Genius Minus One

What does a sixty watt bulb feel like when it’s illuminating a hall closet?  It feels like the brightest bulb in the world.  It feels like the king of light, the vanquisher of darkness, the torch of brilliance… But what does it feel like suspended in front of one of those searchlights small town car dealerships believe will drag you into their lots of gently used Chevrolets?

It feels like a penis coming fresh out of a swimming pool in February.  It feels like a match trying to light a fart in a hurricane.  It feels like a moderately-to-minimally creative person listening to Max Landis throw off unused ideas like sparks from a steam engine revving so high it’s tearing itself apart.

Max was going all hyperkinetic on a Nerdist podcast when he just tossed out a couple of prime ideas that he was throwing away because he literally sells too much to actually be able to work on it all.  And my brain sort of melted down and then went to suck its thumb and cry in a corner.

The stuff he was throwing away wasn’t just genius, it was thinking outside the human condition.  Anyone trying to bang out a genre screenplay within the studio system is very much like Mrs. R.R. Forman going up against Mozart when it comes to dealing with this guy on one of his bad days.

Listening to him casually word vomit sheer, jaw dropping genius over the course of an interview really did make me creatively impotent for a few days.  The time would come, I would sit down at the keyboard, and his ideas for the best Bond movie ever and a stone cold stunner of an idea for a story told from Captain Hook’s point of view, would just shrink my balls down to ice cold peanuts.

It’s hard to type with ice cold peanuts between your legs.

But then I remembered a post from the legendary screenwriting blog of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot.  The guys who created the Pirates of the Caribbean series and wrote the best Zorro movie ever made have an excellent series of posts about making it as a writer in Hollywood on their site Wordplayer.com.  And one of the posts, if I remember correctly (yes, I’m too lazy to look it up) is called, “Crap Plus One.”

Basically, it takes down the notion of setting out to write something better than the terrible stuff you see up on the screen.  The conceit being that your goal should never be to write something slightly better than a Michael Bay movie, but should instead be to write the best thing you possibly can.

This post came back to me while I was covering myself in kerosene while looking for an ignition source (Goddammit why did I quit smoking?) and I realized that if I turned the idea around, I could go back to happily stretching the edges of my mediocre talent.

Do physicists give up their profession because they aren’t as smart as Einstein?  Do sex symbols give up their careers because they’re not as strapping as Brad Pitt?  Do the Kardashians abandon television because they have no discernable talent?  No and no and, unfortunately, no.

So now I’m going to go back to my mildly innovative take on a YA novel secure in the knowledge that, while it’s not Max Landis genius, it’s also not crap plus one. But it is the best I can do.

But before I go, I want to Maxwell you with a true silver hammer of an idea much in the same way Max did to me on that podcast: Peak oil has come and gone.  Oil as a lubricant is so rare it’s nearly impossible to get in large quantities.  Giant robots are limping around with frozen joints and are willing to do anything for a few hundred barrels of the stuff.  That’s right, it’s Transformers: Revenge of the WD40.

Genius!

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The Real Work

It’s been about six weeks since I decided to devote myself to writing short stories.  The first few weeks I spent polishing and rewriting trunk stories of mine that never got the due diligence they deserved when they were first written.  Prior to this renewed effort, my attempt to publish was limited to being rejected by Analog and Asimov’s after which I would simply tuck the story into a drawer and go back to working on my novel.

But here’s the thing, in the old days I was able to get agents to give serious attention to my novel manuscripts merely on the strength of my writing.  Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and early 2000s I was able to secure no less than four agents without having ever published a short story.  Essentially, cutting to the head of the line without bona fides.

That is no longer the case.  The internet has changed everything and there is far more competition now — not necessarily strong competition, most people out there are terrible, sloppy writers who know nothing of the craft but if Stephenie Meyer can do it surely they stand a chance. There used to be some barriers to entering the market. You spent lots of time at the Post Office, for one thing — all that shoveling of manuscripts into manilla envelopes and making sure you had a SASE was a real thrill — but now that everyone with a keyboard can simply email their stuff out, agents and editors are drowning in all that dross.  All of which makes it more and more difficult for the serious writer to get on anyone’s radar.  

