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Putting A Blood of Killers Together

June 4th, 2012 Comments off

Or . . . whether short stories.

It is a legitimate question, I think.

Before I start, fair warning – this is one of the “lost” posts from when SU switched to its current location.   According to my records, it’s not up on the archive for my old posts.    So if you missed it the first time, or forgot about it, here it is again.

Also, at the time, the collection I’m talking about was about to come out from Necro Publications.  Now that’s out of print, and the collection is now available as an ebook from Crossroad Press,  so the topic of short stories and their challenges and rewards is relevant, at least to me, once more.

I’ve spent a great deal of my creative time writing short stories.  I have more collections published than novels.  The shorts come and go, buried in magazines, anthologies, or fluttering through the electronic aether.  A few get mentioned in reviews or make someone’s notable list.   Sometimes they take on a mini-life of their own through reprint sales, or flare momentarily in a reader’s awareness through a collection’s more substantial format.  Maybe they make (very little) money.

Outside of academic circles, where being published is not necessarily about money but about keeping your  day job, very few people talk/blog/twitter/message board about their favorite short stories, or which ones they’ve read lately, or debate top ten or twenty stories of all time.  The major publishers say collections don’t sell.  Most readers I run into want ask about the “next novel,” or say point blank they’re not into shorts.

On the plus side, there are opportunities for certain kinds of shorts geared for the new media – gaming, serial twitter novels, you tube video clips and such.  Some writers – at the master level, of course – are on the automatic invite/buy lists for anthologies, or can score the few big markets left, or even attract enough of a following to develop subscription lists for their work.

But in my perception of reality, the vast majority of stories and their authors, and certainly my own work, is not destined for shots at riches or glory through movie options or awards.  The audience and the markets aren’t there, or they aren’t there for the kinds of stories I and perhaps you may like to write.  Certainly the market for mediocre short stories is long gone.  There is no vast publishing engine searching to fill pulp pages with lurid prose.

So why bother?  Is focusing on short forms self-destructive?  Is it a sign of disability?

Sometimes.   Not every writer is drawn to or as effective in long form.  Some don’t have the patience, time, or whatever else it takes to contain a big and complicated piece in the imagination for a long time.  Of course, some of them also spend a long time on a short piece, and wind up winning awards and creating seminal work.  But how many of us are Ellison?

But the short form is also an outlet for the restless imagination.  Done well (with a handle on structure and language), a writer can explore any number of styles, characters, themes, without getting bored or bogged down.  The short stuff allows for experimentation.  You can stretch a particular muscle of craft or subject without the threat of getting distracted by the bigger problems of a novel.

If you’re writing the same thing over and over again in short form, you’re wasting your time.  At least with novels, repetition can be rewarded by a loyal audience and a grateful publisher.  Repetition with short stories just bores the few paying editors out there who’ve read everything.

In this day, of course, there is the problem of markets.  But the sad fact is that if you’re good, you’ll get the markets that are left.  There are simply less markets available for “the rest of us.”  The standards are higher, the competition fiercer, the “inner circles” tighter.

Who even reads?  Well, there are still readers lurking about.  Mostly female, by some stats.  But there’s a lot of competition coming from all the other sources of entertainment.  Not as many books are devoured  by the light of day and the flicker of a candle.  And readers seem more particular than ever, I believe.  They seem to be more focused on specific tropes and genres – romance, zombies, puzzle-box mysteries, whatever.

Who even writes (I mean, for real)?

Don’t get me started.

Lurching back from the brink of despair, the answer to the question, why bother writing short stories? is simple.  If they matter to you, you’ll write them.  If they don’t, you won’t.

So, obviously, shorts matter to me.  That’s why I have more collections than novels.

After the creative thrill is gone, a check or two is cashed, a pleasant thing is said and forgotten somewhere in the context of  More Important Work by Better Writers, the question becomes, Why bother with a collection?

Part of the reason, at least for me, is the romance of nostalgia.  I grew up in the era of cheap paperbacks (and magazines, and comics, etc).  My friends and I would go to a particular candy store on Broadway off of Steinway Street in Astoria, where they also sold craft materials (?!) and, in the back room, boxes and boxes of recent comics and 50’s and 60’s paperbacks.

I can smell the old paper now.

So, yeah, we read all kinds of stuff from Doc Savage to Arthur C. Clarke to John MacDonald.  Collections weren’t publishing pariahs back then.  Harlan Ellison had a million of them.  I’m looking up at an old copy of Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard faced out on my shelf right now.  College editions of Kafka are up there, too.  More recent compilations of Dick, Sturgeon, Hemingway, Bowles.

Collections told a story, about the writer, sometimes about a continuing character (yeah, I was a Doyle fan, too).  For me, they captured the mood or emotion for a period of time in the writer’s life and the age in which they wrote.

So, when I put together a bunch of stories, I look for the thread that hangs them together – an emotion, an aspect of myself I find reflected in stories, a theme, whatever.

But I’m also looking for a variety, in terms of characters, structure, style.

Commonalities, and differences.  Odd perspectives on the familiar.

The current project started out as a series of stories  I wanted to write about a character I’ve spent probably too much time on – a supernatural assassin on an arc of self-discovery.   Since the work I’d produced had originally been conceived of as yet another series of stories (are we sensing a pattern?) that grew into a novel-in-stories and two full-fledged novels, I wanted to go back in the character’s personal history and “play” with his strengths and “foibles.”  While only touching on that self-discovery arc, I wanted to see him challenged in ways I couldn’t explore while involved in the original arc.

I outlined a kind of “labors of Hercules” for a demon-possessed killer in a “civilized” world and wound up with a bunch of stories and a novella in different styles and settings, getting to see my guy struggle with the fantastic and the mundane in his efforts to survive.  I had fun.

I also had no hope of publishing this stuff.

Fortunately, I had other stories, already published, a few to (very) small notice, and I could see connections to the assassin material.  Killers have fascinated my since I turned to the “dark side” in the 80’s, partly because of the nature of my “day” work, the neighborhoods I found myself in, people I knew.   Human monsters, even those touched by the supernatural, were always scarier to me than “critters.”  More real.  That interest showed in stories I’d been writing since the late 80’s.

The only thing scarier than other people, at least for me, is the vastness of the unknown, the fragility of “reality,” the chilling, surreal nature of the “other” we can’t even imagine.

But those are themes for another collection.  Maybe the next one.

One of the stories I lingered over, A Blood of Killers, was always one of my favorites, and I’d used its central conceit in a couple of the assassin stories already, so the connections to the overall book grew tighter until it became the project’s title.  The stories ranged back quite some time in my life.  I could mine different stages of my life for material.

I liked the idea of a collection of stories about a group of killers.  For readers who liked the character, there was certainly a book’s worth of brand new material for them.  And for those who never heard of him,  or maybe didn’t like the character, there was a book’s worth of material dealing with the same issues, but from the point of view of very different, more vulnerable characters.

One always hopes for the best.  What will be will be.

The project, and the market, has forced me to reconsider my love-affair with short stories.  The real world has challenged me with lifestyle changes.

Perhaps it’s time to stop flying from flower to flower.  Maybe I’ve experimented enough, and can put what I’ve learned to good use elsewhere.  There are other markets to consider.  Even other media.

My points in this latest bit of rambling are:

– use short stories to push your craft and explore new ideas

– make your stories count, make them the best they can be, because they remain your property (in most cases – watch those rights on epublisher contracts) and you can sell them again, fold them into longer projects, gather them into collections to further your career

– as with any artistic endeavor, be prepared to have your heart broken

– don’t look for money or much career boost in short stories – everyone’s waiting for the novel

Update –  Here’s another view from around the time I wrote this, with some happier numbers on some “literary” collections and certainly relevant advice:

And here’s one more in line with my thinking of the continuing uncertainty of markets and the possible hope in ebooks and ereaders:

Both have interesting links on short stories in the electronic age, including an observation that individual short stories can outsell collections of short stories.  Certainly there are more options and freedom in the ebook world, but like the Wild West, fewer roads than even the current print world to financial success.

And, of course, DNW’s column on digital publishing at the Crossroad Press site is another source to check in on, especially given his hands-on experience.

More than ever, we live in interesting times.

Reviews and Such

April 4th, 2012 Comments off

Last month I did something I usually  try to avoid – look for reviews online.  It’s one of those “be careful what you wish for” exercises I regret more often than I find satisfying.  I did find a nice quote from a review of a story published in a U.K anthology, Blind Swimmer:

There are writers who write stories for the sake of entertainment, and then there are storytellers who understand what stories and myths are meant for. Gerard Houarner is both a writer and a storyteller.

Thanks, tangetonline.  I’ll be using that one.  But, of course, I found some less than enthusiastic comments about other things, and, more disturbing, silence.  Chunks of work, ignored.  It’s like sending a piece out and not only don’t you get an answer, there’s not even a response to a query.

