In Praise of Honest Praise

I was in 4th grade when I first saw the movie 20 Million Miles to Earth.  I cannot stress enough the effect this 1957 gem had on me except to say that it made me want to become a writer.  While I was already addicted to story from my exposure to the Robert Louis Stevenson novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island, I hadn’t yet come to understand the idea that someone actually wrote stories.  But, for some reason I still don’t quite fathom, it clicked in my tiny 9 year old head that day that a person could make up stories and write them down.

The story that I wrote that day, my first, was oddly similar to 20 Million Miles to Earth, but that’s what young writers do.  They begin by imitating and then slowly branch out on their own.  My mother read this hand written and illustrated masterpiece and promptly pronounced the thing wonderful.  This is what mothers do.  They encourage with praise.   What you need to balance that good-hearted affection is some honest praise.  

Full disclosure: my mother is an editor by profession and she kindly edits every manuscript I produce.  She loves everything I write – she has to, she’s my mother – but it’s easy to tell she loves some more than others.  With moms, you don’t get something like, “This character is shallow and his actions are unmotivated.  Overall, the story is slow and uninteresting.”  What you get instead is damned by faint praise.  Also, she’s savage with that blue pen.

How does honest praise differ from the praise you get from your mom, your friends and your family?  For one thing, it has much more information than actual praise in it.  “I like your voice and you manage to move the story along quickly (most of the time) but…” and that “but” is followed by several paragraphs of pushback.  That pushback is what you’re really looking for from any letter that doesn’t start with, “Congratulations…”

The most important honest praise you can get comes in high school.  As a teenager, your brain is suffused with dopamine, a chemical that causes you to believe every experience you have and every thought you think have literally never happened to anyone else before.  As a result, you have a tendency to think your writing is not just awesome but a world altering cultural event.  This is your own internal over praising engine.  You can’t blame anyone but evolution for this.

High school honest praise needs to keep the dream alive while banking the flames of egotism as much as possible.  For me, this came from an English teacher who read everything I wrote, found some valid positive feedback and then followed it with paragraphs of pushback.  Except for one running argument about whether a drunk’s guts could scream for a drink of whiskey (Him: guts don’t have a mouth.  Me: it’s a metaphor) I got a lot of good information from him.  If only I had paid attention to any of that good information instead of the praise I so hungered for.

I may not have listened to Mr. Huddleston back then but I’m listening to him now.  At least the stuff I can remember.

There’s A Reason We Call Him King

Because it’s his last name, but also because he is the king of genre fiction. 

I have just finished 11-22-63, King’s novel about a man who time travels back to stop the assassination of JFK.  And it’s all the more a master stroke for how awful that description makes it sound.  As a matter of fact, I avoided this book for quite some time just because I couldn’t stand the idea of reading yet another novel lionizing JFK.  Baby Boomers have a tendency to believe that if JFK had survived, the 60s would have been one long Summer of Love.  I finally read it because I ran out of other things to read.  That’s how little enthusiasm I felt for the subject matter.

I mean, come on, how many times have we heard this story?  Someone zips back to Dallas on the day of the assassination, intercepts Oswald at the last second and then everything’s all better!  Yay!  Camelot extends out into infinity.

Yawn.

But that’s what makes King different.  11-22-63 isn’t about time travel. It’s not about saving Kennedy. It’s the story of a man’s journey. 

Slightly Spoilery stuff follows.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t have gotten from reviews but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, skip down to where it says, “Spoilers End.”

First off, King sets up the time travel device as a naturally occurring portal that takes you back to the same moment in 1958 every time you go through.  Think of the brilliance of this device.  It means that if you go back to save JFK, you have to live in the past for five years before you can do anything about it.  This gives the flow of time plenty of opportunities to mess with you before you mess with it.

Secondly, every time you go through the portal time does a complete reset.  Everything you did on your previous trip is nullified as if you hadn’t gone through at all.  If you screw up your rescue attempt, you have to go through everything all over again for five more years to get a second chance. 

Think about how much living you do in five years.

