Archive for Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Plotting “We Are Not Good People”

By | July 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

webWANGPThis coming Saturday (8/2) I’ll be standing in a room giving a presentation on plotting novels (pantsing Vs. plotting) at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (details here and you should totally sign up). I just informed my harried agent that I will be wearing a clown costume and plan to communicate via honking a horn and making sad faces, and she seemed to support me.

Why am I qualified to teach people how to plot a novel? Likely I am not. But someone has to give these presentations, or else middling successful novelists like myself would have nothing to do. You don’t want me wandering the streets, unmoored.

I’ve occasionally posted essays about plotting novels here to both promote my new career as the Novel Whisperer (I plan to stop writing them and spend all my time charging people huge sums of money to coach them in their own creative endeavors) as well as the novels themselves. Because, you know, I offer these books for sale as a way of avoiding real work. And you are part of my secret plan.

Next up in the plot analysis? My upcoming novel We Are Not Good People, publishing in October (a free prequel, Fixer, is available for free download right now!).

Plotting WANGP

Yes, the acronym for this novel is WANGP and that pleases me to no end.

Plotting this novel was an exercise in pure, joyous Pantsing. As with most of my novels, I started off with an initial image — an old apartment that had been sealed up decades before and left undisturbed, based on a true story I heard about a place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that had been closed up for the season in the 1940s and then abandoned, the bills paid, the doors locked. I imagined rustling around in there, then saw a dead girl in a tub, and then saw two grifters who used small spells to help their scams. I had no idea what the story was going to be. I just started writing.

I often — but not always — write this way, just pouring on words. I got a little stuck after a few chapters, which also happens a lot: Once I’m done establishing a universe and characters, I sometimes stall wondering what exactly they will do. Then I read a book by someone else, and there was a sequence I enjoyed so much I decided on the spot to steal it, and worked a variation of it into the work in progress, and that got everything going.

Pantsing, for me, generally means imagining my characters as real people and wondering what they would reasonably do in reaction to each other and plot events outside their direct control. The answers are usually very obvious once I start thinking about it. Meanwhile, pantsing leaves me free to steal any ideas I come across, repurposing them into my story – which makes telling one a lot of fun, and very exciting, as I’m not sure where it’s all heading myself.

Does any of this make sense? Probably not. Anyone who tells you the act of creation should make sense is lying.

Briefing for a Descent into Freelance

By | July 9, 2014 | 6 Comments
This is why I drink.

This is why I drink.

ONE of the reasons I kind of hate doing “writerly” events is the repetition of small talk effect: You wind up making the same small talk with other writers and non-writers alike. I’ve had a variation on the following conversation roughly one billion times (some of the following may only have occurred in my head):

OTHER: So, are you published?

ME: Don’t you KNOW who I AM? I will smite thee with this old manual typewriter I carry everywhere!

OTHER: Cool, cool. Is writing, like, your full time job?

ME: I’m not wearing any pants. Do I look like a man who has income?

In other words, all these conversations quickly establish that the other person has never heard of me (indicating my book sales) and then requires of me some sort of financial disclosure.

Up until a few years ago I was one of the Day Job Writers, just like 99.9% of all of us. I wrote and was published (pretty well) but I had a day job. Then in 2012 my day job and I had a disagreement and we decided to see other people. The disagreement, I think, had something to do with the fact that I last paid conscious attention to my Day Job in 2009, but at least I wasn’t the guy who got fired from my company because he sat in on a conference call with his webcam accidentally switched on while wearing no shirt. True story.

But I digress.

After breaking up with my day job I hurriedly called my agent to ask whether I had coincidentally gotten rich in the last few hours. Being informed that this did not happen, I knew I needed to replace my day job revenues somehow, or my wife The Duchess was going to ask me to leave the premises. She’s old school, you see, and thinks men should have jobs. No matter how often I’ve explained to her that I am a Modern Beta Male who is 100% okay with being supported by his wife, she just boxes my ears and shoves a classifieds section into my hands.

BUT! I had a bold idea. The only skill I have ever demonstrated in my whole life, the only thing I can actually say I am good at, is writing. In fact, the list of things I am not good at is pretty much infinitely long. The list of things I am good at has, at most, five things, and four of them are curious physical abnormalities I’ve never been able to monetize. So I said, I could write freelance.

