Category Archives: Writing

What makes me a writer

There are certain words in the English language whose meanings are set in stone.  Words that have little to no ambiguity, in most situations.  Words like ‘lungs,’ or ‘North,’ or ‘diabetes.’  These words have specific meanings that are not really open for debate.

Other words are a bit more malleable.

For example, ‘writer.’  I remember going to a writing conference and hearing someone say, ‘if you write, then you are a writer.’  In the strictest sense of the word, I suppose that’s true, but I think that it diminishes the relationship between many writers and their work.

I don’t have the right to determine who is or isn’t a writer, obviously, but I do feel comfortable sharing why it is that I call myself a writer.

And it certainly has nothing to do with sales.  I’ve got three or four books out in the world, under various names, and in an average month, I sell right about at enough to get myself a coffee.  One coffee.  Thankfully I don’t drink coffee, so I get to use the money for other things.  If finances were all that was involved, I’d have to call myself a farmer, since that’s where the majority of my income comes from.

The amount of time that I invest in my activities might have something to do with it.  I do make a point of writing every day… most every day.  Five out of seven?  Anyhow, the point is, I put in time.  But even when I’m working a full time job and can’t put in nearly as much time, I still consider myself a writer.

I figured out what made me think of myself as a writer one day after depositing a check from work.  The check wasn’t huge, I’ve never had a job that paid a lot, but it was for a couple hundred bucks.  Enough to cover rent and a couple of meals.  I deposited the money, I went home, I checked online to see if anything had happened with anything I’d published and… something had.

My heart jumped, my breath caught, and I read a five star review on goodreads.

It was not my first five star review, but it was one of the first ones I’d received from somebody I didn’t know.  I don’t think they wrote a review of the book, but they gave me five stars.  Somebody liked what I’d written.

The book that I’d sold them made me all of a buck sixty.  Unless they bought an electronic copy, in which case it was closer to a buck.  According to their goodreads profile, more than half of their reviews were five stars.  There was no value to what they’d given me, but I was exhilarated! More than exhilarated, I was ecstatic!  I had connected to a reader.  I had created something, they had picked it up, and they had ingested a little piece of my mind.  And they enjoyed it.

I rode that high all day long.

The money for work would let me live and keep a roof over my head, but my writing made me feel whole.

I believe that everybody has something in their life that keeps them sane.  We spend most of our time dealing with things that we must, but we all need something that anchors us and helps us define who we are.  Whether it’s religion, family, art, work, study, some activity.

For me, it’s writing.  I love it.  There are parts of being a writer that are difficult and frustrating.  There are times when the words don’t come, and when everything I write seems trite or absurd.  There are bad days, of course, but writing is more than just a thing I do, it’s a part of who I am.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’m a writer.

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My Really, Really, Ridiculously Long List

So one of the things that’s important, if you’re going to be a writer, is to read.  It’s kind of like the way that if you want to be a chef you need to eat, or if you want to be a painter you need to look, or if you want to be a composer, you need to listen.

Anyhow, I’ve got to admit, I haven’t been reading as much as I should lately.  Part of it is finding writers I enjoy.  I spend so much time analyzing what I read that I have trouble really losing myself in a book the way I used to when I was younger.  Now I just see the faults, and what I would have liked them to change.

But another part of the problem is money.  My god, am I so freaking broke right now.  I have dozens of books that I need to get.  I have nearly a dozen writer friends who have books out that I promised to buy and read as soon as I can.  And I have at least as many books that people recommended to me.  No, not recommended, recommended would be ‘hey, you should try this.’  What do you call it when people are like ‘READ THIS!  You HAVE to read it!’  Foisting?  Is that it?

The long and short of it is, if somehow my book hits the right niche and suddenly becomes wildly successful, I will have to spend my entire first paycheck, and probably the one after that, on books.

On the plus side, I will then have a lot of books to read, and I have to admit, I miss those days when I would lie in bed, glancing at the clock every few minutes and going ‘I don’t have to get up THAT early tomorrow.’

Juggling

So here’s the thing about writing as a business:  There’s a lot of waiting around.

I think I addressed this a little bit in some earlier posts.

