Writing

The Lazy Writer’s Problem: Wikipedia

Tell you what ... you do it.

Tell you what … you do it.

The conundrum is classic: They tell you, as a young writer, that you should always “write what you know.” The idea is sound enough: If you stick to things you know something about from personal experience — be it people to base characters on, or outlandish stories that actually happened, or the infinite details of a trade or hobby — then your writing will always ring true. It was shimmer with that special realistic gravity that sucks people in.

There are limitations, of course. Say you’re halfway through your novel and the plot problems would be solved if someone, say, joined the army. Great! Except you’ve never joined the army. In fact, uniforms, exercise, and weapons — the three main ingredients of military service, peppered with humiliation, violence, and busy work — are so not your thing. You wind up facing the horror that Lazy Writers everywhere fear most: Research.

The Bad Old Days

Of course, in the Bad Old Days, research generally meant either hitting the books at a library or actually doing the thing you needed research on. The former, while affordable and possible no matter your circumstances, was often deadly dull. The latter was only possible if you were a Gentry Writer living off the fumes of a trust fund or something — the rest of us, proles all, were forced to work Day Jobs and do our research on the margins.

Ah, but then the Internet! Suddenly, Lazy Writers like me could just look stuff up. Need to know what a street looks like in a small town in France? Try Google Street View. Everything is out there if you dig hard enough, and you don’t have to put on pants and walk out into the sunlight to the library, or book a flight to France just to snap some photos.

The Bad Old Now

However, disaster looms for we Lazy Writers, because, as usual, Trolls are ruining everything. Wikipedia has always been a dubious place to do real research — you would never have used Wikipedia as the basis for anything serious. Novel research, however — why not. After all, 90% of a novel is made up anyway. Wikipedia was filled with misinformation and politically-motivated edits, yes, but for quick, basic stuff you could at least use it as a starting point.

No more; the Trolls have ruined it. A decline in working editors, an ever-expanding and torturous set of rules in an increasingly insulated Wikipedia, and a growing amount of bullshit going uncaught in the online encyclopedia has put the nail in it: If you want to be a Lazy Writer, you’re screwed.

Worse, a recent experiment found that small errors purposefully introduced to Wikipedia lingered for very long periods of time, meaning that your chances of picking up a detail you think makes you sound smart will actually make you sound incredibly stupid. This, of course, is the fear of the Lazy Writer.

So what does it all leave us with? A lot of novels about being sad, mildly-employed alcoholics, because now all of us Lazy Writers have to Write What We Know.

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The Art of Rejection Part Deux

Here we are in the second installment of essays about rejection letters I’ve received, because it’s educational and also because this blog is a hungry time-devouring beast that demands content, content, more and more content! until I lay awake at night wondering how in the world I will attract eyeballs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until sleep is a distant memory.

Also, going back through these rejection letters has been eye-opening. First of all, I don’t recall being this industrious. I’m typically a lazy, lazy man. Secondly, I don’t recall being this hilarious.

Back in the Day I bought a Writer’s Market and read all the advice within and then promptly ignored it all and wrote these sloppy, funny, shaggy-dog type query letters based on the theory that I didn’t want to work with an agent or editor who didn’t “get” me or my sense of humor. This has proven to be excellent advice from my younger self, which is an unusual condition as my younger self’s advice is typically horseshit along the lines of “Sleep more” or “Dude!” – that’s it, just the word dude.

Anyways, here’s a query letter I sent out to a small publisher in early 1997, which was sent back to me with the handwritten notes on it, requesting the manuscript, and then my follow-up letter delivering the manuscript and the handwritten notes rejecting the book. I thought I’d share these because the query letter is a disaster in many ways, and yet it got a request for a full solely because I amused everyone in the room – in fact, I have another rejection somewhere that tells me flat out they would publish the query letter but not the book.

