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After Careful Consideration, I’ve Got Style!

For those who know me, rest easy. I’m not talking about my fashion sense. I have clothing older than my children that I still wear regularly, making me very much a typical guy in that regards. I also take delight in regular manly things – for example I learned just recently my nephew was complimented by his grandmother (my mother) on the fact that he’d been working out and looking good. He shrugged it off and she made a reference to uncle Jason. To this he replied, “The difference between me and Uncle Jason is that I’ve still got a neck!”

Of course I laughed at that. I considered it a compliment, in my simple borderline redneck mind. Bless my mother for feeling the need to defend me though: “He has a neck…it’s just a really thick one.”

In spite of my caveman instincts, I do have some higher level traits. I was asked on Twitter the other day what my style was. It was in regards to writing, thankfully, otherwise I’d have been lost. My first instinct was to respond with saying I’ve got no style, I just let things happen. Then I thought about it some more and decided there was more to it. I’ve refined my writing over the years and found some things that work for me.

The first, and the one I responded with, was that my style involves letter the characters tell the story. I believe the characters are the most important part of any story. After all, as a reader I want to identify with who’s telling the story or who the story is happening to. If I can’t be interested in that character, then what’s the point in learning more about them and their predicament? I want to see characters learn and evolve, hopefully becoming better along the way. I want them to overcome challenges, but not because they come out of the womb as a resident all-knowing badass, but rather because they’ve made mistakes like a real person and they’ve learned from those mistakes (hopefully also like a real person).

Beyond that, I’ve evolved my writing process into a few important steps. I start out with the characters and brainstorm what’s going to happen to them. For example, I spent Saturday with my family at the Pittsburgh Zoo. It’s a good zoo and we had a good time in spite of the temperature reaching 93 degrees. On our way there we went the wrong way and had to go through a couple of toll booths on I-76. The first one was manned by a woman who took our $4.70 (for traveling about 15 miles on the road!) very politely and respectfully. Those might not be the right words, she just seemed like a happy and positive person. And not in a crazy or delusional way.

As much as the 10 seconds of exposure to her personality was pleasant, what initially drew my interest was how she looked. She was a slender girl with some truly rocking hair. So blond it might have been white, she had it spiked up to resemble a mohawk. Maybe it was a mohawk, I’m not sure (see my earlier comments on my fashion sense). The sides of her head weren’t shaved, I know that much. She also had some small tattoos on her forearms that I could see. Nothing offensive, it looked appropriate. If I had to describe her in a word, I’d use the word “beautiful”. However, I didn’t consider her beautiful in an I’m-attracted-to-her sense. Rather she was inspiring to me. I knew immediately that a character based on that woman was going to make an appearance in one of my books. I have no idea which book, nor do I know what her role will be, I just know it’s going to happen at some point.

So I’ve got characters first when I write, then I decide what I need to motivate those characters. Take my latest Voidhawk book (Lost Soul) as an example. I’m still writing it but I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what could come next for the characters of that series. They’d reached a position in their lives that, to be honest, was kind of boring. I had to shake it up but I wasn’t sure how to manage that in a way that would make for something I would want to write about, let alone read. A stroke of inspiration hit me one day – I think while I was driving into work. What sort of event could pull established and responsible adults from their daily routine without a second thought? What if their child had been taken and the only hope for getting them back required dropping everything?

So I had characters and I had a plot. As I brainstormed and wrote, subplots appeared and so did a few surprises. Such is the magic of my Voidhawk series that I usually can just write and the story unfolds but I wanted to enforce a little more structure, so I worked ahead and jotted down some highlights of what I wanted to happen along the way in future chapters. Already, one chapter into that outline (I didn’t start until chapter 10), I had to rework my outline and add a new chapter. I like to think I’m flexible and able to adapt – not that I let my characters walk all over me.

Lost Soul isn’t finished yet, but I’m hoping I’m less than two weeks away from having the rough draft down. Tentatively I’m really hoping for a release date of mid July – early August. Until then I plan on releasing an omnibus edition of the first seven Vitalis books. A lot of reviewers have whined about them being short. In a bit of defensiveness, I openly marketed them as novella length stories designed for quicker entertainment. I’m irritated by those reviews, but c’est la vie. In an effort to please as many people as possible I’m putting the omnibus together and should release it mid June – early July.