But that’s just business.  You bust your butt, but there are no guarantees.  Maybe your work gets published.  Maybe it sells to an editor who maybe asks for a few changes, says some nice things, puts together a great project, and you get to see your name in print and cash a check.

Maybe a reader says something nice, sometime, in a convention hallway or on Amazon.  Movies, awards, yeah, they’re all right around the corner.

The best warning I’ve heard about reviews is that if you believe the good ones, you’ll have to believe the bad ones.

Good ones don’t help sell the next book.  Bad ones won’t kill your career.

Sales will.

Reviews won’t help you write the next one, either.

But.  In our new online universe, reviews are a form of currency. They appear everywhere, from retailers to reader sites to blogs to social networks. Good ones encourage attention, which may lead to sales.  Bad ones, especially a lot of them, pretty much kill the deal.

Used to be, dedicated specialists, hardcore readers, folks with an understanding of some kind of literary history, whether world, western, genre, or maybe just what they read when they were growing up, used to write them.  They were a kind of mint, producing a steady stream of dependable currency.  And because these reviews were printed in little magazines, or specialty magazines, or the NYT and Atlantic Monthly and such, there were standards maintained for reviews, and a community of a certain kind of audience found them and made their buying decisions accordingly.

Not anymore.  The community has gotten better.  Anybody can write them.  Everybody’s got an opinion.  Standards, well, they’re all over the place, and often no place at all.

(An interesting discussion of reviewing occurred recently on Jeff VanderMeer’s Facebook page, bringing up the point that reviews, in general, are still an individual reader’s experience of a story and tastes and subjectivity play a role, no matter how intricate the intellectual dressing.  And then there are the pressures of pumping them out on deadline.  Oh, yeah, and opinions change over time, anyway.  And not just about Melville.)

It’s hard to earn good (and by good, I mean genuine and positive) ones, just like real money.  People who like your writing need to care enough to post something.  That’s hard, because it’s often easier to complain about something that you think sucked than to be write something positive about something you liked.  Being pissed off gets you energetic.  Being happy makes you do other things that make you happy, which often isn’t sitting online writing reviews.  Human nature. Sometimes, you have to go after them by encouraging readers to post.

Or you can make them up in your own little counterfeiting operation.

That’s part of the problem, of course.  Little conspiracies, friends popping up with the same wording on the reviews like perps telling the same story the same way to understanding detectives – very embarrassing.   But, human nature.

Unfortunately, hundreds of short, even monosyllabic five star reviews tend to cheapen the occasional good, genuine ones, and overwhelm the dozens of genuine bad ones.  Alas, this creates confusion and cheapens the currency, makes it suspect.

But the currency doesn’t seem to be going away.  At every turn, we’re asked to evaluate, to review, to give feedback.  It’s the age of accountability, after all.  Or, maybe it’s the age of spin control.  Is it the age of bullshit, yet?  I get confused, sometimes.

Despite the problems, I do believe a healthy account of positive reviews behind a book listing does garner attention.  Builds that all-important readership, the kind of people who like what you do, not how – as in what specific genre or style you might decide to work in – you do it.  The kind of people who want to read anything by X because they like what X does.

(Yes, I know, some folks stray way off the reservation and go all “abduction” or “Jesus” on people, driving away even the core readership.  Human nature is a bastard.)

In my own shopping experience for anything, I’ll research, read the reviews, read them critically for factors like taste (current reviews for Ghost Story have 12 one-stars, 15 two-stars, out of 139, seriously). One guy says a jacket’s sleeves are too long, okay, got it, but if two or three people have the same reaction and not enough evidence to the contrary services, pattern recognition kicks in).  In hotel reviews, there’s always somebody who was stuck with a bad room, a noisy neighbor.

So, what to do about earning some more of those genuine good reviews?

Hmmm, still thinking about that one.  Does asking nicely really help?  I’ve seen writers gently ask folks who may have written a nice formal review if they’d post it on Amazon, and I’ve seen some reviewers do that unasked.

Run contests for posted reviews?  I’m uncomfortable with that.

There’s the old editor’s response to “what will it take for me to sell you a story” – write better stories, of course.

If you read it and you like it don’t clap your hands, post a review.

Just ask.

Look, I started this off with the old advice of not taking this stuff too seriously.  But, with reviews becoming so much more important as a marketing tool, and with money at stake, that’s not so easy to do, anymore.

Once again: But.

Lots of people have opinions.  Some of these opinions are pretty well informed, or at least founded on a set of literary standards, a well-defined sense of taste and some skill and experience in presenting an argument.  Doesn’t make them right for you, of course.   Other opnions,  not so much.

Take it easy out there.  I’ll take my little tangetonline quote, use it on the site.  Maybe it’ll wind up on a book or an ad.  I got a moment’s validation out of it, which very quickly evaporated.  A few of them put together may sustain the illusion of a career, if you’re lucky.  Not as much as contracts, checks, and work coming out on a regular basis.  Just don’t let them lull you (or depress you) into lowering your guard, ambition, work ethic, creativity, standards, discipline, and all the other things that keep a writer looking more at the space where the next word goes instead of the space occupied by other people’s opinion of what you’re doing.

Otherwise, well, if you haven’t caught up to it yet, you can check Christopher Priest perhaps taking the “awards” thing (not unlike the “review” thing) a bit too seriously.

He’s not the first person I’ve heard who wanted to fire judges.  Some folks wanted to fire the professionals who supposedly selected this or that as the best, or the readers, who picked a over b,c and d.

If you listen more than you talk at certain kinds of gatherings, you hear old stories and questions about this or that award ceremony, the legendary meltdowns, the gossip, frustration and resentment.  The CP tempest in a teapot inspired a range of reactions, some pretty funny.  I liked Nick Mamatas’ response:

Stop whining.

The Literature will survive.  If it’s worth it, so will (some small portion) your work.  If you’re very, very, very good.  No matter what the reviews said.

This is Lawrence Block on blurbs, which are kind of related to reviews:

And finally, word from a publisher:

Civil reviews and critiques.  Yes.  Never mind that you can get away with saying anything from behind an electronic mask.  Say it like you’d like your boss or a customer, your spouse, your kid, to pull your coat on something you did that was less than stellar.

Say it like you’re saying it to somebody’s face.  Take the same risk the writer did to put the work out there.

And if you’ve got it, show some love.

Working the Craft, or Trying Not to Suck Dead Grizzly Ass

March 4th, 2012 1 comment

My good buddy Tom Piccirilli, whose “noirella” Clowns in the Moonlight ( ) was just released, recently posted on Facebook: “Worst thing about working through your novel for a second draft? Realizing that all those brilliant lines you wrote actually suck dead grizzly ass.”
Yes. Yes they so sadly do.
Of course, his suck is what some of the rest of us can only aspire to, but still, the point remains, running through your first draft with a cold eye can make you feel like you’ve slipped into a talent show judged by Ricky Gervais, Seth MacFarlane, and MST3k guys. You can’t help wincing.
But there’s no choice. Not if you want to sell. Or at least not be held up to ridicule like many self-published innocents whose work gets the occasional Ricky/Seth/MST3k treatment at writer gatherings. The cold eye is essential. It ain’t all poetic inspiration and glasses of wine.
Some writers embrace, even love the editing process. Blessed by stronger editing genes, or perhaps they’re strangers from another planet granted the super powers by the light of our sun, they’re not frustrated by debris from the crumbling façades of imagination. They’re not appalled by weak, even non-existent foundations of motivation. Nor are they attached to the clever bits that come in the fever dream of creation, the kind that wilt and die under the glaring reality of a really good second read. They love to prune, and are not afraid to chop off entire chapters.
The rest do it because it is part of the job. Face it, for any kind of work, there’s always some part that sucks worse than any other. I’ve heard writers say they hate writing, but love having written. Gardeners don’t all love messing around in the dirt, but they love the flowers or vegetables they grow.
There are ways to find support. Some folks give their work to hand-picked readers or writing partners who know their material, what they want to say, and can be trusted to give appropriate feedback. Others use a writing workshop for fast edits as deadlines loom. A few even have great editors with keen eyes who really work to make the piece even better than you ever imagined it might be.
The editing process differs with the writing process. Some folks like the fast first draft, others build the work carefully, scene by scene, laying down a strong foundation, putting down one chapter seamlessly on top of the another.

I usually spend a lot of time on beginnings, because I feel the end is in the beginning. As the story develops, I go back and plant a seed that needs planting, or I jump ahead and lay something down that will need to be done or said at the end.

