Andy Peloquin

I am an artist – words are my palette

Category: My Thoughts (Page 2 of 16)

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Why I Decided AGAINST Self-Publishing

When I started my author journey (in 2013), I decided that self-publishing my first novel (In the Days) was the right choice. After all, I spent weeks submitting it to various publishers and didn’t hear back. I wanted to put out a book so I could start getting my name recognized.

After publishing the book in March 2014, I set to work on the next book (Blade of the Destroyer). But as I got reviews and feedback for In the Days, I realized a harsh truth: I wasn’t as good a writer as I thought I was. I needed input not just from beta readers and critiquers, but also professional editors adept at finding and eradicating mistakes.

Though it took a few days to swallow my hurt feelings, I set about making Blade of the Destroyer as good as possible. That meant not only going through multiple critiquing rounds, but also various self-editing rounds AND professional editors. By the time the product was completed (November 2014) and ready to shop around to publishers, it was in good shape. After the editors at my publisher J. Ellington Ashton Press finished with it, it was a MUCH better product.

That discovery supported my decision to work with an indie press/small publisher instead of going the route of self-publishing.

Flash forward to today, April 2017: I have four published novels (three of The Last Bucelarii series with J. Ellington Ashton and one of the Queen of Thieves series with Dragonblade Publishing). Four books of learning from editors, beta readers, and reviewers. Four books of adapting my writing style and striving to continuously improve.

Now, four books later, I’m feeling more confident on the writing side of things (still working on the marketing). I’ve learned a lot about the craft of storytelling, building a structured novel, plot elements, and all the other details that go into producing a great novel. My first drafts are getting cleaner and cleaner with each book I write, with fewer plot holes and grand editing mistakes. After all this, I’m thinking about considering the self-publishing route once more.

As I write this, I still have 5 books to complete/publish to finish The Last Bucelarii and Queen of Thieves series. I won’t be able to start on a significant new project until 2018 at the earliest. However, I WILL be experimenting with self-publishing in late 2017—I will be releasing a collection of short stories set in the world the Hunter and Ilanna.

Essentially, it will be a “test run” to see what my work is like when it’s self-published. I’ll still work with an editor, but I will be approaching it a totally different way than I approached my first self-published novel. The freelance editors I worked with on that book did a good job of correcting the grammar issues, but I felt like they weren’t invested in the story to the same degree a publishing house editor is. In-house editors are trying to do more than just clean up a story—they’re trying to make it better so their publishing house sells more. My previous experiences with freelance editors made me re-think my approach to hiring/working with editors. I’m going to look for an editor who has read my work and actually LIKES it. If they’re invested in my success instead of just their paycheck, I believe it will lead to a better outcome.

I decided against self-publishing in the past because I needed that support to build my confidence as a writer. Now that I have a bit more experience under my belt, it’s time to try a new thing and see if it works for me.

 

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Why Killers, Bullies, and Abusers Exist in our “Modern” Society

When people talk about “modern society”, they speak as if society has advanced light-years beyond previous societies. That’s true in many ways: slavery is abolished, women can vote, and we no longer go plundering and pillaging our neighbors. But thanks to human nature, there are still many ways in which our society is as primitive and animalistic as it has always been.

Yes, a justice system is in place to prosecute and punish law-breakers, and there is a great deal of societal pressure to conserve and improve the world. Yet all these things haven’t stopped murder, theft, abuse, genocide, and other cruelties. Why is that?

In large part, it’s due to the fact that we can easily “shut off” our consciences. Humans have the terrifying ability to separate their actions from their morals and beliefs. It’s why so many of the most devout people can justify some pretty horrible actions–the recent bombing of Syria is just the latest in the string of things we humans have done to each other.

Albert Bandura, a psychologist from the 1960s, broke it down to a simple conclusion: “moral conduct requires constant, active self-regulation.”  When “moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct”, malice and mischief take over.

If you’ve ever tried to self-regulate your behavior, you have an idea how exhausting it is to always “try to be good”. The human psyche can only sustain that self-regulation so long before it inevitably fails. Our own internal regulators of good and bad can eventually become compromised, leading us to ignore or cover up our mistakes and immoral actions.

Moral justification is another thing that has led to this problem. “I’m doing this because…” is a common excuse intended to justify horrors inflicted upon another person, country, culture, race, or religion. Sanitized language, also known as “double speak” can desensitize and disassociate us from the truth of the actions. We’re “fighting for freedom” instead of “going to war”, or “liberating the oppressed” instead of “invading another country”.