If you want to get an agent’s attention now, you need to do them a favor and come to them complete with prior editorial approval in the form of a publishing history and, if possible, an active membership in the SFWA.  To get that membership you have to be paid a minimum of six cents a word for 10,000 words and to get those qualifying magazines, the ones who pay six cents a word or better, to read your stuff you need to come at them with some bona fides.  

That means you start at the bottom of the food chain.  You go to the fanzines, the ezines, those magazines that pay nothing because even if you don’t make one thin dime by putting a story in their pages, they give you proof of prior editorial approval.  

And let’s not soft pedal the real benefit here which is readers.  You may not get paid much for putting your story in their magazines but people will read it and that is, in the end, the true goal of any writer.

I remember when I got my first check.  It was from a magazine called Electric Spec and it didn’t matter that it was only for 25$.  That was a by God publishing credit.  Proof of prior editorial approval.  Unfortunately, I didn’t follow up with more stories because I was still busy telling myself that I was only interested in writing novels.

It wasn’t until I got hooked reading the biographies of Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and now Asimov, that I saw how they did it.  They wrote their asses off and they submitted everything everywhere.  They submitted those stories, sometimes for years, until either the damned thing got published (and many never did) or they ran out of magazines to submit them to.

Philip K. Dick once received seventeen rejections is a single day.  His response was to take the stories out of the envelopes, address them to seventeen new markets, and send them off again.

In the last six weeks I’ve revitalized some stories that were already good, reworked and rewritten others that were good ideas poorly executed, and written four completely new stories from scratch.  As a result, I now have 14 stories in play.  And I’m working on my 15th.

It turns out that when you stop telling yourself you’re not good at something and just start doing it, you can discover that you had a knack for it all along.  

The thing to remember is this: It’s a ladder.  This is particularly difficult for me because I’ve already climbed one ladder.  I’ve made my sacrifices, I’ve swallowed my humiliations, and I’ve done my 10,000 hours of practice to become a senior software developer and I make a nice living from it.  

But that’s programming, not writing.  With writing I’m starting all over at the bottom rung.  I start by submitting every story at the top of the list of qualifying magazines even though I stand the least chance of getting published there because that’s where the prize is.  Once I get rejected from the qualifying magazines, I move onto the ones who pay slightly less than the qualifying rate, and then down and down until it’s contributor’s copies or sometimes nothing but a byline.

Which is fine because I don’t need the money.  I need the prior editorial approval.  But having more than a dozen stories in play means lots of rejections.  You have to be strong and listen to what editors have been saying forever: A rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad, just that it wasn’t right for them at that time.  

You have to look for the small positives.  Before the acceptances start to come in, you’ll get the “Good, but not for us” rejections and sometimes there will even be a “feel free to submit something else” on there.  That’s a huge victory at this point.  That is an editor saying they like your writing but this story wasn’t a fit for their magazine.

Right now about half of my rejections are form letters and the other half contain encouragement and constructive criticism along the lines of “I liked the narrative but the plot developed a little slowly for me.”  

This is how things work in the real world if your uncle isn’t an editor at a major publishing house.  You do the hard work for little money and no motivation while you chip away at the wall between you and success.  

Thirty years ago, I would stay up late at night teaching myself to program.  I’d come home from a job I hated and sit down and challenge myself to learn something new every day.  I didn’t have a college degree to pave the way for me and back then it wouldn’t have done much good anyway.  PCs were new.  Unix was new.  They were still teaching card decks in most university programs.  To get started, I had to take a job that paid nearly nothing just to put something on my resume that said I was a programmer.

The problem with my writing career so far has been that the model for success as it was laid out in my brain was totally broken.  It was constructed on the idea that I could write a novel and without knowing anyone in the business, publish a bestseller.  That’s kind of like founding your business on a lottery based strategy.  