I’m also a foundation type of writer. I need to feel what’s gone on before is solid before I move on. Of course, I know I’m deluding myself. But in the moment, I want to feel like something feels solid. I’ve dug into the characters, even the setting, maybe exposed something new or different, which then leads to a plot twist I hadn’t anticipated. Maybe I have to go back again, change a couple of things. In other words, I always seem to be going back and edit, smoothing out the rough spots so I have an idea what the thing I’m building actually looks like, and not just an outline of what I hope it’ll turn out to be.

This means I violate a rule many writers have of never researching while writing. Make it up, fix it later. My problem if something is worth mentioning, it’s worth getting it right. The detail may have an impact on plot, or maybe you put it in for the sake of authenticity. But if I’m going to bother with the details of, say, the ingredients of a meal and how it’s prepared, it means I want to use it as a way to show something about the characters. For me, it’s important to know those kinds of details as I come to them. It helps me get deeper into their POV, work with their reactions, make them more consistent, or surprising in believable ways.

But I understand the lay-it down first and smooth it out later types. For a lot of writing work, like media-based stories, you just have to pump it out. Deadlines rule. Business is business, and sometimes good enough writing and timely delivery will get you the next job, while great writing handed in late means zip. And, for folks not on deadlines, it seems like they need that feeling of being rushed to get through to the end and finish a story.

Whatever gets you through the long night.

Alas, whether you’ve written fast or slow, benefitted from friendly or rough feedback, worked on tight deadlines or loose ones, edited on the fly or not at all, you’re going to be faced with a final edit at some point, even if it’s at the last-chance galley stage. If you’re not, you didn’t get over, you got robbed.

Hopefully, you’ve gotten some distance from the material and forgotten those cherished little things you put in there that you thought were so cool. And for projects that may have taken a long time to complete, or suffered from a lot of interruptions, it’s the last chance to pick up problems like mixed up names/characters/descriptions, jumps in mood or tone, unfinished thoughts, questions that really should have an answer, repetitions and all the other errors and bad habits that pop up because, well, nobody’s perfect.

Speaking of lack of perfection, I’ve been working on revising a long piece and thought I’d share, for whatever it may be worth, a snapshot of an edit in progress.

In the following section, my goal was to show a part of the background setting, the Caravan of Death, actually working instead of trudging through desert. I also wanted to offer my main character, a young girl, Aini, an opportunity to return to a safer place.

In the earlier draft presented here, I already (thankfully) deleted a heaping glob of a useless paragraph that seemed to be a placeholder for something I wanted to say, making the initial word count around 500 words. In a cold second read, I had no idea what I’d been talking about, so out it went.

I’m pretty sure I went on to fine tune it a bit more, but you get the idea. I’m not putting it out there as an example of how to do it, just an example of what I did.

419 words – earlier draft
Dejjal took the camel bridle from a servant, and the rest quickly vanished. “You must be careful what you play with,” he said, passing his fingers gently over her exposed calf, bruised and scratched by the djinn. “My brothers must work hard to calm what you stirred, and you might not survive another such encounter.”
Aini pointed to Bomaye and Mafufunyana at the center of a knot of figures, and said, “Not all your brothers.” She thought her thief had returned to bargain for her return. But then she noticed jeeps and trucks, the machinery of her youth in the other world, and uniformed men with guns. Another kind of bargain was being made. Bomaye was talking to the dead, calling them out of the line, looking to a fat man in green and black. When the fat man nodded his head, Bomaye yelled at the pick, directing each to the line loading into the vehicles. Mafufunyana pulled the females out, dragged them to a smaller van while carrying a strong box on his shoulder. None of the children were chosen.
The trucks started up as thunder rolled over the desert once more, drowning the noise of the engines. As the vehicles drove off to the east, the sky shimmered above them while ahead, the rocky, rolling landscape seemed to shrink and waver, like a mirage.
She thought of al-Sirat, and the possibility of other roads in and out of the country of caravans. She tried to remember the old stories she used to tell of growing up in that far and other place, before her parents had brought her into their dream of a caravan life.
Every place, she supposed, needed storytellers.
Dejjal laughed. “Finding the way to and from the Caravan of the Dead is part of the price of trading with us,” he said. “For those in need, what we provide is worth the cost. But do not believe that any journey back with those in such need would be gentle, or the world at the end of such roads a welcoming one for you.”
Aini closed her eyes, blocking out Dejjal with the many voices, the pictures moving and talking, the endless stories happening and being told all at the same time in an enormous stewpot of fantasy and gossip seasoned by the occasional fact and rare dashes of truth.
“You protected your virginity, but surrendered everything else to our world,” Dejjal said. “You’re ruined for any other land you think you could run to.”

480 – final draft
Dejjal took the camel bridle from a servant, and the rest quickly vanished. “You must be careful what you play with,” he said, passing his fingers gently over her exposed calf, bruised and scratched by the djinn. “You might not survive another such encounter. My brothers must work hard to calm what you stirred. ”
Aini pointed to Bomaye and Mafufunyana at the center of a knot of figures, and said, “Not all your brothers.”
She thought her thief had returned to bargain for her return. But then she noticed jeeps and trucks, uniformed men with guns, the machinery of her childhood in the other world. Another kind of bargain was being made.
Bomaye was talking to the dead, calling them out of the line, looking to a fat man in green and black. When the fat man nodded his head, Bomaye yelled at the pick, directing each to the line loading into the vehicles. Mafufunyana pulled the females out, dragged them to a smaller van while carrying a strong box on his shoulder. None of the children were chosen.
The trucks started up as thunder rolled over the desert once more, drowning the noise of the engines. As the vehicles drove off to the east, the sky shimmered above them while ahead, the rocky, rolling landscape seemed to shrink and waver like a mirage.
She thought of the world her parents had left behind and what might be waiting for her on the other side of a mirage. Every land held a promise, and a price. It was a world, she was certain, filled with stories and wonders. But no Caravan of Death, or Dreams.
Dejjal laughed as he followed her gaze and pointed at the rapidly diminishing trucks. “Finding the way to the Caravan of the Dead is half the cost of trading with us,” he said. “We claim the rest. And, of course, the way home requires its own payment. For those in need, what we offer is worth the sacrifice.
“But do not believe that any journey in the company of those in such need would be gentle, or the world at the end of such roads a welcoming one for you.”
Aini closed her eyes, listening to the crack and rumble of djinn until the many voices they’d awakened in her mind rose up in a tide of tales, real and imagined, seasoned by fantasy and gossip, the occasional fact and the rare dashes of truth, to drown Dejjal’s seductive murmuring. Tears came to her eyes, the kind she might have had if she’d ever seen her parents one more time.
Dejjal’s voice slipped through, a steel blade as hard and sharp as his smile. “You protected your virginity, but surrendered everything else to our world. You’re ruined for any other land you think you could run to.”

Patchwork Dreaming

February 4th, 2012 5 comments

Or…”interrupted by a person on business from Porlock” — sustaining the vision of the story you want to tell as life’s storms rage around you.

Trust me, it’ll make sense.

Quite some time ago in a LOCUS interview, Jay Lake talked about the challenges of containing the story he’s working on in his mind, or living in the “dream world” of his fictional creation.

I’ve always related to the problem, and kept the issue alive in my notes if not in my ever shrinking mind. I know I’ve mentioned the idea before, but perhaps never explored the concept. Also, over the years as life has closed in and its many challenges consumed innocence, insouciance, and energy, writing has become harder, not easier.

The topic haunts me.

One of the many romantic notions about writers is that they rattle off poems, stories and novels in a “white heat” of inspiration, working day and night, chain smoking, sitting in their dirty underwear in small rooms, their haggard faces lit only by the light of a computer screen (a single dusty bulb in the “old” days, and by candle flame in ancient times) surrounded by empty liquor bottles and piles of pristine finished manuscript, until the book is done and the royalty checks are already in the mail.

Everything real seems to stop in these writers’ lives. Children are magically fed, creditors compassionately defer their pursuit of unpaid bills. The sanctity of the torch of inspiration is respected, and the fire is allowed to burn until the fuel is spent and words are forged.

Now, it’s true there’s a least one famous thriller writer who books a hotel room for a few weeks and locks himself away to write a novel. And there are writers with significant others who “enable” their writing by taking care of the little details of life so they can concentrate on living in the imaginary world of their story until the tale is told.

The reality is that for most writers, that ain’t happening. More often, we’re like Coleridge with what we innocently and passionately believe is Kubla Khan in our heads, putting down lines from a (hopefully not opium inspired) dream vision until we’re interrupted by, as the story famously goes, a person on business from Porlock.

And if you’re a writer and never heard of anything from the above paragraph, stop reading and don’t write, but search out the poem and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Romanticism.

So the problem (one of many) for writers is keeping what you’re working on alive in your mind. For me, what Jay Lake is talking about is more than a memory problem of recalling plot direction and character tics. And it’s not “inspiration,” that magical booster shot people who want to be writers wait for so they can produce something when, and only when, they feel like it.