A lack of personal responsibility also contributes to the problem. “Just following orders” doesn’t make your actions any less horrible, as was evident in the case of Nazi concentration camp soldiers and doctors. “Group decision making” and “collective action” (we decided to take action as a group, so it’s not my responsibility) is another trap we fall into to justify misdeeds.

In the end, all of these gives us psychological cover for the things cause us to be horrible to each other. We ignore, cover up, or simply neglect to think about our actions, or we justify them using some excuse that makes it seem better, but in the end doesn’t detract from those actions.

 

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Mental Health Problems: The Rule or the Exception?

There was a time when mental health problems were kept “hush hush”. People were ashamed or embarrassed to talk about things like PTSD, anxiety, depression, or even more serious disorders. Thankfully, modern society has destigmatized these mental health problems, which enables people with neurological, psychological, emotional, and physical disorders to get help without being seen as “weird”.

But here’s a pretty startling fact: only 17% of people in the world DON’T suffer from some sort of mental health problem throughout the course of their life. That’s pretty serious!

The Surgeon General has stated that 1 in 5 people (20%) suffer from psychiatric disorders, a claim supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This may seem high to some, but a new study found that the statistics were even higher than that.

A team of researchers followed 1,000 New Zealanders for 35 years—from the age of 3 to 38. They carried out regular mental health assessments and found that only 17% of the participants didn’t meet the criteria for psychiatric disorders at some point in their lives. That means 83% of people DID suffer from psychiatric problems during their lives.

Granted, the majority of the problems included things like anxiety, substance abuse, or depression, many of which were simply temporary problems. However, many of the people discovered they had mental health conditions that affected them more severely than they expected.

I know a lot of people will roll their eyes at this discovery. It’s easy to shrug off mental health problems as being “the popular explanation” for behavioral or social problems. Many people will ignore this statistic, instead of learning from it.

I’d say it’s a good indicator that mental health problems can hit anyone at any time, and that it pays to be aware of your mental health. As the study found, many of the mental health problems were temporary—the substance abuse, depression, or anxiety cleared up given time. However, knowing that there’s a chance you could develop mental health problems emphasizes the importance of making the lifestyle choices that will promote a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.

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Education Isn’t Everything!

When I talk to other, more well-established authors, I often find myself wrestling with a bit of an inferiority complex. I know I have my strengths as an author (ability to talk easily with people, interesting ideas, good writing skills, etc.), but I have a hard time feeling like I can match up with many of the authors I encounter.

A large part of it is due to my lack of education. I have a high school education, with no academic training in ANY career or profession. Everything I know, I’ve learned by studying outside of the formal education system. I doubt I will ever obtain a degree in creative writing, English, literature, or any of the other backgrounds that cater to being a good writer. I don’t even have a background in a specific profession I can use to write from a position of authority.

It’s tough to feel inferior, and this particular complex is something I can usually ignore enough to be confident as an author. I may not have the education, but I have a keen intellect and the desire to work as hard as possible to be the best author I can be.

Turns out this is actually enough to make up for my lack of education!

A study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that cognitive ability (also known as intelligence) is often enough to make up for a lack of education. Specifically, the study examined the differences between students from disadvantaged backgrounds vs. students with more advantage (better education). To quote the research “Intelligence is the most important factor in determining long-term achievement outcomes”.

Non-cognitive or personality traits like perseverance, grit, and a good work ethic are all factors (albeit minor ones) in success. But the single most influential factor in success or failure of the students was their intelligence. Formal education and academic advantages were far less important than the intelligence of the people participating in the study.

This gives me hope that I can succeed, even without the education that so many other authors have. As long as I continue to sharpen my intellect, expand my knowledge base, and use my non-cognitive traits (like determination), I have a good chance for success.

 

 

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How We Respond to Attacks on Our Identity

We all have our an identity, a persona we have built up in our heads. Our identity may be built around our profession, our passion, our hobbies, our physical location, the place we went to school, the sports team we cheer for, the vehicle we own, our gender, our sexual orientation or preference, our heritage, our role in our family, community, or job, or any number of things. We need to build on these things in order to have the foundation for our identity and our sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

But what do you do when that identity comes under threat? When someone is racist, homophobic, or just cheers for the wrong football team, how do you respond? How do you deal with what you perceive as “hate speech” or “hate crimes”?

