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The Republican convention is over, and it was a mess. The Democratic convention has just started, and it’s a mess, too. We are going to have a choice between the first billionaire and the first woman President, and not only does neither side trust the other, half of them don’t trust their own side. And I can’t even go outside away from the TV, because there’s a massive brush fire 20 miles away and the air tastes like a barbecue. Not “barbecue,” a barbecue. (Oh, and it was 107 degrees today.)*

I’m working on a novel, last in a trilogy, and I really want to get it done so that I can move onto something else. It’s been fun, but now I’m looking forward to something new. Except I suddenly realized that one of the branching plot lines I was working on is going nowhere, and it has to be dumped, and there goes 5000 words. (Into a side file, of course; I may use them later.) Meanwhile, the other branch of the plot doesn’t have to be dumped–because it doesn’t exist. I haven’t made it up yet, and right now its prospects aren’t looking so good. When it’s 107 degrees and you can’t breathe the air and the country is split between the uptight righties, the dizzy lefties, and the “please just leave me the hell alone until December” crowd stuck in the middle, who can muster up the energy to write?

That’s correct: a writer. Because when the chips are down and the temperature is up, who else is going to talk about it? If it all goes into a handbasket, the last person on Earth will write it all down, hoping that someone, someday, will find it and learn how badly we screwed up. You think he won’t?

So if that theoretical man or woman can spend his or her last days scribbling on whatever flat surface is left, telling whoever comes next the Story of Man, what excuse do the rest of us have? It’s too hot? It’s too cold? Hillary Trump is threatening to ban Dodgers fans from leaving Los Angeles? That’s when we need to write. Writers are the ones who put everything down so everyone else can read it. Writers are the ones who tell others that we’re not alone, that we all have the same fears, and loves, and frailties. Writers are the ones who tell the stories that let us know it’s all going to be okay.

It isn’t easy to think of something to say. Writing is hard. I maintain that almost anyone can write, but others disagree. (Then again, there are those who think engineers can write user manuals. They are quite wrong.) But the harder it is, the more worthwhile it is. The only reason we know anything about anything is because somebody wrote it down.

So here I am, gearing myself up to write, because now I can’t not write. Right? Wrong. I’ve done my bit. I’ve lead my cheer. Now it’s up to you, because I have earned a rest.

Yeah, write.

*I am fully aware that compared to the firefighters on the line, the people who have lost their homes, and those who have been evacuated, I have nothing to complain about. I wish I could write a story where things were different.

#SFWApro

 

Plagiarism. It’s all over the news this week. You know the weirdest thing about plagiarism? It’s that the word is so hard to spell, the best way say it in print is to copy it from somebody else. Really, it’s hard.

They say that, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But the line between imitation and outright stealing can be fine. Remember the Led Zeppelin case? In today’s whirlwind media culture, it seems like it was years ago. That involved an allegation of plagiarism, too, but it turned out to be, at most, flattering imitation.

We’ve had other famous cases of plagiarism, often in journalism. In those cases, the perpetrator was usually fired. In the present instance, that’s kind of hard because the perp was, uh, the nominee’s wife. Oddly enough, the guy who made his fame by saying, “You’re fired,” can’t do that this time. (Unless that’s what he said to his other wives. In which case, who knows?) Apparently, not even the speechwriter who helped her is going to be punished. And whatever your political persuasion, that’s wrong.

It’s wrong because plagiarism is theft. Intellectual theft. Your mom told you, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” She probably didn’t think she had to tell you, “If you can’t think of anything to say, don’t steal it from somebody else.”

As a writer, I detest plagiarism. It’s akin to book piracy, where someone sells your work for his own profit. Actually, it’s the same, differing only in degree. The words you sweated over are yours. And they are yours, should you so choose, to sell. Stealing them is no different from stealing your wallet.

Your mom also told you, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” She probably knew better, but she wanted you to be a better person. She wanted you to believe that words people threw at you couldn’t hurt.

Words people take away from you? That definitely hurts.

…are the ones you should be listening to. I know the adage is, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but that is so dismissive and narrow-minded that I could spend most of this post on why I don’t agree with it. Suffice it to say, as it is commonly understood, it’s garbage.

Let me ‘splain. I recently read about a friend who has been trying to become a professional writer nearly as long as I have (which is saying something). Soon after I succeeded, he did too. And so he is justifiably very proud of his accomplishments. Recently, however, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was going about his career all wrong. Independent publishing was the only way to go! Everybody would do better if he’d only abandon the creaky old system of traditional publishing and self-publish!

Well, my friend was justifiably (again) upset. He’s got his career path, it’s starting to work for him, and he doesn’t need anybody coming along and saying how it’s so tough just because he’s doing it all wrong. Becoming a published writer (let alone succeeding at it) requires a ridiculous amount tenacity and a delusional level of self-confidence. Saying it’s only so hard because you’re doing it wrong is condescending and rude. In other words, my career is None of Your Business.

