Writing

Skipping the Boring Parts

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Elmore Leonard once famously included in his Ten Rules of Writing “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The hard part for a writer, of course, is to figure out what those parts are. The first volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust spends a lot of time noodling about remembering how a specific cake tastes and ruminating on things like sleeping habits—and if you haven’t read it, trust me when I say you spend the first few dozen pages or so wondering how in the world you got suckered into reading it. And then, IMHO, it clicks into place and you begin to really enjoy it, but there’s a bit of a hump to get over, and that hump could very easily look like he included a part that people skip.

And, certainly, many thousands of people have indeed skipped reading Proust, much to their delight and relief. And loss.

One common question I get when talking to writers at conferences and events and occasionally when I come home to find them hiding in my closet with a roll of duct tape and a bottle of chloroform is “does every scene and line need to be dramatic?” In other words, how do you tell a story that feels real if you don’t offer up the sort of mundane details that Leonard seems to be advising you to skip? You can’t tell a story that is 100% people fighting, saying witty things, and blowing things up. Or, sure, you can, but it would just be … well … kind of awesome, actually. But! Not really a story. So how do you write about characters who feel real without including some of the boring bits that we all deal with?

The answer’s surprisingly simple in concept, although complex in execution: You’re not supposed to skip the boring parts, you’re supposed to find a way to make the boring parts not boring.

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(Don’t Fear) the Routine

XXIX

Yes, That’s Volume 29 of Handwritten Short Stories.

FRIENDS, when you have achieved the summit of midlist author success (or, like me, if you’re stranded at base camp coughing up blood but insisting you’re going to make the ascent any day now), you get asked a lot of questions. One of the most popular questions that writers get in interviews or when buttonholed outside the restroom at conferences concerns process. Everyone is curious about the disciplined, specific routine and schedule you follow in order to produce sellable wordage (did I just coin that phrase? can I sell T shirts with SELLABLE WORDAGE on them?). How many words do you write per day? How many hours? What’s your routine?

My answer is, I don’t really have one.

Which is strange, because I am a man of habits. Of routines. Of deep, deep ruts. If you followed me around for one day you would know precisely what I’m doing the next day, and the day after that, because I deeply love a routine. And yet, when it comes to writing, one of the most important things in my life, I have no routine.

Oh, to be fair, I do keep regular working hours for my freelance writing. That stuff is usually on a very short deadline, and I don’t get paid until I turn it in, so I’m inspired to work regularly on that stuff. So yes, every day between certain hours you can usually find me working on a freelance project. But when it comes to fiction, there’s no schedule or routine whatsoever, and it’s because I didn’t start writing seriously until college.

“my parents became alarmed at my mediocre grades and apparent belief in a benevolent god who would always take care of me”

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Writing Necessities: Bad Books

THE BAD WRITING, IT BURNS US!

THE BAD WRITING, IT BURNS US!

A writer’s life is pretty much nonstop glamor. For example, today I cleaned out litter boxes, drank three beers before lunch, and fell asleep with cats on my chest and half a sandwich on my head. The glamorous life indeed.

The fact is, writing is kind of an interior existence. When Hollywood needs to dramatize writing, they usually make us look like computer hackers, pounding away at keyboards with intense expressions on our faces. Sometimes we drain a tumbler of whiskey really intently, or smoke cigarettes, or sweat profusely. But let’s face it: Writing a book is just typing, for a long time. Easy? No. But also not, like, working in a salt mine.

I’ve written forty novels so far. If that number impresses you, you haven’t been writing long, as a lot of writers have rooms full of trunk novels hanging around their necks like the shrunken heads of their enemies. Out of those forty novels, about thirteen have been deemed (by me, at least) publishable, and nine have actually sold for American money (the one I sold for a small bag of interesting bottlecaps doesn’t count). That means that I’ve written twenty-seven novels—twenty-seven novels—that kind of suck.

And so it goes. Not only is this high number of terrible novel-length monstrosities not really a concern, I’ve recently come to think they’re necessary. Because when I look back in anger at my writing over the last 15-20 years, there’s a pattern: For every decent novel I’ve written, there are like at least five or six terrible ones. You have to write the shitty ones to get to the good ones.