And it’s hard to maintain faith in a plan like that because it doesn’t even feel real.  That’s not how things work in the world, at least not in my world.  Fairy godmother’s don’t appear out of nowhere and offer me a career in something.  I have to work for it.  Writing these stories, keeping them in play, taking the rejections, that’s working for it.  That’s something that feels real to me.

NOTE: Have you ever thought so hard about doing something that you get the idea you actually did it even though you very much did not?  This has happened to me several times with blog entries that I write in my head but never manage to publish.  One of those entries had to do with my decision to commit myself to writing short stories in order to obtain my bona fides before submitting my novel to anymore publishers.

That’s why there is a strange gap in the logic between the July 15th entry where I talk about outlining an 8th draft of my novel and the July 16th entry in which I talk about having dedicated myself to writing short stories.  

My best guess is that I had that post about outlining lying around and accidentally published it instead of the one about switching my aim to short fiction.  I’ve done stupider things, I just can’t remember when.

The 40% Solution

Early drafts can be a real grind.  Especially if you don’t really have the story straight in your head yet.  Sometimes, I sit up in bed at two in the morning, awakened by the force of the muse dropping an entire story into my head all at once.  In these cases, I run to my computer and make a bunch of notes, guideposts that will help me remember this gift in its entirety.  But most stories don’t come that way.  Most stories grow organically out of a ‘what if’ moment.

The impetus for my novel The Vengeance Season came from this little nugget: What if a guy went back in time to solve his grandfather’s murder and accidentally ended up saving his life?  And what if saving his grandfather’s life changed the future so that time travel had not been invented?  I ended up rewriting all the time travel out of it, but that was how it started and that version got me an agent.

The idea for Murderology was basically, what would happen if a group of sleuths got together to hunt serial killers and the serial killers recognized them as a threat and started hunting them?

Those aren’t fully formed stories.  Those aren’t even ideas.  They’re musings.  When you’re developing a story, be it a short story or a novel, from something as thin as that, you’re on a completely different footing than when you’re writing a story you know all the way through.  The first few drafts of a story based on a whisper of a shadow of an idea are just exploratory exercises to get your brain thinking in the right general directions.

And, inevitably, there comes a moment during a first draft of that sort when you realize you’ve gone the wrong direction on a bad road and the bridge is out ahead.  That’s when you tell yourself to just turn around and start over.  Just abandon the draft and start again.  It sounds logical but it is in fact a mistake.

 

I’m there at that place right now working on a short story that got away from me and ballooned up to novella size while I wasn’t paying attention.  With two paid short story publications, I don’t have the guano to get a novella published in any magazine that I’m not currently an editor of.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure I would publish this novella.  Why?  It’s not done yet. It’s a first draft of a glimmer of a spark of an idea.

Imagine you’re an editor of a big SF magazine.  You spend half your time reading unsolicited submissions, most of which are truly awful, by unknown or unproven writers and the rest of your time doing 100% of your job.  You’ve set a hard limit on short stories at 8,000 words because space costs money and publishing one novella basically means you can’t publish three stories by other equally deserving authors.

If someone sends in a novella it had better come with some extraordinary bonafides.  I don’t have those bonafides so I know full well at this very moment that I’m trying to close up the wound on this draft that this version of the story will never see the light of day. So cut bait, right?

Actually, no.  And let me explain why: I’ve been in this position many times before and I’ve always taken the path of least resistance and abandoned the draft to head back to the beginning and start over with a fresh perspective.  That has uniformly proven to be a mistake for two reasons.

First, I will eventually reach the end of a later, successful draft only to find that I have no experience with the finale because I’ve been ejecting early during every previous attempt.  Even if the ending you come up with is inappropriate for the final product, the ideas you play with in that endspace will be important explorations into the nature of your story.  You have to know the paths the protagonist didn’t take just as well as the one he did if you want to know him completely.

