Archive for Writing

The Short Story Report

By | December 18, 2014 | 0 Comments
Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I write a lot of short stories – at minimum one a month. Not many of these are good, of course, but I like the exercise of having to come up with an idea and a structure and characters and 2,000 words every month on the regular. Too many writers endlessly discuss and plan their works but never actually write them, you know?

I also submit a fair amount, though in recent years submission turnarounds and contraction of markets has reduced those numbers a great deal. Here’s how it’s shaken out in past years:

2011: 33 submissions, 0 sales

2012: 18 submissions, 1 sale

2013: 22 submissions, 1 sale

This year is continuing this recent trend – I’ll probably end the year with 20 submissions and, unless something exciting happens all last-minute, 1 sale (which just happened). Since 1986, when I started writing and submitting short stories to anyone who would publish them, I’ve managed 1,279 submissions and sold 30 for a sell rate of 2.35%. Obviously I have no dignity. Also I have a fascination with collecting data on my own existence. Yes, I’m that guy who counts things and I am one tiny sliver of sanity away from keeping my piss in mason jars.

Old age will be fun, trust me. Inhibitions lost, sanity frayed, piss in mason jars.

Ahem. Back to the ever-elusive point: For me, the pay scale on short stories is chaos. Since deciding to only submit to markets that at least pay a token, I’ve made more than $1,200 on a single short story, and I’ve made $5. So I’m obviously not going to be making a living on short stories any time soon. But they’re so much fun to write – you can go from idea to THE END in a few days, sometimes. Short stories are the crack of writing.

And, once written, I want them read, and read widely. So, I submit them so I can point to that as some sort of legitimizing serum. You know, because otherwise it’s just me SPAM emailing short story PDFs to everyone who has ever sent me an email, including large corporations, offshore customer service bots, and imprisoned politicians (I’m writing this in New Jersey, so let’s just call them politicians). At least when someone pays me money for a story I can claim that I have a good reason for thinking it’s worth, you know, money. Or your time. Which is generally the same damn thing anyway.

As a reminder, I just released a new short story set in the Avery Cates universe called The Shattered Gears and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N Nook, and Google Play for just 99 cents.

Also, every now and then I post a free short story on this blog, so if you’re curious check ‘em out.

Writing: Leave Yourself Hanging

By | December 15, 2014 | 0 Comments
Typical Writer's Retirement Plan

Typical Writer’s Retirement Plan

Writing advice is one of those things that a lot of people want from you but are then almost always disappointed by. I’ve seen it plenty of times: Someone says, oh hey, you’ve completed/sold novels, what kind of advice do you have for the aspiring writer? And they are clearly expecting me to say something like drink heavily all the time and the magic booze faeries will dictate stories to you or jot down this ancient Sumerian magic spell and you can summon magic booze faeries to dictate stories to you or possibly sit down and let me buy you expensive cocktails on my dime.

When I offer instead some chestnut about craft or reading widely or avoiding Tom Swifty constructions in your dialogue, their disappointment is obvious, and their eyes always say something akin to you sir are a fraud and I despise you.

So I’ve been trying to think of a piece of writing advice I can offer that is actually practical and useful but also concise and simple, the sort of immediate benefit I think many folks want. They don’t want to hear something that if you apply diligently for the next thirty years might offer some insight. They want something they can go home and do immediately. And in my role as professional bloviator, this is a tool I must have. And after much thought, I have it: Leave yourself hanging.

This is something I’ve done my whole life without actually thinking of it consciously, and it really does work. The concept is simple: When writing a story, always stop for the day at a point where you know what the next thing will be. In other words, never write until you’re unsure of the next step in your story. Whenever I’ve written until I had no idea what came next, when I sat down the next day I was stumped. If I leave even the slightest bit unwritten, I can swing into it easily the next day.

Simple? Yes, but surprisingly not obvious to many. So there you go: A bit of easily marketed writing advice I can apply my unique brand to. Said brand summed up with the phrase Cranky Inebriated Incompetence.