Speaking of Vitalis and tying it back into character driven writing, I had a conversation with another Twitter friend who was sharing her love of Vitalis with me. She was shocked at how Matriarch, Vitalis book 7, ended, but she absolutely loved it and felt it was her favorite book in the series. I agreed with her, I think it was the best one I’d written – just don’t tell the other Vitalis books I feel that way or they might be upset. I shared this with her, and it’s very true: Matriarch surprised me. It unfolded in ways I never expected. The characters I write about have a tendency to do that more and more – they take the story places I’d never intended or considered. That happened with Vitalis: Matriarch, and it happened to a greater extreme than I’d ever dealt with before. I loved how it worked though, not only because it offered up so many potential future options but because it truly allowed the characters to develop and evolve and to tell their stories.

I liken Vitalis to a cross between something with Ridley Scott’s alien chestbursters scaring the crap out of people, a world with its own spirit or sentience guiding life ala James Cameron’s Avatar, and a slew of very interesting characters with their own wants and dreams drawn together into a situation in a manner similar to the TV show, Lost. Unlike Lost, Vitalis makes sense and doesn’t jump around and leave the reader confused or frustrated.

So that’s my style. It’s working better and better for me as sales ramp up into a happy place. Oh sure, I’d love to get more and I’m writing furiously to achieve that, but writing isn’t about instant success. For most writers it’s not about the business of selling books at all. That’s not because they’re sucked into loving their art more than anything, it’s because they have to love their art – the sales aren’t there to support anything else! I’m very fortunate in having as many sales as I do – it gives me the very real hope that I might be able to make writing the day job in the future.

In fact, I read Jeff Bezos release to Amazon’s shareholders recently. In it he said he’s thrilled to have over a thousand “independent” writers on Amazon that are selling more than 1000 books a month. I’ve been over the 1000 mark since December of last year. I’m no Amanda Hocking, John Locke, or Selena Kitt, but I’m trying hard to get there! I know Selena personally and she’s been somewhat responsible for my success. I’ve felt challenged and competitive towards her for a while now and it’s driven me to try and perform better and better in hopes of meeting or exceeding her sales. I’ll probably never get there, given the different genres we write about and the number of people willing to read those genres. Still, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Weight of the World

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Lest anyone feel concerned (or giggling maniacally at the implications), the title of this post is not meant to imply I’m stressed out or feeling burdened. Oh sure, 2012′s been a bit of a bear for me thus far, but with fresh challenges come fresh opportunities. This post is actually about fitness and health – though I’m not that guy who says you have to do this in order to achieve your six pack abs in X many days.

We (wife, kids, and yours truly) are planning a trip to Florida this summer. My wife wants to shave off a few pounds by then since we’ll be staying on the beach. I’ll admit, the winter has added a little insulation to me as well in my quest to get stronger. For those who aren’t long time readers of this blog, I’m a former competitive power-lifter who’s still struggling to return to the glory days, though I admit I will probably never compete again.

Anyhow, this post starts with my wife who recently had some redecorating and / or rearrangement done under the skilled hands of a surgeon. That was 4 weeks ago as of today. At the 3 week mark her doctor told her she was clear to do whatever she liked within reason, including exercise. So my wife decided she wanted to try out this P90X program, but she was worried I might not do it with her since I’m all about heavy weights and intensity whereas P90X is more of fat loss / cardio / volume based routine. Being the eternally supportive husband that I am (oh yeah, I went there), I pledged my full support and we tried it out starting last Sunday night.

The first workout was chest and back, then the 25 minute ab ripper routine. The chest and back consists of a lot of push ups and pull ups, as well as some bentover rows with either dumbbells or bands. We had neither at home (sold my home gym years ago when we moved out of Michigan and have been using public gym memberships ever since), so the back workout didn’t happen. Push ups though, well anybody can do those, so we did. Out of respect for the intellectual property of the creators of P90X I won’t go into detail, but I will say I was impressed with the routine. It really does kick your ass. As an example once a week I work on bench pressing and work my way up to 315lbs or more (I used to do more but there was an incident involving surgery and several months of downtime we I put myself through a custom physical therapy program that worked awesome, but I’ll probably never get back into the 400+ range again). So with that benching background, and the knowledge that I’m one of those crazy SOBs that pushes themselves to the limit and occasionally beyond (see mention of surgery above), I was sore and aching for a couple of days afterwards. My wife was in a similar condition, except for her it seemed she’d done some damage to the recent landscaping she’d had done.