Spoilers End.

The most compelling thing about a good King novel is the lead character and Jake Epping is one of his best – up there with Stuart Redman and Mike Noonan.  What’s gripping about 11-22-63 isn’t time travel or Kennedy, it’s the journey that you take with Jake Epping.  And it’s a wonderful journey, sad and sweet and worth experiencing more than once.  Highly recommended.

 

Ding!

Thinking is weird.  I have done it for a living for the last thirty years but it’s still weird to me.  There’s just something indolent seeming about sitting at your desk and staring off into space.  Especially when you’re not being very productive.  I’ve developed a nervous habit of typing notes periodically while I think just to provide external signs of life.

The reason I’m thinking so much today is that I had an epiphany at two o’clock this morning – one of those loud ones that wakes you up with the answers to everything that’s been troubling you about the latest draft – and I now know what I’m going to do with the next draft of the fantasy novel I put aside a few months ago.  In the sense that I know the direction and basic plot changes and the ending.  I still have to write it.

And that’s what I’m thinking about today.  All day.  Over breakfast.  Walking the dog.  Going to the grocery store.  Down to get the mail.  While I’m typing this sentence.  I’m just so drenched in all this possibility that my forebrain processes are dragging down the rest of my mental capacity.  As a result, I’ve been traveling through my day far slower and far more deliberately than I usually do.  I didn’t even drive like a maniac on the way to the store.

This isn’t a page one rewrite, exactly.  It’s more like a page 100 rewrite, but more importantly, it’s not a blank canvas.  It’s a coloring book outline with a large empty space in the middle for connect-the-dots.  This will be the fifth and final draft of the fantasy novel.  All else after this will be polishing and editing.  It’s been a long journey, going on two years now with another six months to go, but I feel like the tumbler has finally exposed a gem.

The Circle of Authors

Is there anything better than discovering a new author and then plowing through their entire collected works one after another?  Is there anything worse than when you get to the last page of the last book?  It’s like the end of a romance.  The death of a love affair.

I know everyone in the SF world knows John Scalzi, but as I’ve said before, I’ve been largely out of touch with that whole genre for quite some time.  I found him in a way that is odd but probably verging on the edge of becoming routine.  By its narrator.

I’ve been hooked on audio books for a long time now.  My phone is always loaded up and every time I go walking or climb into my car, I fire up the latest novel on my playlist.  Last year, I got the audible version of Ready Player One which was narrated by prince of all geeks Wil Wheaton.  He did such a good job, I went looking for other books he had narrated.  That led me to Fuzzy Nation which introduced me to John Scalzi.

The quality of the narrator is an interesting added dimension to publishing.  After all, even the best written book is going to suck if you have to listen to someone read it badly.  Two of the most prolific narrators sound false to me for reasons I can’t quite quantify so many books are simply not audible options in my case.  I was just lucky that some of Scalzi’s best work is read by one of the best narrators out there.

Currently, I’m listening to Craig Wasson read Stephen King’s 11-22-63 and I have to say he may be the best reader yet.  It doesn’t hurt that the book is stunningly good, of course.

I came to King through the trailer for Kubrick’s version of The Shining.  I’ve mentioned this before but I was so terrified by that trailer that I went out to read the book first as a way of inoculating myself against the movie.  If I remember correctly, I then read Salem’s Lot, The Stand, Carrie and Dead Zone one after the other.

From King (via The Danse Macabre) I got to Peter Straub.  I lost an entire summer in the late 1970s reading everything Straub had written up to that point. A marathon that culminated with Shadowland, one of the most confounding, perplexing and thrilling fantasy novels ever written.

After you find an author and consume their bibliography in one bacchanalian orgy of obsessive reading, you always come back to read their latest stuff when they come out with something new but it’s never like that first time.  It’s like a pleasant dinner with a former flame.  You enjoy yourself but you can’t help remembering the passion that once was.

Mea Culpa

That’s Latin for, “I suck.”  At least, I think that’s what it means.  I don’t really have what you’d call a classical education.  Just kidding. As everyone knows, that’s actually Latin for “My culpa.” 