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

reject_97_Page_2

My God You Want to See the Book

The book itself was title Shadow Born (yes, yes, I know – my titles are awful and everyone knows this) and is one I still quite like, actually, although it is definitely juvenilia. It’s set at a college party where something terrible happens, is told from various POVs and employs some minor experimental things (experimental for me, not, you know, literature itself). The bit about my brother’s feedback is true. When he read the MS he complained that the final chapter, which was the MC ranting in a stream-of-consciousness way, should be titled “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” because of its pomposity, so I promptly re-titled the chapter “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” in a fit of pique. BURN.

Anyways, I had a lot of success getting responses from agents and editor by sending humorous, self-deprecating queries. I also had a lot of blank, form, and slightly negative responses to this tactic, so Your Mileage May Vary.

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Being Charged for Submissions

I have cats to feed, you know.

I have cats to feed, you know.

The other day, writer Nick Mamatas mentioned pulling a story submission from a magazine because the magazine had instituted submissions fees (see the Storify here: https://storify.com/NMamatas/against-submission-fees). As it happens, I’d spent the day before seeking markets to submit stories in my typically semi-incompetent, shaggy dog kind of way, and I’d gotten frustrated after hitting three markets in a row that required submission fees of $2-$4 or thereabouts. It’s not a lot of money, maybe, but I didn’t submit to those magazines, because I agree with Nick: Submission fees are exploitive, and demonstrate that the market in question doesn’t value writers very highly.

It comes down to this: My work has value. The essential belief involved in fiction markets is that people (readers) will pay magazines and publishers money to read the things we write. If a magazine charges readers for the privilege of reading my genius, they should pay me for the right to publish it. If no one pays the magazine, that’s not my fault or my problem. They’re free to stop buying my work if I’m not bringing in eyeballs.

And I am free to not submit to markets that charge a submission fee, so what’s the problem? Well, I know that a few decades ago when I was just getting my legs under me, I might have paid some submission fees, because I was dimwitted and desperate for some professional street cred. And $2, even in those ancient days, was low enough that I could have considered it the cost of doing business. And all that would likely mean today is that I would have spent $500 on submission fees and likely not sold a damn thing, because the stories I was submitting weren’t all that great.

Being inundated with awful slush from idiots like me isn’t a good reason for submission fees, either. As Nick points out somewhere in there, a) reading slush is the price you pay for accepting submissions, b) there are ways to throttle down submissions if you’re being crushed by crappy subs (most easily, reading periods or very tight guidelines) and c) fees won’t stop the awful, it just monetizes it.

Money should flow to the writer, because we created the shit you want to read. It’s that simple. Yes, publishers get a cut for providing infrastructure. Others might get a cut for facilitating or assisting, who knows. But writers shouldn’t pay to play, period. As Nick points out, everyone else associated with getting a magazine out to its readers gets paid – why shouldn’t writers? And if people choose to volunteer for a magazine out of love for words, that’s great, but has nothing to do with submission fees.

Now if someone wants to talk to me about paying me for my submissions, I am open to that conversation. I’ve got a lot of stories, people. A lot of stories.

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Rejection Letters, I’ve Had a Few

SO, every weekend I sit here hungover and desiccated and try to think of something to write about on this blog that will make me feel like a Real Writer, entertain y’all, and possibly win me some sort of obscure blog award (do they still do that?). So I try to think about my few skills, which is always depressing. Aside from the ability to drink heavily (right up until the moment I lose that ability) and a certain skill in manipulating remote controls, I have disturbingly few talents. Oh, sure, the whole writing thing. So let’s amend that sentence to read “disturbingly few remunerative talents.”

And then it hit me: I do have one skill: The ability to collect rejection letters. I sent out my first fiction submission when I was 11 years old, and since then I’ve collected tons. Tons! of rejections.

These days they are largely electronic, of course, but I am so old I actually have a stack of rejection letters that I keep like the proverbial slave whispering in Caesar’s ear during the Triumph. So I thought, let’s examine some of these. It can be fun to humiliate yourself by exploring your failures. We’re starting off with this gem from the late 1980s.

WHAT'S MY NAME, BAEN?