The Cynicism Fail

By | December 11, 2014 | 2 Comments

blackmirrorSO, approximately three years too late, I finally caught the first episode of Black Mirror now that it’s on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about the show for years, especially that first episode – “National Anthem” – and was very interested in it. I’m too lazy to chase things down, so I just thought of it every now and then and finally my weak magical field worked its wonders and the show popped up on Netflix.

And it’s good – very well done, creepy, and the premise of “National Anthem” – a hugely popular member of the royal family is kidnapped, and the sole demand for her release is that the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live television – is inspired in both its creepiness and hilarity. I enjoyed it as a piece of black comedy and theater. It does, however, fail in a big way that often hurts supposedly audacious satires like this – it revels far too much in a cynicism about the world that’s supposed to feel edgy but is actually just really, really lazy writing.

And yes, I know: Me carping about lazy writing is like Charlie Sheen carping about drug addicts. Let it drift.

In “National Anthem,” the Cynicism Fail occurs when the story suddenly needs to give us a reason why any reasonable man, a Prime Minister no less, would actually agree to fuck a pig on live television. Yes, yes it’s satire and thus not beholden to normal rules of storytelling, but plot mechanics are plot mechanics. And Black Mirror falls back on the rickety old structure of “public opinion has shifted,” which is possibly the laziest writing crutch in the universe. In the story, at first the public is reasonably shocked by this ridiculous demand and supports the Prime Minister against it. Then the government makes the mistake of trying to fake a pig-fucking via CGI, and a raid on a spot where the princess might be held goes haywire and a reporter is shot. When the public finds out about these debacles, polling shifts, and suddenly the whole country insists the Prime Minister fuck the pig already. His party informs him that not only can they not longer support him if he doesn’t fuck the pig, they cannot even guarantee his or his family’s safety.

In other words, we are to believe that in the space of an hour or so the country goes from mild shock at this turn of events to rabid, primitive grunting.

And I call bullshit. The trope of “people are really the worst and will show their true colors when pushed” has been done. And people are the worst, I’ll stipulate. But bad polling as a reason you cannot possibly avoid fucking a pig on live television is perhaps some of the worst plot mechanics I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed the episode in spite of this bullshit, trust me. This is the sort of stuff a writer who has become completely divorced from real people trots out, imagining that everyone who is not him or people directly in his line of sight must be awful, ignorant, evil people.

I haven’t watched the other episodes, but likely will, and likely will also have drunken, belligerent things to say about them, as well. In the meantime it’s nice to know that even highly-paid folks with shows on TV can screw up their stories this badly. There’s hope for us all yet!

Retread: The Journey

By | December 4, 2014 | 2 Comments
BUY ME

BUY ME

(NOTE: I posted this back in February 2013, reposting here slightly altered)

We Are Not Good People: I started writing this book in 2010. It’s amazing sometimes how you start with a germ of an idea and then end up somewhere far away from that. Here’s the first ~850 words I wrote for this book. I trashed this (and several versions afterwards) before settling on the final approach in October 2010; much of this is still in the final version, though in a different form, and spread over many sections.

WANGP Draft Zero, August 2010

WHEN I was nine years old, my father picked me up after one of my Cub Scout meetings at the old church, which was strange because my father had left us the year before and I hadn’t seen him since. He drove an old boat of a car, cracked seats and broken radio. I remember climbing around the front and back seats, so much room it was like a little portable house on wheels. He let me; he just sat behind the wheel with a pint bottle of brandy between his legs, humming old songs as he drove.

We merged onto an empty highway, amber lights driving away the darkness but creating a weird Marscape of road, like we’d left the real world behind and were driving in the Ghost World. I didn’t know where we were going. Dad took regular sips from his bottle and answered all my questions with grunts and monosyllables. I had a lot of questions. I remember being really excited, after all this time Dad had come to take me on a trip, and after I got tired of not getting answers to my questions I settled into the back seat with my Webelos handbook and tried to figure out where we were going—amusement parks, zoos, the beach all seemed likely candidates. Eventually I remember falling asleep, liking the sensation of rocking back and forth in the big back seat, the smell of cigarettes and the sound of the wind.

