Olympics and Writing: The Dark Sides

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareLike many of the readers here on Writing Prompts I love a well turned-phrase. Even more, I enjoy a powerful story. It is obvious when a writer puts in extra effort to really make his work shine. There are books that I’ve read that will resonate with me forever. I also work hard in my own writing to create more than just words on paper and anecdotes strung together. I’ve studied the craft in detail and have developed a deep appreciation for the hidden structure of a great story. It’s not uncommon for me to do ten rewrites in order to hide every bit of structure. To achieve results in writing requires constant, passionate exercise of the craft.

I’m also an athlete. I started playing soccer when I was 8 years old thanks to the encouragement of a next door neighbor from Scotland. I’ve played steadily since then and am nearly half a century old now (and I have the knees to prove it!) I also ride motorcycles both on and off road, practiced Taekwondo, and visit the gym probably more than I should. Few things catch my eye more strongly than a truly beautiful goal or touchdown. Auburn Football’s “Kick-Six” against Alabama in the Iron Bowl last year was a high point of my life. Watching trials riders work their magic and trying to copy them is an obsession of mine – primarily because I can’t do it. If anything is true of high-achieving athletes, it is practicing the same thing over and over again and training tirelessly to hone the body to make what they do appear effortless.

BoJacksonThe connection might not be immediately obvious, but writing and athletics are inextricably bound. Great athletes and great writers make it look easy. The performance of great teams and great stories have an invisible, underlying structure that requires discipline and study to understand. Few things are more beautiful. Only those who have achieved at this level understand how easy it isn’t, and the amount of effort and time required to make it happen. Perhaps this is why the Ancient Greeks were obsessed with both literature and sport. As everyone knows, the Olympics were invented by the Ancient Greeks. At the same time, they were codifying the elements of story that have remained with us to the present. Athletics and writing are both art and beauty of the highest form and their elite practitioners are dedicated disciples who strive for excellence in all that they do. It is sad then that both lie under umbrellas of somewhat less glory.

Blog, SarajevoIt has been said that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the most corrupt organization on the planet. A cursory Google search turns up a long list of improprieties from representatives of every country. Embezzlement of funds and acceptance of bribes by representatives seems to be the accepted business model. How the Olympics ended up at a place that receives virtually no snowfall can only be due to under-the-table dealing. And once again, the kleptocractic leaders of Russia have used massive building projects to pocket billions, leaving the facilities incomplete and substandard. (C.C.C.P. anyone?) While the hard work of the athletes has been showcased on television, the bigger story in the end might wind up being how business magnates with no athletic talent of their own and little appreciation for hard work have exploited the athletes’ passion to line the pockets of their sable coats. Of the athletes involved, most will receive little economic benefit from their hard work while a tiny majority will come to sit atop fortunes. Seldom do the regions that are promised economic bounty in IOC proposals experience any long-term benefit but far more often inherit the economic drain of maintaining the shells of long-abandoned, once-used venues. And we’re going to replay it all over again in two years.

Blog, BordersIf you’ve been writing for more than a few years the parallels between the Olympics and the writing industry are all too obvious. On the product end of the scale are legions of writers experiencing the daily toil of creation, working hard to hone their craft and generate beauty. We give our lives to our work and produce the best we can. As with athletics there are few ‘winners’ but our love of the craft gets us up off our backs and headed towards the next finish line. On the other side of the industry is a sycophantic hierarchy built around the over-promotion of selected work of greatly varying quality. While I have no problem with a business attempting to make money, jaded industry executives more often rely on the dubious advice of talent agents, with little talent of their own, who act as middle-men between the creators and the distributors. All too often it is their own proclivities that determine product selection rather than the identification and cultivation of markets. The result is much like the Olympics – the hyper-success of a tiny majority amidst the crumbling ruins of the literary industry.

blog, athlete trainingSo why do we do it?  Why does the Olympian compete? Why does the writer, write? When we know that so much of success depends on jaded, corrupt organizations with 19th Century business models? Because despite the ugliness of the industries that claim to represent us, in our hearts we know that they don’t. In our hearts we know that what we do reflects who we are inside. We are our own representatives. The runner doesn’t run to be first, or the skier to finish at the top, or the skater to spin to glory, or the writer to get rich. These are the dreams that sometimes keep us going, but we do what we do because we love the feel of wind in our hair and the element of danger that goes with it. We do it because we are human and without goals the thrill of living slowly ebbs. While the tantalizing hope of success pulls us ever forward, for to dream is to be alive, it is the expression of who we are inside that wins the day. In the end, it isn’t the roar of the crowd that defines who we are, it is the things we do when we are alone that matter the most.