WHAT’S MY NAME, BAEN?

SO: Cravenhold was an awful fantasy novel I wrote when I was about 14. It was inspired a bit by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I took from that series the idea of a person from our universe being transported to a fantasy universe where he had immense power but very little understanding of it or how it worked.

It’s not good. Still, because at the age of 14 I hadn’t yet realized that “good” is generally a requirement for manuscripts, I submitted it. Also, I had no idea that different publishing companies had different styles or flavors, and Baen was almost certainly not a good fit for my work.

Now, back in those days submitting a manuscript was a damn job, kids. I had to photocopy 360 pages of typewritten work, smeared with white-out (or, more accurately, pester my father to bring it into work and photocopy it for me) then type out a cover letter where I bragged about being 14, then stuff it with an SASE into a manilla envelope, then take it to the post office.

So, you can imagine my adolescent outrage when they sent back a flimsy form letter without even bothering to make a note of any kind to indicate that my manuscript was not immediately fed into a machine that turns manuscripts into dark black cubes that are then used to build more machines that in turn transform manuscripts into dark black cubes, and so on. Today, of course, I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued when Baen received a novel from a bragging 14-year old that contained as much awful writing and borrowed ideas as Cravenhold, and so I now think I got off easy.

The form letter rejection, of course, lives on, and I’ll admit that even today I am more surprised when places I submit (on my own, typically magazines) don’t use a form rejection, because I totally believe the line about how they have so many stories competing for attention, yada yada. So when I get a “Dear Jeff” and a line about the story itself, I am generally made very happy.

I’ll be posting more exciting moments of Fail from my literary life as we go. Because all y’all seem to really enjoy it when I fail. <bursts into tears>

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Forever Twelve

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

ANYONE who knows me knows I have a distinct inability to comprehend that the universe evolves and changes around me. This is most evident in my attitude towards the prices of things: To me, everything should still cost as much as it did in 1980, and when I’m confronted with $3 coffees I am outraged, convinced I am being screwed. You don’t even want to know my reaction to discovering that a modest new car can cost as much as $15,000. My first car, the much mourned Laverne the 1978 Chevrolet Nova, cost me $1.

A moment of silence, please, for Laverne, best car ever.

Another aspect of this can be identified in my artistic identity, to an extent: As a writer I’m often still that 12-year old who feels ridiculously grateful when anyone bothers to read my work, much less actually pay me for it. When presented with offers and deals for publication or something else, I am a terrible negotiator because at some level I’m still that kid, and I think I should be happy just for the attention. On phone calls with people who want to do something with my work, I’m breathless, nervous, and supremely uncomfortable with the idea of insisting on getting paid. It’s not because commerce defiles art (Ha!) but rather because I immediately regress to that 12-year old kid who made his own book covers out of construction paper.

If Amazon-style self-publishing had existed in 1983, my friends, the world would be littered with my juvenelia (complete with my own cover art) and I would have earned about $50 in the ensuing 32 years. There would be regrets.

Kids: This is why you want an agent. This. Because if you’re like me, you need someone who will laugh in the face of piss-poor offers and fight tooth and nail for every right and every sub-right. If I were doing this on my own no doubt I’d actually owe publishers money simply because they half-heartedly published my work.

Now, writers do tend to be at the bottom of any entertainment budget, it’s true. Films that have budgets in the hundreds of millions will be paying a novel author a few hundred thousand for the source material. That’s a lot of money, but when you contextualize it, it’s a tiny percentage of the total. But of course, nothing happens unless a writer first creates a story and characters, does it? Slowly, I’ve come to realize that giving away work for free doesn’t make sense – it takes me time and energy to write this stuff, it will make someone else some money when they publish it or adapt it, so I should absolutely always get paid. It’s taken me decades, but I’ve come to own that.Still, put me in a meeting or a conversation about getting paid for some writing, and I’m instantly twelve years old again, demanding that a new pair of sneakers cost $10 and shocked to the core that books cost more than the $3 they cost in 1983 – and somehow conflating my writing career with the chores I did at the old Somers homestead in exchange for a $10 weekly allowance.

