What’s It About?

Just a quick check-in to say that I finished my first short story since deciding to devote the near future to that arcane art. Finished proofing it tonight and sent it to my first readers for feedback. This is the fastest I have ever turned around a story. Hopefully, it signals an end to my troubles with the form.

Part of the reason I’ve been so productive lately has to do with reading these biographies of great SF writers. I started with Heinlein, moved onto Vonnegut and am now reading Becoming Ray Bradbury. Something about the struggles even the greats go through (Heinlein living in an Airstream counting out pennies to buy food, Vonnegut’s entire life) reminds me that it’s not supposed to be easy.

But another thing that helps when you listen to writers talk about writing: You remember that your story is supposed to be about something. I’ve been hitting this particular steel drum a lot lately, but it’s almost as important as remembering to put on pants every day.

If someone asks you what your story is about and you respond by telling them the plot, you’ve missed something. Actually, you’ve missed the whole thing. This is why Michael Bay will always be a hack no matter how much money he makes and all the cool directors will laugh at him behind his back. His movies aren’t about anything.

Answering the question, “What’s it about?” has provided me with a lot of “What if” scenarios that all stand a good chance of becoming stories. Because good stories are about characters and their actions in extreme circumstances. For Heinlein, stories were about the way a man lives and dies. For Vonnegut, they were about the tragedy of the human condition. For Bradbury… I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but if I pull from memory, I would venture they were about the magic of real life.

Okay, that’s it for now. I’ve got writing to do.

Shakin’ It Here, Boss

I’m doing it. I’m writing an outline. I have to admit that this story has kicked my ass so many times over the past four years, the only thing I can think to do is to fall back, make a new plan, and try a different tack. It works in video games when you come up against a particularly difficult Boss (Hello, Borderlands 2) so it must work in everything else, right? Sure.

The truth is that most of my stories are character based. The plot is rarely broad or convoluted. It’s more like an Airstream trailer the characters travel around in. But I got way ahead of myself when I dived into Black Battalion and didn’t have a plan for the second and third volumes of the trilogy.

I remember reading Dune for the first time as an 8th grader and immediately leaping to our IBM Selectric to begin doing something similar because, let’s face it, you learn by stealing. It wasn’t until I started to think up my own rip-off of Dune at age 12 that I realized what a gigantic, herculean creation that novel was. That plot, so many characters, the arrangement of opposing forces, the way he manages the interlocking tensions. It’s an incredible accomplishment and one that was probably suited particularly to Frank Herbert who was obsessed with the intricate design and function of ecosystems.

So now here I am with the new story and it’s pretty big. It’s definitely bigger than Black Battalion and has even more primary characters, so I am doing an outline — directly against my second favorite piece of advice: Never write a story you know the end to.

My favorite piece of writing advice is anecdotal and I don’t remember it completely so I’ll just finagle it a bit here: Someone asked Jack Finney what the most important part of writing was and he responded: You must put on pants every day.

And what he means, of course, is you have to treat writing like a job. Sitting around the house in your underwear does not indicate to your subconscious that you’re at work. Rather, it makes the point that there’s no urgency to accomplish anything.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the outline. So I’m really going to outline the entire 8th draft of this great white bird dangling from my neck before I start writing it this time. We’ll see how that works. I know it sounds like it could only do me good, but I have tried writing outlines in the past and the result has been not so good. Essentially, once I know the whole story, I lose interest in writing it.

But I’m seven drafts deep in this one, so I think there’s little chance I’ll just write it off like a bad debt. In the words of the immortal Buffy, “Wish me monsters.”

Better or Just Different?

I’ve written before on this blog about unnecessary change not being the same thing as innovation, mostly in a long rant about the new GUIs for Windows 8, Microsoft Office, iTunes and iOS 7 in which I mostly made myself sound like a grumpy old man but also managed to point out that a culture of constant change is not the same as a culture of constant improvement.

