell incident.

Q: What motivates you to write?

A: Boredom, pure and simple. I saw Star Wars when I was four years old and have been disappointed with “the real world” ever since. Although I’m a historical fiction junkie, I tend to write in the speculative genres—science fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird tales. My motto is, If it doesn’t tend to happen in real life, that’s what I’m writing about.

Q: How many hours a week do you spend writing?

A: I try to get at least a solid two to four hours a day in during the week, then shoot for extra hours on the weekend. On a good week, I’d say I can hit sixteen to twenty hours of writing at the keyboard. It helps that I’m a decent typist. But even when I’m not at the computer, I’m mulling over ideas or jotting down notes about stories and WIPs. When I hit a block, I break out my sketchpad and doodle until something shakes loose.

Q: Best thing about writing?

A: The freedom, excitement, and adventure. In the stories I write bills, taxes, car repairs, and all the other humdrum problems of the mundane world fall away. What is the inconvenience and cost of renewing your auto tags when compared to the threat of an alien invasion?

Q: Your biggest writing distractions?

A: I’d have to say my own moodiness. There are days I get fixated on some dumb thing and my mind is like a dog with a bone, unable to let it go in favor of more productive pursuits. Fortunately, I’m getting better at heading these spells off at the pass when I see them coming.

Q: What are your favorite books or sites you go to for writing tips / advice?

A: The first book on writing I ever purchased was James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers, and it was a Godsend. I highly recommend anything he has written on the craft. Another of my favorites is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a great resource for sound, fundamental story structure. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out The Fantasy Author’s Handbook (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/), the weekly blog of author/editor extraordinaire Philip Athans. He’s a master not only of genre fiction, but also of the craft of writing.

Q: How long does it take you to write a book?

A: When I’m working on a novel and can focus on it exclusively, I think I can produce a first-draft manuscript in between one and two months from the time I sit down to write the outline. I probably spend twice that amount of time polishing, revising, and editing before I look for beta readers.

Q: Have you ever cut anything from your book and why?

A: Not often. As a plotter, I usually get the mechanics of a story down before I actually get into the actual narration. But occasionally inspiration will hit in the midst of a project, showing a better way that makes earlier choices look weak, insignificant, or repetitive. When I do cut things, I drop them into a file for possible use in other projects.

Q: Least favorite thing about writing?

A: The business end of things. All the hoops one has to jump through in the querying process can be dispiriting. I know there’s a secret code that agents and editors use to describe what they’re actually looking for in the slush pile, and I think I’m getting close to cracking it. But, I made the choice to go the traditional-publishing route, so I have accepted the process for what it is.

Q: What do your friends and family think about you being a writer?

A: I imagine they think it quaint or “cute” as it rarely comes up in conversation. My dad is proud of me, though, which is only fitting as it was his monster magazines that used to give me nightmares as a kid.

Q: Most important things a writer should spend money on?

A: This is another tough one for me as I’m a cheapskate who lives a thrift-store lifestyle. I know I’d like to buy myself a really comfy chair and possibly a new computer with an ergonomic keyboard. That might increase my output, but it might also lead to an increase in my body mass.

Q: Least important things a writer should spend money on?

A: Anything that might prove a distraction and keep you from putting words on the page.

Q: How do you measure your success as a writer?

A: If my most-recent story is better than the last one, then I count myself successful. I’d love to be able to put gobs of money in the bank doing this, but sadly, I believe the days of the mega-rich writer are coming to a close as we move toward a post-literate society. With everyone waiting for the movie, video game, or TV adaptation, book and magazine sales are not what they once were and publishers are willing to risk less on new talent. Which makes agents even more choosey in taking on new clients. In this environment, I define my success one story at a time.

Q: What advice would you give to yourself if you were starting the writing journey again?

A: You’re not as good as you think you are. Yes, you’ve got a vivid and outlandish imagination, but you can’t wing this. Writing is an actionable skill just like auto mechanics or computer programming, the more you do it and the more you study it, the better you get. That’s it. There are no shortcuts, so get to learning and get to writing.

As a reader –

Q: What is your favorite genre(s)? Tell us more about why you love them?

A: I love historical fiction and old-fashioned pulp adventures. As for the historical stuff, I’ve always been enamored with military history and other cultures, so when I can learn about them while sinking my teeth into the works of Bernard Cornwell, Sharon Kay Penman, Erich Maria Remarque, and James Clavell, it’s a win-win for me.

On the pulp side, I really dig traditional heroic fantasy, where the daring good guy overcomes nigh impossible odds to beat the dastardly bad guy, such as in the works of Robert E. Howard, Lester Dent, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Even when their “good guys” weren’t necessarily of the white-hat variety, you always knew who the “bad guy” of the story was, and he usually got what was coming to him in the end.