Secondly, you don’t know which part of your story sucks until it’s over.  If you stop at 66% and tell yourself it’s a wash and go back to the start, how can you know which part was the wrong part?  Was it the beginning that was messed up?  If so, how do you know the ending was equally bad?

The novel I’ve been working on here and there for the last five years is now growing backwards.  I have the ending I want because I went all the way through a draft I knew I didn’t want to use.  It turned out that the first 66% of the novel was rubbish but the last third was exactly what I wanted.  Now I’m pulling a John Irving and working from the ending toward the beginning.

I like to think of the bad draft as the 40% solution.  Even as I’m writing it, I know it’s mostly bad.  Let’s say it’s 60% bad.  But that leaves 40% that’s good.  And it may not be a contiguous 40%.  There may be a scene here and some dialogue there that need to be saved but you would never have them if you pulled the big red handle before reaching the end of the draft.

“You wouldn’t have these problems if you worked from an outline,” I hear you saying.  That is you, right?  But the truth is that I have worked from an outline before, several times in fact, but the outline is never the complete realization of the story.  It’s just the frame on which you hang the story.  And, unlike with architecture, you can’t know ahead of time if the frame is right for what you’re about to hang on it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all of those writers out there who do everything in one draft.  They’ve been touched by an angel (or madness) so none of the rules apply to them.  For me, however, toiling away on draft after draft, I’ve found it best to go the distance before starting over.

The Work Behind The Work

I’ve been reading the biographies of SF writers lately. I started with Heinlein, moved on to Vonnegut, and am now reading about Bradbury’s life. I love doing this because it keeps me in the mood to write. I read about these now famous guys going through the same issues I am going through — the struggle to find a voice, the ever upward path of getting your stuff out there, dealing with criticism that is sometimes completely off the mark and sometimes right on the money (which may be worse) — and I think, “Well, they got through it all right.”

One thing that strikes me about the lives of these three foundational members of the SF Authors club is that Heinlein and Vonnegut were both older when they got started. Heinlein was out of the Navy after suffering through a horrific case of tuberculosis (although one might more fairly characterize the treatment as horrific) and Vonnegut was working for Westinghouse as a publicist. On the other hand, Bradbury was an actual kid hanging around these powerhouse writers in LA and trying his own hand unsuccessfully at what they did every day.

I’ve come to believe that while it’s important to write (and read) a lot when you’re young, it’s also important to go get a job and have to get up every morning and work alongside people who aren’t artistic by nature. One of the things that strikes me about the differences between the works of these three men is that Heinlein’s stories are full of hard nosed pragmatists with real jobs, Vonnegut’s stories are societal commentaries that lament the dehumanization of mankind and Bradbury’s stories are largely fantasy.

That’s not a bad thing — or even a criticism — because many of Bradbury’s stories are pure works of art, but it makes me wonder if, lacking real world experience, he had to manufacture conflict that takes place in imagined worlds. It also stands to reason that is why he took so long to break through.

This is the reason so many novels have writers as their protagonist. That’s the only experience the author has and it speaks of a particularly shallow dip in the wellspring of human experience.

It would really be better if you spent a few years swinging a hammer alongside a burly Cajun who thinks what’s wrong with the world mostly has to do with college boys. Or work as teller in a bank for a bunch of buttoned-down, needle-nose pricks who are going straight from college to management. Or sell furniture at one of those places that’s always going out of business. If you want to get in touch with the rawest form of evil, working with commission salesmen is the best way to do it. Or work for the NSA where you’ll get an inside look at what a government agency gone rogue is really like.

Obviously, I mention these because they were things I did during my own in-between time and while the people I met and the insanity that ensued didn’t inspire any novels or stories outright, they did form the basis for the characterization and events I use to fill out those stories.

The only real danger in making a living and indulging in a normal life while practicing on the portable Smith Corona tucked under the bed in your flophouse room-by-the-week is that you might get distracted.