When you’re just writing for the love of it, time isn’t a factor at all.  You write when you want, don’t when you’d rather not, edit whenever the mood strikes you.  When you decide that you want to write for a living, however, everything changes.  After you write, you send it to people to help you edit, and you wait.  You get it back, you make some changes, you send it to people who might want to publish it, and you wait.  You mostly get rejected, but let’s say you don’t: you get accepted, and then you wait.  You find out what they want changed and change it, and you wait.  You get a little news here and a little news there, and you wait.  Everything finally gets finished you find out when it’s supposed to be released, and you wait.  Well, actually you promote, but whatever.  It gets published, you promote it and you wait.  you promote it some more and then you wait.

A lot of downtime.  So eventually you realize that you need to have other stuff going on during the downtime.  Maybe you work on another book.  Maybe you critique stuff for other people.  Maybe you help a friend write a movie script.  But whatever you’re doing, if it’s in the writing world, you will soon find yourself in a spot where you’re waiting for both projects to come back to you.  Why?  Because that’s how waiting works.  You can bust your ass trying to get your part done as fast as you can, but at some point you’ll find yourself in line behind a bunch of other people waiting for something that you can’t make go any faster.  So you start another project.  And maybe another.

Then one of the projects that you have up in the air comes down.  Usually when you’re right in the middle of something else.  So you manage your time as best you can and try to get both balls up in the air again, and when you do… guess what?  Now you’re waiting again!  You start a new project because there’s no sense in wasting any time, but just when you get started on that, one of the other balls comes down.  That’s okay, you just did this five minutes ago.  Rush, rush, rush, and both balls are up.

Eventually one of two things happens, you’re either fifty years old juggling eight projects and not doing anything else with your time, or all of your projects fall down around your head at the same time.

Or maybe I just need to work on my time management skills.

The unreliable narrator

In my ‘Corpse-Eater Saga,’ I wanted to push myself a bit with my writing.  I try to do that as often as I can.  In this case I did a couple of things that I don’t normally do.  The first thing I did was give myself a narrator who relies less on his eyesight than the rest of us.  That has actually been much harder for me to handle than you’d think.  Recently i went back over book one and I found several things I should have done differently if I really wanted to make that detail stick.

But the other thing I did, the thing that I want to contemplate right now, is use an unreliable narrator.

As a rule, the unreliable narrator is not my favorite tool.  Mostly it goes back to my own gullibility.  As a rule, when somebody tells me something, my first instinct is to believe them.  Even after having been lied to many times, and having discovered that I was given an obscenely one-sided story, when I talk to people and they tell something, I have to make a concerted effort not to assume that their recitation is the literal truth.

I have used unreliable narrators before, particularly in short stories.  Having someone who is misinformed or unable to perceive the truth of a particular situation is quite useful for twist endings.  But in ‘Awfully Appetizing,’ I am trying for something a bit subtler with my character.  I’m trying to write the story of somebody who is dishonest with himself.  Giving quiet hints that his perception of the world is skewed has proven more difficult than I anticipated.

Part of the problem may be that I’m going for something a little bit too subtle.  Or maybe he’s not dishonest enough with himself.  Is he really an unreliable narrator, or is he just uncertain?

Maybe I failed to make him unreliable and only made him conflicted.

One of the tricky things when you’re looking at writing a series is that it’s hard to maintain what you perceive as a flaw in your narrator over the course of years and years, and books and books.  You see the flaws in them so clearly, you can’t imagine how they could completely miss it in themselves.

Well, if that’s the case, at least he should pick up some of my own personal flaws, the ones that I’m blind to.

Starting at Zero

Have you ever gone to a movie and realized about halfway through that the jackass who made the trailer for it spoiled one of the major plot points?  One of my favorite examples is The Sixth Sense, where the creepy kid confides ‘I see dead people,’ in the trailer, a very important plot twist that doesn’t come until about halfway through the movie.

Well, the same sort of thing can happen in books.  I’ve had, on multiple occasions, found myself a chapter or two into a book when I suddenly realize that the author wanted to spring something on me that I knew going in.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the novel is set on a spaceship traveling to a new solar system.  The first few chapters take place on a farm, so when we get to the end of a chapter and the boy is peering through the glass dome and realizes that he’s out amongst the stars, it’s supposed to take our breath away.