The Pattern

I wrote six novel-like things before my first published novel, Lifers. One of these is really just a novella, and one was the proto version of The Electric Church, but this early draft is definitely juvenelia. After Lifers (written in 1997), I wrote the following novels:

“The Only Time” 1999

“Book of Days” 2001

Chum 2001

“The Night Will Echo Back at You” 2002

“The Weak Theory of Mike Edelson” 2002

“The Ancestral Home of the Malarchy’s” 2002

“Almost as Delightful” 2003

“Fallen Among Thieves” 2003

“The Hobo Obituaries” 2004

With the exception of Chum, which was eventually published in 2013, none of these novels are very good. In fact, a few of them are lost to my memory, and I can’t even guess what they’re about. Two of them have been re-worked into a new novel that took the best of each and discarded the crap. The others can’t be saved, I don’t think. Then in 2004 I wrote the revision of The Electric Church that sold.

That string of six stinkers in a row between 2002 and 2004 is quite a dry streak; I often have trouble giving up on projects and must continue to pound the keyboard until I somehow come up with an ending of sorts, just so I can call it finished. Lord knows my long-suffering agent has seen plenty of these:

AGENT: What in the great googly-moogly is this?

ME: A new novel I thought you could sell. We’re so hungry …

AGENT: This is not a novel. It’s a collection of gibberish and erotic doodles.

ME: They’re not meant to be erotic.

AGENT: … that is even worse.

The Purpose

But you sort of have to get these bad books out of your system. You can’t write the good ones unless you write the bad ones, for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you don’t get those bad ideas into a mockable format, you’ll never know they’re mockable.
  2. Sometimes you have to get obsessions out of your head so you can move on.
  3. Sometimes the only reason to believe a gimmick is a bad idea is to actually write that novel in the second person from the perspective of a cat (I just made that up I totally did not ever consider doing this nope not me)
  4. You can often generate some great stuff inside the boundaries of a bad book, material that can be later excised and re-used.

In short, your head will start to fill up with terrible ideas. Let’s face it, you’re kind of a bad idea machine. You’ve got to drain them out of there like pus out of an infected wound.

So, sometimes when I realize the novel I’m writing isn’t so great (something I just realized about what I’m working on tonight) I don’t give up. I push on. Not only will I get to mark a novel complete, I’ll have gotten a whole raft of terrible ideas safely into a file on my hard drive, where they will glow with evil power but never actually hurt anyone. Unless I choose to send them to my agent, which would just be mean-spirited.

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WestWorld May Be Too Clever for Its Own Good

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

So, I’ve been watching WestWorld on HBO. This enrages my brother, Yan, who more or less believes that all remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are bullshit. The moment he learns that a remake is looming, he goes off on a rant about how no one writes new stories any more.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. HBO’s version of WestWorld is entirely different from the original film. Everyone has a lot of affection for the original, mainly because of Yul Brynner’s classic performance as the Gunslinger and because every young man who watched that film in the 1970s and 1980s immediately began thinking about Sex Robots.

There are plenty of Sex Robots in HBO’s WestWorld. There’s also a lot of video game stuff, because some clever bastard obviously thought that a place like WestWorld would basically be an IRL video game. So when a guest arrives in town it’s like being in a sandbox-style video game, where you have a main storyline, but there are endless side-quests you can get sucked into that add content and depth (and playing time) to the game. That’s all well and good. That’s interesting and quite clever for a modern reboot of the concept.

The downside? The god-damn Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the god-damn cutscenes.

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Not These Pants

Jorts Are Pants Too.

Jorts Are Pants Too.

WRITING ADVICE INVOLVING PANTS, FOR A CHANGE.

Friends, the worst part about advancing age is easily the self-awareness. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be back in my dullard youth, completely and blissfully unaware of what a massive asshole I could be. I had some good times back then, believe me, secure in the myopic knowledge that I was awesome.

Today, I can’t fool myself so easily. I’ve seen too many repeated patterns, and too many poor results. After a while, you either have to admit you’re doing it wrong or accept the fact that your existence is going to be an increasingly awful existential hell of your own making. So, I am finally ready to admit it: I am not easy.