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Plotting and The Electric Church

By | June 30, 2014 | 2 Comments

The Electric ChurchRight, we all know the drill now, right? I’m giving a plot seminar at The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (see here) because like Iggy A I am fancy, and thus I am writing a series of essays about how I plot novels by way of proving my bona fides, right? All right, glad to have that out of the way.

So: The Electric Church. The story about this book is an epic in and of itself. It’s actually simultaneously the book I plotted most, and perhaps the most epically pantsed novel in history. I wrote the first draft in 1993 in about six months, just pantsing along merrily. The end result was a sloppy narrative with what we in the writerly industry refer to as a shit-ton of problems, but it had spark, and verve, and a premise that I wanted to do justice to. So I never quite gave up on it, picking it up a few times over the next decade and starting a few revisions.

Then, in 2004 I saw an ad for a fiction market. They were accepting proposals and required a detailed plot outline, character sketches — the whole nine yards.

As aside: In what has proven to be a reliable rule, the markets that pay the least have the most strenuous requirements. I’ve sold novels to major publishers who ran the book through a warm room full of copy editors and proclaimed it ready for prime-time. Stories and books for which I was paid in admiration and slaps on the back? Gruelling rounds of editing. This was one of those: No money (I did eventually earn $3.14 from it — that is an exact number — but the submission process was epic.

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Get the Blood: The Scar on My Pinky

By | June 23, 2014 | 0 Comments
Almost lost the finger.

Almost lost the finger.

SO, to recap: I’m publishing books this year (Fixer, We Are not Good People) that involve a magic system that requires blood sacrifice, so my main characters (a lot of the characters, actually) are covered in scars. So I thought I’d write a bit about my own scars and invite others to join in (which they have; I’m making videos of some of the responses). Then I’m posting everything with the hashtag #gettheblood, because I am hip and modern and with it.

Last time out, it was the scar on the back of my head, which had not one but three origin stories. This time, it’s the scar on the little finger of my left hand.

THE BURNING QUESTION

Before we go any further – is it pinky or pinkie? I must know before I write the rest of this — aw, too late.

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Plotting and Lifers

By | June 16, 2014 | 2 Comments

Lifers_coverIn August I’m giving a seminar on plotting novels at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (as mentioned the first of infinite times here; let me tell you, promoting things like that is exhausting) so I’ve been thinking a bit about how I’ve plotted novels. I’ve written a lot of novels — more than thirty, actually, about twelve of which are worth looking at and eight of which I’ve published so far — so I suppose I have something halfway intelligent to say about the process.

While the secret sauce of my awesomeness will only be revealed in coherent form at the conference, I thought a good place to start would be examining past novels and my approach to plot. Last time out I looked fondly at Chum, and today I thought I’d look at my first published novel, Lifers.

I wrote Lifers in 1997, and submitted it to a tiny small press in 1999 without an agent or a clue, and they wrote back and told me they would love to publish my novel if i would send them a check for about $12,000. Vanity Presses did shit like that – they pretended to be a regular royalties publisher and then they sent you a letter detailing the sad state of the economy and how we all had to contribute.

I told them to please burn the manuscript and considered flying to California to burn down their offices as well. The last thing a largely-unpublished author needs is someone trying to scam them out of twelve thousand goddamn dollars.

Then, something odd happened: They called me back 6 months later and said, we’ll give you a $1,000 advance and standard royalties, because we want to publish it for reals.

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Get the Blood

By | June 12, 2014 | 5 Comments

eyeSo, in less than a month the novella Fixer will be released into the wild, for free at first. Anyone can read it! It’s THUNDERDOME!

It’s also supposed to be a way to introduce yourself to the universe and characters of We Are Not Good People before that novel comes out in October. As such, it’s a prequel, so despite having the same setting and the same main chaacters you don’t need to have read WANGP or Trickster in order to understand and enjoy Fixer. Clever, aren’t we?

I’ve been thinking about the magic system I devised for The Ustari Cycle. I’ve never been a fan of magic systems in books that have no consequences – stories where a “chosen one” is just born with some innate ability to cast spells, and where there are virtually no limitations to their capabilities. Power should require sacrifice, I’ve always thought, and that led to the logical conclusion: What if magic literally did require sacrifice? So in the world of The Ustari Cycle, to cast magic spells you need two things: A knowledge of the mystical Words that act as a grammar and vocabulary for expressing the intention of the magic, and blood, fresh and gushing from a wound. The more blood, the more powerful the spell.