It’s a little hard to be surprised by that revelation, though, when the cover of the book shows a spaceship that happens to have a giant dome on its back and what appears to be a continent within it.

Similarly, the scene where the kindly old professor reveals himself to be a bloodthirsty vampire is just a bit less of a shocker when the cover shows me an old man grinning to reveal two impressive fangs.

Not to mention everything that a back cover can give away.

Part of the problem is where the control over these things lies.  If a writer has final say on a book cover and jacket blurb, he’s got a good chance of getting out ahead of these problems.  But if the publisher isn’t interested in feedback and just wants to rush the manuscript through their machine and get it out in the world, things can be a bit more complicated.

But even if the writer does have control over these things, it can be tricky figuring out how to market certain stories without giving things away.  Take that story about the farmer who discovers he isn’t on a world, but on a spaceship.  If that revelation is in chapter two, then presumably most of the book is a science fiction story.  How do you hide what it’s about, while making certain that the appropriate audience reads your book?

It’s a conundrum.  And something to think about.

Sometimes you have to go forward, to go backwards, to go forwards

So I’ve got an idea for a book.

Okay, I’ve got oodles of ideas for books… for those of you who have writer friends and you want to tell them an idea you had that they could write about?  They’ve got plenty of ideas.  Ideas are the easy part.  But we’ll set that aside for now.

So, the problem I have with the idea that I want to write about right now is that it isn’t a FULL idea.  I don’t have all of the pieces.  I have an idea that I think will work well to hook the audience in, and which will force me to be more creative in the way I address certain things.  I have ideas for characters that I like.  They’re complicated, three dimensional (well, most of them) and well flawed.

The story itself I’m still working on, but that isn’t the hard part…

The hard part is the world building.

Please… don’t give me any advice, I’ve built worlds before.  Plenty of them.  I know tricks and tropes and techniques and… and… stuff.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’ve got a fairly vast world, to which I have made a number of deep changes.  The way time is measured is somewhat different than what we’re used to. The kinds of currency that are used is different.  Certain expressions are very different.

All of which would be fine if I were writing this more traditionally, but I’m doing something a little bit different with perspective I’m writing this from.  In order to introduce the narrator correctly, I sort of have to ask the reader to take a couple of leaps of faith with me.

But you can only ask for so many leaps of faith.  You have to give the reader a place to start, a foundation from which to understand the story.

In the end I realized that the only way I could figure out where to begin, was to start in the wrong spot, go as far as I could go, then look back and figure out where I should have started instead.

It’s kind of frustrating.  I’m going to write three or four chapters that will all be thrown out just as soon as I figure out what I need to figure out here.  But it’s exciting too.  I can really go for it, I don’t have to worry about making everything comprehensible, or getting the terms just right.  I just have to pick up the bat and swing for the fences.

Go forward, so I can go backwards, so I can go forwards.  Maybe I’m biting off more than I’m ready to chew, with this project.  Maybe if I waited a couple of years and tried again it would flow perfectly and easily.

Then again, you never make progress if you only do what’s easy.  The more you struggle with a project, the more you have to wrestle all the details into place, the more you learn and the better you are when you start something new.  Right?

Training your muse

One of the interesting bits of trying to become a professional writer seems to be figuring out how to train my muse.

I remember, when I was much younger, back when I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but had my entire lifetime to figure out what that actually meant, I would go days, weeks, sometimes even months, without getting any real writing done.  Sometimes I tried to force myself because I knew how much pleasure it gave me to sit down and watch the words roll out onto the page, but if the muse wasn’t whispering into my ear, nothing happened.

At a certain point, however, I realized that if I wanted to write professionally, I needed to be able write regularly as well.  Figuring out how to pull that off was a long, hard process.  And I mean long and hard.  Like that was of my major focuses for over a decade.

It can be done, as it turns out, you can teach yourself to write every day, although I have to admit that there are some days when I have to carve the words onto the page with a poorly balanced chisel and a two ton mallet, and other days when I seem to be able to splash chapters into place without breaking a sweat.

But as I try to make this transition, from amateur to pro, I find myself butting heads with the muse over something else altogether.