Dad shook me awake and we were out in the middle of nowhere in the parking lot of a small square tavern with a huge red neon sign that said, simply, BEER. I followed him sleepily inside, where a handful of people who all seemed to be wearing flannel shirts and baseball caps were scattered around the tiny, gloomy room. Dad lifted me onto a stool and I remember slouching there, still asleep, looking owlishly around.

“Bourbon,” Dad said. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d picked me up. “Neat. A coke for the kid.”

This was magic. The man behind the bar, who was fat and red in the face, his gray-white hair greasy and pasted flat against his round head, put a glass in front of me with a grin and used a gun on the end of a rubber hose to fill the glass with soda. Soda from a hose! It was magic, and I immediately schemed to have one installed at Mom’s house, because she always forgot to do the shopping and there was never anything to eat or drink.

Dad didn’t pay any attention to me, just sat there staring at the silent TV mounted up on the wall and sipped from his glass. Any time I finished a soda the man behind the bar waddled over, smiling, and refilled my glass. Free soda from a hose. After a while I eased off my stool and wandered over to where a trio of ancient electronic games sat blinking dully. Dad watched me for a moment, then shrugged and called the bartender over, fishing out a five dollar bill and holding it up.

“Give the kid some quarters,” he said.

I drank soda until I had to pee so badly my legs ached, and played fifteen games of bowling before finally giving in to the realities of the situation and heading for the bathroom. It was a scary bathroom. It had a door that didn’t close right and was dark, everything in it cold and slimy. To get there I had to pass by an old man of at least my Dad’s age sitting at the end of the bar. He wore a white suit with no tie or socks, just white pants and jacket that seemed too light for the weather and a white shirt. He was a mass of wrinkles. His hair was long and slightly curly, and his nose dominated his face, making him resemble a squirrel. I didn’t want to push past him to get to the bathroom, and hesitated for a second or two while my kidneys swam up behind my eyes, bulging them out. Finally I screwed up my courage and hustled past. He just grinned at me.

###

I got bored after a while. The games were old and creaky and not fun and after my seventh or eighth soda the impossible happened and I didn’t want any more of them. Dad just sat and drank and stared. I was afraid to make much noise or bother him, remembering how terrifying he was when angered, and tried to find other ways to amuse myself. I looked around and found the man in the white suit staring at me. He smiled and waved, and I looked away. When I stole a glance back at him, he waved again, and I realized with a start that his fingertips were on fire. As he moved them back and forth through the air they flickered and smoked.

The flames were blue-green. As I stared the man winked at me.

I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Everyone else might as well have been asleep. Not me. My heart was pounding

Salvage

By | December 1, 2014 | 3 Comments
This is the face of doom.

This is the face of doom.

I don’t know about y’all, but I have a problem with leaving things unfinished. Since turning in We Are Not Good People to my publisher, I’ve completed one novel (which I showed around to folks who all shrugged and evinced zero enthusiasm for) and since then I’ve started about four projects that more or less went nowhere, if you consider significant amounts of words to be “nowhere.” I’m not a big one for word counts, but it is a useful stat when discussing incomplete novels, so let’s say I have about 4 projects that got to be about 25,000 words or so and then petered out.

Usually this is because they lose that indescribable “buzz” that a living, breathing book has, at least for me. When a story is thriving, working on it is like picking up a live wire. I can feel that buzzing energy every time I put words to paper or screen. When that buzz is lost, I usually tinker for a while and eventually give up trying to make it move again. It’s like riding an elephant that suddenly keels over. For a while you’re bounding along going whoooooo and filled with adrenaline. Then you’re trapped under a ton of dead elephant and nothing you do, including stuffing dynamite under it and lighting a fuse, gets it moving again.

But, I hate to waste all those words. That means turning that dead elephant into a Frankenstein-monster via one of the following strategies:

  1. The Capper: Writing a brief ending of sorts that ties up your loose ends without much revision (“… and then the plane crashed. The end.”) and calling it a job … done.
  2. The Extraction: Taking some portion of the work that can stand alone as a short story with minimal revision and discarding the rest.
  3. The Combo: Realizing that some other unfinished monstrosity is similar in theme and combining the two into one much longer, less satisfying, but in some sense “finished” work.

