Archive for Writing

Writing Under the Red Gaze of the Single Unblinking Eye of Facebook

By | January 4, 2014 | 2 Comments

declineBack when I still put a print version of my zine The Inner Swine out, I once wrote an essay about someone I knew that wasn’t particularly complimentary. I didn’t know this person very well, but in my essay I portrayed them (accurately!) as an insane person more than likely to kill me, dry my meat, and make me into sausage or something like that.

And then, much to my chagrin, this insane person requested a copy of the zine. That particular issue, in fact. I realized that if I gave them the issue as it was, I would soon wake up in a pit with the Crazy One telling me it puts the lotion on its skin as it lowered a basket down to me. So, I did what any coward does: I created a single special issue of the zine with the offending article replaced by something else and handed it to Crazy One with a straight face. As the Somers Family Motto goes, Congratulations on a Job: Done.

Of course, I was only able to save my skin in this way because of the primitive time this took place in, a glorious time before social media, before Facebook, before Twitter. Because if I write something viciously meanspirited, completely unfair and yet totally fucking hilarious today, the Crazy Ones out there will see it no matter what I do, become enraged, and arrive on cue to kidnap me in their Rape Vans and imprison me in their Karmic Penalty Boxes. Or just punch me in the nose.

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How Not to Write a Novel

By | October 20, 2013 | 2 Comments

Writing the Old Fashioned WayI just wrote a novel in possibly the hardest way possible.

Years ago, I wrote two novels. Well, both were short – one very barely qualified as novel-length and one was absolutely a novella, really. I liked both very much, one a bit more than the other. The longer one I sent to my agent with that special feeling of doomed hope and suggested it might be the next thing we go out on. I loved the longer one because it had a sense of poetry to it, a dreamy atmosphere. Plus, I loved the longer one’s creation story:

The Duchess had forced me to attend the Broadway show Mama Mia. I was reluctant, for obvious – lord, I hope they’re obvious – reasons. But I am a dutiful husband, so I went. I had this central concept for a novel in my head at the time, but couldn’t get it to coalesce into something coherent. And then, as the lights went down in the theater, I had an epiphany. I saw the first line of the story in my head: “This is the story of my father.” And it was off to the races. I wrote the longer piece quickly, easily, after that point.

That’s no longer the first line of the book. That line isn’t even in the book any more. But it’s there, nonetheless, even if only I can see it.

The shorter one I held back, because while I loved a lot of it even I couldn’t convince myself that a 30,000-word “novel” with a lot of padding had any chance at book publishers. The novella had a bit of juvenalia to it, but it had a clear throughline that held it together nicely.

My agent, god love her, read the longer one and sent back her notes, which made a crucial point: There wasn’t much of a story arc. No real conflict, no climax. It was a story, sure, but it was kind of a flatline if you plotted the events.

So, I pondered. Other stuff happened.

Recently, I revisited the longer work and now it was apparent that my agent, whose sulfurous fumes still clung to the digital pages, was absolutely right: I had written a novel in which very little happened. Then I considered the shorter work from the same period, which had stayed in my imagination. It was a a bony, skeletal thing, which was about 1/3 padding as I meandered about the universe I’d created trying desperately to find details — but it had a definite plot, a mystery and a climax. It had a point.

I re-read both and had an epiphany: Written so closely together temporally, they were actually parts of the same story. They shared elements and atmosphere and, if I’m being honest, characters as I recycled them from one to the other. I had a longer, fleshy piece that was all character and setting and backstory, and a shorter, bony piece that was like a fucking plot outline. The answer was obvious: Combine them.

A lot easier than I would have expected. I really had written a novel in two parts, months apart, without even realizing it. I’m either a genius or a drunken moron, take your pick. They fit together so seamlessly if you didn’t know the story behind the new novel you’d never guess. You can’t see the scars as the stitching healed. The slight limp as it walks about on two legs of microscopically different lengths just give its gait some character.

I have no idea if we’ll ever sell this beast, but regardless I’m pleased. And also amazed at the way the brain works. And once again reminded of the value of a great agent.

Writing as a Reader

By | August 30, 2013 | 7 Comments

HWDRI had one of those moments the other night. No, not one of those “oops I drank a bottle of High West Double Rye and wet myself” moments – or, well, yes, one of those moments too, but that’s not the subject of this little essay thank you very much. The moment I’m referring to was a spine-tingling idea I had to solve a plot problem in a novel I’ve been writing for approximately 75 years. Which is actually a merging of two novels into one. Which has been slowly driving me insane. But let all that drift, because I figured something out, and it was to take a tiny detail alluded to a few times throughout the current draft and bring it back as an awesome but somehow perfectly obvious twist.

To celebrate I drank a whole bottle of High West Double Rye but I think I already told that story, so let’s let it drift.

After I woke up, went to the desert to dry out, and had a few starvation-induced hallucinations, I realized something: The only reason the twist came to mind or even worked at all was because I’d previously put in a couple of throwaway details. The thrill I experienced when I thought of a way to leverage those details into brilliance was pretty much the same thing I would have felt if I’d been reading a book and an author suddenly promoted what had seemed like an unnecessary detail to a plot point. In other words, I was writing like a reader.