Changing the size of the buttons or the color scheme is one thing, but taking something that has become iconic to mainstream computer use like the menu structure and replacing it with a confusing mass of ribbons makes life better for no one.

So now I find myself in a similar situation. The book that I had planned to do just one polish draft of before sending it out is now on the horns of a dilemma. I had a flash of inspiration the other night that would fix many of the problems I feel the current incarnation suffers from. Namely, the story isn’t about anything. It’s just a plot and action with characters, but it doesn’t say anything. Also, the main female character has no motivation and no unique voice. Also, the setting makes large parts of the story hard to swallow.

So delineating the problems like that makes the question seem rhetorical but I’ll ask it anyway: Would these changes, the ones I say will fix the above problems but would require a complete rewrite, make the story better or just different?

The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem. I often have lingering doubts about the final draft of a rewrite exactly like those listed above but discover during the polish draft that they’re either not problems or can be fixed with minimal changes to the existing draft.

Also, there is a widely known medical condition among writers called Obsessive Compulsive Rewriting. Writers with OCR are possessed by the need to endlessly modify their work so that they’ll never have to send it out and have to deal with all that ugly rejection and Amazon user reviews.

I switched from MS Office because I didn’t think the ribbons were better and I never upgraded to Windows 8 because, seriously, Microsoft? But I learned to live with the new (and completely unintuitive) UI for iTunes and the artsy-fartsy but difficult to actually use iOS 7.

I suppose I’ll make my decision when I start the polish draft. If those problems still exist and can’t be fixed or if the changes I’m thinking about will make the story substantially better then and only then will I embark on an eighth draft.

Oh, wait. The male protagonist has a case of mixed motivation and an unclear voice. I’m definitely doing another draft.

Where Do Your Ideas Come From? And What If They Don’t?

I have never been very good at writing short fiction.  What most people say is difficult, writing novels, actually comes naturally to me.  It’s the very brevity of the short story that I find so confounding.  And while it’s all fine and good to say, “I’m not good at short fiction,” and then focus on writing novels, it still worries at the back of my mind that I’m not doing the work necessary to master my craft.

Because I originally believed that writing happened by magic and was fueled entirely by talent, I put myself at a real disadvantage at the start of my career.  It wasn’t until I reach middle age that I realized writing was, like anything you do, something that gets better with study, repetition and experimentation. In other words, by doing the work necessary to master your craft.

I set about studying story first by diving into screenwriting, a subset of writing that is almost entirely focused on story and structure.  This very quickly led me to writing long form fiction, a practice I would only abandon briefly now and then when I just happened to be struck by an idea for a short story.

But again, I have this feeling that not getting at least “good” at short fiction is somehow doing a disservice to the process of learning to write better.  People are always wondering out loud how to get published and how to get an agent and so on but the advice on those subjects always starts the same: Write. Better. Fiction.  And the only way to do that is to master the craft.

I’ve written poetry and screenplays that I’m proud of and that have done well out there in the world.  And of course I’m perfectly comfortable with writing long form fiction, but I have only published one short story since I began this journey ten years ago.  That seems wrong.

So I decided to dedicate a year to writing and publishing short stories.  Except for the polish draft of the novel I have to go out to agents, all new work for the next 12 months will be on short fiction.  That was the decision and to get started I went through my folder of short stories I’ve put together over the years.  Some I started but never finished.  Some I finished but didn’t like.  Some I even submitted to magazines but when Analog and F&SF rejected them I just went on about my usual long form work.

What I found after some digging were eight stories that could either be rewritten or were ready to go or contained a germ of an idea that I still feel should be examined.  That’s not very much.  That’s less than one story per year.  So I figured my first task would be overhaul the stories that needed work and submit the ones I felt were ready to go but the very next task would be to start writing like crazy.  Like Harlan Ellison crazy.  

