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Been a very busy month. In my frenzy to live up to another commitment and finish a project, I was unable to complete a new essay for SU. My apologies for that. In place of a new essay, here is an old favorite of mine.
I know the Harry Potter craze is near its end with all the books out a only one more movie to go, but I feel the points I make apply to other works and other authors as well, so feel free to draw your own parallels.
All the best,
Harry Potter and the Half-Wit Pope
While researching this essay about the negative buzz that rings through the Writer’s Community (I use the term Writer’s Community for lack of a better one) every time a new Harry Potter book comes along, inevitably breaking every sales record in publishing history, I came across a piece about the new Pontiff’s take on the insanely popular Boy Wizard. So, I’ve decided to widen the scope a bit. After listing the three top reasons I’ve heard other writers give for their not-so-glowing opinions of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series, along with my rebuttals, I’ll stick my other foot solidly in my mouth by telling you exactly why I think folks with a religious objection to Harry Potter would do better to just keep their opinions to themselves.
Top three Harry Potter peccadilloes:
#1 – J.K. Rowling’s Love of the Adverb.
I’ll admit that I tend to favor Professor William Strunk Jr’s rule against adverb use in my own writing (though you might have noticed I’ve thrown a few in here just for giggles). I’ve heard counts of up to fifteen per page in the Harry Potter books; a bit excessive, I admit. However, her use of adverbs has never dampened my enjoyment of the Harry Potter books, and I’ll take it from the almost seven million copies of The Half-Blood Prince that sold the first day, that other readers agree with me.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King makes his point against adverbs, taking special care to tell readers how much he dislikes them in speech tags. King later refers to J.K. Rowling as a “Master of Back-story,” but neglects to mention her love of the adverb. While silence does not necessarily mean consent, he evidently didn’t feel her breaking of the no adverb rule was worth commenting on.
#2 – Weak Writing.
Now, I don’t know about that. Rowling’s writing is certainly simple (and I don’t mean that in a bad way) and straight forward, but a lack of poetic and flowery prose does not equal bad writing. I’ve seen her writing improve with each book, and her stories continue to grab me.
Some folks simply don’t like her writing or stories, and I accept that tastes in both style and subject matter do vary, but I don’t accept that she’s a weak writer.
#3 – Harry Potter is Literary Junk Food.
J.K. Rowling is not Marcel Proust. I see her as more of a modern Charles Dickens, remembering the story of a mob of Dickens fans who overcrowded a dock while waiting for a ship to deliver the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. Several unlucky fans fell off the dock and drowned.
J.K. Rowling’s work will probably not be studied by scholars, or taught by Literature Professors in a hundred years (except maybe for the pure economic effect it has had on the publishing world – Harry Potter is a 100 megaton nuclear warhead in a field of bottle rockets and firecrackers).
For me, her work is pure addictive fun, and for me that’s enough.
Now on to the Pope.
In a letter sent March of 2003 to Gabriele Kuby, author of Harry Potter – gut oder böse (Harry Potter- good or evil?), a German language book accusing J.K. Rowling’s books of “corrupting the hearts of the young,” then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
“It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”
See http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2005/jul/05071301.html (Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels) for the full story.
Does this viewpoint surprise me?
Not at all. The Harry Potter books have been stigmatized by religious groups and leaders almost from the start.
Does this viewpoint bother me?
Yes, just a little. Harry Potter is, at its core, a story of good vs. evil, and the line between the two is clearly drawn for the most part. Any obscurity can be put down to a Who-Done-It sense of mystery, rather than an attempt at any kind of moral relativism (a recent example of moral relativism being a line from Starwars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where the newly christened Darth Vader says “from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).
Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, and The Order of the Phoenix are good guys, Lord Voldemort, Draco Malfoy, and The Death Eaters are bad guys. There it is, crystal clear. You’d think a discerning religious community would appreciate the absence of a sticky middle ground between the two, but apparently, many don’t.
This viewpoint is not universal among the religious, my wife, Shawna, is a Baptist and loves Harry Potter, but she seems to me to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Is the religious community’s constant condemnation of the Harry Potter books as evil productive to their goal, which I assume is to get people not to read them?