This happened to me when I dipped my toe into the nascent world of UNIX programming just as the tech industry was really taking off. Still, I can’t say it was a bad deal. I traded that writing time for two decades of enough income to get married, buy a house in the suburbs and raise two children. And all the while, I was compiling those character traits and anecdotes and outrageous misadventures to use as fodder for when I got back down to business.

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.

The Line Pushers

There’s something about a good book that gets my own creative juices boiling.  Not that I’m thinking, “Oh, he did this then I can do that, too.”  More along the lines of, “Wow, if he pushed the envelope over there, couldn’t I push it over here?”  That successful transgression into new territory makes it seem a little more okay for me to take similar steps in a different direction.

This is all part of the process of remaining sane.  All day long, without really noticing it, we are constantly asking ourselves if we are within the bounds of acceptable behavior.  That’s how society works.  People who don’t ask themselves that question or who give themselves unreasonable license end up naked on the subway yelling about the government.

We are social animals which means we live by a social contract that asks us to stay within the lines as much as possible or to at least have an excuse (prescription medications, I’m an alcoholic!, I’m addicted to sex!, etc.) when we act out.

This need to conform can make the creative process even more difficult than it already is.  Not only do you have to ask yourself, “Has this been done to death?” and “Can I add anything new to the body of literature by writing yet another sexy vampire story?”  You also have to ask yourself, “Will editors see this as controversy bait?  Will readers shun me as a deviant if I have my characters do this?”  And, if your parents are alive and read everything you write, the big one: “What will my Mom think about this?”

That’s what amazes me about true visionaries like Hunter S. Thompson, Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs.  They never stopped to check in with their social contract to make sure they were still somewhere in the vicinity of the lines.  They just went out and did what they did, successful or not, until they died miserable and alone.

It’s that last part that gets me, I think.  I like being happy.  I like having a family.  I like being able to walk down the street without people calling the police.  So when I read someone like Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi or Neal Stephenson, relatively normal people who do extraordinary things, a little part of me goes, “Whoa! They’ve moved the lines again.  I have a little more breathing room.  I can try something new.”

As long as my Mom doesn’t find out.

The Rat’s Muse

I recently watched a show in which they monitored the brain centers of rats while they were running a maze and then again while they were dreaming.  It turns out that the rats were replaying the maze in their sleep, using background processes, as it were, to solve the puzzle.  Some rats were kept from dreaming and others were not.  The group that was allowed to dream unfailingly scored better on the maze during their next run than those who didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke with a full understanding of the novel I’ve been working on.  Before that day, it had been a blank canvas on which I had been experimenting with various colors and lines.  Afterward, it was a paint by number kit.  I woke knowing more about my characters and their interactions than I had for the past half-year since I began this first draft.  More importantly, I now know the plot in its entirety.  I know where it’s going, the things that have to be changed to retcon the story to fit the plot, and the steps that have to be taken to reach the end.

I started this draft last spring with a terrible vision of two children standing in the debris field left by a tornado that had wiped out their whole town.  In fits and starts, I began to put together a story that grew from that moment and moved toward some unknown end.  I laid in the character traits, the interactions, the points of conflict, a general, overall structure, but I never knew where it was going.  I wasn’t even sure who among the characters were pro- and antagonists.

It took a combination of writing pages that I knew would be deleted and my background processes poring over the details in my sleep to get me to that point where I knew for sure that I will get to the end of the story.  It doesn’t always happen and that’s one of the pitfalls of not being an outline maker. Relying on your muse, for lack of a better word, is sort of like a gambler relying on luck.  You can place your bets to the best of your ability but you never know when that lady is going to blow on someone else’s dice (to paraphrase the Chairman).

Trust me on this, I have a dozen unfinished novels that never received the benefit of a visit from the plot fairy.

Anyway, I’m now in a race to get it all down on paper.  That’s why I haven’t posted in awhile and why I won’t be posting much for the short term.  When I get this draft finished and have tucked it away in a drawer for the flavors to marry, I will have more of my mind to use for other things.