So what is this culpa I’ve come to lay bare in the private confessional that is the Internet?  In what tomfoolery am I culpable – for lack of a better word?  Foot dragging, malingering and general self-sabotage.

When I started this journey in the year 2000 (cue music sting) I set out on a fairly logical and well thought out path.  I know art is art and there’s nothing logical about it, but even if you’re thunderstruck with a world changing idea every morning, you still have to amass the tools to write the damn thing.  You have to sharpen your pencils.  You have to experiment with colors.  You have to figure out what works and, more importantly, what works for you.  In short, you have to build a foundation on which all your future endeavors will be constructed.

Here was the plan I came up with:

1) Read lots of fiction.

2) Read lots of books about writing fiction.

3) Write tons and tons of crap. 

4) Create a feedback loop to refine the crap into something less crappy.

5) Join online writing groups – but only after producing work that should be seen by others.

6) Begin to methodically and relentlessly market my work.

 

Steps 1 through 4 went quite well. 

Step 5 was a huge mistake.  Your mileage my vary but my recommendation is to never submit your work to the critical eyes of a bunch of rank amateurs.  Trust me, they have nothing to tell you that you can’t figure out for yourself and you won’t have to sit through the oddly formalized critique that starts with a short list of insipid positives (“I really like the way you use periods.”) before the long list of minor nitpicks (“can guts really cry out for a drink of whiskey?  Guts don’t have mouths”). 

I’ll do a whole post on this in the future, but the upshot is this: Listen to professionals, they know more than you, but what in the world does someone in your exact situation have to say that you haven’t already thought of? 

Step 6 is where I got stupid.  Technically, I believe that I can tell when I’ve written something worthwhile, that I can hear the ping of pure crystal when it comes out right.  And as you’ll note from previous posts, I also know when I’ve written something not so good.  You have to know for yourself.  No one can tell you.  If writers didn’t believe in their work over the rejections of editors and agents, we wouldn’t have… well, very much at all in the library. 

I say “technically” because that’s what I believe but that’s not how I act.  Here’s how I act: Oh my God I just found this awesome agent and I read her website and she totally gets it and I’m going to send XYZ to her and she’s going jump all over it and it’s going to be a best seller and I’m going to be on Kimmel!   

Then the “good but not for us” letter comes and I sublimate like a mother.  Oh, yeah?  Really?  You don’t think?  Okay, fine.  You’re going to regret passing on this.  Then, after fifteen minutes, it’s like the hair dying scene from Scott Pilgrim.  “Oh, my God! Why did I send this crap out?  It’s total crap!  I should never have sent such drivel to an agent!  My reputation is ruined!”  Then after fifteen more minutes: “You know what, though?  I’ve got a great idea.  Yeah, this one is going to be great.  This one is going to blow the world away!”

No, I am not currently under treatment for bipolar disorder but I probably should be.

The end result is that I send that manuscript to exactly one agent before moving on to write something else.  I love writing.  I hate marketing.  But I have to face it.  It’s been twelve years since I started.  If I’m ever going to get anywhere, I’m going to have to stick my chin out a little further and get on with carpet bombing New York with my manuscripts.

Carpet bombing?  Hey, that gives me an idea for a cool story…

 

On Writing Even Less

All this turning of my mental tumbler has finally produced a shiny rock: I now know what’s wrong with Pawn Takes Knight.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that fixing it is going to take a page one rewrite – the fourth such rewrite for this novel.

What’s the problem?  To answer that question, let’s go to the movies.  Specifically, let’s pop in the DVDs for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom.  After that, let’s watch Die Hard and then Die Hard 2.  Go ahead I’ll wait.

Okay, it’s been eight hours and we’re back to talk about the highs and lows of what we’ve just seen.  The highs are easy.  Right?  The originals are the highs.  The lows are little more complex.  Why is Temple of Doom so rightly reviled by fans of the franchise?  Why is Last Crusade so much better than Temple of Doom.  You can ask the same questions about the Die Hard franchise with the notable exception of a quality sequel down the road somewhere.  After the original, Hollywood only ever managed to crank out punk-ass simulacra. 