An article on Psychology Today gives an interesting breakdown of the way we humans respond to an attack on our identity:

Constructive Action – We try to overcome the threat to our identity by engaging in productive behavior, but we don’t address the threat directly. It’s sort of an “ignore it, be a good worker, and it will go away” mindset.

Concealment – We try to hide or tone down the identity under attack in the hope that the attack will stop. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Identity Exit – We completely discard that part of our identity that is under attack. Instead of fighting, we choose to “flee” the attack.

Derogation – We denounce or criticize the person or thing attacking our identity, hoping to discredit or humiliate the attacker and thus stop the attack. We “strike back”.

Ignore – We simply ignore the person attacking our identity and move on with our lives without addressing the attack. This is common in situations where we feel “powerless to do anything”.

Importance Change – We make a conscious shift of how important the identity is to us. Perhaps it stops being the thing that “defines us” and becomes “just one more part of what makes us us”.

Meaning Change – We make a conscious shift of how we perceive the part of the identity and its significance to us. It may decrease in its perceived value, and we rank it lower than other parts of our identity.

Seek Assistance – We turn to others, perhaps those in authority, for help in dealing with the attack on our identity. We all need “reinforcements” to get us through the tough times.

Positive Distinctiveness – We try to change the attacker’s opinion of our identity by arguing the values and virtues of that particular identity. Try to “bring them around to our side”.

In this modern day and age, it feels like EVERY part of who we are is being attacked, criticized, or mocked by others. Our response to those attacks can affect the outcome—not only for the attacker, but how WE move on from the attack. Consider your instinctive reaction to attacks on your identity, and see if there is a better, more productive way to respond.

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Is Your Character a Psychopath?

In every great novel, there are villains doing villainous things, anti-heroes treading the line between good and evil, and even noble heroes willing to do “dark” things for the greater good. Everyone has their “dark side”, the part that they hide from the world and which only comes out in moments of great stress or emotional turmoil.

And then there are those whose dark side is a lot darker than we might suspect. On first glance, we understand there’s something different or off about them. As we discover them more and more, the belief is reinforced. Their behavior or mannerisms are never quite…right.

Sound like one of the characters in your novel? Maybe it’s the person whose hiding his villainy and pretending to be an ally, or the supporting character who is just a little too eager to embrace the dark side. If that’s the case, the person may secretly be a psychopath.

There are multiple ways to recognize and diagnose psychopathic tendencies. One of them is the Five Factor Model, which uses “openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism” to diagnose personalities.

According to the Five Factor Model, psychopaths are a combination of:

  • Low conscientiousness and agreeableness
  • High anger
  • Low anxiety
  • High assertiveness
  • High sensation-seeking
  • Low warmth

The Elemental Psychopathy Assessment also uses a series of items (anywhere from 18 to 178) to measure and diagnose psychopathic tendencies. The questions indicate that psychopaths:

  • Believe they deserve special treatment and that feeling sorry for others is a weakness
  • Care less about their relationships with others and don’t worry about others’ feelings
  • Look for the motivation behind kind actions
  • Have a temper, which can lead to trouble
  • Are impulsive when angry

These are just a few of the signs that the person has psychopathic tendencies.

The truth is that it’s incredibly difficult to tell a psychopath apart from a neurotypical person. They have learned from a very young age to mimic “normal” or socially acceptable behavior, so they can blend in. However, understanding these traits about the psychopaths can help you to understand if that person (in your novel, of course) is actually hiding psychopathic tendencies. It can make your writing of the character much richer and deeper if you understand the underlying reasons for why they do what they do or how they perceive their actions and their relation to others.

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Forget About Goals; Set a System Instead

One of my “fun little quirks” as a person and an author is that I’m VERY goal-oriented. I try to be as realistic as possible, but when I set a goal, I feel like it’s carved in stone. Come Hell or high water—or a scalding combination of both—I’m going to reach that goal!

Then I ran into a fascinating article on Psychology Today that talks about a new way to approach goal-setting. Basically, it says that the GOAL isn’t what matters. Instead, it’s the system that helps you reach that goal that matters most.

The article gives some interesting examples:

  • If you’re a coach,your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
  • If you’re a writer,your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
  • If you’re a runner,your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur,your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process

I found that writer example really sold the concept to me. I have a general idea of how long it takes me to write a book—about 6-8 weeks, for 120,000 words. However, I’ve failed to meet that “goal” way more often than I’d like to admit. The objective-oriented part of my brain shrieks in panic every time I pass the self-imposed deadline.