I believe containing the story in your mind is about getting a state of awareness about what you’ve done, where you’re heading, and what you’re supposed to be doing with your story when you’re at your keyboard. Something like an altered state, without the opium. An understanding that certain things have happened and that, because of those things, the blank page/screen is waiting for you to set down what you already know, deep down inside beyond your conscious mind, will happen next.

Maybe it’s a meditative state, for some. Or the “zone” athletes talk about, in which years of practicing certain skill sets, along with instinct, experience, and athletic talents, combine to elevate performance out of the mud of fear, nerves and thought. A higher state is achieved in which the baseball appears bigger, moving slower, toward your gigantic bat which swings so effortlessly.

A dream state. Being “in the moment.” Focused on the thing you are doing.

This precious state of knowing and being happens all the time in life, I think, though we may not be aware of it. I think it happens in the process of raising kids, working, driving, praying. Addicts miraculously rise from their stupor to orchestrate their next score.

For writers, I think it means avoiding the struggle of finding the “next thing” to write, rekindling the fire of “inspiration,” feeling again the urgency of having to say the thing you wanted to say in those first moments you scribbled down the story idea. It means recapturing the magnificent arc of story you saw at some point early in the process, re-entering the dream of your vision of Kubla Khan, with all its shimmering details, its clever references, plot points, characters, imagery and layers of meaning, and dragging it out into the waking world whole and complete.

We want it to happen whenever we write.

But it doesn’t happen all the time. We can’t live 24/7 in the dream state of our stories. Other lives, including our own “real world” lives, also need tending and care. Duty calls. Responsibilities knock on our doors.

Obviously, opium worked, at least once for Coleridge. The “romantic” image of writers that includes empty liquor bottles documents the supposed need for alcohol and other drugs to “lubricate” the imagination.

Certainly there are plenty of literary legends fueled by this kind of inspiration. There’s also a lot of bs, folks claiming one thing but doing quite another because, well, the bon vivant is a cool “platform” from which to sell stuff. Aside from the physically, emotionally and cognitively self-destructive aspects of these habits, there’s also regret.

If you wrote that well when you were high, think how much better it would have been if you were in your right mind.

And then there’s the sad reality that 99.9% of that stuff is buried, unseen, along with the creators. Mostly, at a very young age.

So what triggers these states? What else can we use to find the dream in which we can create?

I believe the discipline tricks writers use – writing in the same place, at the same time, every day – not only helps with production, but it also gets the writer back into the “space” or “head” of writing. It’s certainly helped me at times.

Keeping a Fortress of Solitude, a Batcave, a private space decorated so that it resembles the inside of your mind, is a tried and true. But I’ve found that isolating, at times. Cut off from life. Too unreal, perhaps too comfortable. And sometimes, when illness, death, disaster, financial woes or other big life tragedies and issues knock on the door, the Fortress walls come down, or they seem just silly and irrelevant, both in terms of life and to a story you may be trying to tell.

Music, especially when writers talk about specific genres for different types of writing, also serves as an emotional and imagination gate to get back into the story. I’ve seen candles and scents would do the trick.

There are stories about writers doing it naked, as if getting back into some kind of primal state to get the work done.

But not everybody works that way, and even if these techniques work for the structure and discipline of getting back to the work of writing, there may still be problems finding the dream of the story, particularly when time has gone by or a writer is jumping from one piece to another.

I guess what I’m looking for is something tied not to the act of writing, but to the story you’re trying to tell. An anchor, or a touchstone. A key that unlocks the cabinet through which you enter the adventure.

Well, yes, music works for a lot of people in this regard. Theme songs, like a Quincy Jones arrangement for a detective show, except the show is your story and the theme song is whatever rocks your boat. Alas, most of the time this is not for me. I find music too distracting, engaging me in ways that make me want to do other things besides writing, unless I’m writing a very musical story. And even then, at some point, I have to shut it down so I can concentrate on what the characters are saying and feeling.

I guess one factor in finding the right “key” is understanding which of the five senses dominates your awareness – are you visual, auditory, etc?

I do find getting in touch with the story’s setting a good way to start things up each time I write. Working on a longish piece set in a surreal desert, on and off over the past months (more on this another time), I found pictures, documentaries, even a screen saver all pretty good starting points. I write a lot in urban settings, and I live in a city, but I’ve also done nature settings, and I like parks and country, too. I know in those times when I write in a non-urban setting, I’m always thinking of and remembering the time I’ve spent upstate, out West, by the sea, etc.

Setting to me establishes the mood of a story. Again, I can see how music would be a great tool. But I’ve used, as above, documentaries, Sunrise Earth (HD films of sunrises in different parts of the world), and touchstone movies – Blade Runner, Casablanca, David Lynch stuff, surreal cartoons – running silently in the background to guide me into my zone.

Another way is to start every writing session by editing the previous session’s writing. This is a good habit, anyway, as what seemed like gold last night can turn out to be lead in the morning. But, depending on your need, re-reading the work and starting to tinker with it can get you back into the frame of mind you were in when you were last writing. Sparks fly, connections are re-opened. You’re reminded of things you wanted to say, or why you said such and such. You recall threats, you react to dangers. Hopefully, at some point, you’ll feel the need to stop editing and move into the action.

Yes, I know, there are some writers who cannot go on before finishing the perfect page. I studied under one of those. And for that person, the story was complete in his mind. It seemed like the dream of the story was readily accessible, though I was too young and stupid at the time ask. Most of us are not like that.

The point here is to get back into the overall story, the dream, and not to get caught up in close editing. Unless, of course, you find that to be your key. In any case, reviewing old work can wake up the other part of the brain where the dream is living. Listen to it when it calls.

By the way, I recently talked here on Storytellersunplugged about using “dead time” in your life as part of the writing process. Doing a little editing – re-reading what you’ve written, doing minor edits on the fly on your portable computer, smart phone, or manuscript pages — is not only a smart use of little snippets of time while waiting for something to happen, but it also helps to keep that dream alive in your head. Maybe it’ll make you more motivated to hurry home, or dip into the dream for as much time as you may have, and carry the story a little further along with new material.

The biggest key for me getting back into the dreamtime, I’ve found, are characters. I guess it’s something like an actor waiting in the wings, ready to throw up, having no memory of the lines, dreading the cue to step on stage. And when that moment comes and the floorboards creak underfoot, the actor doesn’t so much enter the play but the character in the play, and the lines flow and the fear flies off and the game is afoot.

It’s not the easy or magical, or nauseating, when I write. But I have found that once I’m “in” the character – I have a firm grip on needs, fears, strengths and weaknesses, as well as a sense of personality like sense of humor, patterns of connecting with others, how they relate to friends or family – I can see and understand the story through that character’s eyes. I’ve done long pieces through the eyes of several characters and never had a problem switching around and getting into the story from their point of view. Their individual worlds, and the world of the overall story, was usually within my reach.

Finding and feeling comfortable with the characters is another story, of course. Looking back, I can see the “failed” stories, particularly the ones that never sold or the ones I never bothered to finish, had problems centering on my lack of connection with the characters. The dream never came alive.

Sometimes (let’s not say often) dreams die when published. They never come alive for other people. So it goes. But at the very least, the dream should be alive for the writer.

Strong characters carry their own atmosphere, bring the mood to the story, invite certain kinds of characters to play with them. Good characters can make the work of telling a story so much easier.

Think of the Harry Potter series. Really, all that fantasy stuff is wonderful, but not particularly original. The magical schoolboy is practically an English genre all to itself. But it’s Potter and his Scooby gang that makes that dream come alive for readers. When I imagine myself writing something like that (and cashing all those checks!), I envy the way the characters come alive for readers, and how it must have been to work with them and letting the story flow from their traits, their histories, habits, needs and fears.

In my surreal desert fantasy (no, really, I’ll talk more about that next time, I really must), which was a pain to write and is still a pain in the editing/revision process, which this column is interrupting so I must hurry and finish so I can get back to that dream, I was only able to get back to it after through the many interruptions I had because the main character had a weight of her own. Sometimes she’d say or do things that completely surprised me. But I had a strong sense of her right from the beginning, and that anchor allowed me to slip back enough times (but not al the time, because no solution is perfect and writing is hard no matter how many tricks and shortcuts you use) to keep the dream of that story going.

Another thing that kept that piece, and most things I write, going and alive in my head is having an ending in mind.

For the desert piece, the reason I even started it was to write about the Caravan of Death. This was an idea and a collection of characters from one of my novels. I always loved the idea and wanted to return to it. I started the story knowing the little girl I invented would meet the Caravan of Death and somehow all hell would break loose. For that little girl to hold her own against something called the Caravan of Death, there’d have to be some special qualities to her, and finding those qualities became part of the process of telling the story, part of the dream.