Ask a thousand people these questions and you’ll get a thousand different answers. Mine is pretty simple.  Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade are Indiana Jones stories.  Temple of Doom is a story with Indiana Jones in it.  Die Hard is a John McLean story.  The sequels are stories with John McLean in them. 

During my downtime, I happened across a Roy Doyle short story I wrote a few years ago.  After an initial attempt to sell it to a couple of magazines I decided to keep it back as the outline for a future novel.  The interesting thing about that short story is that it is far more a Roy Doyle story than Pawn Takes Knight

Pawn Takes Knight is not a Roy Doyle story at all. It is a story with Roy Doyle in it.

My original plan for the five novels of the Roy Doyle series was for each to tell the story of a particular phase in his life.  Over time we would watch as a bumbling amateur became a great private detective.  The phases are: Before the War, The War, Homecoming (The Vengeance Season), I don’t know, and I don’t know 2: the sequel.  That’s right.  I don’t know the theme of Pawn Takes Knight.  I only know the story elements that have to be included. As it stands, it’s far more thematically related to Arlene, a mysterious central character from The Vengeance Season, than it is to Roy.

We see this a lot in the movies.  As a matter of fact, most sequels are just other stories with the central character from the original ladled in as an afterthought.  And it’s an especially easy trap to fall into in the detective genre because you generally come up with the crime and the solution first and then backfill your recurring characters into that framework.  I’ve seen this happen in detective series great and small. 

Before I start yet another draft of Pawn Takes Knight, I have to ask and answer the question: What does this have to do with Roy Doyle?  Why couldn’t I just put another character into this story?  Or, put another way, if I did a global search and replace of “Roy Doyle” for “Joe Schmo”, would it wreck the story at all?  With the draft I just finished, the answer is no.  That Pawn Takes Knight could just as easily be a Joe Schmo mystery because, while there are characters brought forward from the first novel, there’s no emotional connection between the two Roys.

So… when will the sequel be ready?  As soon as I can answer that question, I guess.  Feel free to send in suggestions.

 

On Not Writing

I write six days a week – seven when I can get away with it.  Some people, like Harlan Ellison, are so composed inside their magnificent brains that they can literally write stories in one draft.  Others, like John Irving, spend months or even years creating outlines and snippets of prose before they launch into the first draft.  I’m more like a rock polisher.  You put the story into the tumbler of my scattered brains and it turns over and over for many months and many drafts until you either end up with a shiny rock or a turd.  Because, as we all know, you can put a turd into a rock polisher for as long as you want but it will never shine.

So, for me to turn out a shiny rock of a story, I have to write a lot and very often.  Also, I like it.  But is that necessarily a good thing?  Something I’ve always said (at least since I discovered it ten years ago) is that you have to think about your story and sometimes you get more thinking done when you’re not typing.

The reason I bring this up is I’ve been sick for a solid month. So sick that I haven’t been writing.  I tried several times to publish posts on this blog but nothing came out.  As far as my current project is concerned, not a word.  I’ve spent a lot of time curled up in bed and when I wasn’t hopefully listening for the beating of the wings of the angel of death, I was thinking about the project I was working on before I collapsed.  All that thinking has opened up the story for me a little bit and now, when I do get back to work, I’m looking forward to making new headway.

Also, this whole experience has really reinforced my love of audio books.  Even if you’re so sick you can’t look at words on a page, you can listen to someone reading to you.  I happened to pick Stephen King’s 11/22/63 right before I became largely bedridden and, let me tell you, that was a lucky choice.  Craig Wasson narrates as well or better than anyone I’ve ever heard and the story is surprisingly layered.

I had originally waved off this book because I was worried it was another baby boomer attempt to further lionize JFK but, so far, that is not the case.  Highly recommended (although, be warned, I haven’t finished it yet so the ending could totally stink).

Wish me well.  Seriously, wish me back to health.