None of these are ideal, but I will admit that #2 has worked pretty well from time to time. The thing is, I hate unfinished projects. I hate the waste, and sometimes in those 25,000 words there are 10,000 I think are pretty good, so I want them out there someday. So I’m often willing to roll up my sleeves, do some meatball surgery, and call what I end up with a success. Which, sometimes, it is.

Now I’m working on a new idea and I’m getting towards that point where the elephant either suddenly and quite surprisingly spread its Dumbo ears and takes flight, or staggers over dead, trapping me beneath its rotting carcass. I’ll keep you posted.

Categories: Bullshit, Writing

Ye Olde Creative Process

By | November 4, 2014 | 4 Comments
My desk is literally covered with hundreds of these.

My desk is literally covered with hundreds of these.

As a published author, I get a lot of emails and messages from writers who want some advice on how to get published or how to improve their writing [1], and, frankly, it’s always challenging to find new and entertaining ways to tell them “I have no goddamn clue.” Which I mean very seriously. For the “getting published” part I can’t tell you anything beyond I wrote a lot and submitted work fearlessly, somehow found an incredibly agent and took advantage of the opportunities that came to me. The rest of it is all blurry and confusing [2].

As for the writing: I honestly have little insight. While some folks attack writing as a craft, honing skills, for me it’s always been a simple expression of creativity. I don’t study writing (unless reading a lot counts, which it of course does, in which case I study writing every day) and I never workshopped or participated in a writer’s group or a creative writing program. I always just wrote and wrote and wrote and my submission process is a sloppy one, often violating submission guidelines I never read, hardly ever taking the advice to read sample issues or paying attention when an editor says they’re not looking for what I’m writing.

The worst part is how alien much of my writing comes to seem after time. Things I wrote ten years ago I can’t imagine writing now, and often don’t even remember writing at all. I have novels in folders (written back when I was still typing everything out on a manual typewriter) that I have zero memory of. There’s one titled The Hobo Obituaries. It’s 102 typewritten pages, which is about 40,000 words. I have no clue what it’s about. Nothing.

My memory is terrible, and there was a time when I worried about that, was frustrated by it. Much of my life has faded from memory. I might recall on some basic level that I did something that particular day, but the details e usually gone. I have no real memory of it, I just know it happened. That used to scare me a little, and frustrate people around me who remember things in vivid detail and assume my lack of memory meant it hadn’t mattered to me.

Today, I think of my awful memory as a good thing. [3]

My terrible memory allows me to reinvent things easily. I’m not a slave to actual detail; I can take the fuzzy dreamscape that is my memory and shape it and work it and add details that might not have actually been there in the first place. I can write my memories. Details are overrated, anyway. [4]

This is both a superpower and Kryptonite. Just like my beloved liquor! On the one hand, I am free to recreate anything without being tied to details, which is a way of being creatively free. On the other hand, those details are sometimes useful, and not having them at hand can result in some wonky Wikipedia lookups – which are doubly humiliating, as I’m researching stuff I actually lived. Or think I lived. If I can’t remember the details, did it happen?

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. I’ve always rejected the idea that experience is important in the sense of collecting them – you travel and adventure and see things, but if you don’t do anything to share them, they die with you and what did it matter? Conversely, if my own experiences are by now hopelessly muddled [5], so what? The precise details don’t matter anyway. All that matters is what I write.

——

[1] “a lot” = one recently; most of my emails are meant for another Jeff Somers who might be some sort of secret agent.

[2] Just ask my agent, who is still cleaning up some of my awful mistakes signed before she took me on.

[3] For context, though, I also think of my lack of grooming as a good thing.

[4] Details like making a living and wearing pants, apparently.

[5] My whole life is basically this Simpsons clip:

Character Attrition

By | October 23, 2014 | 10 Comments
I must be dealt with.

I must be dealt with.

Few people think of me as an expert in anything. Well, booze, yes, I suppose there’s that. But in general I am regarded in social settings as a mildly alarming Wild Card (or, more accurately, I go around demanding that everyone call me by the nickname “Wild Card” so I can use my self-made catchphrase, “I have to be dealt with! BECAUSE I’M A WILD CARD, BABY!”)