My wife and I took our first step into J.K. Rowling’s world of Wizards, Muggles, and Hogwarts because my son wanted to read one, and Shawna was concerned about all of the squawking coming from religious groups who opposed the series. We took it on, more in the spirit of a chore than anything else.
Need I say we became instant and enduring fans?
Yes, I was among the crowd of “Potterheads” hanging out at the bookstore at midnight on the release day. I was the third to grab a copy (two, as a matter of fact) from a pallet of six-hundred that was probably gone within hours.
Stop laughing. At least I wasn’t dressed in Hogwarts school robes.
Do I resent the new Pope’s opinion of J.K. Rowling’s books?
Nope. It is his opinion to have, and many share it. However, had religious objectors kept this opinion a little closer to their vests (or in Ratzinger’s case, his robe), the fire-storm of controversy that brought Harry Potter to the world’s attention might never have happened, and J.K. Rowling might now be a lowly mid-lister, or Scholastic may have even canceled the series by now.
I don’t think the controversy gets full credit for Harry Potter’s success though. J.K. Rowling’s sales might have already been good, I don’t remember that far back, and I’m too tired to research that at one in one o’clock in the damn morning. The bad religious publicity may have put a spotlight on the series, but that spotlight would have burned out quickly if the story itself weren’t so universally loved.
And to clarify, I don’t really think the Pope is a half-wit, but once that line occurred to me, I had to use it.
Over the decade or so that I’ve been writing for publication I’ve learned (often to my sorrow) that there is more to being a writer than just writing. Planting your ass and staring down a blank page, or word document, is the most important part of “Being a Writer.” Translating all the confused shit in your head to English and arranging it all in a way that makes sense and entertains, and if you’re damn good, perhaps even enlightens, is what you must do if you want to be a writer.
You must spend thousands of hours actually composing, filling up pages, and creating worlds from blank pages. You have to murder your ego and accept criticism, take advice, and learn from your failures. You get to pick apart all that wonderful stuff you’ve created, analyze it, and figure out how to make it better. Then, if you have a little talent and a lot of patience, you’ll have created something worth sending out into the world.
This is where the real work starts. This, for me at least, is the hard part.
You have to sell it.
First, you have to sell it to a publisher or agent.
Most writers, many of them more than worthy of publication, never clear this hurdle (and no, I don’t count self-publication, except in a very few cases, which I won’t go into here). The current market is terrible. The boob tube has made mindless entertainment so accessible that many people feel that actually cracking open a book and reading is too much work. The rising price of off the rack paperbacks also discourages many from buying new books (hell, you can rent a new movie for a dollar a night at those fancy new Redbox kiosks). Consequently, most publishers have reduced their output and are sticking to well established authors they know will sell well.
Many of us newer hacks have found an outlet for our work in small independent houses, but small press deal have built in limitations that I for one find very discouraging. Lower print runs and higher prices severely limit our potential readership, and when I started writing with an eye for publication, I wanted to reach as many people as I could. I never dreamed of the day when I could spend months writing and re-writing a novel, spending all my spare time researching, composing, or editing, so that I could eventually see it reach a potential audience of 250, give or take.
I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed working with many of the small presses who have published me. When/if I ever sell to larger markets I will probably continue to work with smaller presses for a number of reasons. One press in particular, Delirium Books, has made great strides in bringing their titles to a wider audience with a new trade paperback line. With more aggressive online marketing, including movie style book trailers, improved distribution and wider attentions from major review outlets such as Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and prices not much higher than your standard off the rack paperback, Delirium is reaching a wider audience than ever. Unfortunately, this is not the norm for small press projects. These days a print limitation of 100 to 150 is pretty standard, at least where I’m publishing.
I’ve had a few nibbles from the editors at major houses, but no solid bites, and agents are staying away in droves.
This in not because agents and editors are elitists snobs, but because I haven’t learned to sell myself, or my projects, to them.
If you want to publish, you must learn to sell yourselves.