But a general idea of the ending, in most cases, is part of the beginning of the story. As I’ve said before, the seeds of the end are always at the beginning. They may be invisible, implied, cast like shadows around the edges, part of the background, in the imagery and symbols, but usually it’s there, somewhere, lurking, waiting. You may not be aware of it. The secrets may only be revealed with time, the story’s development. You may re-read that beginning a hundred times before you see it. Or, you may have to go back and plant the damn seed as the ending becomes clear by telling the story. One way or another, the end usually gets there in the beginning.

And I say this not just because I have an Ouroborus tattoo on my arm.

It may not be the ending that actually happens, and in fact, it’s probably better if the ending changes as the story evolves. But having that ending, or just a general idea for how the character conflicts will resolve (where the characters are going in their individual arcs), serves not only as an anchor for the plot, but for all the different levels of the story being told. Having a direction, an ending, helps to give the dream And by general idea, I mean, do I want

Part of the reasoning behind beginnings/endings and characters as keys to keeping the story alive in your mind is another piece of advice that a lot of writers talk about: having a strong foundation.

By foundation, I don’t necessarily mean a strong beginning, though that helps. But, I’ve found to my chagrin, beginnings change. You think you’re starting in middle, like the sage writing advice tells you, but suddenly you discover you need to start the story earlier or, more often later.

And having a big finish in mind is no guarantee that it will happen, unless you’re the kind of writer who lives by the outline. No problem with that. If the outline works, and can contain the dream and make the story come alive in your mind, I envy you. Most writers I know throw out the outline at some point.

But a start and end does help to define the dream. It’s like recognizing a picture, knowing the outline on a map is not some vague blob, but Africa and all the history and pain and wonder that the name conjures.

And going back and making that beginning stronger, going back and revising and inserting and deleting material, even leaving notes here and there for yourself with what needs to be done right in the manuscript (and believe me, I’ve been startled by my own forgotten notes more than once, and slapped my head over a forgotten part of the dream that needed to poke its head out at the place I’d left a marker), is another reason to edit during “dead time” and start writing sessions by re-reading the story.

If you’ve been away from your story for a while, start at the beginning. See if the beginning awakens the dream, reminds you of the things you’ve already written about what’s going to happen, if the characters come alive and fill you with the need to go back into them, and if you sense what’s coming, good or bad, at the end, or perhaps more importantly, feel the drive to find out what happens, in the end.

If you do, then the story is still alive inside you, and the dream waits for you to join in the adventure.

When The Deadtime Comes

December 4th, 2011 Comments off

Yes, we’re all busy. All the time, it seems. There are bills to pay, responsibilities to meet, places we have to be and things we must do.

“Modern” life and its freedoms have their pressures. Choices come with consequences. The consequences, frankly, are not as dire as those that come from a lack of choices. But, hey, what’s life without drama.

For many of us, there’s a need to use every moment we can to pursue something or other. To be active, engaged. Boredom, restlessness, frustration seems to come easily. So do opportunities for distraction.

For writers, of course, there are deadlines. The next story to be written. A new market to jump into. And the perpetual complaint that there isn’t enough time to write.

Well, time is relative, as the saying goes.

A lot of us talk about how we carve out time to sit at the keyboard and punch out a few lines. But sometimes it’s hard to come up with anything during those stolen moments. Hard to switch gears, to concentrate, to return to the world we created in our imagination. We might spend a lot of time getting back into that frame of mind.

Sometimes the fight is less about finding time to write, and more about preserving the need and the frame of mind to create.

So maybe another way to approach the writing gig is looking at the time that falls into our laps inconveniently. That would be the unplanned time we spend waiting for something to happen. (There’s an argument to be made that all time is about waiting for something to happen, but I edited that out because, well, I gave you guys a break.)

Some people call it “dead time.” You’re trapped in a commute, a meeting, a waiting room, an event. Whatever. The point is, you’re in a time and place that isn’t engaging you. You’re bored, adrift, perhaps losing your mind.

Some pull out a laptop or even a “smart” phone (don’t get me started) and start working on a piece.

I suspect these days people are more likely to be texting, gaming, shopping online, etc.

Reading is a traditional pastime, and for writers, essential.

But if you want to write, and can’t pull out the project you’re working on for whatever reason (like, you’re driving, or the setting isn’t appropriate), there are ways to exercise the writing muscles, and maybe gain an inch or two on whatever you’re working on.

Writing, even though it’s done mostly sitting down (unless you’re a best-selling media writer who prefers dictating into a machine while taking walks), is an active endeavor. It requires engagement of mind and body, attunement to senses, imagination and cognition. I say again, imagination.

I think we’re encouraged, if not trained, to turn imagination off in many situations. If we live in a variety of “worlds” – family, faith, work, creative, sport, etc – we have a lot more material to work with, but we are also undercover. Spies in the house of God. Locked in roles, tucked away in boxes.

We may spend a lot of time fighting not to think outside the box.

Working out the imagination is not a bad way to pass your dead time.

It can take work. Playing games is definitely easier. So is reading. Sometimes playing someone else’s game is what’s needed to relieve the stress, to give your mind and spirit a break. But in playing your own games, I think you’re preparing yourself to write.

Perpetual daydreamers have a different problem, but the problem, as far as I can tell from my own lost ramblings inside my head, is not being focused on a specific story or purpose. A little more structure can be helpful.

One dead time problem is being stuck worrying or obsessing about whatever is going on in your life, a negative kind of daydreaming. One way to get out of that “head” is to pay attention to what’s around you, looking at things as if they were brand new, through the perspective of someone else, a stranger, someone else in the vicinity, a friend or enemy, whoever is behind the thing you’re obsessing about, an alien, a traveler from another time or place. Focus on what’s outside, rather than inside.

Details make a story real. You’re gathering information, and practicing how to fill out information from the vague, dreamy settings in your mind. You’re also practicing observing the environment from the perspective of different characters. How does a boss view a meeting room, as opposed to the clerk taking minutes, the tech guy, the presenters, the people who will be called upon to come up with reactions. Or a child’s perspective on the family holiday dinner, versus the grandparent, the friends and neighbors, the person the daughter or son brought home to meet the family, the hosts.

Doesn’t matter how many times seen the room, been down that road, passed that pile of rubble, heard the family story or institutional line. Stepping outside of yourself forces you to experience the familiar in unfamiliar ways.

Just because you’ve seen a sunset doesn’t mean you’ve seen anything like the one happening now.

I grant you, the experience is not always pleasant. It’s a little disorienting. Surreal. It’s also…work. So is writing. The value to me in this kind of exercise is that it helps me bore down to the details I need when I’m actually at the keyboard trying to get something done. The other payoff is that, sometimes, I get something out of it I can use in the piece I’m working on.

Along the same lines, you can also get into describing people and places in different literary styles. From spare to lush, hyper-realistic and detailed to metaphorical, trying out different approaches to setting a scene is a good exercise that can break the monotony of your own writing voice or style. Coming up with one-line character descriptions is, of course, an art that may never be mastered, but I guarantee practicing it during dead time on a train ride will not only be entertaining, but improve your ability to call upon the skill when you’re at the keyboard. Finding ways to describe what they’re actually doing – how a doorman stands in the door, waiting, or how a construction worker acts in the cab of a crane, are all fair game. Looking at buildings, sky, bridges, hallways, cars, etc, will either send you scurrying off to Google for concrete details or inspire you to write poetry (if you’re not already one).

You don’t have to use your overly-detailed or metaphorical gems (um, “the parking lot looked as if the earth had tried to shrug it off its tired shoulders,” for example). You just want to play at being another kind of writer. Stretch and practice skills you will absolutely need when it comes down to working on a story. You never know, you might wind up reaching for pen and paper (or electronic device) to actually write something down.

If you’re the crime kind, you can tune the observational game to find, like Sherlock Holmes, or Monk, what’s off in the details of your environment or the people around you. Or, knock one small aspect of what you see out of whack, or make the place or person too perfect. Flaws and flawlessness, the keys to conflict.

Projecting yourself, or a character you’re working with, into your dead time environment is another variation. I often discover a new level of hell in places I find myself – for instance, at work, surrounded by a massive 5 year construction project, the steady pounding of piles being driven into the earth or the whine of the machinery driving them through rock, informs my every working minute. I can look out my window and put myself in and around the machinery, in the ditches and holes, pipes, concrete, etc. My travels take me to all kinds of odd setting, like a massive food distribution warehouse where my mind riffed on hell as an endless warehouse, demons sitting on top of food supplies but providing free access to bleach.

Perhaps a more challenging exercise for me might be to think romantic comedy instead of hell. We all have our lessons to learn.

But looking out on to landscapes from your deadtime vantage point, or following the story happening in a window across the alley, or through the open doorway in another office, are just as productive in a creative exercise kind of way.