Content.

When I was a kid I had a bitch of a time actually finishing a story.  Oh, I had ideas.  I had oodles and oodles of idea.  I had ideas about aliens and machines and magicians and spaceships and other dimensions and superheroes and… well, for the sake of brevity I suppose we can stop there.

I had ideas a-plenty, so when I sat down in front of the computer, and when the muse was willing to lend me her time, I just let her pick the topic.  And off we would go!  A whirlwind adventure describing some alien planet or the strange laws that would exist a hundred years in the future.  Eventually I would find myself in front of a wall that I couldn’t see an easy way around, so I’d save the document and start a new one.  Round and round and round we went.  There were times, growing up, when I had a hundred plus stories started, and not one of them finished.  And that was fine, because what was I going to do with them if I finished them anyways?

Now, unfortunately, I have people who are waiting for things.

Ideally, it won’t be long until those people are my adoring public.  Or maybe my friendly public.  Or mildly interested public. But for now, it’s my beta readers, editors, an the people who want to work on projects with me.

Unfortunately my muse is loathe to give up her ability to channel surf in my brain.  Yes, I need to get a copy of book two to my editor, yes I have a friend in hawaii who wants to see the first couple pages of that project we’ve been talking about.  Yes, I have a lot on my plate.  But she just had an idea for that superhero story we’d been playing around with a few years back.  Let’s focus on THAT!

Well, what’s a boy to do, except lock the door, drink a bunch of caffeine, and start trying to train his muse all over again.  Stupid muse.  God I love her.

Message in a Bottle

So, once a writer gets a book out there, however they got their book out there, they are much like a seaman thrown onto a strange shore, who, having journeyed over the mountains that lay beyond their beach find, to their horror, that instead of being on some foreign continent, they are trapped on a deserted island.

Instead of reaching the end of their trial, they are, in fact, only just beginning it.  Once the book is out and about, the writer must begin to promote it.  There was a time when this was the job of the publisher, and some of the kinder publishers will help you with this step in your journey, but as a rule, the person who is going to do the most work in getting word of your book out into the world is you.

Unfortunately, when it comes to promotion, nobody is really entirely sure how the whole thing works.  Or if they are sure, they’re keeping it to themselves, which is probably a wise thing as nothing seems to work as well once everyone is doing it.

For most of us, promoting our books is a bit like sending a message in a bottle.  Oh, sure, there are certain things you can do that are certain to get SOME kind of response.  For example, you have to tell your friends and family.  They’re basically obliged to buy a copy and tell you that they love it.  But unless one of the people who has to buy your book and sing its praises is Brad Pitt, that isn’t going to be enough to get the response that you want.

Every writer knows, in their heart, that somewhere out in the world, his or her readership is waiting, desperately wanting to find out about their book.  They might not realize that this is what they’re waiting for, but it is.  All we have to do is put the message into the right person’s hands at the right time and it will spread like wildfire.

The problem is that we have no idea who the right person is, when the right time is, and where all of this will take place.  Even when we know that certain things have worked before, like setting up a cooking blog, or selling books at track meets, or sending a copy of the book to a celebrity, we also know that those things worked because of very specific circumstances.  The book tied in with this, or it represented that, or the celebrity in question had just taken their medication… whatever the reason.  The point is, we cannot possibly expect for something that worked yesterday to work today.  It won’t.  Instead we take pot shots.  We pay attention to the big things, the trends going on, and we try to find a way to make our book stand out just a little bit, and we throw our message in a bottle out into the tide here or there and cross our fingers and hope really REALLY hard.

Sometimes I think that there must be a better way to do this, some way to help the cream rise to the top, instead of just advancing the people who are good at promoting themselves.  I don’t have anything against those people, but I think that good writers and good storytellers often get the short end of the stick in the publishing world.

Or maybe I’m just not creative enough or not dedicated enough.  I will admit, I often find myself getting frustrated and walking away from the computer too quickly.  I really am drawing a blank on how to promote myself.

Well, almost a blank, there is that one idea…. and it might be crazy enough to work….