Q: Have you ever skipped something important to stay at home and read a book? Details please!

A: Maybe not so much lately, but I know one time when I was in high school I spent an entire Thanksgiving family get-together hidden away reading Captain Blood. I also recall one summer trip to the pool where I refused to get in the water because I was too busy reading the rulebooks for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft boxed set I had just picked up.

Q: What is your favorite book quote?

A: Gosh, just about anything from Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker books. I’ll go with: “‘This must be Thursday… I never could get the hang of Thursdays.’” I’m fond of it because this has always applied to Tuesdays for me for some reason.

Q: Favorite book hero and / or villain and why?

A: I think my favorite hero would have to be Taran from Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, because when I started reading those books in the sixth grade, Taran and I were about the same age. Over the course of those books I watched him rise from a goofy, immature “assistant pig keeper” to the humble and heroic High King of Prydain, overcoming all manner of supernatural and military foes as well as his own personal foibles along the way. (As a side note, the Princess Eilonwy was my first literary crush.)

My favorite villain has to be Dracula because he is the greatest literary villain of all time. At once timeless and ever-changing, he is the one character who can be all things to all readers in all times. I dream of one day creating a big-bad that can approach Dracula’s level of influence. No doubt he has been the inspiration for countless villains in thousands of books written over the past hundred odd years.

Q: Your most influential book(s)?

A: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque has had a profound influence on me as a person, if not as a writer (though I would like to think it has). Dumas’s Musketeer books, the aforementioned Prydain Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga all come to mind, as well.

Q: Tell us what you are currently reading and your verdict so far?

A: David McCullough’s 1776. I’m almost finished and find it thoroughly engrossing. In fact, I think it should be required reading in U.S. public school American History classes. I’ve got the latest installment of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, Sword of Kings lined up next, and I can’t wait to dive into it headfirst.

Q: If you could have a signed copy of a book by an author (dead or living) what book would it be and why?

A: Ooh, another tough one. I think I’m going to go with a collection of Solomon Kane stories by Robert E. Howard. I don’t know why, but I’ve always preferred the Puritan Swordsman to Conan and Howard’s other Hyperborean heroes, possibly because of my interest in the Elizabethan/Thirty-Years War era.

R.E.H. has become something of an icon for me, and I’d like to think that, since I started my writing career so late in life, that I’m picking up the mantle where he so tragically left off far too young. I know this notion is self-flattery, but it’s also a means of pushing myself to be the best storyteller that I can be. When I compare myself to Howard, I know I’ve got very big shoes to fill.

About the book –

Q: You are living in your latest novel. Where are you living, and what is it like?

A: The Seattle-Tacoma area, the summer of 1947. It would be a nice place to live if not for all the weird lights in the sky.

Q: You are your most recent protagonist. What do you like doing for fun? What do you hate doing and why?

A: Elzebad Summers has been through hell and back in World War II, and now has a lot of responsibilities as the team leader for Project Notebook, so when he gets a chance to unwind, he can over-do it. Drinking beer with the boys and playing darts at the local honky-tonk until closing are probably his biggest vices, but all things being equal, he’d be just as happy taking a leisurely drive through the country in his new convertible… As for what he hates doing, I’d say mowing the yard because so do I.

Blurb for Project Notebook:

In July of 1947, the skies above the state of Washington were filled with strange lights and unidentified objects. When PROJECT NOTEBOOK is dispatched to investigate the Maury Island Incident, the first encounter with the unknown scatters the team across Seattle and Tacoma suffering from amnesia and stalked by mysterious forces.

My Bio:

Jason J. McCuiston has been a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and has studied under the tutelage of best-selling author Philip Athans. His stories of fantasy, horror, science-fiction, and crime have appeared in numerous anthologies, periodicals, websites, and podcasts. Project Notebook published by Tell-Tale Press is his first novel.

Stalker Links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShadowCrusade.

Twitter: @JasonJMcCuiston.

Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B07RN8HT98

Scrivener workshop – using a writing target word count

I am typically not a great planner when it comes to my writing work. I get the job done in a random fashion that bounces about from the start, to the end, to the middle, and all over the place. As a poor planner, scrivener has a number of features I have found invaluable to assist me in getting on with the task of writing a book. The project target feature is a great little prompt to help you keep on track with your writing targets, and to celebrate your progress along the way.

Accessed via the menu. Project | Show Project Targets

scrivener - show project targets menu

When I am writing, I have no pressing deadlines other than the ones I set myself. I usually pick a date and see how it comes out for the daily word count.

