Writing

A Million Ways to Fail

How I Feel Most Saturday Mornings.

How I Feel Most Saturday Mornings.

One of the most awesome things about writing has to be the almost infinite chances it offers you to fail.

Even if we stick to the slim piece of reality that mortal minds can comprehend, we have quite a list:

  1. First, you can fail to even start writing that idea you have. It’s a nice, clean failure, but a failure nonetheless.
  2. Then, of course, you can fail to finish it. I estimate I’ve failed in this manner about 5,000 times. That’s a conservative estimate.
  3. Or you can finish it and then fail to do anything with the raw material.
  4. You can fail to heed feedback, advice, or proofreading marks.
  5. You can fail to show it around or submit it or make any other attempt to sell the piece or at least have it be read.
  6. You can submit it, and fail to sell it. And fail and fail and fail to sell it.
  7. You can sell it, and then fail to, you know, sell it.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. And the glorious future world we find ourselves in offers even more ways to fail, in terms of promotion and social media. So now you can not only fail to write something, or fail to finish something, or fail to sell it, but you can also fail to be interesting or clever enough on Twitter. The failure involved in writing just one novel is monumental.

And you wonder why writers drink and talk to cats. Well, why they drink more and talk back to cats, anyway.

The worst part, of course, is that most of the time this kind of failure is necessary in order to write anything and then get it out there. In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books, he has a thing about people learning to fly in which he describes it as throwing yourself at the ground, then distracting yourself at the very last possible moment so that you forget to hit it. And that’s writing, sometimes, most times: Throwing yourself at a mountain of failure and then, somehow, distracting yourself from hitting it at the last possible moment and sailing over.

And how do I distract myself from Mount Failure? You guessed it: Whiskey. And cats.

BOOM

BOOM

BOOK FORT FTW

BOOK FORT FTW

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My First Sale

SEVEN DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS WORTH OF PUDDING

SEVEN DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS WORTH OF PUDDING

The first short story I ever sold for actual money was Glad and Big, which appeared in Aberrations #34. The sale paid me the princely sum of 1/4 of a penny per word, which worked out to $7.50. That would be nearly twelve dollars in 2016 money, just in case you’re horrified that a writer of my caliber would sell a short story for single-digit monies.

At the time, of course, I was absolutely delighted. I’d had stories appear in zines and other non-paying markets, but this was the first time anyone had actually paid me for one, and naturally I thought of it (and still think of it) as a watershed moment in my career.

I never cashed the check. Part of this was the usual urge to hang onto a momentous thing like my first paycheck for fiction, and yes, part of it was the fact that even in 1995 $7.50 didn’t go far, so it almost wasn’t worth walking to the bank to cash it. Besides, if I’d deposited it, I wouldn’t have it to scan in and post here, now, would I?

Anyways, here’s the story itself. Written more than 20 years ago, I still like it quite a bit.

GLAD AND BIG

Life at Lee’s on second street had a pattern, one I liked well enough. It sucked at my heels with insistent attraction, pulling me back despite the heat and the same old people and the wooden seat worn smooth from years of my weight.

We usually played cards at the small square table in the big bay window, eating Lee’s filling specialties and drinking, smoking cigarettes, and ignoring everyone else. Sometimes I tried to stay away. It never worked. I always needed a drink and the only place to get one was Lee’s and my seat was always open.

That night it was raining and I felt pretty good. The conversation wasn’t too bad and it was warm inside, I was half-tanked all night and I had three packs of cigarettes to get through. Even in a crummy bar and grill like Lee’s, being inside with friends on a rainy night is a special kind of thing. Even being inside with people who drove you crazy like I was was still not bad.

(more…)

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For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

The Good Old Days.

The Good Old Days.

Writing Short Stories is Crazy

I wrote my first short story when I was about 15 years old—that is to say, the first story I consciously set out in the form of a short story. Ridiculously enough, I wrote it solely to join my high school’s literary magazine, one of my most shameful moments. I mean, seriously. The fucking literary magazine. I can now safely say that this is perilously close to being my worst decision ever, right up there with gaining twenty pounds when I was thirteen and getting an English degree instead of something useful, like contacts in Russian organized crime.

The story was titled Bricks. I still have it. In about 1,000 words I tell the story of a family in the future where everyone lives underground because of a plague, and their son’s decision to leave home and go topside. It ends with the son wondering what will happen to him as he takes his first breath of fresh air on the surface.