She ended up talking to her surgeon and having to go back in the next day to get checked out. Sure enough, where tissue had been healing she’d strained it. Nothing too bad or damaging, but she was told to give her chest 3 more weeks of downtime to be certain. My wife was disappointed but this is another example of a lesson I’ve learned many times in life – it’s better to take a little extra time off to recover from whatever event (strains, pulls, breaks, illness, surgery, etc.) than it is to go back before your ready and end up needing a much longer time off due to an injury.

Now flash back to me – P90X is tough and all but I mentioned I’m a hardcore meat head, right? My original plan was on my usual gym days to do two workouts – my workout and then the P90X one later that night. My wife supported this and intended to join me. Well I was still aching from the horizontal pushing we did on Sunday night but I hit the gym Monday anyhow. And yes, it was my bench night. Since I didn’t get the back workout in I pushed myself through the P90X workout with proper gym equipment and also mixed in the regular bench press. I only made it to 295 that day – I think I could have hit 315 but without a spotter I didn’t want to have to roll that much weight down my chest. I learned from my prior mistakes – it only took a major injury to make it happen. :)

And since my wife now has 3 weeks until she can try it again that gives me the time needed to prepare myself for the part of P90X that really sucked. Oh sure, it sucks in a good way (not THAT good of a way, mind you), but it still hurt like hell. The ab ripper routine is 25 minutes of abuse. Imagine yourself nailed to a wall in a spread eagle fashion before somebody reminiscent of Lou Ferrigno picks up a 16lb sledgehammer and hits you in the stomach with it repeatedly. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad but at the time I might have argued the point. The point is it’s 25 minutes of abdominal and other “core” muscle exercising. Not just a bunch of crunches either, though a few are tossed in here and there. I’d considered myself to have strong abs – you kind of have to when you’re deadlifting and squatting in the 400 – 600 range. Well here’s the difference between strength and muscle endurance. As a matter of fact I ended up straining either my sartorius or abductor longus on my left leg. Those are muscles in the front of your thigh. It resulted in my spending a day walking like I was 100 years old and suffering from a crippling illness. Oddly enough, after Monday’s upper body workout and a good night’s sleep I could walk fine the next day (still felt a twinge of pain though).

So then came Wednesday, lower body day at the gym. My wife, prescribed 3 weeks of taking it easy, decided she was going to spend 20 minutes on the treadmill then do some lower body stuff herself. Aside from demanding she go easy and not aggravate her injury, how could I feel anything but proud at her determination / motivation? Yeah, my wife rocks. You read it here first. So she did her treadmill then hit the leg press and did some bentover rows of her own.

P90X was behind me (for a little while, at least), so I was ready to get serious about squatting. Historically squatting and I have had some disagreements on and off over the years. One thing that’s going well for me in 2012 is squatting though – no problems with form or anything. I’ve been focusing on more volume up until last week and this one though, but transitioning back into intensity training was easy. My left leg still had that twinge in it but it was barely noticeable so I pushed myself. I worked up to 455 and knew that was my top end. Felt some strain with every set in my right quadriceps this time – the left leg was doing fine though. Later, after another exercise, I hit the leg press to get some good blood flow pumping and worked up to 7 plates per side (the leg press is at an angle and it makes judging weight accurately difficult, not to mention no two leg presses function the same – and a “plate” is 45lbs for those curious). After the squats I was sucking wind hard but I got ‘er done.

Last night I had a hard time sleeping because of the strain in my right quad. This morning I’m limping a little because of it. I want to blame it all on P90X, but the truth is that program is a good program for people motivated and dedicated to making it work. I was very skeptical of it – damn near every exercise plan that promises results in X many days out there is some sort of scam or gimmick. With the P90X you’re given 90 days, and that’s realistic. Give me 3 months and I can turn just about anybody into something noticeably and functionally different if they’re willing to do the work. I’ve helped friends and family do some amazing things in the past, including a 6 month weight loss totaling 100 pounds. I’m not bragging – heck, I’m not even a trainer for hire (I’d love to do that, I just don’t have enough time). I mention that to give credence to my believe that P90X will help a person willing to do the work, but the important part is to know your limits and not push yourself too hard, especially with exercises you’re unfamiliar with. This is stressed in the video but when it came to me I know my body’s limits – I’ve crossed those lines enough times over the years. Or so I thought. Turns out I found another line with the new (and torturous) ab ripper routine. I joked on Monday that I can deadlift over 500 pounds but I can’t pick my leg off the ground right now!