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer

Magnify Healthy Eating by 200%!

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareI’m probably not the person to be talking about healthy eating. While I don’t go out of my way to eat junk, I don’t go out of my way to eat healthy either. I munch cookies before bed. Drink a beer now and then. Eat Cheetos and other chips at lunch. Indulge in an occasional waffle with syrup.  Hamburgers. Milkshakes. The list goes on. If I have anything to say on the matter it would be only this: when you begin to feel full, STOP! That said, I’m 48 years old and while I’ve been lower, now have body fat around 10 percent.

So what is my secret? Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? A secret? Some practical information that can help us look and feel better.  Or live longer. Tips that support longevity and good health. Healthy eating might be part of that, but it’s just a part. Far more important and comprehensive is healthy living.

Eat FriesWhat in the world does that mean? Healthy living. We all know that obesity is rampant in the United States. Right now it is being blamed on everything from viruses to gut bacteria to McDonalds. Pretty much everything but laziness. And while there may be some truth to each of these being facilitators, my own feeling is that the source of the problem is a lot more obvious: lifestyle. What you do is at least as important as what you eat. If you want to feel better and look better, modifying your diet is a good start, but you’ll get far better results if you combine that with a lifestyle change.

Eat, TelevisionI go to the gym probably five days a week. I haven’t always been that prolific and when I haven’t been, I’ve played soccer four or five times a week. And when I wasn’t playing soccer I was cycling. And when I wasn’t cycling I was hiking. The pattern is obvious: go do something. Anything! People weren’t made to sit all the time and they certainly weren’t made to watch television.

Most people were blessed with a marvelous body. It may not be the strongest or most beautiful, but the majority of people have serviceable equipment. Sadly, most of us let it go to waste. While we should be exploring the limitations of what we can do, improving on what God gave us, we settle for comfort and ease. And our culture of “getting-off” does everything it can to support us.

Eat, weightsAt present I’ve been lifting weights and doing cardio. One of the truths about growing older is that you begin to lose capability. It is important as we age then, to find things we can get better at. It has been shown that people begin to lose muscle mass after 35 or so, and that this accelerates as we age. I’ve gained 15 pounds of muscle in the last 8 months and am stronger than I have ever been. Eating better 20%, hard work, 80%.

It’s the New Year. What that really means to me is that the gym is going to be really crowded for another three weeks, then it’ll go back to the same people I’ve been seeing in there for years, with a few new faces. Be one of the new faces. Whether it is a gym, a tennis court, a bicycle, a pair of hiking boots, a treadmill, a rowing machine, an aerobics class, whatever – make it a part of your life. It is going to hurt at first, you’re going to be tired, and you might even fall behind on the latest season of Survivor. But, if you want to magnify the effects of healthy eating by 200%, this is the best way to do it. In the process you’re going to make new friends, find out that your are a far better athlete than you realized, and have an awesome excuse to treat yourself to some guilt-free junk food now and then! As they say: Just Do It.

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer

Writer’s Block and Getting Unstuck

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareThere are some stock questions that non-writers and aspiring writers always ask of those who start and finish books. We’ve all heard them and they go something like this:

  • How do you write a book?
  • Where do you get your ideas?
  • How do you avoid writer’s block?

Answering all three would take a book and even addressing all three would take three posts at a minimum. However, this month’s topic lends itself very well to the third question – How do you get unstuck?