The moment this came together I knew my main character would refuse to bleed anyone but himself. Bleeding someone else — possibly to death — to cast a spell is a pretty evil thing to do, after all, and only the worst sort of people would do that. So Lem Vonnegan, the main character an narrator of We Are Not Good People only bleeds himself, and as a result of years of casting spells is latticed with thousands of scars on his arms and elsewhere.

This got me to thinking about my own scars. I’ve had a relatively lucky life: No broken bones, no serious illnesses. Even I have a few scars, though. I’ll be writing the stories behind my various scars in the coming weeks – because every scar has a story.

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Plotting and Chum

By | June 6, 2014 | 0 Comments
BUY ME

BUY ME

So, as mentioned previously,  in August I’ll be presenting a seminar on plotting a novel, much to the horror of many, many teachers, scoutmasters, and other authority figures I’ve known throughout my long-departed youth. To say that many people expressed doubt about my abilities to succeed in life would be an understatement. That happens when you discover alcohol at the age of thirteen and immediately take up residence on street corners for lengthy periods of time.

Still, I showed them! I am on the agenda of a major writing conference. Of course, this makes me sweat: As we all know, I take a certain, shall we say, casual approach to life in general. How do you teach something when your process involves getting blackout drunk and then being vaguely surprised at what you find in the morning?

ENTER CHUM

Well, I’ve been looking back on my mighty works and considering how I actually plotted them out. Chum was written (in its original form) in 2003, taken on by my might agent in 2004, re-written a few times along the way, and sold to Tyrus Books in 2013. With a story like that, it can’t be surprising to hear that the plot process on this book was complicated, mainly because I never really considered plot at all.

Chum is, I think, an unusual book: It has a transforming event buried in there, the Big Moment that everything revolves around, but it doesn’t really follow any recognizable model for plot at all. There’s really no rising action, no denouement. It’s told from various points of view and various moments in time, and the points of view vary wildly in states of inebriation and information.

So how did I plot this? I didn’t.

I started off, as usual, with a vision: The opening scene, which is fairly innocuous and humorous, with a slight spice of ominous — and then I saw what the Big Event was. From there, I simply slipped into the heads of my characters and explored what they might have seen, inferred, or eavesdropped, and what would happen to their relationships as a result.

It’s actually an approach to writing that I attempted once before, when I was much younger, in a novella titled “Shadow Born” (let’s not mock me and my titles; I will stipulate that my love for faux-poetic titles is awful and horrible and I am trying to be better about it, promise). The older novella was the story of a rape at a college party and explored how people hear about it, suspect it’s happened, and react to certain knowledge of it. It wasn’t entirely successful, and today feels like Juvenilia, but it felt like there was power in that engine.

Results May Not Be Verifiable

I don’t employ this kind of narrative trick often, because it’s more likely to collapse into a heap of chaos than yield a tight, interesting novel. Chum works because the characters came to life – at least to me, although I now have a few other people, some of whom paid me money, who seem to agree. If the characters had seemed flat or boring, we would have been in a lot of trouble. As a result, this isn’t really an approach I can recommend to newcomers to the novel game – although hey, you never know.

Other novels I’ve plotted differently, including a lot of “Pantsing” and a bit of “Plotting,” though the latter is usually only when I’m forced to. Both have worked for me, but I have to say: Plotting Chum was probably the most fun I’ve ever had plotting a novel out.

These days my plot technique involves alcohol and guesswork. And cats. Cat butts on my keyboard seem to be the secret sauce for my recent novels, actually.

The Inner Swine Guide to Ignorance Episode 7

By | May 27, 2014 | 0 Comments
(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #53; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)

Episode Seven: Monetizing Ignorance

Use As Instructed.

Use As Instructed.

FRIENDS, lord knows there are plenty of things I wish I could forget. Like the time in High School when I got really drunk and. . .well, actually, that covers most of High School, so it might be best to delete those seven years entirely. Or the time in college when I got really drunk and. . .well, actually, those are eight sloshy years that are best forgotten altogether as well, filled with bitterness and heartache, unrequited love and poor diet choices.

The point is, there’s plenty of terrible, hurtful memories I’d like to get rid of, most of which involve large groups of people laughing and pointing while I weep. This is where you realize that ignorance, often relegated to insult-comedy and character assassination, can actually have a beneficial affect on your life. Ignorance is not always a Bad Thing, in other words. Properly channeled, it could be one of the greatest medical advances ever.