And for the record, back in 2009 I set state records in Michigan for bench pressing 405 pounds and deadlifting 550 pounds. I was in the 242lb weight class (I weighed 229 and 232 at the times) and lifted in an unsanctioned drug-free federation (Son-Light Power). Both records were beaten in 2011. :(  It is my goal to one day squat 500 (current PR is 475), deadlift 600, and I’m still struggling to bench 405 again even though it may never happen (I have worked up to 350 last year though).

Why do I do it? Why put my body through that strain and hard work? Clearly it’s beyond simply being healthy (especially if it’s caused me disabling injuries). It’s because I don’t want to be that guy who looks like he can pick up a car when it falls off the jack on a buddy, I want to be the guy who can do that. I want a mugger to look at me and my wife when we’re out on a date night and think to himself, “I’m not going to screw with that guy!” I was a skinny fat kid and I idolized superheroes and the king of 80′s action, Arnold Schwarzenegger (and I’ve always been a huge Conan fan, both the books and the original movies. The new movie…blah). I like being strong and I never settle for anything less than what I consider to be the best in life. I want my kids to look up at me and realize all the things that are possible to them if they work hard in life.

I may not be the most interesting man in the world but I do I offer this advice to anyone and everyone, “Stay hungry, my friends.”

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Accountability in 2012

January 3, 2012 1 comment

The holidays have come and gone. With it, for me, came an amazing lack of productivity. Oh sure, it was great to decompress from the day job and spend time with my family. Hated coming back to work, in fact. I also learned an important lesson: if I want to get anything productive done at home on a daily basis I need a home office, preferably with sound proofing.

So that brings me to new year and what it has in store for me. Or what I have planned for it. Either way, I’m counting on it being exciting! To start with I’m days away from releasing my first book of 2012, Traitor. It’s the sequel to The Lost Girls and takes place in my Dark Earth series. This particular book takes the heroine from The Lost Girls and tosses her back into Dark Earth where she gets to be bombarded with Native American folk lore and spirits, shamanistic practices and magic, and a confusing betrayal while she tries to establish her own love life.

Shortly after that (I hope), Vitalis book 3: Parasites, will be released. I’m still hoping for a January release date, but nothing’s carved in stone. In Parasites the Terran Coalition makes first contact with Vitalis in a two-fold mission: search for survivors / natives and establish a research colony. What they can’t possibly know is how xenophobic the planet is and what lengths it will go to in order to claim and trespassers as its own. The survival of the fittest them continues as new people are introduced (and devoured), while those that survive learn quickly to adapt and evolve.

There are more books in pipeline as well, but they’re far enough out (Feb – March at the earliest) I don’t want to get anyone unduly excited. I will say that I’m working on the fourth book in my Voidhawk series right now and once that’s finished (this month or bust) I’m going to start in on an immediately sequel to Dark Earth. I’m really excited about the ideas I have for that book and can’t stop new ones from popping into my mind all the time.

The title of this blog is Accountability. I used the term intentionally, it’s meant to help me hold myself accountable for my boasts. Thus far I’ve done a fairly decent job at that, and maybe that’s because I put them out there for anyone to see. That way I know I’m not the only one who expects results from me. So this is sort of a new year’s resolution thing as well. On top of the 4 books I have pending in (hopefully) Q1 of this year I hope to squeeze in a total of at least 8 books this year. 10 – 12 would be ideal, but hey, there’s only one of me! :)

And outside of the writing world I’ve got other goals. Paying off bills and getting ready for pending student loans (MBAs aren’t cheap), bench pressing 405+ again if my injured body will let me, and deadlifting 600+. Silly goals to some, perhaps, but they help me develop the discipline I need to continue to push hard for success in all venues of life.

A new year means a new chance to start out fresh and make things happen for you. Big or small, make some changes in your life that make things better for you. Improve what needs improve or get rid of what needs to be dropped! We could also stand to fix something, what’s yours?

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Positive Thinking for the Win!