To come …
Selling yourself to agents and publishers.
Selling yourself to bookstores and the media.
Selling yourself to readers.
There are many reasons I write stories, besides the obvious, which is that I like writing them. I started writing them because I loved reading them, and because in my almost amusing ignorance I thought it would be a great way to make a quick million or two. I have written them because of stories, written by professionals who were paid good money to do it, have left me feeling cheated in some way, shaking my head and thinking that I could do a much better job. I have written stories because I had an idea that I absolutely had to explore and put on paper, and more than once because people have offered me money (though not the millions I envisioned in my greener years) to do it.
I have written stories to meet specific word lengths and themes, or just because particularly good (or maybe just entertaining) books or movies have inspired me to try something I’ve never done before.
I’ve written to try to impress, I’ve written to see how see how outrageous/gross/subtle I could be in my work, and I’ve written some pretty uninspired shit just because I wanted to write something, but didn’t really have anything good to pick up and run with.
My favorite stories, the ones I still remember working on with real pleasure, are the ones I wrote just for fun, when I wasn’t worrying about genre, word count, markets, or the taste of a particular editor. All of those things come into play later, after I’ve told the story to myself then fixed it up as well as I could, but before any of those concerns came up, I was just telling myself a story.
I was always happy to sell those stories later, and happier still when folks seemed to enjoy them, but, for me anyway, those stories I wrote just for the pure fun of it always went quicker and easier. Writing them seemed less like work, and I had fewer nights when I had to make myself sit down to resume work on them, when I couldn’t wait to get all the other daily bullshit out of the way so I could sit down and get back to work, when, in fact, the work felt more like play.
Sometimes these just for fun stories become novels, sometimes shorts or novellas, and in all but one case these just for fun stories found a home pretty quickly, so I guess they were pretty good. Sometimes these stories fall smack in the center of the horror genre, the genre in which I’m known (okay, maybe not well known, but I still have my readers) and sometimes they drag me in new directions. I’m happy either way – a good story (or maybe even just an entertaining one) is a good story after all. If it makes you happy, there’s a good chance others will be happy with it too.
When your writing begins to feel a little too much like work, so much like unpleasant and unsatisfying toil that you’d rather do just about anything else but work on it, maybe it’s time to hang it up for a while and find something new. Maybe something that has been on your mind to try out, maybe something that has just occurred to you. Make it something you can get excited about, something just for fun, and just for you.
Art should be good, and you should take your craft seriously, but if you can’t have some fun doing it, then why bother?
There are already enough thankless and unpleasant chores in the average human life. When writing a story becomes just another chore, on par with snaking a clogged toilet perhaps, then it’s time to for a change.
I’ve got to keep running the course -
I’ve got to keep running and win at all costs -
I’ve got to keep going, be strong –
Must be so determined and push myself on.
Iron Maiden, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The 1980s was a strange and tacky decade, responsible for such cultural and stylistic abortions as Flock of Seagulls, Garbage Pail Kids, Break Dancing, and Michael Jackson. The 80s also turned out a shit-load of mediocre to bad hair-metal bands, which I am a little ashamed to admit I listened to almost non-stop. Few of these bands had anything original or worthwhile to say, and most sound enough like the next to make them indistinguishable. There are a few gems in this crop of crap though, and one of them, and one song in particular, has played a long loop in my head for several weeks now.
… The miles, they never seem to end -
As if you’re in a dream –
Not getting anywhere
It seems so futile.
This song, Iron Maiden’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, is pretty straight forward; it’s about a long distance runner and the inner battle he fights during the race. This song suggests, to me anyway, that the running is the easy part, a simple matter of mechanics, repetition, and endurance. The hard part is the fight the spectators don’t see, the steady wearing down of will by doubt, mental (maybe even spiritual) exhaustion, and a sense of overall futility. Things to which I think every writer can relate.
It would be silly of me to suggest that this song’s writer was drawing parallels with this song. I believe he was just telling a story, something Iron Maiden does with a lot of their songs, but some twitchy little gnome in my head that hides just below conscious thought found a parallel, found it noteworthy, and started firing flares up at me.