If your deadtime is not physically restrictive – say you have an hour to kill before an appointment – then an alternative to sitting in a café and reading or writing might be to explore the neighborhood you’re in, paying attention to details, differences in people and places, architecture, food, etc, from what you might be accustomed to experiencing. Walking a narrative in your mind. Listening for different speech rhythms, music, smells, sounds.

Of course, a more immediate use of deadtime might be to keep the last couple of pages of what you’re working refreshed in your mind, even if you haven’t had time to work on the piece. Some of these games might serve to shake up what you’ve written, force you to look deeper, or come up with another angle on character, setting, plot.

From personal experience, it can also extend the amount of time you’re working on a project. Nothing like getting new perspective on work you think is already done. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s just putting off the inevitable slide into anonymity. But, for the moment, it can be fun.

Somebody once told me I’m always seem to be working because, at that time, I’d was always writing things down – snatches of conversations from which I harvested titles and dialogue; odd facts; descriptions of friends and family members other people would talk about who seemed interesting as potential characters. I guess I had a lot of dead time, back then. Or, perhaps truer, I used my time better in those days. I certainly aim to get back to those days.

Perhaps, I may even email myself my clever bits, if there are any, while everyone else is texting under the table.


July 4th, 2011 1 comment

As writers, we think and talk a lot about plot and characters, and how they form the structure of our stories.

What’s common to this, and many other discussions, is the idea of change.

There wouldn’t be a story without change, not even in the literary genre where, like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, characters might be trapped in the expectation of a change that never happens – but the possibility of change is still out there. We talk about emotional throughlines, or the transformations great and small characters experience through the actions they take in the story. We set off explosive events – change the rules, make zombies and invading aliens or monsters from out of time and space – and make our characters deal with what we’ve done.

Change, whether or not it actually happens, is the engine that drives a story.

Change comes as crisis, as evolution, transformation, as part of a cycle, or a break from that cycle. Change is birth and death, creation and destruction. It comes with shocking suddenness, hard and fast, and in tiny, excruciating increments of pain, or perhaps joy. Change comes with an opening of a door, or one closing. Change alters perspectives, brings character to an epiphany, a realization, an acceptance, a sensation of satisfaction and completion.

How a character (and of course the reader) perceives and reacts to change in all its flavors reveals everything about that person – their strengths and weaknesses, the brittleness and resiliency. What mix of emotion and intellectuality rises to process the change? What is mobilized in the character, what parts go into hiding?

Does the character embrace, or at least face, the reality of the changes occurring in their world, or do they want to pick and choose, stay in control of that change, even if deals with the devils and taking wishes from djinn popping out of magic lamps is historically shaky business.

What a character does in the face of a transforming situation is the story.

Of course, things may not change, inside, for our character. For every end of the world scenario, for every modernist ironic character study, change can be frustratingly remote. We remain human, even when we transform our characters into something else. Because, really, the inhuman just doesn’t translate. That may also be the point. And, there’s the approach to fiction that requires a return to the norm – you’ve got to come back from Oz.

Or not. If you can sell it, then you stay in whatever brave new world you’ve landed the rest of us in with your story.


You were expecting me to change?

Categories: Fiction, ideas, inspiration, Uncategorized Tags:

The Electronic World

June 4th, 2011 3 comments

When I was a kid, paper ruled.

Like new cars, new books and comics had that special smell. Of course, that smell came from processed wood pulp and ink instead of fresh plastic and metal, and the aged stuff was always at least a little bit ripe but never as stinky as broken down jalopy, but the sense memories are just as intense for pulp hounds as it is for car junkies.
We didn’t worry about grading back then. If an old comic had a cover, it was a bonus.

For a dime each we could pick up 50’s Gold Medallion crime and Berkely, Signet, Dell and other SF (always taking the ones with Powers covers) mixed with 60’s Ace and Belmont Doubles (I still have a copy of Doomsman somewhere)….

I used to spend hours going through boxes of old books and comics in the back of weird little mom and pop stores – the usual candy stores, but sometimes deli’s, or thrift stores, and the best, a craft store just off the main shopping street. Doctor’s offices sometimes had comics, and other places kids were dragged to and made to wait.
The world of paper opened up the wonder of words and their power to enflame the imagination.

Kids these days, they have electrons.

If you can smell the electrons, I think it’s a bad sign.
The internet has become the new/used book/record/movie/comic/whatever store. Where I used to spend hours going through boxes in the back of weird little stores, kids take breaks from living alternative lifestyles in online games (being Thundarr the Barbarian, I suppose, rather than just watching the cartoons) to go shop for their entertainment through a variety of personal multi-media environments.

It’s taken me a while to adjust. I’ve been using computers to write since the mid-80’s and dig it. Mp3 players and little nano pods are cool but I find the whole downloading, ripping, copying tapes and records, converting files and making up play lists tedious. Games – computer, online or console – bore me because, well, they’re programmed, aren’t they, and so a bit predictable and repetitive. Or, I just don’t care about the challenges they present.

I wasn’t of this world when I was growing up, and I still haven’t completely joined it.

However, despite the lack of a comforting scent, I find myself growing rather attached to my Kindle.
I don’t have a whole library in it, yet. But I have bunches of books from a few of my favorite writers, and I’ve spent a couple of hours loading cheap or free versions of classics and obscure, copyright-free myth reference books. I have a vision of being able to carry my entire reference library in a little book-shaped device, accessing it whenever I need it.

That vision, like my portable music library, is a bit further in the future. I’ve been on facebook for years and, well, I still don’t really know how to work it. I need the social network for socially ambivalent people. Not sure there’s one out there, or what the point of one would be. I need the device that will follow my instructions, intuitively divine my tastes, and get the crap I like without my having to seek it out, convert it, file it, elude the authorities for it, etc. Because, I really can’t be bothered to spend the necessary hours to do all of that.

I know. I’m practically Medieval.

However, what is here is the ability to carry your own library of crap in some sort of portable storage device, and what is arriving is carrying just the device to access that library of crap — games, music, video, alternate lives, other people both real and unreal, archaic things like books, and all kinds of other things — stored in a science fictional cloud anywhere anytime.

Kind of a Zen thing – it’s there, but not physically there. It’s almost like inventing a new lifestyle, a new class of the population that doesn’t buy “things” (outside of some clothes and the instruments that give them access to their electronic possessions). This population just rents, or buys access to stuff.

That, as they say, is progress. Evolution. We read from stone, papyrus, paper and now electrons. We saw pictures on cave walls, on stone, canvas, celluloid, television, cable, internet, from still to moving. We moved by foot, mount, car, plane, rocket. We hunted, grew things, and now we buy stuff in packages or have stuff prepared for us, slow or fast.

The old stuff still exists. People still work with stone, walk, hunt. Human needs haven’t changed. We’ve just found more efficient ways to satisfy them. More convenient. Given ourselves more choices with which to satisfy ourselves.

There will always be readers.

There’ll always be a hardcore collector types, too. These are hardwired personality types, just a human thing. Horses didn’t go away because of trains, cars and planes. They’re just not in the mainstream of everyday life. But it is like living in a sf world where Cordwainer Smith’s Lords of the Instrumentality are being born and getting ready to shape and take over the world.

I do find myself catching something of the zeitgeist. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe life has taught me some unfortunate lessons, but I find myself growing impatient with the ton of stuff I’ve accumulated over the decades. There are still things I treasure, but more easily I find things that just weigh me down. I still love books, but often I look on my “stock” and say, when am I ever going to look at this? Some things have lost their connection; their meaning has become irrelevant. I guess it’s a process of self-editing, cutting things down to an essential core. Almost like trying to find the touchstones of a life, what thing symbolizes or gathers a much meaning as possible from different periods of life. Certainly having been around for a while puts perspective on so-called possessions…

From what I can see, the new materialism is only partially physical — electronic equipment is the new Mustang or Corvette. Oh, the old Mustang and Corvette is still there, make no mistake. There are clubs and car shows and auctions and whole industries devoted to that and all the former new materialisms that have swept across Western consumerism. Stuff to put in that electronic equipment is the new collectible — people download (steal) just about everything and anything (even years ago, Peter David was talking about losing money because of downloads of his media stuff, which used to be reprinted for additional fee but then wouldn’t be because people had the electronic versions). People brag about how many games or movies they have on their equipment. The latest car features are electronic – usb ports, bluetooth, electronic engines.
Writers need to plug in.

So. There’s another world out there, evolving at light speed. Words will not vanish. There will always a place for words, a need for them in some part of the human world. But the method of delivery is changing fast. Readers are becoming comfortable with the tech required, and the tech is becoming friendly to the words (and the eyes that read them). Even the big guys are moving their comic book franchises online, I hear.

As writers, we’re aware how the business is changing. The print magazines are almost gone. Self-publishing is evolving into the realm of ebooks. Electronic rights matter. They really, really matter. What was wild speculation five years ago is fact now.

