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Clive Barker and Collaborations

December 13th, 2008 1 comment

Earlier this week, I interviewed Clive Barker; the finished article will appear in a book titled Writer’s Workshop of Horror that will come out (I believe) next fall from Woodland Press. It will be a collection of articles and interviews by or with professionals in the horror or dark fiction industries. Some of the other folks involved are Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Monteleone, Mort Castle, Gary Braunbeck, Brian Keene, Tim Waggoner, Elizabeth Massie, Paula Guran, Scott Nicholson, Michael Laimo, and JG Gonzalez.

I had a really excellent chat with Clive … he’s an incredibly generous and gracious person. His assistant initially told me he’d only be able to talk for 20 minutes, but I ended up with over an hour of recordings.

Many of you have noticed that his voice had gotten steadily more hoarse and tortured-sounding over the past couple of years. Some have wondered on blogs and message boards about his overall health. His voice problems, it turns out, were caused by a cluster of noncancerous polyps growing in his throat. I hesitate to call them “benign” because in addition to wrecking his voice they were also starting to interfere with his ability to breathe.

The upshot is that Clive had surgery to remove the polyps — about two dozen in all — several weeks ago. He’s sounding much, much better, and says that he feels much better because he’s finally getting proper amounts of oxygen into his system.

Not all of what he talked about will make it into the final article, of course. Clive’s done a lot of interviews and I feel pleased I actually managed to ask him a couple of questions nobody had asked before.

One of the things we discussed was collaboration. Barker has collaborated with other creators on many film, theatre, and comics projects, but he says that he has no interest in co-writing stories or novels because he sees his own fiction projects as very personal endeavors.

I periodically see a writer — usually a beginner with few to no pro credits — declaring that he would never, ever collaborate with another writer because his style is “too unique”. Which to me sounds about as bragworthy as a singer declaring he never performs with an a capella group because his voice is “too unique” — in other words, he doesn’t have much dynamic range and probably can’t reliably find the key.

It’s one thing to know how to do something well and decide you’d rather not do it; it’s quite another to be proud to be unskilled. That makes me think of the stylishly raw punk bands in the late 70s who made one-chord-pony hay for a couple of years. But then the 80s came, and by the 90s most punks burned out or faded away. But there are a few old punks still performing to this day, and guess what? They learned to play their damn instruments.

There’s a collection of skills anyone who wants to call him- or herself a well-rounded writer should have, and being able to collaborate on projects is one of them. That whole “plays well with others” thing gets scoffed at a lot by authors who style themselves as lone wolves. The truth is, every pro writer has to make his or her editor happy, and if you don’t want to view that particular give-and-take as compromise, it helps to look at it as collaboration.

Editing aside, collaborating with another writer can be a lot of fun. When collaboration goes right, when you’re working with someone you respect and nobody’s ego is likely to get caught in their zipper, your different abilities enhance each other. You end up with a piece that’s fresh and uniquely stronger than if either of you had attempted to write it on your own.

I’ve co-written several stories and poems with Gary Braunbeck, and we have a pretty good system down. Our collaborations have often emerged when Gary’s been invited to a theme anthology but found himself unfamiliar with the subject matter (ironically, when he was initially invited to write for Doctor Who: Destinations Prague he’d never seen a single episode of the show. He’s a big fan of the good Doctor now, but that’s a topic for another post).

First, we’ll sit down and hash out a general story idea. Then, one of us will sit down and write a very rough initial draft. That will be passed to the other of us, who’ll go through the story and fill in the gaps and flesh out scenes. And then that draft will be passed back to the first person, and back and forth until we’re happy with the final story.

If you’ve done collaborations before, you may very well have a different co-writing technique. Some writers literally sit next to each other as they write the drafts; Gary says he wrote a story with Alan Clark in this fashion. The important thing is the finished story, so whatever works, works.

But if you haven’t collaborated before, I encourage you to give it a try. I think you’ll find it can be an enlightening and rewarding experience.

Tempus Fugit

September 13th, 2008 6 comments

When Random Person discovers that you’re a writer, odds are that he will ask you any of several basic questions. These are The Questions Everybody Asks:

  1. How long have you been writing?
  2. Where do you get your ideas?
  3. Where have you been published?

(If Random Person is a jerk, he’ll just grunt “You’re a writer? Never heard of you,” but that’s a topic for another article.)

If Random Person wants to be a writer, he’s bound to ask you this:

How do you find time to write?

Hands down, this is the question I get asked most at my day job at the university. There’s no shortage of beginning writers there, and most of them have written enough (or tried) to realize that time is a distressingly finite commodity. They’ve found themselves juggling jobs and classes and kids and housework and errands and … well, things always seem to go unfinished at the end of the day.

And it’s not just a matter of scheduling time, is it? After a 9-hour shift at the restaurant or call center, you might technically have a whopping two hours to call your own before you go to bed. But when you sit down with your notebook or computer, you find the day’s left you mentally exhausted, and after an hour of staring at the blank page you have maybe a sentence or two to show for your efforts.

There’s no easy answer to the question “How do you find the time to write?”

Well, okay, there is; I call it the Grizzled Writer’s Bluff: “You can’t just find the time, you have to make the time. And if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it.”