In late 2016, I signed a contract with Dragonblade Publishing to publish the three-book Queen of Thieves series—beginning with Child of the Night Guild. But they gave me a tight deadline: Book 1 on Jan 18, 2017, Book 2 on July 18, 2017, and Book 3 on Jan 18, 2017. I usually spent about 6 months working on the book, PLUS all the editing, formatting, and proofreading time. So that was a tight goal, one I immediately worried I wouldn’t reach.

So before the stress killed me, I sat down and decided to figure out how long I needed per book in order to reach that goal. I figured out I’d need to complete each book in 2 months (Nov-Dec 2016, and Feb-March 2017) to reach it. But instead of focusing on the actual date deadline, I broke it down into a simple system: 2,000 words (1 chapter) per day, 6 days per week. At 50ish chapters per book, that comes out to about 8 weeks per book. Add on a couple of months for beta reading, personal edits, and my final fine-tuning, and I should be able to hit that goal.

Well, four months and 200,000 words later, I 100% agree that the SYSTEM is what matters. I’m still fighting off stress as I watch the submission deadline come closer day after day, but I tell myself that the system is working. I’ll be finished (fingers crossed) with the first draft of Queen of the Night Guild (Book 3) by this weekend, and I’ll get back to work on the second draft of Thief of the Night Guild (Book 2) after the March 31st launch of The Last Bucelarii (Book 3): Gateway to the Past. With the system I have in place, I will be finished with Book 2 just in time to submit it to the publisher. But I’ll then have six months to complete Book 3, which means I may be able to put out The Last Bucelarii (Book 4): Anamnesis by December 2017.

Goals are important, but the “how” is, in my opinion, far more important than the “what”. Focusing on the system (writing 2,000 words/1 chapter per day) is far less stressful than focusing on my goal (120,000 word novel in 8 weeks). As long as I keep working the system, I’ll hit my goal. And that is what counts in the long run!

 

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The Artist’s Curse of a Sleepless Night

I dare you to ask any writer, “Have you ever had trouble sleeping because of a story?” I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of them will respond with an affirmative “Abso-damn-lutely!”

I’ve had many nights where I was trying my best to get to sleep, but the story in the back of my mind refused to let my brain shut off. When that happens, I HAVE to get up and write down everything that’s coming into my mind. Only once it’s down on paper will I be able to sleep. I’ve been up until ungodly hours in the morning because of a story that’s working itself out in my mind. It’s something we writers learn to live with.

I’m certain a lot of artists struggle with the same issue. I know my father, a musician, has gotten up in the middle of the night to write down lyrics or melody that refused to leave him alone. I’m certain the other artists (graphic designers, sketch artists, cover artists, etc.) in my family have also wrestled with a creative idea well into the wee hours of the night.

A study from an Israeli University found that visually creative people (painters, artists, etc.) tend to sleep less at night. The quality of their sleep is also worse. Their disturbed sleep habits can lead to difficulties functioning during the day.

But for verbally creative people (like writers), we tend to sleep more hours, but we get to sleep later and wake up later. I know a lot of my writer friends like to get their work done late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. (Having a day job and a family also necessitates this habit.) Instead of getting up early in the morning to write, it’s easier to stay up late to get in the writing time, then sleep in a few hours later.

Why is there a difference between the two? The study didn’t quite come up with a clear, well-defined reason why visual and verbally creative people have different sleep patterns, but it suggested that it came down to the neurological patterns of connectivity that control creativity. Visually creative people tend to be more alert all day and night, leading to sleep disturbances. Verbally creative people tend to be more creative while they are awake, but their brains are better-able to shut off at night. The cerebral mechanisms that control the two types of creativity (verbal and visual) are different, and thus affect the artist differently.

Either way, if you intend to be an artist of any sort (painter, sculptor, videographer, photographer, or writer), prepare for a few (or many) sleepless nights. The curse of the artist is that our brains never fully stop creating and making creative associations. Learning how to harness and channel the creative power of our brains is the closest we get to finding peace when it’s time to sleep. But sometimes, there’s nothing to do but accept we’re not going to get a full night of sleep and make use of our creativity. It’s definitely more of a gift than a curse!