I opened up Google Docs and created a blank document to house my list of story ideas.  I figured I would just jot them down over the next couple of days until I had half a dozen and then pick the best one and get started writing.  But a funny thing happened: That document stayed blank for days.  While I put together a list of 39 magazines to submit to and finished out the rewrites of the stories that needed it and submitted the ones that didn’t, I never came up with a single idea.  Yes, this went on for a week.  Nothing came.  And it was truly terrifying.

Have I reached that point in my life where my brain simply doesn’t have the creative juices left to do something new?  That’s a question you never want to have to ask yourself, because inevitably if you have to ask the question you already know what the answer is.

But then I remembered one of my principal laws of the natural universe: Creativity arises from boredom.  

No more eBooks on the Kindle except for the biography of Robert Heinlein.  For some reason, reading about the lives of creative people has always caused me to become very active.  After reading Josh Logan’s autobiography, I sat down and wrote a musical comedy complete with lyrics (But no music.  I am not musical).  

No more audio books in the car.  No more magazines.  No more word games on my phone.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s what people always want to know.  The answer is: In line at Walgreens.  Stuck in traffic on 183.  At a red light.  In a construction zone.

Since forcing myself back into the boredom regime, I am happy to say I’ve come up with seven ideas in as many days.  Now I have the other problem: picking one.

Repeating Yourself… Or Someone Else

I once wrote a story that included a field hospital where all the nurses and doctors were vampires.  It wasn’t the main point of the story but it was in there and as I went back over it during rewrites something about it bothered me.  It seemed derivative but I couldn’t think where I had possibly seen something like this before. But that happens a lot.  For instance, I accidentally steal from myself all the time.  I’ll be humming along and put something in that feels just right and then later remember that I had originally put that in another story.  If that story hasn’t been published, the theft becomes permanent.

Then one day I was reading Black House by King & Straub (I think it was Black House.  I honestly can’t remember.  It could have been one of the Gunslinger books) and I got to the part about the field hospital manned by vampires.  A cold chill went through me.  This may seem like something minor — it was an honest mistake, after all — but I can’t imagine how awful it would be to inadvertently plagiarize something.  Imagine becoming known as the Dane Cook of weird fiction.

That incident stays in the back of my mind while I do rewrites like a constant warning klaxon.  

But it brings up another point.  Not too long ago, pop culture was considered a crudity, something to be shunned, a habit to be indulged in private if at all.  I still remember having to hide my Creepy and Vampirella magazines between my mattress and box springs lest they disappear during one of my mom’s security sweeps.  Many a Mad Magazine suffered such a fate because I had a tendency to read them all in one gulp and then leave them lying around carelessly but I would read my horror mags over and over so they had to be protected.

I could see SF and Horror movies as long as they had been made in the 1940s, but unless I wanted to watch a Western, the choice of current movies in the theater was limited.  This was one reason why we were so crazy about the Saturday night Creature Features shown by our local UHF channel.  Not to get too sentimental, I’m just trying to explain how little popular culture was actually in the air back in the day, but this was our guaranteed two hours of horror or science fiction or what have you — along with lots of aluminum siding commercials..  

These days?  It’s on every television channel and there should be a whole season just called Marvel Movies.  Audio books in the car, eBooks on the couch while I’m watching Supernatural on the CW.  There is almost no time when I’m not receiving some sort of pop culture feed.  How do you make damn sure that every idea you put in your work is entirely your own and not inadvertently lifted from another source?  

Honestly, you tell me, because I don’t know.  The only thing that saved me from having a possibly angry editor contact me about my blatant attempt to steal from a famous work of fiction was a nagging feeling that it felt a little too… familiar.  

On top of that, add in simultaneous invention.  Because nothing is truly new, all creators pull their ideas from the sphere of knowledge that exists around them, incidents of simultaneous invention have been recorded all throughout history.  And they are even more common now because that knowledge sphere is so freakin’ dense and it’s being poured into your head all the time.  