The subject has been discussed here by others, but I just thought I’d add my perspective as, well, whatever I am. I’m trying to catch up. I listen to Dave here at Storytellersunplugged, I’ve joined the gang at Crossroads Press. I visit sites and and . Locus online is full of electronic publishing news. We’ve come a long way from Doug Clegg’s Naomi and King’s Riding the Bullet. Like my mp3 players, I find the technical details a little tedious. I’d rather be writing. But I still want readers, however they choose to read my stuff. I’d still like to make some cash out of this business.

So I’m grateful for the guys willing to do the heavy lifting, for the people who have the passion, time and commitment for the level of merchandising required. The old school is still out there, paper and ink is and will still be available. But, let’s face it, the production cost of digital product can’t be beat. Like selling water – it’s right there. I’m grateful to be a part of the future, however small that part may be. We’ll see what this electronic world is going to be all about.


May 4th, 2011 Comments off

Inspired in part by Brian Hodge’s post last month on predictability, and in part by a quick exchange of emails with a writing buddy about readers’ reactions to story endings, I had already been thinking about this month’s topic over the past few weeks.

Then current events added a new dimension to what passes for my thinking.  The question I’ve been struggling with is, what constitutes a story’s ending, exactly?

First impression:

It depends on reader expectations, based on taste, need, author reputation, cover, blurbs, description.

For context, it’s been less than 24 hours, as I write this, since America’s #1 target has been killed and buried at sea.  I’ve seen about 20 reaction interviews, from generals to soldiers, 9/11 survivors, first responders, family members of victims and soldiers who’ve died in the two wars, and just general citizens.  As a national story, 9/11 and its consequences certainly ranks high on the consciousness scale.  Of course, the story is “real” and we’re all characters in that story, not readers.  The story, being real, is not clean and packaged.  It’s not edited, other than through our own interior and highly subjective review panel.  Still, as a barometer, this particular villain’s story fate offers an interesting take on endings.

For some, the end of this particular story thread provided a degree of closure.  To paraphrase one guy’s reaction, “He won’t even be able to orchestrate another trip to the bathroom.”   For others, there’s the satisfaction of justice, of revenge, of a debt fulfilled.  Occasionally, there is the keen and biting awareness that payment is no substitute for what was taken.  In short, the story hasn’t really ended.  Like life, consequences continue to unfold.  Not everyone, particularly those who have actually suffered directly from 9/11 and its consequences, has gained that warm and fuzzy sensation of closure and completion.

For many, there’s no “happily,” and no “ever.”  There’s only “after.”

Of course, stories are not reality.  We are in the entertainment business, supposedly.  But at the same time, there is also the business of art, perhaps an ambition to have an effect on another person with nothing more than words on paper (or computer screen).   There may even be a responsibility to culture and society, perhaps something like “do no harm,” or even, “make a difference.”  Perhaps, there is only an artistic stance – to be true to one’s vision, or to reflect nature and reality, or to be provocative.  If nothing else, there a foundation to storytelling that supposes that, though stories may not be “real,” they’d sure better reflect what readers feel and know about reality.  Whether set in World War II or your mother’s backyard or a magical kingdom, there is a general sense of logic and order to be followed.

In the sense of connecting to an audience, stories are real. They’re real when they’re happening inside our heads.  We feel them.  We live in them, as readers.  They linger, like memories.  When they go over the edge, we go over with them.  That’s scary, yes.  But in going over the edge, they can also be truthful.  Often, at least for me, stories can leave threads that continue past the word “end” on the last page.  They can even be open-ended, a story road that goes beyond the book’s pages, in the reader’s imagination.

Sometimes this upsets people.

This is when the writer runs into trouble by creating an ending that’s too dark, or open-ended.  When the wrong characters get together, die, survive.  When things get too damned “existential” or, well, okay, too happy.  Predictable, or surprising in a way that doesn’t satisfy the reader.

No one ever said catharsis, for characters or audience, was supposed to be pretty.  But try explaining that to the paying public at the foot of the stage, down in the “pit,” rotten produce in hand.

An individual’s reaction depends on the contract with the signed.  Expectations.  There are bound to be problems, and lousy Amazon reviews, and possibly worse sales, if someone picks up a book anticipating fuzzy and getting razors.

And I can sympathize.  I don’t want “chef’s surprise, “unless I’m a fan of the chef.  And even then, that chef shouldn’t stray too far from the “Italian” I’m familiar with.  No liquid nitrogen cuisine, thanks.  But then again, maybe I’m due for a change.  Maybe I really need to experience flash frozen protein froth.  Who am I to sue over an imaginary contract?  Unfortunately, not many readers are that laid back.  Some get ornery when they think they wasted their beer money.

All artists struggle with the slippery slope of artistic integrity and commercial viability.  Endings are when writers say goodbye to their story, too, and that can be tough.  A world, a bunch of folks who’ve been living in the imagination for months, perhaps years, annihilated in the seconds it takes to type “the end.”  How to say goodbye, how to wrap it up, move on?  Oh, and bank that check, and maybe get back in with a sequel, maybe a series, a cable or movie option.

For readers, the struggle is simpler – the ending is where it all needs to come together.  And if frozen froth is the ending the storyteller finds necessary, how to convince a reader that the froth does indeed have a higher calorie count, and far more texture, flavor and complexity, than that meaty lasagna?

Is an ending okay if it ticks people off, not because it’s predictable, but because it’s unpredictable in the “wrong” way?

I’ve been told that people don’t always know what they want.  My buddy pointed out that, though the reader wanted a more definitive conclusion rather than an open ending, that reader still really wanted to read his work.

This made me think about one of Brian’s observations about characters and knowing them fully.  Oh, yeah, and novel use of language.  I can’t really speak to that one.  But I think characters, a cast of characters, and what happens to them, big and small, not only at the end but over the course of the story, can satisfy the reader enough so they don’t ask for their beer money back.  I think it can be important to reach, or at least offer, different conclusions at an ending, depending on each character’s point of view.

I know, in my reading for Space and Time, I like the main character achieving something, but a secondary character (or “entity” or other force because, let’s face it, it is Space and Time) accomplishing something else, and perhaps even the antagonist comes out with a piece of the pie.  Somehow, that sounds realistic.   Downright mimetic.

In Brian’s words, transformation, not death.  For all.

When I’ve been asked to go back and rethink an ending, it’s generally because the ending is too bleak, dark, hopeless and destitute.  Sort of The Road without the kid.  “What happened?” I’ve been asked, meaning why I did I destroy everything and everyone so completely?  Why did choices and circumstances have to be so dark?  There is, as far as I understand the reaction, a certain lack of meaning.  To me, the situation may reflect s view of reality but, I understand the feedback that, no, I don’t have to beat my readers over the head with that point of view.  And, really, the bleakness doesn’t reflect the totality of my viewpoint.

I do not wear black nail polish or velour on the inside and the out.

Incidents of random joy or humor aside, I still believe the dark path is a legitimate one to take.  I’m a fan of noir, after all.  Horror, dark fantasy, that kind of thing.  But, there is the market to consider.  The editor.  And the choices you leave yourself as a writer.   Meaning, and in the context of commercial fiction, hope, is a legitimate goal.  Those kinds of things do make a difference, they belong in a legitimate artistic vision of the world.  I think readers search for meaning.  I also think meaning can be found in wonder and terror, so you don’t have to be literal about providing “meaning.”

In shorter works, I try to introduce at least one character who is just “passing through” whenever I can.  Spear-carriers, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean they can’t serve the story.  Their tiny one scene arc not only puts the main character in context, in a living world that is going on around the protagonist as he, um, agonizes, but of course they also (Ihope) propel the plot, and, they offer a different point of view on what is going, a lingering presence that will probably survive the main character’s arc and perhaps make the story more real, more vivid, for the reader.   A mom or dad, a best friend, a husband or wife on the phone, a seer or a homeless person, a dog or a cat.  Whatever.  But their little walk through, in my mind, serves a host of purposes, including, I hope, a tiny beginning, middle and end in the scene in which they appear.

In a  longer story, I think there can be as many endings as there are character arcs.  Of course, there’s the main one.  But usually, you have a cast and, for the story to work, they should be of some variety (otherwise there’s no conflict).  A character’s story may be short – perhaps only a scene in a short story, perhaps a few scenes throughout a novel.  There’s usually a cluster of characters and their changes that need to be orchestrated at the end of a longer, more complex work.  An early novel of mine was episodic, so the arcs for the secondary characters were short, but the more recent stuff – with characters dying, or “moving on” (quite literally, in the supernatural sense) or just moving on – required a bit more coordination.