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Draftback: Burn After Writing

Let's edit.

Let’s edit.

So, the Somers How Close Are We to True Dystopia (SHCAWTTD, pronounced SHWATTED) Scale has basically been at two minutes to midnight since the Internet came to be, and inched just slightly closer to Kaboom Time with the invention of Draftback, which allows you, essentially, to record yourself while working in Google Docs. In theory, this means you could spend two years working on a novel in Google Docs and then you – or someone else – could watch the whole slog, complete with every typo, deleted chapter, and occasional Freudian Slip where you insert your mother’s name into a squicky sex scene or something.

On the one hand, I can see where something like that might be fascinating to readers. Imagine being able to see James Joyce write Ulysses word by word (possibly fast-forwarded just a tad, and maybe with some judicious editing to compress time a little). The insights you’d get! Assuming you could stay awake/stay alive long enough, of course.

For a writer, or at least for this writer, this is a horrible thing. It’s like that episode of Black Mirror where everyone records their entire lives: Horror. The last thing I want anyone to know is how awful my initial ideas are – or, sometimes, how little I actually edit (revising is for nerds). Although, naturally, I doubt anyone will ever be sufficiently interested in little old me to want to view my writing process that closely – but still, it’s a thought akin to dying suddenly without being able to contact your Porn Buddy to instruct them to destroy your collection before your family finds out you took that Brony thing waayyyyy too seriously.

Plus, knowing that your early drafting and revision might be viewed by people someday would, of course, have an affect on your writing. And probably not a good one.

Intent

There’s a time in a writer’s life when they don’t seriously expect anything they create to be published. It’s usually when you’re younger; if you stick to it and do the work, chances are you’ll get published somewhere, somehow. Maybe not as often, or as widely, or as lucratively as you’d like – but still, published. But when you’re still starting out, that can seem very, very far off. So a lot of the writing you do is private, in a sense – you don’t expect anyone to ever see it.

And of course that gives you a lot of freedom, because if you doubt anyone will see it, why not experiment? Have your characters say and do awful things beyond the pale? Be incomprehensible, maudlin, sentimental, savage – make your main character a Sue of yourself and delight as they do everything right, cut down their enemies with devastatingly precise bon mots – go crazy. Why not? If it turns out to be half-decent you can revise it into something civilized. If it remains half-assed and embarrassing, you can have a private ceremony and burn it in the bathroom. Or add it to the Brony porn stash and set up a Dead Man’s switch that will alert your Porn Buddy. Either way.

But if you knew everything you wrote – literally, every single key you hit with your pudgy little fingers – was being recorded and might be viewed someday (say, at the inevitable depositions you’ll be mired in after your criminal schemes go awry), you’d do it differently. You’d pause longer between words. You’d think ahead a bit more, maybe even cheat and scribble out your first drafts in a burn-after-writing notebook. It would change everything, and not for the better, because you only know something’s worth reviewing in Draftback when it’s finished.

Now that we’ve got that settled, on to more important questions: Who wants to be my Porn Buddy?

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Frank

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

NOTE: The illustration included here was created by Ryan Gajda (http://www.sundaydogparade.com) and I neglected to credit him.

If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.

(more…)

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Professional Reading Vs. Reading for Pleasure

Eventually I'll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

Eventually I’ll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

As most everyone knows a few years ago I embarked on a fabulous adventure known as Jeff Lost His Day Job and Thinks He Can Earn Money by Freelance Writing, which so far has had a more or less happy ending (though, of course, none of us are getting out of this existence alive, so “happy ending” is relative – and transient, and therefore not an ending at all, is it?) in that I am in fact making a living writing things for people, both in terms of fiction and bloggy stuff done work for hire.