I’ve written before about a novel of mine that was about a modern day police detective who gets stuck in 1946, a book that my agent was pushing all around town right when Life On Mars came out in Britain.  These were very dissimilar stories based on the exact same idea.  Did someone steal?  No, it would have been impossible, but when you consider the number of people out there coming up with ideas, writing up their stories, and sending them out you realize that we are close to an infinite number of monkeys situation.

Fortunately, a lot of the content being created out there is intentionally derivative.  Someone comes out with something new, Harry Potter for instance, and a whole cottage industry of books about magic boys instantly springs up in its shadow.  

For me, writing knockoff material based on someone else’s work has no appeal.  That’s why when I’m casting around for a new idea, I look around at everything that’s being done and then try to come up with something else.  You might stand a better chance of getting your stuff into the market if you write quickly and jump on the right bandwagon (Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction, after all) but I can’t imagine it feeling like an actual success.

And, of course, even when you do come up with something relatively original, there’s no guarantee some guy in London didn’t just sell his pitch for something very nearly the same to BBC.

Just repeat to yourself, “This good idea, is not my last good idea.”  And then move on.

Another Good Reason To Put It In A Drawer

That’s not a reference to safe sex (at least, I don’t think it is.  How am I supposed to know what the kids are calling it these days?).  It’s a callback to several previous posts on this blog where I have argued that you should put your work aside for a couple of months before starting the polish draft.  And also that you should never send out first drafts – not even first drafts of rewrites.

I don’t know about anyone else but when I get to the end of a project, I am worn out to the point of hating myself and everything I have wrought.  The elated sense of infallibility that started with the blank page and drove my heel through 75% of the writing process first flagged and has now completely evaporated.  What I’m left with as my story slouches toward the last page to be born is a sense of disaffection that is stunning in both its breadth and intensity.

In four words: I hate my book. 

And why shouldn’t I?  What has held my nose to the grindstone for the past six months?  What have I engineered every day around?  What has leached my creativity every damn day until I am bled white?  And what didn’t manage to turn out as perfectly as I had imagined it when I started?

My book.  My goddamn book.

I’ve mentioned before that I dropped out of college and drove around the country to write my first novel.  What I haven’t talked about is the arduousness of that project.  When I started out, I was so emboldened by knowing exactly what kind of story I was going to write that I bravely pooh-poohed all the people who warned me about how hard it was to write long form fiction.  But I found out in the long run.  I found out the hard way.

This was in the pre-word processor days when my electric Smith & Corona with the auto-correct ribbon was considered the height of technological advancement.  I have a clear memory of standing in an empty apartment (I never bothered to furnish the places I lived when I was on my American journey because I wasn’t going to be there for long) standing over a matrix of printed pages, each stack in the array representing one chapter, as I began the final run on the first complete draft of that first novel.  It was the only way for me to “see” the whole story all at once.

I clearly remember feeling worn out and spent.  I remember thinking, “This piece of crap has eaten up half a year and now I’m stuck in New Orleans, broke and alone, and I have nothing to show for it.”  I quite literally thought about burning the whole mess in protest.  Instead, I quit my job as a carpenter’s assistant (I’ll devote several chapters to the life of a middleclass college boy working in the blue collar trades in my never-to-be-written autobiography), packed the novel away in the box the typewriter paper had come in, and drove to my parent’s house in Virginia.  I didn’t even think about that festering pile of diseased pages for the next few months except to offer up curses to the thing that had ruined my life.  Although, sometimes, I would lie awake at night cruising over all the bad parts in my head, dwelling on every stinking line that rang false, every shallow allusion, every character that went about as deep as the paper he was drawn on.

Eventually, I returned to Austin and kicked around for a few more months until I was psychically free of that draft, until it was a mistake I had made a while ago instead of something done recently that was still a fresh wound.  And then one day I found the box (I’m not even sure how it followed me around the country for all those months) and opened it up and started reading.