That perfect twist

So, I’m watching this show called ‘Mr. Robot,’ and I’m rather enjoying it so far.  They’re doing some interesting things with the characters and the story arc… anyhow, about halfway through episode two I get this feeling in my head that they’re pulling a fight club on me.  I think that the main character of the show, who has mental problems and is on drugs half the time, is also at least one other character, the guy Christian Slater is playing.  He might be even more.  It popped into my head about halfway through episode two, so I kind of need to re-watch up to this point to see if there are any more indicators.  The biggest thing that makes me think that, however, is the style of the show.  There’s this helpless rage at the corporate machine, a sort of mind bending narration combined with self doubt.  The character is reaching out, trying to find something, trying to change who he is, or how the world work.  It reminds me so much of fight club that I can’t help but wonder.

Anyhow, that got me thinking about movie twists.  And whenever I think about twists in stories, I inevitably think of the twilight zone.  Not the recent reboot, but the original, with Rod Serling.  I used to love watching twilight zone marathons.  The thing was, once you’d seen a couple, you could pretty much guess the twists on the rest of them.  Well, not always, some were too random to really be guessed at.  The box of damaged toys being donated to charity?  Really?  That’s just a couple of writers getting drunk on the weekend going ‘what haven’t we done yet?  come on, there’s gotta be something.’

The thing is, the best twists, the most excellent, most interesting ones, aren’t the ones that come out of left field, they’re the ones that you should have seen coming but didn’t.  My favorite movies and television shows (twist-wise) are the ones where when you watch it the second time, it seems so obvious.

But there’s a delicate balance in there, I think.  It’s a dance between the writer and the reader, or viewer, or whatever.  Making a story where the ending is too obvious isn’t any fun, but you have to give enough clues that your audience can play the game, which means that some of them will see it coming.  A good writer of epic stories will set up a number of red herrings, each of which is possible, so that the conclusion they’re heading for is possible, but only one of several paths they can go down.  It keeps people guessing.

I think it’s a little harder in movies and television shows.  In books you have infinite time and space to work with… well, not infinite, but a lot.  In books and movies, every second needs to accomplish something.  Everything you do needs to have meaning.

My favorite twists to write are not the twist endings.  I mean, I like those from time to time, especially when I’m working on a short story, a little change of pace, a sudden shift in perspective, something that changes the meaning of everything that came before, it’s cool.  But in long stories, in a series, the things that interest me are less about the way things end and more about the way they began.  Sometimes the biggest twist is not where we’re going, but how we got here to start with.

And the some of the most satisfying twists are the ones that you make the reader wait for.  I’m reading the Dresden files a lot these days, and one of the things I’ve come to admire about Butcher’s work is how patient he is at doling out the payoffs.  He had his main character suffering debilitating headaches for several books before finally we discovered why.  And I’m convinced that Dresden will, at some point, journey through time… that he will be the one who fixed the problem with ‘little chicago’ in his basement all those years ago, that he is the person who he hears shouting ‘fuego’ in the battle at chichan itza… that he has had a hand in guiding his own life. All these things which have been set up over years and years, both in the story and out of it.  That’s what I’d like to pull off with some of my own writing.  I have some things set up for that with the Corpse-Eater Saga, but I’m not sure I”m as adept at that as I’d like to be.

Writing as a Job

I don’t actually remember the exact moment when I decided that I wanted to be a professional writer.  I was know that I was young enough at the time that I wasn’t particularly concerned with considerations like money.  I was still in that sweet spot in life where I knew that when I grew up I would have to pick something to do that defined who I was, and I knew that the something I wanted to do was tell stories.

It was perfect, beautiful even.  I loved stories, loved to read them, loved to watch them, loved to close my eyes and let them dance around in my brain; all I had to do was learn to take the stories inside my head, put them down on paper, and I would get to BE a writer.

As I grew up, I came to realize that there was a bit more to it than that.  You have to learn to use the right words in the right place so that your reader will be able to pick up on the subtleties of the story.  You have to plan ahead, make sure that what you’re telling is cohesive and meaningful, a single story, instead of a series of unrelated tales that simply happen to somebody.  You have to figure out how to make sure that your reader will relate to the characters so that they are invested in them.

Lots of subtle little details.