Consider, if you will, the debilitating effect knowledge has on all of us. Terrible knowledge. Knowledge of pain and suffering, of humiliations and consequences, of evil and of pain. It’s a wonder any of us attempt anything after the age of twenty-five. The fact that any adult is in any way functional I put down to the glory of alcohol abuse, although I freely admit the negative affects of such a lifestyle often cancel out whatever false courage The Drink gives you. If we could simply delete unwanted memories whenever we liked, think of how much extra courage you would have on a daily basis? I mean, I wonder to myself what kind of superman would I be if I didn’t have this memory of being promoted to Senior Patrol Leader of my Boy Scout Troop when I was fourteen and entering into a six month slide of Epic Fail that resulted in me shying away from any hint of authority or responsibility ever since. Man, if I didn’t have that terrible memory—which involved the scorn and derisive humor of not only the former SPL whose position I inherited, but of the adult Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmasters as well—I might have actually become ambitious in my life. I’d probably already be ruling the world, except for that panic-inducing experience.

Now, because of my ill-fated attempt to be a teenaged authority figure, I flee any sort of responsibility, and I live in Hoboken with four cats instead of in some secret underground base with an army of mercenaries ready to die for my cause.

Imagine, though, if I could erase that memory and start fresh. Wake up tomorrow and no longer have any idea that taking on a leadership position might lead to humiliation and horror! Sort of like in that movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, except instead of erasing bad relationships, erasing any kind of bad experience that now makes you think twice before doing something. In other words, not so much erasing a memory as inserting ignorance. Ignorance which then acts to protect you from fear.

After all, why do most of us refuse to do things—say, mainline heroin, or jump out of a plane without a parachute? Simple: We know the consequences and choose to avoid them. But what if we didn’t know the consequences? That’s right: We’d be superman. And, yes, most likely dead within a very short period of time. But like the Replicants in Blade Runner, we’d be gods for that very short period of time, wouldn’t we? Unstoppable, completely without any common sense or fear of dismemberment.

####

Of course, I am old and dissipated by Drink. The world has likely passed me by, and it’s too late to save me—besides, my list of humiliations which have scarred me into terminal passivity is far too long. You’d pretty much have to delete my personality entirely and reboot me as a thirty-seven year-old infant. Which no one wants. So I must instead bend my intelligence and severe lack of restraint on helping the world altruistically, using my immense fortune and bottomless resources to invent The Inner Swine Bad Memory Redactor.

THE INNER SWINE BAD MEMORY REDACTOR (BMR)

The design of the Implement is, of course, pretty simple, and some might say that I’ll never get a patent as there is ubiquitous prior art. That doesn’t matter—the important part about the Bad Memory Redactor is in its proper use. If you learn where to apply the BMR and with what amount of force, you can surgically remove specific memories with complete accuracy and almost no negative side effects. For the purposes of this essay we are not counting the memory loss as a negative side effect, of course.

The procedure is simple: Based on detailed phrenologic diagrams supplied wit the the BMR, you simply select the spot on the head which will delete the appropriate memory. Then have your subject concentrate on that memory until it is all they are thinking of, filling all of their thoughts. Then you rear back and give an accurate but forceful smack with the implement. Like magic, the memory is deleted.

Think about what you could do if you didn’t know everything you know! Have trust issues? Burn out a few traumatic experiences from your childhood and ta-da! You’ll be a trusting, secure person. Fall out of a tree when you were five and get the heebies every time you’re up high? One expert swing of the BMR and you might realize your secret dream of being an acrobat. Haunted by dreams of being naked in front of crowds? One quick, slightly excruciating application of the BMR in expert hands and you’ll be break-dancing on stage in front of thousands in no time.

####

Ignorance does not have to be solely an affliction—it can be used as a tool as well, the same way debilitating alcohol consumption can help you through trauma even as it rots your brain and destroys your liver. Certainly you don’t want to be deleting every single bad memory you have—aside from making you incredibly dull and probably doomed to an early death due to your complete and impenetrable ignorance, the repeated head traumas would probably result in some semiserious and somewhat permanent brain damage. But for dealing with the occasional phobia-inducing searing hell of a memory, it’s genius. I’ll start the rates at $1500 per treatment, medical bills not included, though I will throw in a free ride-and-dump to the local Emergency Room if you fail to regain consciousness within an hour. Which hardly ever happens, trust me.