Oh, it’s not good. It’s derivative, but it’s derivative in that special way you get away with when you’re fifteen and not named Mozart: People are so impressed that you wrote something that superficially resembles a real story they forgive all sorts of shit. I wrote it on a Commodore 64 in an application called Kwik-Writer I got from some friends; my friends and I were running a serious underground software piracy operation in grammar school, and I had thousands of stolen applications, and Kwik Writer was one of them. It was kind of awesome and terrible at the same time, which basically describes almost all of the applications available for the Commodore 64.

Since then, I’ve written about 500 more short stories. Bully for me. Getting them published isn’t easy, though there are more difficult projects in the world (self-surgery, perhaps, or tunneling under your house to the nearest mountain range) but the real challenge, as anyone will tell you, is getting paid for them. So why write them? Because I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. And, to be honest, selling them when I can—and I’ve sold quite a few over the years, with a few more on the way.

I write a lot of them, and since the chances of ever selling one are slim, it’s kind of a crazy waste of time. Plus, let’s be honest here, 99% of every short story ever written deserves to stay right in the notebook it was scrawled into, because most of them are terrible, and as luck would have it that goes twice for mine. Even the ones that I think are not terrible aren’t easy to sell; I recently had a story rejected very reluctantly by one market, which sent me a very sad note all about how great the story was and how distressed they were to not be buying it. I immediately submitted the story elsewhere in a frenzy of optimism—after all, this was obviously one of my better efforts.

The next market rejected it within 18 hours.

Writing and trying to sell short fiction sucks. Still, I write a lot of it.

Part of it is an exercise. You get some crazy ideas for stories after a few drinks, and while most of them are awful, some of them ain’t bad, but if you don’t put some flesh on them they disappear. So to keep them alive, I write them, even though most are pretty stillborn.

So, let’s see: Failure and no market, obviously these are fantastic ways to spend my time and mental energy. Then again, I’m an author; futility is what I eat for breakfast.

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Writer’s Digest Annual Conference Appearance

Writer's Digest Annual Conference

Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

So, I’ll be participating in this year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. This will be my third year in a row at this event, and I’m pretty jazzed.

Unlike the last two years where I presented my patented Take Off Your Pants and Write: Plantsing! seminar, this year I’m just popping in for the cocktail hour and a panel:

The Art (and Science) of Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy

With Debbie Dadey, Elizabeth Bear, and Matthew Kressel

Sunday, August 14, 10:15am — 11:15am

New York Hilton Midtown
1335 6th Ave
New York, NY 10019

If you’re planning to attend, shoot me a note and buy me a drink, not necessarily in that order.

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Weekly Recap 7-22-16

recap Here we are at Friday again. This keeps happening. Luckily for you, I am a driven man who continuously puts out new writings just for your entertainment.

On the Wee Blog
I wrote a few articles on this here wee blog because that’s what you do when you have a wee blog:

1. “Man Baby” in which I discuss that peculiar feeling when you’re a middle-aged man and your wife doesn’t think you can dress yourself.

2. “The Most Interesting Scene in Mr. Robot S2E1” in which I discuss one scene from the season premiere of the USA show.

ON Other Wee Blogs
I get paid to write for other people for whom writing is a mysterious, dark art. Here’s a few things that published this week:

1. “The Art of the Deal: Bestselling Ghostwritten Books” in which I discuss some bestselling books that were totally not written by the people on the cover.

2. “5 Writers Who Shouldn’t Have Survived to Write Their Classics” in which I discuss a few great writers whose lifestyle choices should have killed them long before they wrote anything.

Writer’s Digest
I have been steadily contributing to Writer’s Digest for the past year, and they recently released a few things including some of my work:

1. Their Yearbook issue on Novel Writing, which includes my piece on Plantsing.

2. “There are No Rules: 4 Tips to Improve Your Writing Instantly” which includes some of my wisdom.

The Ustari Cycle
Stringer.jpgMy novel “We Are Not Good People” is still $1.99 in eBook form, kids, and the next one in the series, “The Stringer” is out in August. So my publisher is pushin’ things:

1. $1.99 still too much for you? You could win a copy of WANGP!

2. BookReels named WANGP as their staff pick as well!

 

Photos
What would these updates be without some multimedia dazzle?