A lot of the creative process is still pure mystery to me, but that’s okay. When I’m in a creative bind that I’m too stupid or upset to get out of on my own, when I get blocked or tangled, or sometimes just frozen solid, the answer, some answer, usually comes as a nifty special delivery from the muse.
Usually it is something simple.
For a variety of reasons, the beginning of a new long project is an especially stressful time for me. It is a time when I have to alienate myself to some degree, to shut out, if even for a few hours every day, people who don’t like to be shut out.
The loneliness of the long distance runner, or of the long fiction writer, is necessary. If the runner stopped every few hundred feet to chat with spectators or text his girlfriend he wouldn’t get very far. If the writer can’t purge all the extraneous voices from his head, the voice of family, the endless chatter of the internet and the boob tube, perhaps even the damned IPod constantly plugged into his or her ears, then the voice he or she wants to hear, needs to hear, is drowned out.
You’ll always have the voice of doubt to contend with, but if you keep going you can outrun that voice too, and when it’s finally just you and the muse, the one voice a writer is always happy to entertain, the loneliness breaks.
For me, the hardest part of writing is the fear of starting something new. I’m afraid of running out of energy, of getting lost, falling on my face, or finishing up in a dead end alley halfway to my goal. The longer I stand on the sideline, jogging in place but not going anywhere, not actually committing to the race, the harder it is to start.
Determination makes you run, never stop –
Got to win, got to run ‘till you drop –
Keep the pace, hold the race –
Your mind is getting clearer.
Put on your shoes and run. You might fail, and spectacularly, but you’ll go nowhere just jogging in place.
If you’re a runner, then run!
Lyrics by Steve Harris, from The loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Iron Maiden, Somewhere In Time.
In honor of Halloween, the coolest holiday, I’m going to break my most steadfast rule as a writer. I’m going to share some of my poetry. Here it is, against my better judgment, and with my apologies …
JACK WITH THE HAT
There is an old hermit –
Who lives in a shack.
The Town kids all call him –
Jack With The Hat.
He lived in the forest –
Almost never came out.
But on Halloween night –
He was always about.
Jack so loved Halloween –
And all that it brought.
Creatures and candy –
And all of that rot.
Ghosties and witches –
And monsters and such.
But Jack didn’t like –
The town’s kids so much.
For all of his kindness –
And all of his care.
Those stingy little children –
Just would not share.
Jack begged and he pleaded –
But they just would not share.
Those stingy little bastards –
Just would not share!
Jack quickly realized –
That to get any play.
He’d have to dress up –
And do it their way.
So he knocked and he rang –
And he sang, “Trick or Treat!”
“Trick or Treat – smell my feet.”
“Give me something good to eat!”
But every door that he went to –
They slammed in his face.
They screamed and they panicked –
And sprayed him with mace.
“These goodies are for children.”
“Every candy bar and chew”
“Halloween is for kids.”
“Not for weirdoes like you”
There was only so much –
That poor Jack could take.
Rejected – dejected –
He sat down to think.
There was plenty of candy –
And Halloween gloom.
But with all the kids hogging it –
What was poor Jack to do?
The voices in Jack’s head –
Told him just what to do.
The buddies in his head –
Named Worm #1 and Worm #2.
“You should take all their candy.”
“’Cause that’s what monsters do.”
“You should teach those little bastards.”
“Not to be rude!”
So with a swing of his cane –
He gave them a whack!
And with a chop of his hatchet –
He gave them a hack!
He whacked and he hacked –
And he hacked and he whacked.
Hack-hack, whack-whack –
Jack finished that Halloween –
With a grin on his face.
He chopped up the woman –
Who had sprayed him with mace.
He pooped in her flowers –
And he peed on her bed.
And gobbled his candy –
From her hollowed out head.
The moral of this story? –
When Jack is about.
Hand over your candy –
And clear the hell out.
That night the town’s kids –
Learned this one hard-core fact.
Nobody messes with –
Jack With The Hat!