I write scifi, so I always pick a genre specific target for the whole book of 90K. Generally, I write 10k more than I intend, but hack about 10k out during editing.

This is the main Manuscript target box you see when you select the above menu option. It just floats like this over the top of you project, or as in my case, I drop it over the bottom corner of my second monitor.

scrivener - Show project targets dialog

It’s super easy to set up.

Select the options button at the bottom to show the next dialog. Here you can set your proposed date, writing days etc.

scrivener - show project targets - options

You can play around with the options to suit your preferences, but a few things worth noting.

  • I have some chapters which are potentially going to get chopped and / or are just bullet notes, so I tick the count documents in the compile only option to avoid muddying the count. You set the ‘include in compile’ against each folder (chapter). If you are not using this ‘include in compile’ feature then untick this.
  • Deadline – I like to play about with the target date and see what the word count per day pops out at. If you know roughly how many words you can achieve a day, you can work out a sensible target date.
  • I like to allow negatives. Sometimes when you are editing this can be a little disconcerting, but I still like to think about my overall target. If I chop out 500 words I just have to work extra hard to make my day’s count!
  • The writing days picker is good if you know you have definite days of the week you don’t write. I tend to just leave as is, and then write over-target on good days.
  • I use the default  reset the session count at midnight, but if you are a late night writer, you may prefer the reset on project close or one of the other session target options.
  • Tick the show target notifications if you want a happy little bong when you meet your target!

Once you are done in the options, click Ok, and head back to the main dialog.

Now Hit the Edit button. (It will then become Apply)

scrivener - edit target count

The manuscript word target can now be edited. After you have set the target words hit Apply. Your target session count will pop out.

Note: you can change words to pages or characters if you prefer. I like the default basic word count. (Click on words next to your manuscript target count)

I tend to jump in and out of the options to change the project deadline based on the total manuscript target until I get a realistic target per day.

I’m sure a target glaring at you from the corner of the screen will not work for everyone, but if you have not tried this feature yet, then you may want to give it a go. Writing a book is a long process and anything that helps you to celebrate the progress and the little wins along the way can only be a good thing.

I would love to hear from anyone already using this, and whether you find it useful or not. And anyone thinking of giving it a trial for the first time, let me know if it helps! 🙂

If I had my time over

I first read this many years ago now, and it is one of those passages that stays with you. I take it back out every now and then and read it, and remind myself to get on with living life.

If you have seen it before, then I hope it is a wonderful reminder. If it is new, then enjoy.

 

If I had my time over I’d like to make mistakes next time.

I’d relax, I would limber up.

I would be sillier than I have been this trip.

I would take fewer things seriously.

I would take more chances.

I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.

I would eat more ice-cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones.

You see I am one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour and day after day. Oh, I’ve had my moments and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact I’d have nothing else. Just moments. One after another, instead of being so many years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those people who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring, and stay later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.

                                           Nadine Stair Aged 85 Louisville, Kentucky.

The fear of losing your imagination

Everyone has something they consider to be their special gift. Maybe it is something you acknowledge privately, or something that everyone knows. Perhaps you are a great communicator, a loving mother, possess green-fingers, or something else.

I consider my imagination to be my special gift. Not that I think I am an amazing writer, or in someway uniquely gifted in this respect. It is more that I cannot imagine what life would be like without my imagination.

chaos-724096_1920

Our mind is a complex creation, filled with nuances and influences, hopes and aspirations. We feed it every second of our waking day, and give it freedom to flow unfretted every night.

But is this gift forever? Can we count on the way that it works now, to always be the same?

Sometimes I wonder if my imagination will abandon me. If I will sit down to write a chapter and get it a terrifying blank. I fear this; really fear this. What if I run out of ideas? What it my enthusiasm flat-lines?

So far this has never happened, and it is always waiting for me in whatever capacity I need.

I truly hope my imagination never leaves me, because it is something that I love, and I know that if it left me, I would miss it very much.

Mars—the only known planet inhabited solely by robots

I saw this picture today,  of the real life Wall-E out on Mars. Curiosity, has been busy doing his thing, in a surprisingly similar way to his fictitious counterpart, made famous by Disney Pixar. If a robot could look happy, I would say Curiosity was looking pretty damn happy right now. There is also a little bit of pride—look at me—the picture seems to say.

Wall-E

It struck me as a lonely life, if a robot could have such a feeling, but an industrious life all the same. Curiosity isn’t completely alone though, he has a few redundant friends such as Opportunity and Spirit, who also reside on Martian land, but there are no people, making Mars, as far as we know, the only planet to be inhabited solely by robots.

Below, Opportunity takes a shadow selfie. Those rovers know how to mix-it-up!

