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  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.



Here We Go Again…

One of the problems with reading about the addictions of your heroes is that you stand a very good chance of getting infected yourself.  For instance, you might read a memoir by a guy who got a little too obsessed with consuming movies and come away with a whole list of movies you feel compelled to see.

My psychic burden from reading Silver Screen Fiend doesn’t appear to be too bad, at least at the outset, I don’t think.  I’m reading Clark Ashton Smith, one of those authors I knew in my gut I should read but assumed would be dripping with that 19th century purple prose I find so taxing.  That’s not too far off the mark, his prose is far more dense than what we think of as the modern style, but it’s actually kind of beautiful.

The first story was so lyrical — I’m listening to the audio book — that I thought it was a poem placed in the forward for purely thematic purposes.

I have to be honest about something here before we go any further.  I’ve always been a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft — in theory.  I love his stories and his ideas, but his writing has always been a little too wooden for my taste.  That’s what I was expecting from Smith.

That’s not what I got.  Instead, I find myself jotting down phrases and similes that are startling in their clarity.

Note: I do this because I live in constant terror I’m going to subconsciously plagiarise something I’ve read.  So whenever I come up with a really good line, I check my notes to make sure I didn’t rip it off.

I also jot them down because I want to be able to enjoy them on their own merit.  Here’s one I took note of from Oswalt’s book: He was someone who left a noxious fragment behind that led others to evil.   That’s something that would fit perfectly into the novel I’m working on so having it on hand both urges me to do better, to reach a little further, and keeps me honest.

IP theft is not a joke.  It’s poison to your career and it kills your legacy.  Let’s face it, no one not currently trying to roofie a coed wants to be Dane Cook.  And speaking of Dane Cook it’s probably time I explained what all the hubbub is about with that guy.  Or maybe not.  This post is going to be long even without a proper excoriation of the alleged joke thief.  So let’s just push it to another day.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

The other tenebrous hook Oswalt’s book sunk into my pasty, willing flesh was a movie called I Wake Up Screaming.  The title hints at something Karloff might have done during his heyday, one of the overlooked gems like The Devil Commands — which I just obsessively added to my Netflix queue and pushed to the top because now that I’ve thought of it, I have to see it again — but it’s actually a film noir starring Victor Mature who turns out to be a much better actor than I remember.

The problem: I went through a film noir addiction ten years ago when I settled down to write The Vengeance Season.  The idea was that if I was going to get into that mindspace, I would need to truly submerge myself in the era and the zeitgeist and film noir seemed like the best sensory deprivation tank for the job.

I got around to seeing all the classics — The Killers, Criss Cross, Out of the Past (who knew that the 1984 movie I loved so much at the time, Against All Odds, was a remake of this classic noir that was even better?  Not me until I finally saw it), Touch of Evil (which I don’t think really counts as a Noir), Night and the City, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity… okay, so the list is too long to enumerate here so let’s just take it as read that I watched all of them multiple times with and without the commentary track.

Except for I Wake Up Screaming which is one of the best. In and of itself, it’s a strange thing, but however off kilter it feels, it works just the same.  It’s like two movie productions got together to make two different movies, one a romantic comedy with Betty Grable and the other a gritty murder mystery with Victor Mature.  You wouldn’t think the result would be anything more than an odd mishmash but it actually comes out as a super hybrid that succeeds on both sides.

Plus, Laird Cregar.  If you don’t know that name, go watch this movie now and then listen to the commentary.  Nuff said.

But the existence of I Wake Up Screaming raises a terrible, almost unbearable question for an obsessive completist: If this one is out there and I didn’t know about it, what others have I missed?

So now I’m quietly filling up my Netflix queue with titles off of Best Noir lists even though I have given up crime writing and no longer have a reason to see these movies.  Except that they’re, you know, great.

Oh, look, here’s one with Bogart.  In A Lonely Place.  I’ll give that one a try.  It sounds fun.

See you guys in… a… while, I guess?  I’m going to be kind of busy for the foreseeable future.

Here’s another one with Bogart: They Drive By Night.  Into the queue it goes.

How long could it possibly take to see every movie in the film noir category and jot down every quotable line in the script?  Cool, here’s one from I Wake Up Screaming: I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?



Silver Screen Fiend and the Night Cafe

I think Patton Oswalt is the funniest, most entertaining comic working today.  And not fart joke funny like Adam Sandler or frat joke funny like Dane Cook, or pratfall funny like — Okay, so I’m trying to think of someone from the “fatty falls down” school of comedy but all I can come up with is the guy who coined the term and he’s been dead for almost twenty years so just pretend I came up with something clever.

And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m struck by how the group of comics who replaced the airline food is bad and women are different from men hacks of the eighties and nineties — think Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Blaine Capatch, wow there are a bunch of people from that wave of alternate comedy that are super popular now — kind of changed the world.

If you concede the theory that Jack the Ripper opened the door to the 20th century, you could also say that the alternative comedy scene opened the door to the self aware, multi referential popgasm that is the 21st.

Damn, I lost the thread of what I was going to say so I’m going to tell my Maria Bamford story real quick while I get my train of thought back: I saw her at a Wednesday night show at some forgettable Comedy Store pretender in Dallas back in the mid-nineties and… wait for it… she wasn’t the headliner.  She was third out of six, if I remember correctly, and the closer was some local DJ who “did characters” and “told jokes.”  I mean, I never went to comedy clubs — I had only been dragged to this one because a friend had a coupon for free drinks — and even I knew the punchlines before he sprung them on us.