Most people connect their few experiences with writing with high school or college “English” classes. We were forced to read books we had little interest in and then write essays on the themes the English teacher told us were relevant. These rarely made sense to me and, like most people I think, I’d spend a lot of time staring at a blank page. Either that, or I’d write two paragraphs and get stuck. Non-authors then understandably scale those experiences to a 300 page novel and so ever finishing seems an insurmountable hurdle. But there are big differences between essays in English and writing a novel.

First off, authors choose topics they are passionate about. That goes a long way towards keeping us on task. Secondly, most authors know something about what they are writing and so have some kind of a plan whether it is written down in detail or carried in the head. I’m a detail guy and like to get everything down even if I ultimately diverge from my plan. Ginger Solomon is a seat-of-the-pants writer as she described in her post on plotting a few days ago. Yet even given these powerful differences, authors still get stuck. I certainly do, sometimes for weeks! There were times in every one of my novels – I’ve written four now – that I believed I had struck an iceberg and was going down. And yet, a day, a week, a month later, I’m way past that sticking point and moving forward, having forgotten all about the collision alarms and icy water inching up my ankles.

How do I do it? How do we do it? It is definitely something every writer has to learn how to handle and there are probably wide differences. For me I can tell you it wasn’t obvious. I had to learn it along the way. And the first thing you have to learn is to realize when you are stuck. Sometimes you just keep on writing even though you know in your gut that you’re headed down a blind alley. It’s just like walking around a strange city, knowing you’re getting off course, and then suddenly realizing with and icy numb feeling that… you’re lost. The earlier you realize you’re heading towards a problem the easier it is to fix.

So, once you’ve realized you’re writing yourself in to a corner – what then?

For me, and sometimes it is an effort, I go to research. I close out of the manuscript and ask a few questions.

  • What is my character/plot doing?
  • Where is my character/plot going?
  • Who are my characters interacting with and why?

And then I say to myself, and I usually say this out loud, “And now for something completely different.” Yes, I know Monte Python used to say this. For me, it is a mental confirmation that I’m looking for a different solution. Something I’ve not thought of or considered. Even something radical. And then I take the answers to the questions above and research the heck out of them. If my character is stuck in P’yongyang, North Korea, like Mitch Weatherby is in “The Silla Project” I research the heck out of P’yongyang and the people who live there. If my character is interacting with a Syrian used car salesman like Colonel Bishira is in “The Green Hajj” I research the heck out of the used car market in Syria as well as the city of Palmyra (where my character is) and everything else I can find out about the place. If my characters are fleeing on a boat like Saul and Minerva in my work in progress, I research the kind of boat they are on, the climate of the place they find themselves, what’s around them, what they have to eat, how they sleep, etc.

Up to now, and this has happened dozens of times, I have not had a single instance in which I was not able to move forward. In fact, some of my best plot twists come out of these research sessions. And, as I mentioned in my first post on research, The Three Other R’s of Writing, it is arguably my favorite part of the writing process. Not only do I get my plot and my characters out of trouble – or deeper into it as the case may be – I also learn something cool and, quite often, come up with ideas for new stories. As I look up at the cork board above my desk, there’s a little green scrap of paper pinned there with a nugget I found years ago while doing research for a screenplay set in World War II. It’s a good one. And one of these days I’m going to write about it.

Today’s Writing Prompt: If you’re a writer, and you have a work in progress, and if you are a writer you DO have a work in progress, when you have a few minutes, say out loud, “And now for something completely different.” Mentally explore other directions for your story. Let your mind wander unfettered by anything you’ve plotted out in advance. If there’s a hidden door there, open it. Let Google take you through that door and discover what lies beyond. It may go nowhere. It may go everywhere.

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer

The Three Other ‘R’s of Writing

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John Brewer

They say the three ‘R’s of good writing are revision, revision, revision. While I agree with that to a large degree, and have practiced it faithfully, there are three other ‘R’s that are, at least to me, just as important. From the standpoint of writing, they are one of the things that I like the best, which is definitely reflected in the books I write.

One of my favorite things to do as a young person would be to curl up with a book on history or science and let it take me to new worlds and places. As much as I liked fiction, the thing that would always arouse my curiosity the most was learning about things that had actually happened that I knew nothing about.