I can still remember that “Hey, this isn’t half bad” moment as I got a few dozen pages in.  This was followed by the “This could be better but it’s still pretty damn good” feeling that I got from some of the middle chapters.  I remember not liking the ending but knowing exactly how to fix it.  And as far as the language was concerned, I had just finished reading Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow and had taken that as a license to do whatever I wanted with sentence structure and order of occurrence. 

I rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the machine and started over, using that tortured first draft as a rough guide.  The result would eventually get me an editor and a whole new understanding of the process of writing.

That’s why I’m not angrily deleting this draft of my current project, hurling colorful invectives in all directions as I do so.  History has taught me that it’s not nearly as bad as I remember it and the parts that are bad can be fixed in the polish.

But only after it goes in a drawer for a couple months.

P.S. – For those of you weened on late 20th “poetry” here’s something to counter that weak sauce crap:



Now that’s poetry.




The Danse Macabre

I’m back.  One of the odd things about being “a creative” is that the engine of your productivity is driven largely by emotion.  You do things more for love than for reward, in other words.  Even the jobs you take purely to put food on the table must mean something to you or you simply cannot function. 

For me this is never more apparent than when, for one reason or another, the fuel tank on that emotional engine goes dry and for a time I become unenthusiastic and rudderless.  This is not the same as writer’s block.  I continue to write daily as that is the only time of the day I seem to be able to focus and muster up any energy.  But in everything else in my life, I become a lackadaisical participant, an obstreperous child being led along by the hand, resisting all the way.  My emotional commitment to anything not related to writing, is virtually zero.

I have just emerged from one of these stupors, blinking at the bright light around me like a coma patient discovering years have gone by since he was hit by that car. 

But enough about that.  Let’s talk about a seminal work of nonfiction that should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about entering the field of genre fiction: Stephen King’s The Danse Macabre.  If you are a fan of Science Fiction and/or Horror literature and you haven’t read this book then you have done yourself a great disservice.  If you are or are planning to become a writer in either other of those two genres then what are you doing reading this?  You should be reading The Danse Macabre.

When I first started writing in middle school, high school and college, I had a theory that authors were born, not made.  Writing was all about talent.  You sat down, you started writing, your talent spilled a story onto the page and, yay!, a number one best seller and Booker Prize winner happened.  There was no working at it.  No multiple drafts.  No studying.  There was just the muse and the talent that, splat, dropped a story onto the pages. 

I read a lot when I was growing up and I also watched a lot of movies.  I was a story junkie from an early age, so I knew how stories worked.  All you needed was an idea, a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

And the really weird thing is that even though this philosophy is completely wrong headed (and demonstrably so), it almost worked for me.  I dropped out of college and drove around the country with my Smith Corona electric typewriter and my dog in an old Toyota Carolla (God bless that car) and banged out a novel that would eventually be accepted for publication by the great Bill Thompson. 

But when the Everest House marketing department killed the deal and Bill sent me off with the simple request to bring him something more accessible, I discovered how wrong everything I had believed was.  There’s a whole other blog post in how I finally came to my senses and realized I wanted to be a genre writer rather than an author of literary works but suffice to say at the end of some dismal soul searching I landed on The Danse Macabre and it opened up the world to me.

Reading this book, I realized for the first time that Horror and Science Fiction are more than genres, they are cultures.  I learned the boundaries that defined them and also that it was perfectly okay to cross them.  I learned to turn a critical eye on even the shoddiest of stories (I’m looking at you Brain That Wouldn’t Die) and I learned that, as an author, you needed to have a point of view but you definitely didn’t have to make the point of view the point of the story.  I also learned what had been done by those who went before me and how they had extended the work of those who went before them.  I learned about structure, about theme, about imagery.  It was, essentially, the education in writing I had ignored and avoided my whole life. 

I still read it every few years just to put my head back in that space where I’m thinking about the genres that define my life as overlapping universes of creativity and innovation.   Plus, it’s just fun.