Godzilla 2014: Be Moar Dum

By | May 22, 2014 | 0 Comments
ROWR

ROWR

So, Godzilla 2014 kind of sucks. Spoilers ho, but if you fear spoilers … ah, who has the energy.

I know this isn’t the common opinion. Between B+ reviews and mega box office, I can only assume they pump gas into the theaters everywhere else, because this movie — while kind of fun in a brain damaged way — is Dumb with a capital D which rhymes with B which stands for Big Time Dum.

For yucks, let’s point every completely insanely stupid aspect of this film:

  • Radiation is apparently a white mist you can potentially outrun.
  • Automatic radiation safety doors have manual overrides so heartbroken husbands can endanger entire cities while they hold the door for their wife who is trying to outrun the white misty radiation.
  • Ancient ginormous monsters feed off of radiation, which apparently means they eat nuclear missiles like Heath Bars.
  • Godzilla exists to bring balance to nature by destroying these monsters whenever they appear. Godzilla is simply a force of nature. Because reasons.
  • After studying the radiation-eating monsters for 15 years, the scientists in charge know absolutely nothing about it. Not even how to kill it effectively. Nothing.
  • The radiation-eating monsters emit a mobile EMP pulse that knocks out power wherever they go. Except sometimes it’s a pulse, sometimes a measurable  “sphere of influence.” Despite being measurable, the armed forces continue to fly planes and drive vehicles into the sphere of influence just so we can see them drop out of the sky dramatically.
  • The army also thinks shipping a nuke by train to the West Coast so it can be laboriously towed as radiation bait into the sea and then detonated to kill all the monsters is a better idea than flying a nuke way out of the (measurable) sphere of EMP influence and getting it to the bait spot the long way around.
  • Nuclear missiles can be retrofitted with clockwork detonators. When the rigged nuke is found by the monsters, instead of eating it immediately like a Heath Bar as they with every single other radioactive element they encounter, they take it back to their nest for their offspring to feed on. Now the army has to send in a team of idiots to literally carry the bomb out of SF by hand, on foot.
  • Elizabeth Olsen is in this movie, apparently to remind everyone that women do, in fact, exist. She is a nurse and a mother, because that is what women do (they can possibly teach grammar school as well) in the minds of Hollywood assholes. Elizabeth Olsen’s role could have been re-written to be a Golden Retriever the hero loves, and it would have been exactly the same.
  • The other woman in the story is Juliette Binoche, who is the aforementioned wife running from radiation above, and is dead within five minutes, because that is the other role women can play in movies written by idiots.
  • At the end, after the radiation-eating monsters are dead and San Fran is destroyed, Godzilla wakes up and is mysteriously treated as a hero despite the fact that he is Godzilla, and the fact that he almost died killing mortal enemies in a savage battle does not in any way mean he will not simply proceed to eating the citizens of San Francisco like Skittles. Literally a news blurb on TV as the monster is walking through the city proclaims it the savior of the city.

I could go on. Believe me. Some of the sequences are cool, and the sensibility seems right, but boy howdy a young chimpanzee could have come up with a plot that made more sense. In the words of Bill Hicks: Go back to bed, America.

The Definition of Insanity

By | May 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

This originally appear in The Inner Swine Volume 19, Issue 3/4

Author's Self-Portrait

Author’s Self-Portrait

Going to the Internet for Answers is the Ultimate in Blind Faith

According to the Internet, my friends, I’ve had cancer several times. That’s because every time I have a new annoying pain or symptom (which is, since I am older than my genetic code thinks I ought to be, ALL THE TIME) I am far too lazy to seek a trained medical professional (mainly because someday those medical professionals are gonna tell me to lay off the sauce and after bursting into manly tears I’m going to contact my local cryogenics representative and go out fat, drunk, and stupid like I lived) so instead I head to the Internet to enter in vague and inappropriate keywords and be told, invariably, I have cancer. Because everything is cancer to the Internet:

JSOMERS: My hand hurts when I do this.

CAPNCRUNCHY: We can’t see you, dude, it’s the Internet.

JSOMERS: IT HURTS WHEN I DO THIS.

CAPNCRUNCHY: Probably cancer.

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