LifeScienceLibraryMy parents supported this thirst, or maybe had a lot to do with creating it, as we always had a lot of books around. I remember one of my favorite sets was Time Life Books, Life Science Library published in 1969. I still vividly recall some of the titles, The Body, The Cell, The Sea, Machines, EcologySpace. Every page was full of new wonders that expanded my growing mind like a balloon.

MathematicsThe book titled Mathematics always seemed really boring to me, though. That is, until I picked it up in the summer following my freshman year in high school, after having sat spellbound through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on television. As I read through it then, I recall being filled with wonder as I learned about how mathematics can be used to describe alternate dimensions, time travel, topology, and all manner of things that can’t even be imagined by a creature bound to sensing and living in three dimensions. Not only did I learn a lot about mathematics, I also learned that mathematics was not what I thought – which goes to show you, context is everything.

NatGeoNational Geographic was another favorite of mine, taking me to the core of Earth, the edge of the Universe, inside the ancient Kingdom of Babylon, or to the top of an icy mountain. One picture I recall was of explorers entering one of the Great Pyramids as Giza. The chills went all the way to my toes! The places I have ‘been!’ The things I have ‘seen!’

It is this thrill that I most hope to capture when I write. The “Oh my gosh!” of reality. The things we don’t know. The truth’s yet undiscovered. The stuff I write is called fiction, but the fictional settings are just ways to reveal the little known gems of our world to an audience that perhaps doesn’t crave research the way that I do. And a lot of this stuff is important.

Take The Silla Project, for example. I spent six years studying North Korea because what is happening there is too important for people to not know about: the world’s greatest hostage crisis mixed in with crazy people trying to build nuclear weapons. It truly is unbelievable how strange that place is. Every single person who has read The Silla Project who I have spoken to says it has fundamentally altered their view of North Korea and most of them thank me for it. Now just to get that international award…

For my second book, The Green Hajj, (unpublished) I researched Antarctica for a year and a half before writing it. Why? For one, it is a fascinating place that’s just too cool to not share. And two, it lies at the center of the world’s greatest controversy – Global Warming… or not. I hope to have time to finish it one day.

MultiplayerCoverMultiplayer was no different, requiring research into social media, virtual reality, and surprisingly enough, Alanya, Turkey. My work-in-progress continues this theme in an entirely different way – in fact in an entirely different place and time – that required yet more research of exotic, little known, places and cultures. Thank God for the internet and Google Earth.

So, the three other ‘R’s of writing? You’ve no doubt guessed them by now, research, research, research. It is what allows the writer to create a real place in the mind of the reader. Until the author is completely comfortable with his subject it will not come across as genuine. The only way to do this: research!

Today’s Writing Prompt: In the course of my research for The Silla Project I came across many, many wonderful tidbits that could be the basis for entire new novels. Here is one: One of the first Christian Missions to Korea was beset upon by indigenous people who thought they were being invaded. One of the missionaries was beheaded as he struggled to shore. His killer took the Bible he’d been carrying and used it’s pages to paper over the walls in his house. In time, he read them, was convicted by their message, and turned to God. Today South Korea is the most heavily Christian nations on Earth, in part due to this true story. Do a little research, find the story, and write a short synopsis for a novel that somehow connects to this story.

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer

The World’s Greatest Villian

montesa_alteredvibrance_squareIt’s Halloween this week, a perfect opportunity to write the ultimate post on villains! I mean, Freddy Kruger, Jason, Saw, and their like – you can’t get any worse than that. Forgive me for inserting an emoticon at this point –> :-/ . Seriously, as far as villains go, these characters are caricatures.  Not only are they totally unbelievable as biological units, they have about as much depth as a politician. Yes, there’s a place for these ‘characters’ but they are not true villains. They are really much more part of the setting than they are characters and, outside the mind of an adolescent, uninteresting.

So who really is the world’s greatest villain? For one thing, the world’s greatest villain is not fictional. I’m reminded of St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. It goes like this:

God is that being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.