 

 

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The Fears that Drive All Action

Take a look at any fantasy or science fiction novel, and you will find a few fears that drive all the characters to some sort of action.

Fear of death – This is the most common motivator. The hero or villain fears their own or a loved one’s death, so they fight, conquer, or search for the MacGuffin that could prevent it. Nearly every fantasy and sci-fi novel has some fear of death. It’s why thieves evade being captured, assassins fight their target’s guards, and soldiers combat the enemy.

Fear of creepy crawlies – Snakes, spiders, cockroaches, rats, and other creepy crawlies are terrifying to many people. There are many phobies related to contact with these animals. Many sci-fi novels, in particular, use this fear to create alien races that are instinctively perceived as evil. After all, saying something has a snake-like appearance or a “rat face” is immediately “bad”.

Fear of the dark – There is an instinctive fear of the dark, because darkness hides potential threats. Assassins like the Hunter of Voramis use the darkness as cover, then jump out at their victims. Darkness can also hide magical threats, monsters, and more. The absence of visual input allows the mind to run wild with potential dangers. It’s why scenes where the main character creeps through the dark are so much scarier than scenes set in bright daylight. And it’s why so many “scary places” tend to be dark.

Fear of disfigurement and dismemberment – Many heroes try to escape torture before their sword hands are chopped off, or someone reveals information before the person torturing them removes an eye or their tongue. The fear of disfigurement stems from the natural reaction of disgust to anything abnormal or asymmetric, as well as the fear of being alone (no one could love someone so disfigured, the brain tells you). The fear of dismemberment stems from a fear of losing a part of one’s self, as well as a fear of being vulnerable (no legs to run away from danger, no hands to hold weapons).

Fear of the unusual – Things that are commonplace/well-known can become utterly terrifying when they change. For example, scary clowns, your best friends turning into zombies or vampires, and statues coming to life to kill you (a la Dr. Who’s Weeping Angels). The mind rebels against the changes made to the thing we’re so familiar with. That change from known to unknown can be scarier than things that are visibly monstrous.

Fear of being alone – Fear of being alone stems from a fear of vulnerability, which is the primal fear that we, the weakest member of the herd, will be picked off by a predator. Fear of being alone is also tied to our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It’s easy for the psyche to make the jump from “no one loves me” to “I’m not worth loving”. That loss of self-value is another of the most primal fears that govern all human action.

 

 

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The Dangers of Complex Villains

Dark fantasy (and all dark fiction, for that matter) is a genre I love because it allows me to explore the various shades of moral grey. Instead of black and white (shining knights and cackling villains, heroic kings and evil viziers, noble warriors and cowardly evil wizards), dark fantasy deals with characters who are equal parts good and bad. There is less emphasis on “heroes” and “villains”, but more on actions and consequences.

But an interesting article on Psychology Today gave me a bit of food for thought. The article says: “We rapidly learn not only about our heroes’ shortcomings but also about the villains’ humanity as well.”

The truth is that every person is flawed. There is no such thing as “pure good” or “pure evil”. In the end, people make the choices they make for a wide range of reasons.

That doesn’t mean we should completely discard the concepts of “good” and “evil” completely. For example, the actions of the Nazis in World War II. All of the people who did those terrible things were fully human, and no doubt many of them had redeeming qualities that “showcased the humanity of the villain”. But that shouldn’t detract from just how terrible their actions were. All the horrors, torments, and suffering they inflicted on others isn’t reduced just because of their humanity.

One of the dangers of complex villains is that we fail to take into account their villainous actions. If, by the end of our story, we start to sympathize or empathize with the villains, we stop taking into account their actions and start looking at their reasons. This can desensitize us to the horrors of their actions, and almost give them a justification. That is a VERY dangerous road to go down!

Think of all the school shootings that have occurred in the last year alone. I’m willing to bet MOST of the shooters had real “reasons” why they felt the way they did—everything from psychological disorders to abuse to trauma. But those reasons don’t justify the actions. The things they did should NEVER have happened, no matter the reason.

Fiction that attempts to help us understand or sympathize with the villains can blind us to the villainy of their actions. That can be perilous in our modern world, one filled with so many shades of moral grey.

We still need the concepts of “good” and “evil”, and we can still strive to reach one while avoiding the other. It’s a much more complex world than black and white, but that doesn’t mean we should stop seeing good and evil. If we get lost in the shades of moral grey, the world is doomed to be a dark, unpleasant place!

 

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