It’s an easy answer because while it’s perfectly true, it’s perfectly unhelpful. It doesn’t provide anything resembling a workable strategy or even a helpful hint; what it often does is make the newbie feel even more lost and loserish than before he asked his oh-so-hopeful question.

Time is a problem for every writer. For those of us with full-time jobs, it’s an ongoing struggle not only to make time to write, but also to ensure we’re in a fit condition to get good work done when the time comes. Because there’s no standard life, there’s no standard answer to the question. But there are some tactics writers can take, and the real secret is to try anything and everything to see what works best for you.

When I graduated from college, I started on a “career” job – the kind of job that follows you home at night – and quickly realized I could either have a well-paid life as a white-collar worker, or I could pursue my dream of becoming an author. I knew I just didn’t have the energy for both. So, I made myself indispensable at my workplace, and managed to convince my boss to let me drop to part time. Part-time jobs worked well for a while until the .com bust left me unemployed and excellent hourly positions scarce. When I found another day job that didn’t seem like it would suck up all my energy, it didn’t pay nearly as well as what I’d gotten before, so dropping to part-time was no longer an option. However, I was recently able to switch to a compressed, 4-day-a-week schedule, and that’s been helping me cut loose more writing time.

Deciding to pursue more casual jobs instead of better-paying career positions was a pretty risky choice on my part, and it’s not one that everyone will feel comfortable making. But there are other time management tactics to take, although they, too, may involve difficult choices.

Start by taking a hard look at what you do during the course of an average day. Make a list of everything you do, and separate things into “work” and “play”. Flip a coin if you can’t decide.

First, look at your “play”. Don’t skimp on your weekly tennis game or thrice-weekly trip to the gym – you need to keep your body in shape to keep your mind in shape. But what about all the TV you watch at night? Tearing yourself from the tube is a prime way to find writing time. Socializing is another, harder, place to find time to write. How many parties do you go to in a month? If the answer is more than one, and your day job isn’t as a promoter or DJ, you need to cut back. It’s hard to say “no” to friends, and you don’t want to nuke your social life from orbit lest you become a crazy, out-of-touch hermit. But if you’re going out for drinks after work nearly every day, you need to gut up the courage to tell your coworkers you’ve got other plans.

Ultimately, you need to treat writing like a second job, because it is. Even if you’re not getting paid for it yet.

Next, look at the things you’ve put in the “work” category. What, really, do you have to do? And what do you feel you ought to do? The “oughts” need to be weighed. You can probably cut down on the number of errands you run with a little planning. And unless your neighbors are already complaining, you can probably get by with less yard work and housework. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses – what do you really care what they think, anyhow? If you don’t have to do it and you don’t want to do it, by all means, ditch it. But make sure it’s really something that doesn’t need doing; ignoring litterboxes, for instance, can become an expensive disaster.

And gruffly blowing off your kids or spouse and holing yourself up in your office is a recipe for heartache down the road. You have to take care of your responsibilities to the people and pets living with you. Period. The carpet doesn’t care if it gets vacuumed, but your daughter will care a lot if you don’t go to her soccer games.

The flip side, of course, is that the people living with you may not understand the time and effort involved in writing. So, your first step is to recruit them to your cause. Explain to them that writing means a lot to you; share your dream with them. Explain. Negotiate. Tell them that you need their help to achieve your dreams; your spouse will probably feel a whole lot better about watching TV alone if he or she feels she’s helping you get good work done. The kids will still want your time, of course, but “Mommy’s working” is a lot easier to understand than “Mommy’s ignoring me.”

But what if you talk to your spouse about your need for work time alone, and he still treats your desire to be a writer like a childish phase you’ll grow out of? Or, worse, he seems to outright scorn it?

For instance, a writer acquaintance of mine isn’t “allowed” to write while his wife’s awake. She expects him to sit with her watching TV in the evenings until she goes to bed, and then he’s free to do what he wants as long as he doesn’t disturb her. So, this guy writes from 11pm until 2 or 3 in the morning, whereupon he goes to bed for a few hours, gets up at 6am and gets ready for work.

Clearly, he really, really wants it. Few of us would be able to keep up that kind of schedule. And the thing is, he really shouldn’t have to. His wife should have enough basic love and respect to support his ambition instead of treating his writing dream as some unpleasant character flaw that she grudgingly indulges. What she’s doing is frankly bullshit. He seems to be sticking out the marriage because they have young children, but I don’t see how it can last.

One female writer friend of mine had a husband who made supportive noises while they were dating, but once they were married, he acted impatient when she talked about her writing and did a lot of passive-agressive crap to interrupt her while she was working. She, too, resorted to working after he went to sleep, or she left the house and went to the library. Over the years, his snark and disrespect got worse and worse, even though she was bringing in serious money from freelance writing, and finally she filed for divorce.

I’ve seen other situations like that, and if the writer sticks with writing, the marriage always ends in divorce.

And that’s the upshot of all this: if you are living with people who won’t respect your writing or writing time, or if you’re dating someone who treats your writing with veiled scorn or disdain, that’s a clear sign that they just plain don’t respect you. You need to get them out of your life. And although it might seem easier said than done, it’s a lot easier done before the wedding bells have rung.

Life is too short to do otherwise.

– Lucy Snyder
www.lucysnyder.com