The other day I listened to an interview with a man whom many consider one of the saviors of the horror genre. I happen to agree, and I think most of you reading this who are familiar with the genre would also agree, if I told you his name. I won’t do that though. I have a point to make, but I don’t want to shame anyone in the process. From this point on, for the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to our savior of the genre as Mr. Editor.
I’ve chosen to omit his name from this essay for two reasons, because I’ve met the guy a few times and genuinely like him, and out of simple professional courtesy.
Professional courtesy is a vague concept, and I’m sure everyone has their own idea of what professional courtesy entails. I could spend the time making a list of things I think fall under the heading of professional courtesy, and I’m willing to bet that list would vary only slightly from your list. I’ll skip the list though. I have a feeling this rant will be long enough without it. Instead, I’ll give you my simple bare bones definition. Professional courtesy means not muddying the waters, not pissing in the well, not shitting where you sleep.
Throw in your own hacky metaphor. I’m sure you get my point.
I’ve been guilty of my own lapses into rudeness and stupidity over the years. Nick Mamatas may be able to give you a specific case-in-point if his memory is as long as I think it is. I don’t think I’ve ever actually apologized for that, Nick. So, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry man. I was way out of line.
I think I’ve learned from my mistakes though, and I try not to repeat them.
Back to the subject of the first paragraph, the hero of the horror genre, Mr. Editor.
I happen to agree that the man is one of the horror genre’s greatest treasures, but for me the mere mention of his name is enough to raise my heart rate and blood pressure, to make my face flush red and put me in a rotten mood that can take days to shake off. To me this man is the embodiment of frustration, anger, and the futility of trying to make a future in this business.
I am sure Mr. Editor would be shocked to hear this. I doubt like hell that this was his intention. I know he works hard, and I understand that I’m barely a blip on the periphery of his professional radar. However, I believe that he is guilty of a huge professional discourtesy, and I would bet my next advance that I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Here are the facts, as simply and innocuously as I can put them.
In 2004 I was personally approached by a fairly big name writer (who shall also remain anonymous – he hates it when people drop his name) who told me that Mr. Editor was looking for me, that he wanted me to meet him at the party in room such-and-such, that he wanted to discuss my work. So I met with Mr. Editor, pitched him my book, and he invited me to send him the full manuscript.
I met Mr. Editor again a few years later at another pitch session, and again he invited me to send a manuscript. About halfway through the second meeting he made brief reference to the manuscript I’d sent two years previous, saying he thought he had something of mine on his desk already, but didn’t think he’d gotten around to looking at it. I confirmed that he did indeed have another book of mine under consideration, and left it at that. I didn’t want to irritate the man. I engaged in a bit of professional courtesy and kept my mouth shut.
It has now been over four years since the first manuscript crossed his desk, and not a word. Manuscript #1 was available as a trade hardcover when he requested it, and has since gone out of print. Manuscript #2 was on the road to limited edition hardcover publication when he requested it, sold out by the publication date, and remains out of print. Mr. Editor knew about the publication history of Manuscript #1, and was aware that Manuscript #2 was on the road to hardcover publication, and since he has reprinted novels originally released by both of my hardcover publishers, I don’t believe that was ever an issue.
In the four years since our frustrating professional interaction began, I have sent four or five follow-up emails, all spaced at least six months apart. Again, I didn’t want to irritate the guy, but I am assured by people much higher in the business than I am that a short follow-up every six months or so shouldn’t be an irritation.
He has replied to none of my follow-up queries.
One of the first things a writer aspiring to publish his or her work has to learn is how to handle rejection, and while I will never embrace it, I have leaned to deal with it. Every writer who ever published has dealt with rejection.
But Mr. Editor hasn’t rejected these manuscripts either.
There is simply nothing. Not a word. Dead silence.
A yes or no would be nice, though I’ve never asked for either. All I’ve ever asked is to know if the manuscripts, after four years for one and two for the other, are still under consideration. Are we still playing the game, or should I pack up my toys and go home?
Others have given me advice over the years.
“Be active on the genre message boards. Mr. Editor is always reading them, and if he sees your name out there it’ll improve your chances.”