LIKE SUNDAY MORNING

In my youth, which is to say up until a few years ago when someone accidentally spilled paint thinner on my Dorian Grey painting and I melted like the Nazis in Indiana Jones, I thought I was the easiest guy in the world, because I didn’t give a shit about a lot of stuff other people seemed really worried about. Like, what a group of us did for fun at night. Or what did I want for dinner. Or what I wore. I prided myself on being easy, like Sunday morning: Just tell me what we’re doing, and I’ll wear whatever I have lying around, and anything is cool for me for dinner.

When something becomes part of your self-image, it’s hard to shake. For a long, long time I was convinced that I was Easy. Everyone else complicated things, stressed over unimportant stuff, and wasted time. Case in point, the first time The Duchess ran her yellow eye over me and decided I needed new pants.

ME: What’s wrong with these?

HER: We will dub them the So-Called Pants and their fame will be eternal. Now drive me to Old Navy.

ME: Yes’m.

I can now admit it: I am not Easy. I am, in fact, a royal pain in the ass, because my ideal is always whatever I’ve been doing. When it comes to pants, I like the pants I have. Any attempt to replace those pants will be met with petulant resistance and passive-aggressive plotting to undermine you as a person. It’s not that I don’t care what pants I wear, it’s that I want the pants I already have.

This extends to every other aspect of my life. I used to think I was easy, but now I realize that not having a strong opinion about anything actually makes me an enormous pain everyone’s ass. And this sort of personal epiphany is going to serve me well as a writer, because it’s exactly what the characters in your stories ought to be dealing with.

####

Nobody likes characters that are too woke, too self-aware, perfectly in tune with themselves. They come off as flat and obvious, and they resist character arcs, because they have nothing to evolve from. In real life, of course, no one is 100% self-aware. And just like when you write dialog and have to find some artificial patois and rhythm that seems realistic without being at all how people really talk, when creating a character you want the semblance of real people.

An essential part of that is a lack of awareness about their limitations or annoying traits. Think of it this way: We all go around thinking we’re pretty cool, that we’re the heroes of our own narrative. We usually aren’t, but we think we are. Your characters have to have things about themselves that they are unaware of, at least at the start of your story. They can have epiphanies as the tale goes on, but saddling them with things they don’t know about themselves is powerful, and feels natural.

Getting a POV character to convey things to the reader that they themselves are not aware of? That‘s where the old chestnut about “show don’t tell” comes into play. For example, years ago when some girlfriend took me shopping for pants, I thought I was being Easy. My inner monologue was filled with self-congratulations on how chill and easy I was being. BUt anyone watching would have been aware of how difficult I was within moments. That’s your job as a writer.

So, don’t say my pants have never done anything for you.

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A Drop of the Dull, Hard Stuff

I Miss Typewriters

I Miss Typewriters

When I was pup, sipping small beer and learning all my curse words from VHS tapes, I imagined the Writing Life to be pretty leisurely. I’d sell a novel, be recognized as a genius, and spend my days tapping out words while publishers delivered a steady stream of gifts in order to win my favor.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way.

A lot of writers, however, still think that way—that writing is all about being creative and creating and butt-in-the-seat and all that. Which it is, of course, Except there’s a lot of other stuff involved. Dull, boring stuff. For example, here’s what I’ve done over the last thirty days or so:

  • Written and revised a 15,000 word book proposal
  • Written a half dozen idea pitches for stories
  • Written a short story longhand
  • Transcribed a short story from longhand
  • Submitted a dozen short stories to various markets
  • Discussed a reprint of a previously published short story
  • Written a few dozen freelance pieces
  • Negotiated a reprint (in Sweden!) of an article I wrote
  • Completed a novel
  • Began two novels

Aside from the freelance stuff, none of this has an immediate or even certain paycheck; it’s all spec. And it’s a lot of work, between staying organized and awake (and sometimes sober). And that’s what a lot writing careers look like—a whole lot of hustle.

Now someone go buy one of my books so I’ll have beer money.

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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.

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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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