And yet, there is a value in learning from others. Sometimes this even involves being lectured, and occasionally, it involves being told you are wrong. This is called “teaching.” (Simply telling someone he’s doing it wrong because your way worked for you isn’t teaching. It’s gloating. And it doesn’t make you a teacher, it makes you a jerk.) And I would posit that some of the very best teachers are not “those who can’t do,” but rather “those who can’t do for a living.”

Let’s face it. Not everybody can be the best at everything–or even one thing. While there is value from learning from someone who has tried (and succeeded to some extent) what you’re trying to do, it doesn’t mean that just because your teacher isn’t making a living at, say, writing, he can’t be a good writing teacher. I’ve had teachers who were professional writers, and others who have merely written professionally. I have learned from all of them. (I’ve also learned a great deal from myself, and I’m certainly not making a living as a writer.)

I would go further and say I’d rather learn from the guy who hasn’t made it than the guy who has, or at the very least that you can learn more from someone who has failed than someone who never has. The successful (writer) can tell you how he made it and you can try to emulate him. The moderately-successful writer who has twice the number of rejections as acceptances can teach you how not to fail. In my experience, you can’t really understand winning until you understand losing.

Case in point, as provided by my friend: self-publishing. I entered the self-publishing field about three years ago. I tried to find out what I was getting into by going to panels at cons, featuring self-published authors. I went to all I could. They were very encouraging. They thought everyone should try it. After all, they’d succeeded with no more of a book idea than I had. The problem was, they had all succeeded. They never talked about failure. Eventually, one actually said, “Your first book never sells,” which was manna to me because my first book wasn’t, in fact, selling. No problem, says I, the sequel will.

The problem with listening to all these successful self-published writers was that they didn’t know (or talk about, anyway) how not to fail. They never spoke of the need to stick to one series in one genre because audiences won’t follow you across genres. They never said that it can take three or four or more books to gain an audience (if you ever do) and how those four books had to come out no less than every four months (six if you must, but you’re taking an awful chance that people will forget you). They never talked about the hundreds of dollars you must spend in cover art, copyediting, and advertising. Yes, advertising, preferably with a heavy social media presence to raise your books out of the morass of the thousands of other books self-published every year. They didn’t mention the ten hours a week you should be spending on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever other media platforms have been invented since I started writing this post–and that if you’re not prepared to do that, or if you don’t already have 50,000 Twitter followers, your chances of ever being noticed are slim to none.

So, yes, I shared my friend’s outrage and being told he was writing “the wrong way.” Because no two writers work exactly the same, and self-publishing is not a panacea and anyone who tells you it is, is either selling you a bill of goods or selling one to himself.

It’s true that “those who can’t do, teach,” but it’s a damned good thing, because they’re the ones with the courage to admit they haven’t always succeeded. And that’s a lesson we should all learn.

#SFWApro

Sitting in my car at a light today, a guy crossed the street in front of me, totally intent on his screen. No, he was not texting on his phone. He was typing one-handed on his laptop. Maybe he left his iPad at home? Perhaps he was hunting for Pokemon?*

Whatever, I just hope he wasn’t a writer, because no deadline is worth getting, well, dead.(And that goes for whatever project he was working on.) I suppose it isn’t surprising, considering that multi-tasking is de rigeur these days; everyone has to be somewhere or do something in a BDH. (Big Damned Hurry.) That’s why red lights don’t mean what they used to. I’ve been in two accidents in the past few years, both because of distracted drivers running red lights. Based on my experience, I have this advice: Put down your damned phone when you drive unless you’re planning to use it to call the hospital!

But I digress. What I meant to say was that I have a question: When did writing become a spectator sport? Go into any Starbucks (in LA, anyway), and at least one person will be plugged into a wall, tucked away in a corner, headphones on and laptop open. He obviously doesn’t want to be disturbed, because he’s got headphones on. Why doesn’t he want to be disturbed? Because he’s writing. Why is he trying to hard not to be disturbed that he must do it in a public place? Beats me…maybe he can’t afford to buy coffee for home? (Writers are notoriously pecuniary, after all.)

Writing is supposed to be a solitary pursuit, i.e, you stay home and do it all by yourself. Writers only go out when they’re in a writers’ group, and even then they’re hunched over in their tightly-circled chairs, armored against outsiders. In some climates, heating and A/C are required, and maybe you’re too poor to afford them–the classic remedy here was to go to the library (where you don’t need headphones to be left alone), although there are some notable exceptions to the rule.