WANGP Super Fan is either at Target buying groceries or about to do some murderin'

WANGP Super Fan is either at Target buying groceries or about to do some murderin’

Spartacus spent all his allowance on a copy of WANGP and now needs liquor monies.

Spartacus spent all his allowance on a copy of WANGP and now needs liquor monies.

Well, that’s it for this week. Hopefully next week I’ll have more stuff for you to completely ignore and make me cry over.

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Authoring is Hard Work

Cats Ate My DeskIn 2002, a year in which otherwise almost nothing I can remember happened, the New York Times reported that “a recent survey” confirmed the worst fears of many Americans: 81% of the country thought they could write and publish a book. Eighty-one percent. Considering there are about 319 million people in the U.S.A. alone, that means about 258 million people figure that someday when they have some spare time they’ll bang out a novel. Or, more accurately, they’ll go find a writer friend they know, drunkenly explain the story idea with helpful doodles on cocktail napkins as visual aids, and then let that writer friend write and publish the book while splitting the profits 70/30.

At first blush, the 81% number seems high, especially when you consider that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts just 129,100 authors and writers in the country as of 2012. Although, when combined with the explosion of self-publishing in recent years, that seems like a dubious number too, especially when you learn that the Bureau also claims the median income for authors and writers is $56,000 a year when most writers are constantly Googling “how to boil shoes for dinner” or “how long can I eat nothing but Ramen before getting scurvy”—although to be fair when you include people like James Patterson or Stephen King or E.L. James in the calculations, that median is going to shoot up quickly.

However, when you think about how many people participate in things like NaNoWriMo every year (more than 300,000 according to the website) and how many people are publishing novels—more than 750,000 traditionally and self-published books annually in the United States alone—it starts to seem like that 81% number might make sense after all.

In reality what this means is that an enormous number of people think they can write and sell a book, but less than 25% of them actually do, one way or another. That’s a big gap, even if we remove those helpful folks who are always offering up brilliant ideas for novels and seeking to split profits and restrict ourselves solely to people who would, you know, actually be willing to write a book. As an author myself, there’s only one explanation for the this discrepancy that makes sense: writing a novel is hella hard. Selling a novel is even harder. Black magic may be involved.

(more…)

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Admitting Defeat

Dear Mr. Manuscript: BURN IN HELL

Dear Mr. Manuscript: BURN IN HELL

SO, a few months ago I had an idea for a novel. It was a little outside my usual light cone, so it was a little scary. But sometimes the best thing to do when you’re not certain about an idea is to steer into it and see what happens, so I leaped in. 80,000 words later I had something that resembled a novel, and “resembles a novel” is the best I can ever hope for, honestly.

I was meeting with my agent, the also-frightening Janet Reid, doing a check-in kind of thing and I mentioned I might have a new novel for her to read. She asked for the elevator pitch, and I started laying out the premise, when she interrupted me.

“I love that,” she said, “as long as the next words out of your mouth aren’t X, X, or X.”

(Note that “X” here represent tropes, concepts, or buzzwords).

“Well,” I said, abashed. “Actually, it is X, X, and X.”

Janet attempted and failed to appear cheerful. “Well, who knows! Maybe you pulled it off.”

Being informed that your big idea isn’t nearly as original as you thought isn’t uncommon, and being blithely unaware that your big idea has been done to death isn’t uncommon, either, at least for me. I’m full of myself enough to ignore such advice when it suits me, however, so I decided that the way I’d approached the concepts set my novel apart. I polished it and sent a draft to my wife The Duchess for a read-through, as she is uncommonly smart.

A few days later, The Duchess reported on progress. “I’m halfway through, and I was really, really loving it until the end of Part I. Then I read the next chapter and it was X, X, and X, and you know I hate X, X, and X!”

So, friends, at this point as a writer who is at least trying to appear professional, you have three choices: One, assume everyone else is crazy and just barrel ahead with your lame novel; two, put it in a drawer and forget all about it, along with the dozens of other set-aside lame novels; or, three, accept that your original idea wasn’t so great and come up with something better. I went and had a whiskey and thought about it, and almost immediately thought of something better. I’ll have to rip out 40,000 words and start in the middle from scratch, but damn it’s a better idea. Much better than X, X, and X, anyway.