I have tried that with no obvious gain.
“Stay off the message boards. Too much casual interaction with fans makes you look unprofessional.”
I am doing that now, though for different reasons, but it hasn’t appeared to help.
“Keep sending him your stuff.”
I won’t send him unsolicited material, and if he isn’t answering gentle queries about material he requested years ago, I have no reason to believe he would reply to a query for something new. More importantly, I just can’t bring myself to throw another manuscript down that black hole. I see no gain in that, only additional frustration.
To be fair, Mr. Editor isn’t the only publishing professional I’ve dealt with who is guilty of this particular professional discourtesy. There are other Mr. Editors, a few Mrs. Agents, and a Mr. Comic Editor (there has been some communication with Mr. Comic Editor, but I think the requested script has slipped his memory again).
Tell me, fellow writers, is this your experience? Is this to be expected? Is this standard operating procedure? If so, then writers are without a doubt the most masochistic people on the planet. We would have to be to keep soliciting this kind of treatment.
To Mr. Editor, if you are reading this. I sincerely hope this doesn’t cause you any grief. My apologies if it does. This has been very much been on my mind lately, and it seems like the kind of thing in which Storytellers Unplugged readers might be interested. I hope you find I’ve tried to practice professional courtesy, even in the midst of a rant about the business.
To editors and publishers in general, I’m not suggesting you should let a bunch of pain-in-the-ass writers run your business for you, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to treat your potential talent pool with a bit of respect. If you respect an author’s work enough to request a full manuscript, you might respect the author enough to keep him in that outermost loop of your business where his manuscript awaits that hoped for Yes, or the much more common Thanks but no thanks.
The golden Yes is the reason we keep casting our pebbles into your talent pool, and those of us who aren’t used to the Thanks but no thanks already had better get used to it.
Endless silence though, that’s just rude.
A few of you reading this may have expected to see an entirely different essay from me this month, one I wrote in an angry and frustrated state of mind a few weeks ago. I fully intended to post it, and to hell with any possible negative consequences. At that point I figured I had nothing to loose anyway. When the ego is wounded, nothing else seems important.
Probably I don’t have anything to loose. I doubt that there would have been any repercussions, or that the catalyst for my angry moment would have realized I was talking about them, even if they did read it. Not unless someone actually spelled it out for them anyway.
Something one of my pre-readers (a very busy gentleman, who none-the-less consents to read my essays occasionally) said gave me some pause. His critique had nothing to do with the content of my essay, which he thought was good, but rather my intent.
“What is the end goal? What do you hope to achieve?”
He didn’t necessarily question my aim, but he did challenge me to question it. So I did, and wasn’t 100% comfortable with my own motivations, the tone of the piece, or the timing.
So thank you, Mr. First Reader, for stepping on my foot before I could stick it in my mouth.
This is not the first time a good first reader has kept me from potential embarrassment, and it won’t be the last. I’ve lost count of the times a first reader has caught something that would have made me cringe with embarrassment had I actually sent it to an editor. Usually it’s small stuff, but sometimes not so small.
“I think you meant flare instead of flair.”
“On page 151, paragraph five … what were you thinking? Danny would never behave like that!”
“Dude, is English your second language?”
First readers come in all varieties, from factual to historical, subjective to objecting, structural to stylistic. I have a single go to guy for gun questions, a couple of guys for car questions, someone who seems incapable of letting the smallest goof in grammar slip past him, and another who specializes in legal questions.
Potential first readers are already recreational readers, sometimes even fans, and are usually thrilled with the chance to help out, or to get to read something new before anybody else. Some work on a quid-pro-quo basis, but I’ve yet to have a single one ask for anything out of line; a mention on the acknowledgments page, a brief cameo, a promise to return the favor sometime down the road.
They are worth it. More than worth it, actually.
First readers are an important tool in the writer’s trick-bag, and novice writers would do well to surround themselves with well-read and intelligent first readers. Don’t just ask a select few whom you can count on for an ego boost. The occasional ego boost is nice, but it won’t help you fix your mistakes or improve your work. Honesty is much more important than ego stroking.