A lot of the bloggy stuff involves books; either reviews or listicles or round-ups and stuff. Plus, my publisher occasionally asks me to blurb something. The end result? A lot of “professional” reading, you know, reading books I might not otherwise get to. This is usually not because I’m not interested in reading said books, but more a matter of time management: I’ve only got so many years before the liver goes and the dementia starts (or, possibly, worsens; you have to always ask yourself every morning if you’re existing in a self-imposed fantasy driven by delerium tremens and bad burrito choices).

There are pros and cons to all this “professional” reading:

PROS

  • I’m reading outside my usual comfort zone.
  • I’m reading a lot more, overall.
  • I’m reading with more of a critical eye; even when not reviewing books, I’m usually trying to think of an “angle” to write about, and therefore not simply enjoying myself as I read.

CONS

  • I’m reading fast, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does mean I’m not just luxuriating in a good book.
  • It interrupts my pleasure reading, meaning I’ve been reading certain books so slowly it’s going backwards.
  • I’ve read some really awful books I was totally right to not want to read in the first place, and these abominations will be part of my brain forever now.

This is a very First World type of problem to have (my god they’re paying me to read too many books! oh wait, that’s not a fucking problem at all NEVER MIND) but it’s such a mix of good and bad it’s hard to keep everything straight, to be honest. When your bathroom book changes every time you go to the bathroom in a vain attempt to meet deadlines, your life becomes a whirlwind of toilets and words.

Actually, that’s the new title of my autobiography: A WHIRLWIND OF TOILETS; subtitle, small print: and words.

And in-between all of this I’m trying to write the next novel some sucker hero will pay me. In the long run, I fully expect all this anti-comfort zone reading I’m doing to have a beneficial effect on my writing as it opens up all new things to steal, er, reinterpret for my prose. Time will tell. Until then, it’s back to my whirlwind of toilets.

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Literary Devices: Booze

Lunch!

Lunch!

In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).

I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).

Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.

Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.

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Let’s Cut Out the Middle Man: Send Me $100

Stock photography gives us everything.

Stock photography gives us everything.

So, increasingly it’s popular for writers who have, shall we say, less than great book sales (hi there!) to go begging for pennies on sites like Kickstarter or Patreon. This isn’t a bad idea, as we’re basically already beggars when it comes to our book contracts:

Writer: I am hungry and my wife just left me for a homeless man to improve her lifestyle. Here’s a book I spent six years writing.

Publisher: I’ll give you six dollars and a vague promise of a sandwich sometime next week.

Writer: SOLD.

Publisher: Now, I never said *American* dollars.

Writer: <stuffs bills into mouth and eats them>

And: scene.

Now, naturally enough if I were to go the Kickstarter or Patreon route, I’d no doubt take in some very dark, very unfortunate directions. Because, if you think about it, these sorts of arrangements are already kind of weird. Take Patreon: You offer me $5 a month and I offer you some flash fiction. Sounds innocent enough, except it has the ring of an organ grinder and me in a cute little monkey-appropriate outfit. My flash fictions would almost certainly become epic exercises in passive aggression, ending, no doubt, in the sort of murder/suicide pact that future writers will turn into Pulitzer-winning True Crime novels.

Plus, I would likely just get lazier and lazier, ultimately creating $1 support tiers where you’d get an angry, drunken voicemail in the middle of the night, and one-penny support tiers where you’d get a voicemail in the middle of the night that was just me weeping inconsolably.

And Kickstarter would start off fine and dandy, but there are two scenarios I’m seeing: One where no one donates, and I wind up being cited on comedy websites as how not to do a kickstarter, and one where I am fully funded and manage to blow all of the money in one weekend via an increasingly unlikely series of coincidences involving liquor and an impaired ability to make decisions. Either way: Tears.

Plus, to be honest, all these alternative ways of raising money are a lot of work. If I wanted to work for a living I wouldn’t be a writer. I wouldn’t have these delicate, soft hands and this fragile, glass-like lower back. I wouldn’t have this debilitating fear of other people, leprechauns, and sweat.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Y’all send me $100 each and I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Deal?

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