At each of those moments when a character is about to leave the story, either in the middle or the end of the work, here’s a chance to make that character really stand out for a reader.  Every character should be on their own journey, and those little endings and transformations can linger in a reader’s mind if it hits the particular mental or emotional target he or she carries inside them.

You hit them high, you hit them low.  You point in all kinds of directions, hopefully with some pattern or cohesion.

Darkness.  Light.  Humor.  Cruelty.  Love.  Despair.

Well, that’s being overdramatic, of course.  But I hope I’m making sense, if not an actual case, by treasuring the characters you’ve invented, and looking how their individual endings in the story can accent and spice up the overall narrative.  When everybody dies, or falls in love and lives happily ever after, it may taste like burnt chicken.

Another way to look at ends is the technique of revisiting fairy tales by looking at the story from different points of view –  Wolf instead of Red.  Same ending, different meaning.  Put the arcs together, and you have a third story.  Throw in the woodsman, grandma, and you have a richer ending.  Yes, a much longer story, I know, but richer.

Or, as always, you can look to Shakespeare and his major and minor character arcs for those juxtapositions of individual endings.  Well, maybe not Titus Andronicus, but you get the idea.  And, oh yeah, that elevated language thing Brian was talking about.

Going back to the beginning (which is one of my favorite ways to end a story – full circle, very different place), killing Osama puts a meaning to 9/11 – not necessarily the definitive one, just the one we have today, knowing what we know, still in the unfolding story.  Do this, and you die.  That’s a good enough meaning for many.

The more complex meanings are in the reaction interviews – he’s dead, and we are #1.  Or, he’s dead, but I’m still not happy.

In longer works, you can have multiple “endings” from a variety of character arcs, so that individual major, minor, diminished, augmented and what have you characters and secondary story lines can stick in a reader’s mind.  You have two good endings?  Use them both, hell, end on a power chord of endings.

Or, yes, trickle away at the very end, or fade away on the chorus.  Whatever.  I think if you’ve provided memorable characters – and by that, I mean not just colorful or interesting personalities, but vivid and contrasting journeys for those characters to fulfill in the story – you won’t make readers demand their beer money back.  I think that’s why my buddy’s fan wants to continue reading his books – she may not have liked the structural end, the long view of the road vanishing into the horizon with some characters on it, but I’m pretty sure she dug the characters and where most of them wound up.

I bet she liked the language, too.

Categories: story, Uncategorized, Writing Tags:

The Pen That Never Stops Writing

July 4th, 2010 Comments off

A while ago, I received an email from a David Javet from Switzerland asking if I’d read his Master’s thesis on Lovecraft, The Pen That Never Stops Writing.  Being a “consumer” of so many things Lovecraft, I said sure.

Mr. Javet’s work is quite a labor of love (and, of course, a thesis on literature) and I bring it up here because so many are influenced by the ideas and vision, though hopefully not so much the style, of H.P. Lovecraft (even more so with the blessing of a Library of America edition of his works).

Like Aristotle, it’s always good to bring up Lovecraft every now and then because, like Aristotle, Lovecraft speaks to a core human sensibility and need for story.

I pause for the removal of bodies dropped by the use of those two names in the same sentence.

Moving on…

What struck me, at least in terms of a subject for SU folks, was David’s exploration of mythic story telling.  Going through the well-documented functions of myth, and the issues of myth as a representation of culture, we wind up with a point that’s important for new writers – that myth is essentially a tool, like language, with its associations and history, but also with an inherent capacity to be transformed.  In fact, for myth to survive, it must change to take in what is going on now or die, just as the faiths of conquerors and the conquered adapt to each other, absorb and transforms images, rituals, meanings.

In other words, it is important for writers who are fans of Lovecraft, or any other collection of mythic visions and stories, to process what has been done in terms of what is here now.  Science, from biology to cosmology, has come a long way since Lovecraft’s day.  So has storytelling, and the media through which stories can be told.

For a living example, check out Datlow’s Cthulu Unbound anthology.  Or even the Call of Cthulu role playing game.

Now, yes, I understand Hollywood tries and mostly fails at re-making the old myths it created or, more likely, stole.  But that’s because nothing new is added.  The old franchise is copied, not re-interpreted.  No risks are taken, no formulas are changed to reflect contemporary views of the world.  But for every dozen Jason remakes, there is occasionally something like Abrams’ new Star Trek, or on the literary side, a book like Let the Right One In.  Nothing earth-shattering, of course.  But you can feel and see the change of attitude, the issues being dealt with, that give the old myths a contemporary relevance.

There is nothing wrong with classics.  They should be absorbed, understood, used, like any language, in the discussion of what is relevant today.  There is also nothing wrong with taking the concepts in those classics and perhaps seeing if enough time has passed for the original vision to grow, for the language of imagery and character and plot to be used to interpret terrorism and disease or one’s own personal vision of the world.

Because growing up in this world, the writer’s vision is guaranteed to be much different than someone who died 50 or 100 years ago.  Some things remain true and consistent – who and what we are as human beings, our needs and fears, our drives and the capabilities to fulfill them.

What has changed, through technology, cultural pollination, the availability of information, is the language we use to tell ourselves, and others, about what is going on inside and around us.

So I go back to what I’ve always said in these SU  posts – pay attention.  The world is in many ways a different place today than what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.  Of course, in many ways, it isn’t.  What pieces of the world you pick up from the past and the present, because they are meaningful to you and you want to play with them, are the foundations of the particular vision you will bring to your writing.

Basically, like Lovecraft, you create your own mythos. It may not be as grandiose, or detailed, but it will contain the imagery and ideas and tropes that resonate with you.  It’s your job to explore, expand, improvise, adapt and transform that material into something that is particularly yours, and understandable by others.

That is, if you want to be any good.

As usual, I find myself out on the edge and I hope what I’ve said makes some kind of sense to somebody out there.

David’s thesis is, of course, about much more than what I’ve touched on here.  He may not even agree with what I’ve said.  But, as always, you should go to the source (always track back to the origins of what interests you, whatever the art, so you can see the influences and transformations along the way and understand, and perhaps even contribute your own relevant rendition).

Interested readers, and hopefully editors and publishers,  can reach him at david dot javet dot gmail dot com and tell him you heard about this piece and would like to know what he really said.

Categories: advice, ideas, Uncategorized Tags:

Writing From the Incomprehensible

May 4th, 2010 Comments off

A while back from the time this will come out, I was drawn into an interview with David J. Schwartz, (Locus vol 63, #4 – October 2009, Superpowers, The Sun Inside).   He mentioned a number of things that resonated deeply with me, touching on some topics I’ve talked about before, so I just wanted to mention a few things I came away with…  Of course, you should all go out and buy at least one book from the man…

 The key point for me was that writing involves filtering the way we experience the world – magical, fantastic, realist, etc.  For many, this involves writing from genre elements, genre or mainstream tropes, because it some way that is how we experience the world – as heroic adventures, as reality, as, um, horrific or a doomed noir spiral of self-destruction, etc.  He was quite taken by Marquez and magical realists, who use the filter of deep Catholcisim and South American storytelling, which makes it difficult for outsiders to quite capture those distinctive  points of view.

 “Some writers we call magical realists are uncomfortable with the idea that they’re writing fantasy, because for them, this is the way the world is.  If you talk to certain Native American writers, they’ll say, “This is not made-up stuff.  Ghosts are real; spirits are real.”  So Marquez is writing about the world as he experiences it, but he experiences it through a filter of deep Catholicism and South American storytelling.  Those are points of view that attach deep significance to natural things, cycles of life, in a way I don’t think Vonnegut does.”

 He talked about myth/religion structuring the world so it is comprehensible and meaningful – so does storytelling – and agreed with M. john Harrison’s strong sentiment against explaining every last little detail in a fantasy world, that some things make sense but not everything needs to.  I strongly agreed with the idea of fantasy as unsettling (and, though not mentioned here, by extension horror as transgressive and not a reassuring fairy tale designed to convince readers things will be normal again).  The idea that magic as an unpredictable and dangerous tool certainly worked for me as a reflection of life.  So did using mythic elements to represent a longing for understanding deeper meaning in reality while maintaining a healthy skepticism of the religious impulse and of definition/definitive answers.

 Finally, a piece of solid advice from this gentleman’s point of view – write about life as you experience it, focusing on the mysteries.  “It’s not that I’m a terribly religious or mystical person, but I am mystified by the world; the world is, in many aspects, incomprehensible to me.  And that’s the point of view I write from: this thing is something I cannot fully grasp, so I want to write around it and try and get a handle on it.”

 Yes, indeed, I am there.

 Of course, if this resonates with you, as well, I’d suggest a close reading of his work to see how he has handled the translation of his vision of an incomprehensible world into a viable commercial writing career that has garnered, at the very least, an interview in Locus.

 I, alas, can’t help you there…

Categories: Fiction, Uncategorized Tags: