Writing

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

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?

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

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…)

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

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.

(more…)

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

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?

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Time I Got Taken

You're right - I don't *have* any dignity.

You’re right – I don’t *have* any dignity.

Although my brand, as you all well know, is “Genius Alcoholic” (my justification for this branding is my expectation that just as my liver explodes and claws its way from my body in a death struggle, science will have advanced to the point where I can print a new liver at home and hire someone from the Internet to transplant it – or possibly have a new liver and a surgeon delivered via drone, either way), the fact is, I am sometimes surprisingly stupid. Like, amazingly, incredibly, bone-shatteringly stupid.

My agent just appeared in a blaze of purple fire, laughed manically while pointing at me for five seconds, and then vanished.

I’ve been freelance writing for a few years now, and have reached a point where every day isn’t a soul-killing hustle for work reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s crack-dance in Jungle Fever, except instead of crack, I am dancing for writing jobs. These days I am quite fancy in my freelancing (I’ve considered wearing a monocle and top hat while working, yes, why do you ask?) but in the early going, of course, I was willing to entertain a lot of dubious writing jobs. Not subject matter, which continues to be something I’m more or less neutral on (I have written about some very, very horrible things and cashed the checks without a single regret) but dubious rather in the sense of basically dealing with shadowy figures from across the globe who regard paying writers to be a crazy idea.

Which, I know, I just described everyone. The world hates us writers, doesn’t it?

Anyways, back in those dark days I responded to some seriously red-flag waving job postings in the early goings. Most were merely frustrating: People who didn’t know what they wanted, people who thought telling you to write like some famously successful blog was enough instruction to go on, people who had no sense of humor at all.

Most of the time it was fine: I’d write a few pieces and we’d mutually wander off to other things. Not every business relationship can be perfect, after all. But twice – twice! – I got rooked, because I agreed to do an unpaid trial.

The Scam

It’s obvious, really: Always get paid for your work. Always. But, a little nervous about doing freelance, about not having a job, about testing this theory of mine that the only thing I am good at without reservation is writing, I made some bad decisions. So when an otherwise great-sounding job came along that required me to write one, single 500-word article for no money so the employer could determine that I had the writing chops came along, I agreed.

You can see where this is going.

Nope, never got hired, never got paid, and when I (belatedly) looked into it, I was one among dozens of writers who got rooked into it. In other words, we all collectively provided this guy like 15,000 words for free. In other, other words, he got his whole project written for him by suckers like me.

You might think I learned my lesson, and I did, but not well enough: A few weeks later I fell for it again. I initially turned down the job because of the free trial bullshit – but then the person came back and defended it, saying it was just a very short piece and they simply had to require it, and again it was otherwise so attractive (aren’t scams always?) I gave in. After all, I thought, if it was just a scam why would they bother emailing me? So I wrote about 300 words, and yup, never heard from anyone again.

So, now I’ve really learned my lesson. Really, really. Now, in the grand scheme of things I lost maybe $50 of my time, so it’s not like I’m going to scream KKKKHHHAAANNNNNN at the sky and rip off my shirt (ripping off shirts is super hard, anyway). But it does burn me that I got played. And reminds us all that we writers, we’re at the bottom of the ant hill, and we get kicked around a bit. But you know what? Your time is worth something, and you get to decide what that is. Everyone else then gets to decide if they agree, and pay for your services or not depending on that. It really is that simple.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Phillip K. Marks

69448_7155Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.

So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.

BUY ME

BUY ME

In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.

I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).

Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.

At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.

In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Prompting the Question

Just a story.

Just a story.

So, as noted in this great review from Matt Handle, many people are assuming/hoping that the new Avery Cates story The Shattered Gears is a teaser for a new Cates novel. I’ve had a lot of emails along those lines, asking if this is leading to something and if I have a clear storyline for a new Cates book, and whether The Shattered Gears is part of that.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, I have a very clear idea of what Cates gets up to and a lot of notes for a new novel. And yes, The Shattered Gears is directly connected, so it’s canon, baby. In fact, Gears started off as a way of organizing some thoughts for a new Cates book. But no, I have no plans to write that book right now. It will remain just a collection of ideas for now.

The same goes for We Are Not Good People and the Ustari universe. Do I have ideas for another novel or fifteen with Lem and Mags? Sure! Am I working on them right now? No! Reasons include:

  • It’s the holidays and I am incapacitated by drink more or less continuously
  • No one has paid me an enormous amount of money to write those novels (yet)
  • My work writing and composing the world’s worst rock songs in my home office takes too much of my time
  • I’m far too busy perfecting my Irish accent
  • I’m actually in the middle of writing a novel now that not only has nothing to do with Cates or Lem Vonnegan, it has nothing to do with cyborgs or magic at all.

Anyways, I’m delighted people seem to enjoy The Shattered Gears so much. If it sells well I might make releasing Cates stories a more or less regular event, though not all of those potential stories would be directly related to a new storyline, some might be flashbacks. Who knows? It might be fun.

Anyways, you know the best way to guarantee sequels? Buy the existing books and then emotionally manipulate everyone you know to follow suit.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Short Story Report

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plus
loading