None of this means it’ll sell. It may yet wind up in that Drawer of Dead Novels. But at least for once I didn’t just put my head down like Juggernaut, because I have a tendency to ignore good advice. Even when it’s repeated several times, from different people. There’s still no guarantee that this novel will be successful, or sell, but at least it will be better.

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The Ones that Get Away

shoplifters-beware-1444139-1279x862Every now and then someone makes a terrible mistake and assumes that because I have published a few novels and stories and such that I know something about publishing and writing. I don’t. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing, and generally go through life feeling like a confused and slightly dimwitted teenager.

One question that comes up relatively frequently concerns protecting your ideas. A lot of people seem to think that Idea Thieves are hanging around all the coffee shops and bars, soaking up any stray novel idea you slur out and rushing off to write that sucker themselves, cashing in for the millions of dubloons that should rightfully be yours. And I have to burst their bubble by telling them that this only happens after your idea starts generating those millions, and even then only very, very rarely. In general no one steals ideas, and any sleep you lose over it is likely misplaced, because there are literally no new ideas anyway.

Case in point: Designated Survivor.

(more…)

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The Writing Bona Fides: Software

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

I’m a lazy, lazy, lazy man. I mean, just writing that sentence exhausted me, and I had to go and have a shot of whiskey to regain my energy and lust for life.

I’m also an easily distracted man. I can’t remember what I used to be like pre-Internet, but with the Internet sitting on my desktop, I am a cocaine monkey.

So, to recap; I am lazy and have the attention span of a small fly. And yet I am a professional writer of some success. Let’s not quibble on what the precise meaning of success is in this context. Or professional. Or quibble. Let’s just say I have sold some books and make a living with words, and yes, there are plenty of teachers in the Jersey City School System who would be very amazed to discover this.

When interacting with folks who want to be writers themselves, I get a couple of standard questions. You can probably guess a few of them — what’s my process, will I read their manuscript, will I please give them back their cocktail, which totally wasn’t mine to just grab off the bar — but a couple always confound me, especially questions about the software I use when writing a novel.

I usually respond by grabbing them by the lapels and screaming are you going to buy me a whiskey or what until they flee. But the questions stick with me, because whenever I answer I feel like a fraud.

The Stipulations

First, a stipulation. This is important.

I am a moron.

No, seriously — I’m an idiot. A charming, handsome, well-spoken, pantsless idiot. I am frequently ill-informed, I sometimes have trouble hearing people and pretend I understand what they’re saying, I parrot opinions all the time and am easily confused and defeated in rhetorical competition. In short, for god’s sake my experiences are my own and mine alone and nothing I say here is meant in any way as a proclamation. In other words, there are many, many paths to writing a novel or having a freelance writing career. If your experience differs from mine, that’s great! I am a moron.

The Edumacation of Jeff Somers

The software question mystifies me, because writing a novel is the most straightforward thing you can imagine. You have an idea. You tell a story. It’s literally a process of putting one word after another until you have, oh, 80,000 of them. That’s it. It’s that easy. That’s one reason I aspired to being a writer in the first place, because it’s easy.

Of course, not everyone thinks it’s easy. I can understand that. Because it actually isn’t all that easy — the process is easy. The intellectual effort of creating characters, premise, action, and coherent narrative is hard. But writing is and always will be the act of putting one word after the other. Until about 20 years ago, I wrote novels on a manual typewriter. On paper. I still have drawers stuffed full of hardcopy manuscripts. When I grudgingly switched to writing on a computer because no one wanted to receive 400 pages of typescript covered in coffee stains, correction fluid, and shocking pornographic doodles, I used an open source, free word processor and still do (Libre Office, currently).

And that’s it.

The idea of using complicated software to track plot arcs, characters, and other minutiae frankly mystifies me. The idea that any App or software is helpful in any way is mystfiying to me. I’ve never felt the need for it, and can’t see the benefit, and that alternatively makes me feel smug and triggers my Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

Sometimes the accoutrements of a profession, the jargon of a profession are comforting. You might not be at the top of your profession, but at least you know how to use the super secret tools that the rubes don’t even know exist. At least you know the passwords. So when people ask me about the tools I use to write fiction and my answer is literally “Uh: words?” and they give me that look I know so well from all the times I have emerged from pub restrooms without my pants, I wonder if maybe I am fooling myself. Can you be a professional if you don’t use any tools?