But those are skills you pick up along the way.  They are tools that you add to your toolbox, and while you might struggle with them, wrestle with them, sometimes even hate and despise them, once you’ve figured out how they work, the writing itself is still the same glorious adventure that you loved before.

It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I began to discover where the real work began.

I remember, very specifically, having finished my second or third novel, I looked it over and thought to myself, ‘finally, something worth publishing.’

Looking back I realize how terribly, terribly wrong I was, but at the time, having just forced the last big of this giant brain-baby onto the page, I was convinced that I had delivered unto the world the first book of my burgeoning career.  All I needed to do was send it off to get published.

So I got on my parents’ computer, headed to whatever search engine it was we were using at the time, and typed in something along the lines of ‘publishing novels,’ which got me a long list of book publishers.  Of course, there homepages were filled with advertisements for the books and authors they already had, but I did a little bit of digging, and at long last found a link entitled ‘submissions.’

And this was where my journey hit its first snag.  I had expected them to give me an e-mail address or a physical address where I could send my book.  Instead, they had about a page and a half describing, in detail, what they were looking for, and what they were not looking for, and how everything was to be organized.

The first hurdle listed was something called a ‘query letter.’  I was bewildered.  I knew both of the words: query meant ‘question’ and letter… well, that was just a letter, duh.  So a letter of question.  What was the question?  After looking over the submission requirements for ten or fifteen minutes, then googling ‘query letter’ and scanning through examples I came to the inescapable conclusion that they wanted me to send them a letter asking them if they wanted to see my novel.

What. The . Hell?

Send a communication asking if I could send a communication?  How was that not a waste of time?  They published books, clearly they needed to look at potential manuscripts to decide if they wanted to publish it.  How could they possibly look at a letter… a half page letter at that, and decide, based on that, whether they wanted to see my manuscript?  But the real kicker was the little comment at the end of the paragraph where they informed me that it would take several months for them to get back to me.

Months?!  It had taken months to write my book, they couldn’t possibly, not seriously, be expecting me to wait for the same length of time it had taken me to write my book just to hear them say ‘sure, send it to us and we’ll take a look.’

But they did!  And more than that, when they did ask for it (at this point it hadn’t even occurred to me that they might not want to see the manuscript itself), it would take them even longer to decide if they were willing to publish it!

Absurdity!

Well, my google search had given me a list of publishers, surely they weren’t all so demanding!

Except that they were.  Every single one.  Not only that, but it turned out that not a single one of them was willing to even consider my book if I had anyone else thinking about considering to look at it!  Which meant that if I sent my first query letter out that day, got a reply to send the book, sent it, and then found out that somehow they had decided NOT to publish my book, I’d have to start the entire process over again!  From scratch!

I had spent months and months lovingly and carefully sculpting a story from nothing.  Some days I worked for hours at a stretch creating characters and backstories, building a world… it had been a labor of love.  Then, just when I thought my work was complete, when all I had to do was send something off and wait for someone else to finish working on it, it turned out that my trials had just begun.

The secret about taking up a job in the arts, the thing that most people don’t realize when they start, is that the art is not the work at all.  You assume that it is, after all, it’s hard.  Everyone can make art, but very few people learn to make it WELL, and you assume that the long hours of work, and the research and study that you put in are what make an artist.  But if you are looking for any level of commercial success as an artist you need to realize that what separates the successful from the rest of the pack is largely bullheaded determination.

Skill is good and important, but trying to be a successful artist is a lot like trying to be a violinist in a machine shop.  Whether you are the best in the world at what you do, or a novice, most people can’t even hear you over the cacophony that surrounds you.  There are moments of silence, brief periods when you can be heard, but those moments are unpredictable and fleeting.  You have to be fortunate enough to be playing at those moments, and to be heard by somebody who can appreciate what you’re doing before the scream of steel and the grinding of metal overwhelms you once again.

It is possible, of course, to be an artist in a vacuum.  You can spend your entire life writing beautiful works, then piling them up on the edge of your desk, unconcerned with whether or not anybody ever reads them, but most artists need their creations to be seen, to be heard, to be read.

And the only way to do that is to fight for them, tooth and nail, climbing up the side of a cliff, against the wind, in snow six feet thick, without shoes…. Well, I think you get the idea.