Frankly, I think that’s important.

Here’s how it works, at least for me. In chapter one, I give a character a gewgaw for some color. Then I forget about it. Then in chapter 10 I realize I need that character to do something amazing and for that he needs an implement. And I realize with a thrill that I can just resurrect the gewgaw. I stand up, tear off my shirt, and scream IT’S BRILLIANT while the universe recreates the crane shot from The Shawshank Redemption. I could have given the character the gewgaw right then and there and retconned it into the story later, but because I used something I’d already added to the story and then forgot, I have the same experience (hopefully) that the reader will have.

It’s artificial, of course. I can do anything I want in my story – I can just make shit up any time I want! Yet when I have that moment when I’m just thrilled by a twist because it seems natural, it usually means I’m onto something. For a second there, I wasn’t a jaded, slightly inebriated writer trying to fool people into spending $8 on his books. I was part of the audience, and I was excited.

Of course, I’ve enjoyed some terrible films and novels in my time, so none of this means the story I’m working on is any good. It’s just the religious experience of occasionally shocking yourself with your own writing that gets me every time.

Delivery & Acceptance

By | July 18, 2013 | 1 Comments

NOTE: Found this on my hard drive last night. Not sure when I wrote it. Figured: Why not?

THE PHONE was ringing, and I was doing my best to ignore it. I was buried under cats, four of them sleeping in various positions on top of me, purring softly. Their weight was almost enough to trap me under the covers, and it was only through heroic efforts that I managed to free an arm and retrieve the receiver.

“Hello?”

“It’s Your Editor.”

My editor. A bolt of fear shot through me, and I sat upright, dislodging two cats who landed gracefully on the floor, yowling and giving me unhappy looks. I would pay for this rudeness later, I knew, but one threat at a time.

“Is this about [REDACTED]?”

“Yes.”

My latest book, delivered on time a few days before. Usually it took My Editor at least a week to get back to me with her comments and critique on the book, and dread bloomed inside me. “Uh, did you read it?”

“No. You better come down. We have to talk.”

The phone went dead.

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Categories: Bullshit, CHUM, Writing

To Create, You Must Destroy

By | July 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

“To create / You must destroy / Smash a glass and cry, “Too Much Joy!” – the most obscure lyrics from an obscure band in the history of ever.

green-eggs-and-crackOne of the few rules of writing that I not only can coherently form in my mind but actually follow goes something like this: A good story is where you spend the first half building a world and the second half destroying it. The exact percentages aren’t always the same. Just the act of completely tearing down everything you’ve created.

The worst thing in the world for a story is status quo. Once you establish a universe, a world, a Rube Goldberg Machine of your own imagination, the urge to protect it is pretty strong. You want to preserve it in amber because it’s good, other people think it’s good, and you did a fine job of building it, so why not.

But you have to destroy it all. Burn everything. The story only gets truly interesting when you start manufacturing Molotovs in the basement and hurling them at your beautiful story. That’s why, in the Avery Cates books I purposefully told the story of a world in decline and then finally in death throes. I enjoyed creating that world in the first book, and then really enjoyed destroying it in books 2-5. If you don’t destroy, you’re just treading water. And it gets boring.

You have to take away the powers you gave your hero. You have to destroy the bedrock of the society you’ve envisioned. You have to rain plague and defeat and horror down on everyone, kill your main characters, drop the bomb, and leave nothing behind.

One reason the TV show Mad Men is still considered one of the best shows on TV after 6 seasons is because Matt Weiner and company knows this. In each season of that show, he has violently changed the circumstances. In Season 1, Don Draper’s mysterious past is set up as this defining mystery – and then revealed, and no one cared. Over the course of the seasons Don’s marriage has broken up, his company was bought, he formed his own, he got married again, he lost his creative edge, he mismanaged things, he caused his brother to commit suicide, he got fired. Mad Men has been burning to the ground since about episode seven of Season One, which is about right. That was about the time the universe Weiner was working on was pretty much fleshed out for us.

A lesser show would still be trying to work that early-60s style angle. A lesser show would always end on a note of triumph as Don pulls another bit of brilliance out of the air. Instead, Don’s losing everything in slow motion, over and over again. And that’s why it’s interesting.

So, next time you’re stuck in a story and not sure why it’s dead on the page, ask yourself if it couldn’t benefit from a sudden wildfire that would leave behind nothing but bones and ash. Chances are, it would.

CHUM’s Cover

By | July 1, 2013 | 3 Comments
Designed by Frank Rivera

Chum by Jeff Somers

Here’s the Fab cover for my next novel, Chum, due out from Tyrus books on 9/18/13. Chum is a darkly comic novel about marriage, mayhem, and murder, told from multiple points of view and revisiting events from different POVs throughout the book.

When I first saw the cover I wasn’t sure what I thought, frankly – it seemed very stark and the roughness of the art on the bottles threw me. But then I got it, and realize how great this cover is.