If you plan on staying in this business, the ego should probably go anyway. Mine has done nothing but cause me trouble.
A giant homicidal maniac with the head of a bear splits a man in half from head to chest with a rusty machete.
A soldier performs battlefield surgery on himself, not because he is wounded, but to remove a bit of unwanted government hardware, something that was not a part of his original equipment.
A teenage girl beats a man to death in a crowded diner with his own cane.
A giant catfish swallows a scuba diver whole. Not content to be the fish’s dinner, the diver cuts his way out.
A woman, hearing her daughter crying out in the night, goes to comfort the child. In her daughters room she discovers that the bogeyman, in which she had long ceased to believe in, is indeed real. This is to be her final revelation.
No, these are not scenes from various Sci-Fi Channel original movies; these are random images that have come to me out of the blue at the oddest times. Mutant brainwaves that derail whatever train of thought I happen to be riding. Images that have germinated ideas, ideas that have grown into novels. Hundreds of pages of prose, countless hours of composition, characters with complex back stories, most of whom I care about almost as if they were real, all beginning life as brief, but vivid, images in my head.
I’ve heard some writers explain the creative process as a What If game, e.g., What If there was someone who really could see ghosts and predict the future? What kind of life would such gifts compel a man to lead?
What if a vampire took up residence in my hometown? How much damage could it do to the community before someone realized what was going on, and how could the enlightened individual, or perhaps a group of enlightened individuals, go about dealing with the monster?
There are probably a hundred other ways in which writers and creative people conceive new ideas, but my favorite, or at least the one which has yielded the best results for me, is the single clear image or idea.
I have endless fun imagining the events and back-stories, which have led to the imagined scene, then riding the unexplored river of story that flows from it. Sometimes those images turn out to be the opening of the story, or more often something that happens further down the line, but it is always something compelling or exciting enough to make me want to get it on paper, and to find out what happens afterward.
If you ever find yourself stuck for an idea you should give this a shot. It’s easy as can be. Just wait for that mutant brainwave to strike and grab hold of whatever weird non sequitur, image or thought, it throws at you.
It works for me, and it just might work for you too.
My apologies. My fabulously busy lifestyle and fast-paced day job have gotten in the way of my latest Storytellers Unplugged essay. Instead of posting nothing, I thought I’d dredge up an old SU favorite of mine for those of you who may have missed it the first time around.
Greetings from Lewiston, Idaho, which, despite popular belief, is not the “Potato State,” but the “Gem State.” Have you ever seen a Star Garnet? Most likely not, because the only two places on Earth they are found in India, and the state of Idaho.
The few of you who know a little about me are probably saying “what? I thought he lived in Washington.” I do live in Washington, in a small city called Clarkston, right on the border with Idaho. In almost all respects, Lewiston and Clarkston are one city, but it’s a divided city, split down the middle by the Snake River, which happens to be the Idaho/Washington border. Clarkston is the poor first half of the city, Lewiston the slightly less poor second half.
Lewiston and Clarkston are named after the explorers Lewis and Clark, and at one time, Lewiston was the capitol of Idaho. Before that though, when the state of Idaho was still part of a huge chunk of land called the Washington Territory, this place’s name was Jawbone Flats.
Well, it is to me. I love local history. There isn’t much of it here, we’ve only been around for a few hundred years, but what history we do have here is colorful.
About a half block from where my mother, a paralegal, works, there is a small city park. There used to be a Boys & Girls Club there, and for at least a few summers, a kick-ass water slide. There also used to be a city swimming pool there. Those are all gone now, the buildings that housed them empty for all I know. The Hanging Tree is still there though.
I discovered The Hanging Tree when I was fourteen or fifteen, after a half-day of summer school classes on the Lewis Clark State Collage campus not too far away. A few friends and me had just been chased out of the administration building after we were caught riding on the top of the building’s single elevator. With nothing else to do, we decided to go make some trouble in the nicely shaded park.
The tree had a plaque on it, telling its history, who all had been hanged there.