Sol180B_fhaz_rovershadow-PIA06739-full

There is something quintessentially human, about these robot selfies taken on Mars, and it is the nature of humans that we place our emotional nuances on unemotional objects, such as cute robot rovers.

Picture Source: Mars Exploration Rovers

Source Article: Curiosity takes a ‘belly selfie’ on Mars

Interesting fact about the picture: The Curiosity selfie is actually 92 pictures stitched together to remove the tell-tale, outstretched, selfie arm. Clever robot! aka NASA engineers 😉

Is your protagonist confused?

I may have mentioned this before, but I am a big fan of protagonists with dubious character traits. There is something about a blurry line that adds flavour to their character depth. In fact, if the protagonist was to stop and consider themselves, they would be firmly on the wrong side of that invisible virtuous line.

So in short—I like my protagonist confused.

So here is an interesting analogy to help in the confused protagonist debate: If you are the kind of person who goes to the gym 5 days a week, then going 5 days a week is no big thing. BUT, if you struggle to go once a week, then 5 days in a row is a pretty impressive feat. And so with our protagonist. The more reluctant they are, the more doing something good or heroic chafes, the more interesting it is when they are finally forced to comply.

As a reader, the more confused you are about the protagonist, the more the tension grows. Will they do the right thing? Are they capable of doing the right thing even?

And what about our antagonist? Are they wholly bad? Do they have redeeming qualities? Do you empathise with them at any point in the book? Perhaps their behaviour has been abhorrent, and then you discover a terrible secret about their past that casts new questions onto everything they have so far done.

There is a certain fascination with a good guy, who is far removed from being good. And likewise with a bad guy who is not completely bad.

Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us

When we start out in life, we have amazing clarity on what we want to be. Perhaps we want to be a nurse, or a vet, or a firefighter. These simple needs or aspirations that we feel as a child can be forgotten as we grow up, and we loose sight of our deepest sense of purpose. Not everyone can, should, or will be as an adult, the thing we wanted to be as a child. But it is worth exploring this early career ideal though, because it is often surprisingly close to what we want and need as an adult.

This is an old video now, and I first watched it when it came out several years ago.

The concepts explained in this video remain true, and there is a surprising truth about what motivates us.

So, the surprising thing about motivation, is that it is only loosely related to money. We need ‘enough’ money, and once we have enough, our motivation shifts to a different level.

I spend anywhere from 10 hours upwards working on writing in my spare time, many weeks it can be as high as 20 hours. I am not alone in this, and my previous survey confirmed that many of my blog readers, just like me, can spend many hours a week working on their writing projects, with little or no monetary reward.

So why do we do this? Why use our precious time on something that pays so poorly, if it pays at all?

It all comes down to the three pillars of motivation.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.

These are the things we want and crave. These are the things that get us out of bed in the morning, and keep us tapping away at our keyboards late into the night.

Autonomy – This is about the freedom to choose within the bounds of interdependence. In other words, given a set goal or objective, having the freedom to decide for ourselves how best to achieve this can prove to be powerful both to our performance and our overall wellness.

Mastery – We want to improve. This really is the bottom line. Find me a writer who has just written a great book, who doesn’t want to write an even better one next time – enough said.

Purpose – This is our energy, and is derived by connecting our conquest to our higher purpose. I have blogged before about living your life purpose. It sounds like a cliche, but if we know what our life purpose is, and we can find a way to make it a part of our working or home life, then we are well on the way to living a happy, fulfilled life.

For more on the subject see The Three Pillars of Motivation

For more on finding your life purpose see How to find your life purpose

I will leave you with a thought and a question. What did you want to be when you were a child, and does it relate at all to what you are doing now? Can you see any connection between what you love doing now, and what your childhood aspirations were?

15 questions to reveal your ultimate purpose in life

Writing Cliches! – How to avoid them

We all know that cliches should be avoided like the plague, but that can be easier said than done. They can be a thorn in the writers side, and hard to spot when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

Groan…

Yes writing in cliches and / or writing a story that plays out like a cliche will make your readers groan.

Where do cliches hide

  • in common phrases or words – there may have been a few above 😉 . . . How about twisting one up? Saying the same thing from a fresh perspective? Some great examples here Rewrite (and Rev up) Cliches
  • in the story plot – the computer geek who becomes a ass-kicking ninja . . . what about an ass-kicking ninja who becomes a computer geek?
  • in the stereotypes we apply to characters – drug lords wear designer suits and speak with an Italian accent . . . how about a school teacher who is dying of cancer? Hmm worked in ‘Breaking Bad’.

So, cliches are not all bad, and can actually be used to innovate and invigorate your plot, characters and even your prose.

Have you tried playing about with writing cliches? How did you break the cliche mould?