It’s stark so it stand out as a thumbnail when people are scrolling on web sites or their phones.

It’s rough because the story is rough. The characters have jagged edges. The language is, er, salty (would you expect anything else from me?). There are literally – literally – no good people in the whole story. One or two people think they’re good, but they … aren’t.

And the off-center “U” in CHUM? Genius. It’s drunken and unpredictable.

So, my gratitude and respect to Frank Rivera who created this cover, and to Tyrus Books, for packaging my work so well. We’re gonna be good friends, I think.

 

And, without further comment:

Chum by Jeff Somers

The Inner Swine Volume 11, Issue 3, The Entire Issue

By | June 24, 2013 | 0 Comments
A few years ago I wanted to challenge myself a little with my zine project, so I decided that the next issue’s theme would be minutiae and then I decided that the issue would eschew formal articles and just be a stream-of-consciousness examination of the minutiae of my life. I think it kind of worked. So, here’s the entire issue of Volume 11, Issue 3 of The Inner Swine, which published in September, 2005. It’s about 25,000 words written by a guy I no longer am.

Minutiae. I am standing on the corner of 30th street and 7th avenue, desperate for coffee. I’m here just about every weekday, on my way to work, and I buy my coffee from a very pleasant Arabic man in a cart. I like his coffee, and he’s incredibly friendly. For the past ten years I have bought all my coffee from these sorts of carts in New York City, and the coffee is always good, the carts always owned by Arabic men, and these Arabic men are always very friendly. I’ve been in other cities that have no equivalent to the coffee cart on the street, places where you have to purchase your coffee from someplace horrible, like Starbucks, or Au Bon Pain or something. That’s not civilization. That’s corporate domination. What this country needs is more Arabic men selling cheap but delicious coffee out of metal carts.

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The Inner Swine Summer 2013

By | June 18, 2013 | 1 Comments

1912_coverSo, I still put out a little zine called The Inner Swine, although instead of printing out 1200 copies, stapling and folding them, and then spending a million dollars on postage in the hopes of getting two wrinkled dollar bills back in the mail five years later (the standard zine business model) it’s now only available as a Kindle or Nook book, with free PDFs one issue behind available on the web site.

The Summer 2013 issue is live on Amazon and B&N, yay! It’s about 30,000 words of rambling, cussing, and ridiculousness. It’s likely riddled with typos and the formatting is probably botched because I am lazy. It’s a dollar, people. Have at it!

KINDLE

NOOK

Categories: BAM!, The Inner Swine, Writing

Long Days Journey Into Published

By | May 12, 2013 | 9 Comments

Let me back up.

In 1997, I wrote a novel. After a lengthy period of writing in the SF/F genres exclusively (though I didn’t think of them as genres back then but just as Shit I Wanted to Read and Therefore Write About) I entered into a period I think of as my Faux Literary Period, where I thought I should be writing about Velly Important Stuff and eschewing things like robots and magic. So I started writing about a bunch of alcoholic losers who rob an office where one of them works, thinking it would change their lives. At first it was titled Lie Down in Our Graves after a Dave Mathews song I’ve never heard, because my titles always suck.

I renamed the novel Lifers and in 1999 started sending it out, and sold it, unagented, to a tiny publisher out in California. For money! A microscopic advance and a standard royalty rate. I figured I’d made it and began purchasing rare whiskies in bulk.

I wish I’d had an agent, however, as it was a terrible contract I was saved from only because the publisher went out of business in 2004. I will never know how many copies of Lifers sold back then since I never received any sort of statement from them. Lifers got reviewed in The New York Times Book Review and The Philadelphia Inquirer but that didn’t amount to much.

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BRING ON THE HELPER MONKEYS

By | April 4, 2013 | 6 Comments

This originally appeared in my zine The Inner Swine a few years ago.

BRING ON THE HELPER MONKEYS

How My Genius Novels Get Written

by Jeff Somers

FRIEND, do you have a book in you?

Note: Not literally. Or, OK, why not: Literally too.

If you’re one of the billions who does, indeed, have a story to tell but doesn’t know where to start, then this issue of The Inner Swine is for you. Because, you see, I myself have written several books. More than was probably wise, actually; if you consider how much time I’ve spent on them compared with how many I’ve sold and made money from, the resulting per-hour salary is depressing (homeless folks begging on the street make more per hour). Still, this isn’t an essay about selling a book, but rather about writing one.

Are you one of those folks who, when they’re introduced to a working writer at a party immediately tell them that you have a great idea for a book? Do you have a notebook filled with random notes for your “great American novel”? Do you work in an English Department, anywhere? Then this essay is for you, because I’m going to show you how easy it is to write a book. Easier than many other things, in fact. Hell, I’m writing a book right now, while I write this essay. It’s that easy.

An aside: I think everyone in the universe has a book in them, yes, but of course not everyone wants to write one, which is fine. I make no judgments. And some folks have self-help books or dictionaries in them, which again: no judgments, but you really should ask yourself two questions: Do I have a book in me, and should I actually write it?

You will almost certainly always discover the answer is: no.

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