Archive for Writing

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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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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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.

Presenting @ The 2014 Writer’s Digest Conference

By | May 7, 2014 | 2 Comments

WDC_2014So, this has happened:

I’ve been invited to be a presenter at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (www.writersdigestconference.com). I was told that, remarkably, if I didn’t live in the NYC area they would have paid for my travel and hotel but since I do they will pay for nothing. Which kind of encapsulates my publishing career to date, actually.

I will be making the following presentation:

Title: Take Off Your Pants and Write! The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pantsing vs. Plotting a Novel

Date: Saturday, August 2, 2014, 2:40PM — 3:30PM

More Info: http://www.writersdigestconference.com/ehome/83905/schedule/?&&

Naturally, you have questions. I have answers:

1. Why in god’s name does anyone think you should be impressing impressionable young writers?

Because I’ve published eight novels with number nine on the way and over thirty short stories. Also: I’m a damn fine good looking man and the world benefits when I appear in public.

2. What kind of wisdom will you be imparting?

As the title hints, it will all be pants-related. Also, a little bit about plotting your novels. But mainly pants stuff.

3. Will you bring a bottle of Scotch and pour everyone in the room a drink as you famously did at your Bouchercon presentation in 2010?

No, I learned my lesson from that debacle. A drunk audience is not better than a sober one. They are worse. So much worse.

SO! There you have it. I will be imparting my noveling wisdom to those in need. Or at least those who have not yet found better, smarter, younger mentors.

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

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