At other times my answer to that last question is fuck yeah you can. But the use of specific tools can make you feel like you’re at least part of the club. When I’m on panels or in informal gatherings and a writer starts talking about the complex array of tools they use to write their novels, I do start to feel a little like the Slow Cousin, and I wonder, if only briefly: Would my work be better, or would there be more of it, or would it sell better if I started using some kind of magical software?

And then I am usually distracted by alcohol and forget all about it.

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Writing Lessons from Assholes

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I was an indifferent student, because I am the Laziest Man Ever Born. To this day the fact that I actually earned a college degree is kind of amazing, not because I’m dumb, but because it’s difficult for 2016 Jeff to believe that College Jeff actually performed the bare minimum of work in order to achieve a BA in English, which is the Do Nothing Bitch of college undergraduate degrees. Most of my memories of my college days involve a television, so the degree thing is a mystery.

I do have one memory that I like to tell people about because it a) makes me look smart and b) underscores the ridiculous nature of academics in general — and now I can add a third reason: c) there’s a lesson about writing in it. So let’s recount the glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid.

The Glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid

I was taking some laugher of a 200 level English course; I honestly can’t even remember what it was. Tortured Rhyme Schemes in Early 19th Century Poetry? Inscrutable Medieval Symbolism 203? Allegory for Potheads? I have no idea. It was a 200 level course so I can assume my strategy was to attend as few classes as possible and bring Other Stuff to Do when I did attend.

We had to write a paper at some point, with the stress that we had to cite original sources and all that usual drama. Again, I have no recollection of what the paper was supposed to be about. I know I hit up the library (my god if the Internet had existed I would never have had to leave my dorm room/apartment during college), wrote my paper, and handed it in. And when I got it back, I’d been given a big fat D.

Now, I was never very ambitious about my academics, sure, but this was fucking bullshit: A D? On an English paper? No fucking way. I wasn’t ambitious, but I had pride. So I scheduled an appointment with the professor and asked why.

The professor, as I recall, wasn’t a full-on professor (200 level class, remember) and might have been a grad student or something, possibly a homeless man recruited to watch us for an hour twice a week, who knows. Like I said, my memory is sketchy and very much like Homer Simpson’s habit of imagining himself in a tuxedo when he tries to remember his evenings. I had no curiosity about his status then, and certainly no memory of it now. I remember he had shaggy, thinning blondish hair and big moon glasses and a nervous tic that involved licking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. And he told me, in condescending tones, that I’d obviously plagiarized the paper.

I think my head almost exploded. You can accuse me of a lot of things and I won’t care. Say that I have poor fashion sense and hygiene? Fine. A tendency towards run-on sentences and semi-colon abuse? You may well be right. The musical talent of a wallabee? Fine. But suggest that I plagiarized something and Jeff Smash. So I asked him how he’d come to this conclusion, and he told me that the writing style was far too academic and elevated. I asked him if he’d found, you know, actual proof of plagiarism, and he said no, but he knew no one at my age could write the way the paper was written.

So I asked him if I could show him plenty of other examples of my writing that was at that level, would he change my grade? He said he would, so I brought him five boxes of manuscripts and papers from recent years. He took one look at the boxes, said he believed me, and changed my grade. The kicker? This paper that was so well-written he assumed it was plagiarized? He gave me a B. A FUCKING B.

Still. Angry.

The Writing Lesson

I think of this today because it actually points out one of the often-overlooked aspects of writing, in terms of that dreaded word craft: mimicry. Copying someone’s writing style is challenging, and while you certainly don’t want to steal someone’s style for your own, it’s a very useful exercise. Writing in a styler or voice that isn’t your own gives you an objectivity about word choice, phrasing, and other technical aspects of language that you sometimes get blinded to when it’s your own creative output.

I never realized how often I mimic what I’m reading until that unfortunate day when I came within seconds of murdering a pudgy teacher. Since then, I’ve been much more aware — I do it more or less without thinking about it. If I’m reading a book and really into it, I’ll start cribbing bits and pieces of the style, stealing tricks, and after a few weeks I’ll more or less be writing a pastiche of the style in question. Now that I’m aware of it, it’s a tool: I can indulge in it, learn something, work on something different from my normal stuff, and then keep whatever’s useful and incorporate it into my own evolving style.

And all it took to learn this was an awkward encounter with a smug teacher and a brief, passing interest in my own academic career.

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