This just came back to me like a piece of tuna caught in the gag reflex of my sense of humor for twenty years, but I even remember the bit he closed out with.  It was the old, “I think my wife is a robot because every time I press a button on the remote she rolls her eyes.”  I may have even punched that up a bit for him because I’m pretty sure he didn’t even mention the part about being a robot.  He just came on stage with his Morning Zoo fart noise personality and said, “My wife rolls her eyes every time I use the remote.”  Then he looked impatient while waiting for us to laugh.

What was amazing about this was the response from the crowd.  Out there in the sticks of suburban Dallas on a Wednesday night in a half-assed comedy “club” a spontaneous groan went up from every last member of the audience.  He was so surprised, he looked like he had been slapped.  He was shocked, that’s right shocked, that we had heard it before.  Was he unfamiliar with television?  Did he think we were?  Who knows what poor logical skills convinced him he should be on a stage in front of somewhat live humanbeings.

And that brings me to Dane Cook.  No, you know what, I can already tell this post is going crazy long so I’ll push that thought to another day.  This is what happens when I stop writing.  All that creative energy has to go somewhere so my normally brief blog posts start gushing like a broken sewer main.

Uh… where was I?  Oh, yeah, Maria Bamford.

After a couple of brand newbies gasped and dry swallowed their way through seven minutes of material in three minutes, Maria Bamford came on and killed only to have the mood crushed by another wet fart of a hack who wanted to tell us about the differences between men and women (spoiler alert: it’s the genitals) and then the evening was closed out with the emotional force of a single, unheard snivel by a DJ whose sidekick probably thought he was hilarious.

But right in the middle of this miasma of nervous wannabes and hackneyed old timers made generally weary by the road, up to the mike strides the ditzy magician who tells a story about hitting a train with her car that was truly funny.  And you know how I knew it was funny?  I laughed.  The openers had put me in a surly mood by the time she came up but she made me laugh.

So just as I was giving up on the whole night, her act gave me hope that good things might be coming and I relaxed and enjoyed my free watered down drink and waited for the show to get even better — Remember, she wasn’t even closing it out that night — but as soon as she left the stage, my hopes were dashed by another clumsy oaf who had no business being up there.

Patton Oswalt.

That’s right, Patton Oswalt was that oaf.  No, I’m totally kidding. It was all clueless locals and eternal denizens of the angry road for the rest of the show.  I’ll get back to Patton in a minute but right now I’m busy running off at the mouth.

Oh, I remember where I was going when I lost my train of thought:  So, when I picked up the audio version of Patton Oswalt’s book Silver Screen Fiend, I was just looking for something to make me laugh on my way to an unforgivably stupid job at a company that I’m sure was founded just to suck the life and creativity out of people unlucky enough to drift into range its sick radiation field.

His book did do that, after a fashion.  It’s very funny, but it’s also illuminating and emblematic of the pure smarts of this generation of comics.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a book that would cause me to reconsider my approach to writing, one that would make me question whether the lack of pain I have been feeling about writing was maybe a sign that I was no longer getting better.

There is a theory that creativity should hurt.  I subscribed to it when I was young because writing was actually very hard at that time.  I dropped out of college and drove around in an old Toyota Corolla for a year just to get the first draft on paper and I still had two more years of rewriting before I had anything worth sending out.  But in the last ten years since I started writing again, I’ve found it quite easy to think of ideas and put them down on (digital) paper.

I thought that meant I had matured as a writer until I read about Oswalt’s series of Night Cafes — Night Cafes being the rooms you cannot leave without being changed — and then I started wondering if Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut would be satisfied with how weakly I’ve pressed against the edge of the envelope of late.

Am I innovating or regurgitating?  That’s the question you have to ask yourself every time you commit something artistic to physical reality.  Be it story or statue or song or standup routine, you have to wonder if you brought it into this world for any reason other than remuneration.

Unfortunately, you can’t use rejection as a guide.  Rejection is a double edged sword.  It rushes to greet all innovators — PKD once received two dozen rejections in a single mail delivery — with the same enthusiasm it does hacks, wannabes and dullards.  The rejection letters read the same in most cases.

But rejection also pushes back on nascent genius, forcing the creator to rethink, rearm and attack from a new angle.  Well, “force” is a poorly chosen word.  Better to say that rejection offers the chance to reassess your work and to understand that everyone takes something different away from it and what they take away may not be the thing you intended.

As an example, I’ll just mention a review I read of Silver Screen Fiend online.  The reviewer wrote off the book I found so spiritually and creatively illuminating as little more than a “look at the dark side comedy.”  There is some of that in the book.  Oswalt did come up through the comedy scene and it is a memoir but — you can’t see me but I’m shaking my head like a wet dog — did the reviewer miss the other 70% of the book’s content?  Did he just skim it, vomit up a one line review and then go back to playing Advanced Warfare?

No one will ever know why (the reviewer was eaten by a dinosaur shortly after posting that reedy bowel movement of a review) but for some reason that’s what this guy took away from that book.  And just as my friends who are fans of the novel V are unable to “fix” my searing hatred for Thomas Pynchon novels, you just have to be okay with that.

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 stuff:

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.