Okay, to break that down: One can conceive of all manner of wonderful things about a being, powerful, eternal, perfect, etc… but unless it actually exists, it’s nothing. So Anselm’s argument demands that God exists. The idea is that God created a universe in which the logic that is part of his universe proves his existence. (Think about it, it’ll tie your brain in knots!) Not that I’m calling God a villain, but by the same logic, the World’s greatest villain must also exist. In other words, the World’s greatest villain is a real person.

Vlad The Impaler, looking stylish.

Vlad The Impaler, looking stylish.

So who is it? Hitler, some may say, or Stalin? Maybe some of the Roman emperors of the past? Vlad the Impaler – he is a pretty scary dude if you read about him, no joke. The Nazi’s in general? The Communists? Again I say, the World’s worst villain must exist and all of these folks are dead. Except for the Communists, and where they are now makes my blood run cold. But they can’t touch the guy I’m talking about no matter how hard they try. At least, not yet.

The world has plenty of bad guys, right now. Any number of African dictators or guerrilla leaders are truly horrible people. Middle Eastern dictators can be single-mindedly ghoulish as well, and I’m talking the rebel leaders as well. But for the most part, their reach is limited. The World’s worst villain should pose a threat beyond his borders. After all, if he’s not threatening us in some way, how scary is he? It would be nice if the world didn’t even have such a person, but sadly, it does. A person who is also embodied as a place.

This is pretty much the mood of the place.

This is pretty much the mood of the place…

Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, and stuff like that is just stupid. True horror is Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption. Locked up for life for something you didn’t do. That is horror. That is terror. Flying loaded airliners into buildings. Creating mountains of skulls. Holding an entire nation hostage. Peddling hate to infants in the crib. Threatening the world with attack. All held together with an iron-fisted bureaucracy. There is such a place. A place where things like this happen every day. It’s a place we make fun of. A place where we don’t understand the people so we just write them off as crazy. It’s a long way off so we ignore the atrocities afflicted on her tortured citizens. How we can focus on Africa while the World’s worst villain goes unpunished and largely ignored is a problem I grapple with daily.

... and their fearless leader who recently has his ex-girlfriend executed for being his ex-girlfriend.

… and their fearless leader who recently has his ex-girlfriend executed for being his ex-girlfriend.

Where is this place? I wrote a novel about his Hell on Earth. It is The Killing Fields x50… years! This person, this place, is where all elements of the true villain come together in perfect harmony – much the same way, by some twist of our universe – a host of physics principles all come synergistically together, as if by design, to give life to the thing we know as the hydrogen bomb. Where is this place? This place is North Korea. This person, is Kim Jong-un. True terror. True horror. True villain. An entire people who are part of a real-life, low-budget slasher flick. A place where information is so tightly controlled that the seemingly psychotic actions of it’s beleaguered citizens make perfect sense – to them. A leader who believes his own propaganda and who has no more consideration for his subjects than a dog for its meal. A world where society is shaped by intimidation, torture, and death.

No laughing matter.

No laughing matter.

Amazingly, it is this true villain who is portrayed as a caricature while fictional caricatures are held up as villains. Maybe it’s a human defense mechanism against an evil so monstrous it is hard to hold in our head. As a species we do this from time to time. The child’s poem, Ring Around the Rosy, for instance, has an equally gruesome genesis – Black Death. Regardless, not understanding this villain, not understanding this villain’s desire and motivation, have allowed him, have allowed it, to persist for over sixty years. If you want to understand this villain better, and understand why it is not psychotic, I encourage you to learn more about it. There are a lot of non-fiction books about North Korea but surprisingly few novels: my novel, The Silla Project, and Adam Johnson’s, The Orphan Master’s Son are about it. They take very different approaches to dancing with this villain but both are good reads. And of course, his won the Pulitzer Prize and mine didn’t (even though mine has a higher rating on Goodreads, Oh YEAH!)

John C. Brewer is a novelist, physicist, rocket scientist, lifelong soccer player, motorcycle rider, husband, father, and the author of Multiplayer, an adventure for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. Find out more about what he is doing at johncbrewer.com.

– John C. Brewer