<crickets>

Maybe I’m an expert in novel writing, as I have published nine of them. Though technically that makes me an expert in selling novels, not necessarily writing them. Which leads me, with the drunken grace of a shore leave sailor, to my point.

 

There is a rule in fiction writing called the Law of Conservation of Characters. Is there? I may have made that up. Actually, after Googling it’s something Roger Ebert said about movies, but it still applies. It has to, or this blog post is a waste of everyone’s time.

Basically, what this boils down to is the idea that an author doesn’t waste time on characters who have no purpose in a story, so if you’re, say, trying to figure out who the killer is in a mystery novel you know it has to be a character you’ve spent some time with – and any character who so far hasn’t had much reason to be there is the most likely suspect.

There’s a flip side to this rule that doesn’t get talked about much, and that’s because it’s a rule you should apply while writing the damn story in the first place. This is the Rule of Character Attrition, and it might be a Somers-Only Rule, who knows, but it goes like this: If you’re struggling in your novel, consider cutting characters out and combining their role and attributes into another character. It’s often a tonic for an ailing novel, in my experience.

For example, I’ve got a WIP. As is my wont, I started this book off by throwing everything I could think of – exposition everywhere like a slow flood of molasses, details that just drop like anvils here and there just so I wouldn’t forget them later – and every character I could think of that might be useful. I do this. If I think there might be a scene later that would benefit from a unicorn, I will create a unicorn character.

End result? My protagonist has a very large posse of people following him around, and the story gets bogged down. And then I realize that character #5 hasn’t said or done anything in 50 pages.

That’s when it’s time for a culling.

I start over. I boil down my characters: Who can be combined? Who is unlikely to ever get a Big Moment or a reason to exist? Who have I completely forgotten was even in this book? Burn them off, and what you’re left with are the characters that actually matter.

It really just goes to show that we novelists really have no idea what we’re doing. We just make it up as we go along. It’s actually kind of surprising that any of us manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and yes, I know that in my case the definition of “clothe” is very loose. DAMN YOUR EYES.

It’s a Neighbor Affair

By | September 18, 2014 | 2 Comments
Hi, we just opened a Clown College next door.

Hi, we just opened a Clown College next door.

Ah, other people. You mysterious, dreadful beings. From afar, I can appreciate your beauty and the exotic ways of your mating rituals and territorial pissings. Up close, I usually at least have the sensation of an open doorway behind me so I can make a fast getaway by shouting “Look!” and just running really fast.

But then, sometimes, you live next door to me.

Now, to be clear, almost all of my neighbors in my life have been good people. Polite, respectful, and if a little strange around the edges well I’m sure some misguided folks think the same about me, even though I am kept in a lab in Switzerland next to the International Prototype Kilogram as the Standard Person. But just because my neighbors have by and large been totally fine to live near doesn’t mean I don’t watch them carefully at all times, looking for signs of Weird.

Because it’s there.

Now, I’ve always had a healthy distrust of other people, a distrust that grows stronger the nearer they are to me and sprouts into full-blown paranoia when they’re within my Sphere of Influence, so to speak, but since I started working from home a few years ago I’ve had the opportunity to just sit here and sip whiskey … uh, I mean, work really hard in case my wife is reading this … and observe my neighborhood at my leisure. I’ve seen fights break out over parking spaces. I’ve seen people having sex with the windows open. I’ve seen one neighbor mysteriously deliver a gallon of milk to another once or twice a month. I’ve witnessed public lovers’ quarrels and I’ve overheard entire conversations about home renovations.

Once, a group of neighbors gathered under my window and sang songs to me in soft, angelic voices, but to be honest I was halfway through a bottle of Scotch that turned out, upon closer examination the next day, to be a bottle of really old cough syrup that had turned from ruby red to brown, so that one might have been imagined.

I’ve become a sort of Groundhog Day Godling of my block. I know all and see all. I know when you’re having work done, and I know when you shop for groceries. Also what you consider the word groceries to be, which is often a surprising and not very comforting grouping of innovations. I know when you leave in the morning (unless its super early, in which case I assume there is a insomniac godling doing my job at night, glowing softly, like the moon) and I know when you get home at night.

Come to think of it, maybe I’m the weird neighbor in this scenario.