There’s another hanging tree not too far from where my grandparents live near Pierce, Idaho. Five Chinese men were on there way to trial for the murder of a local merchant, who was found hacked into pieces after an argument with them, when a lynch mob liberated them from the Sheriff’s Posse and strung them up.
Lynching used to be all the rage in these parts. Lynching and Indian Massacres.
History is always bloody, and the history of the American West is no exception.
I’ve learned much of the local history I find so fascinating, including the story about a crazy mountain man known as Ridgerunner, from my grandpa and grandma Cole, who are in their own way as much a part of local history as The Hanging Tree only a few miles from their home. We’re even related to the famous old west outlaws Jesse and Frank James.
They are prospectors, loggers, and mill owners from a family of the same. They lived the original American Dream; independence, ownership, and family. Their dream is dead now, or at the very least it has evolved into a New American Dream; wealth, big houses and fast cars, overindulgence, instant gratification, all served with a sloppy, steaming heap of sex.
The only respect that belongs to the hardworking family man/woman these days is self-respect, and the New American Dream is doing its damndest to kill that too.
Sorry, I strayed a little. Or did I?
When my grandpa found out I was a writer, a thing I didn’t advertise to most of my family because of what I write, he asked me what I was working on. At that time I was working on a novel called FERAL, so I told him about it.
Have you ever been on a crowded elevator with one of those folks who only baths on February 29th, and who missed their last date with the bar of soap because they forgot to change their calendar? You know the faces the other people make as he cozies up to them, introduces himself, and begins a long, complex story about how the CIA, Forest Service, and Bill Gates are out to get us all?
That was the face my grandpa made when I told him about FERAL.
My mom, who has been making that face about my writing since I was in High School, hid a smile behind a hand. My grandma continued to look politely interested, but I could tell it was a struggle.
Finally, grandpa said, “Well, maybe someday you’ll write a nice western.” It’s a reasonable expectation, I guess. With so much interesting regional history around here to base a story on, and so much interesting family history to tie in with it, it’s probably what he expected I’d write.
I swallowed the first response that came to mind, not bloody likely, and gave him the synopsis for a weird western/horror story that’s been sitting unfinished on my hard drive for a few years now. It included a fictional member of the Cole family, and a crazy Frenchman who dresses like Alice Cooper and behaves like the Marque De’Sade.
Grandpa was not amused.
These days not bloody likely seems like a foolish attitude to take. Tom Piccirilli and Ed Gorman both write westerns, and Charles Grant wrote romance under a pen name (or so I hear). Who am I to argue with them, especially when the mainstream has little or no interest in horror these days? I’ll mention no names, but a well known author who’s familiar with my work once told me that if I wrote mysteries or thrillers instead of horror, I’d probably have a big fat multi-book deal by now.
I should probably be content with what I do have; a decent paying day job, some small press book deals that help me get through some of the tighter times, and just a modicum of self-respect.
I’m not content with that though. I want a bigger audience, better deals, and to be able to answer the question what do you write? without everyone looking at me like I’m a circus geek. I want to be able to quit my day job, buy a big house, and drive a fast car, instead of an old mini-van with broken door handles, broken power windows, broken air conditioner, broken heater, bad fuel injectors … oh hell, you get the picture.
And sometimes I do get other, non-horror, ideas.
Who knows, maybe some day I’ll experiment and try something different, something without maniacs, monsters, or ghosts. Everyone is doing it these days. Genre bending and crossing is all the rage. I certainly have to try something different if I’m ever going to find the New American Dream.
Maybe I’ll write a thriller next, or a romance (what my dad used to call crotch rippers), or a mystery.
Maybe even a nice western.
A few things have changed since my original posting of Maybe Someday I’ll Write A Nice Western. The busted down van is history. I now drive a 62 Ford Falcon. It needs body work, suspension work, interior work … it needs work all around, but, it is more reliable than that old mini-van ever thought of being.
I have also written a YA fantasy novel, which I have not been able to sell yet.
The weird western remains unfinished, and that “Nice Western” is still so far on the horizon I can’t see it yet.