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Daily affirmations have been around for a long time. I’ve heard about them for quite a while, years even, but my most recent injection of it was from reading Scott Adam’s blog a while back. Scott Adams, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is the creator of the comic strip Dilbert. He talked about how he used them to help him become a multi-millionaire. Yeah, selling comics. Taken out of context that’s quite a statement. I believe I read somewhere a while back that he’s a Mensa member, or at least has an IQ score high enough to be one. That tends to take the sting out of the idea of taking advice from a cartoonist. Or does it?

Is it a cause / effect relationship? Being smart enough to focus on positive things helped him achieve them. By his own admission he has failed far more times than he’s succeeded. As a possible counterpoint to that alleged high IQ is the fact that he seems to enjoy poking fun at established paradigms and enraging various groups and individuals. As a bystander, I’m often amused by this. I don’t always share his views, but I don’t believe he cares so long as he’s entertaining. That and he’s generating publicity and for someone like him, publicity is a good thing.

So what is this positive thinking nonsense and what are these affirmations. Affirmations, as I understand them are writing down positive things and goals on a daily basis (or more often). That helps you focus on them and the more you focus on something, the more you tend to make it happen. The trick is to keep it from becoming and obsessive / compulsive behavior. Or maybe that’s when the real success happens? Okay, so the trick is stopping just shy of being hauled off to a padded room.

Do I do that? No, of course not. WHAT?! Yeah, I know, what a jerk. What kind of hypocrite am I? Well, I may not write my goals down on a frequent basis, but I hold them near and dear to my heart and I’m always striving toward them. Set backs will happen, but that doesn’t mean giving up is ever the answer. The one exception to the rule would be a romantic interest in someone who’s taken a restraining order out against you. Give that one up.

Let me share a personal example. I’ve written many posts about lifting weights. Check back in the archives if you’re interested, I’ve give tons of tips and valuable information on both lifting and nutrition (including weight loss). My goal has always been to get as strong as I possibly can. I don’t necessarily want to look like the guy who can lift the rear end of a car, I want to be the guy who can do that. I even competed as a natural powerlifter for a year, and had plans to continue doing so prior to an incident occurring. That incident involved me tearing my left pectoral muscle so badly it was completely separated from my left arm.

Take a minute and think about that. The big muscle over your heart that controls your arm moving forward and pushing against anything. Ripped free from the arm it controls, leaving the arm more or less flapping in the breeze like a lame duck.

It’s kind of hard to bench press without that muscle attached. I went to the doctor because, to be honest, this injury terrified me. I identified myself with being big and strong. I was a skinny-fat kid through school who fantasized about fantasy, science fiction, and comic books. I wanted to be special, but it wasn’t until I applied myself and realized that I could only achieve what I wanted through hard work that I began to become what I’d long aspired to be. So being injured like this felt like what I imagined a marathon runner would feel like if they were told they had to have their legs amputated.

A month later I had surgery to re-attach the muscle to the bone. It’s not routed quite the same way it should be – the doc asserts that he’d never worked on someone with so much muscle in the area and because of that it was no easy task to reroute it and reattach it. That was both a compliment and a pronouncement of doom. I moved to Utah a month later, preventing a follow-up or professional therapy. So instead I used what I knew about lifting and the human body to create my own therapy routine. I pushed myself safely and it worked. Six months later I was able to bench press again, though my strength had faded considerably. I worked damn hard and before I left Utah I managed to use my bench shirt with a good friend I’d made out there spotting me and I managed to bench press almost 90% of my prior competition best. Still a ways to go, but it was more than I ever thought I could do again.

As a follow up, earlier this year at the gym I moved to in Ohio I managed to match my best competition deadlift. I collapsed after lowering the weight and, had I not been gasping for breath from the effort of picking up so much weight, I might have broken down at achieving it even though I was a year and a half older. I continue to push my bench as well and even though I acknowledge I may never hit my old numbers, it’s not because I’m not trying to get there. I’ve made changes to my lifting form and training style, incorporating my triceps and lats more. The devil is in the details, but for the sake of the moral of this story it’s really all about aspiring to reach your dreams and not allowing the road blocks that get in the way to make you give up.

And writing? Yes, writing is perhaps even more important to me, so I know I will succeed. I’ll struggle at times and I’ll have to find new tactics to achieve my goals, but I’ll find them and I’ll use them. If you want it, stop making excuses. Go and get it!

Trust me, I’m positive about this.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

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