If so, it’s not on purpose. My desk just happens to be next to a window.

Naturally, all of these observations will end up in books and stories under changed names and sometimes genders and ethnicities, usually long after I’ve completely forgotten the original moments I witnessed. My memory is a feeble thing, and everything I’ve seen recently will swirl into an imprecise haze, allowing me to take your humiliations and churn them into stories. It’s what I do.

Categories: Bullshit, Writing

Just Because Some Watery Tart Threw a Sword at You

By | August 28, 2014 | 3 Comments

I’ve had Enough of The One for a Lifetime

Hi there. I'm He-Man. Won't Someone Love Me?

Hi there. I’m He-Man. Won’t Someone Love Me?

Let us discuss He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, because it is a subject that has been sorely ignored by the media old and new for too long. When I was a kid He-Man was on TV all the time, protecting Castle Grayskull for some reason and fighting his eternal battle against Skeletor, who wanted in to Castle Grayskull for some reason. It’s all a bit fuzzy, because I was ten years old, and because I barely remember anything from all that time ago. I remember almost nothing from yesterday, in fact, so thirty years ago? We’ll need Leo DiCaprio and his totem to drill in that deeply.

Still, the problem of motivation: Why was He-Man He-Man? In other words, aside from Mattel’s desperate need to sell kids like me plastic action figures and advertising on the cartoon, why was He-Man chosen to be super strong and manly by The Sorceress (Note: There was also a Sorceress)? Aside from the fact that he’s one of about two men in reasonable physical shape on Eternia, his buddy Man At Arms would have been a better choice. Man At Arms is not only in pretty buff shape to begin with, he’s also a technical genius inventor of weapons. If you’re handing out He-Man-ness to random people, why not him?

An argument could be made that giving Man At Arms super powers in addition to his super-genius at creating awesome death-dealing weapons would have made him too powerful. I reject this argument because it requires a depth of thought impossible in the He-Man universe. He-Man is chosen to be He-Man simply because – and that is awful storytelling.

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ESSENTIAL WRITER TOOLS PART ONE: CATS

By | August 25, 2014 | 2 Comments

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 15, Issue 3/4, Summer 2009.

See? Pithy.

See? Pithy.

ONE OF THE greatest things about being a writer is the ability to engage in all sorts of eccentric and bizarre behavior and have it laughingly accepted by society because you’re an artist, an artist traditionally known as either a drunk or a madman. Being a writer is more or less like being publicly diagnosed with Weirdo Disease and from that point on everyone’s willing to believe anything about you:

POLICE: Sir, you’re not wearing any pants.
ME: Is OK. Me writer.
POLICE: Ah. Published anything I’da heard of?

This is of course partly due to the plethora of examples from history showing writers to, in fact, be either drunks or madmen, often both. As a writer, you’re free to do all sorts of odd things and have people just shrug their shoulders, accepting you for who you are. This is because as a writer you’ve already made the choice to earn something akin to what a third-world cobbler for Nike might expect to earn over their lifetime, and are thus excused from society’s normal requirements. Let your beard grow wild and free? Why not, you’re going to be living on Top Ramen for the rest of your life. Wear suspenders and a belt? Vote Libertarian? Spend your life murdering every living thing you’re allowed legally to murder?

The world shrugs, as you’ve already made the insane decision to write for a living.

So, while wallowing in the pants-free and deoderant-optional lifestyle of the working author, I can understand why, despite the obvious social and financial drawbacks of such a lifestyle, so many folks aspire to be professional writers. After all, financial security and respect within your community are overrated, especially when compared to the ability to wake up at four in the afternoon, immediately begin drinking, and call it ‘research’.

So I’ve decided to help anyone who wants to be a writer by outlining some of the main tools you too can use to establish yourself, since ‘writing’ these days is more of a lifestyle choice than a profession, based on the fact that for something to be a profession you have to actually earn money at it. There are many things a writer must have in order to prosecute their art and look writerly while doing it, but I thought we’d start with the most basic, the most fundamental, the single thing that tells the world that not only are you a writer, but you’re a serious writer: A cat.

Or cats, plural; the more the merrier.

####

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Categories: Bullshit, Writing

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