But the library isn’t good enough any more. Now you have to multi-task: Not only do you have to write, but you have to be seen to be writing. Harlan Ellison once made writing an actual spectator event, but he’s Harlan Ellison (and he didn’t wear headphones). So why must so many write in public? That coffee is expensive. You never know who’s going to sit next to you. And it takes up space for other paying customers after your latte has gone cold.

Personally, I write alone. I have written in coffee shops, but only when necessary (like waiting for someone), and not extensively. I realize I’m not everyone, but still. As far as I’m concerned, the room is full enough with just me and my cast of characters. You want to multi-task? Try juggling three different viewpoint characters.

Believe me, it’s not as entertaining as it sounds.

*Speaking of which, if you are into Pokemon Go, try my friend Will Macintosh’s Burning Midnight for another take on the whole “treasure hunting” concept.

#SFWApro

It will come as no surprise to anyone that writing a story feels like climbing a mountain. You look up at this peak, and you don’t even know how high it is. You think it’s a short story-sized mountain, maybe 4000-5000 words, and you can climb it in a few days, less than a week, sure. (But you know in the back of your mind that every mountain has a mind of its own, and you could be embarking on a novella and not even know it until you get to the 5000-word level and realize that this story, this mountain, cannot be conquered in the form you intended; it’s way too high for that. At that point you just have to keep climbing.)

But when you started at the bottom, the slope was pretty easy. You had an idea, and you’re setting it up. The first 500 words come quickly, characters and setting spilling out onto the screen like they were just waiting for this moment. Then it gets steeper, because these characters get bored if they’re not doing something. And not just anything, because it has to inform their whole lives (which may only last 5000 words, so every one has to count). Happy-go-lucky hillocking gives way to determined hiking, and then ropes and pitons. Now the slope is closer to 90 degrees than 30, and it’s getting to be an effort. Each word seems more important as you guide your party toward that elusive high point.

So you do what any experienced mountaineer does; you establish a base camp. You stop for the day, satisfied with your word count, to allow yourself to refresh, and reflect. (I get most of my ideas on a work-in-progress away from the screen.) Tomorrow, you’ll come back and tackle it anew.

Except that when you sit down in front of your computer the next day, it isn’t there. There’s been a landslide. Your base camp is gone and you’re 1000 words downslope of where you thought. What the hell–? You know you saved it. You’ve been doing this for a long time; you never would close a document without saving it. So where is it? You spend frantic minutes looking, checking the recent versions. Finally, you search for keywords and there it is, tucked into the wrong folder. You breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t have to retake that lost ground.

And yet you can’t help but think: When I wrote stories on paper, I never had these problems…

#SFWApro

I got an odd request from an editor the other day. You might recall that I had been given an invitation to write a story for a project, and I wondered whether I should take it if it meant putting aside my novel (third in a trilogy) for a little bit. The response was overwhelmingly that I should, and I did, to good result.

Apparently, the result was better than I thought, although for unexpected reasons. I got some comments back (well-taken, I thought) on the story, and then a curve ball: I was told that character X seemed to be more prominent than I had painted her, and could I write a story about her? Well, you may understand my reaction from the fact that I call her “character X”–because in the story she doesn’t even have a name. She appears in the first couple of paragraphs as a device to introduce the main characters, then she’s done. She’s an extra, a walk-on, with no lines. And now you want to put her front and center?

An intriguing prospect, to say the least. As it happens, it fit in with another concept of mine that I’ve been toying with for some while and never got right. Maybe I won’t get it right this time, either, but I’m going to give it a try.

What I find fascinating is that I originally used the same opening paragraphs from the original story as her opening. Of course, I had to edit them because now I was operating from a new point of view; she was no longer an extra and she needed to be more engaging. Still, it was flat. Not worrisome for a first draft, but not optimal, either.

And that’s when I got the bright idea to change the viewpoint to first-person. All of a sudden, this “extra” has a voice. She has a life, and I’m living it through her eyes. I like the first-person viewpoint, and I use it a lot, but sometimes it isn’t appropriate. Other times, like now, it’s the only way to go.

So the chorus girl has the stage to herself. Exactly what she’s going to do with it, I don’t know, but I do know this: She isn’t going to like the spotlight. It’s going to change her life, and change isn’t always good, or at least it isn’t always easy. But then, if it was easy, it wouldn’t make a good story.

And it’s all about the story. Because everybody has one. Even if you didn’t know you were supposed to write it.

#SFWApro

Catalog on Sale

For the month of July, I am participating in the Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale! All full-price books are 25% off with the coupon code SSW25. This means that volume 2 of the Stolen Future trilogy, The Secret City; the first of the Captain Swashbuckle Depression-era thrillers, The Choking Rain; and my non-fiction primer on how to avoid losing money to your stockbroker, How to Know if Your Stockbroker is Ripping You Off–And What You Can Do About It, are all 25% off for an entire month! Check them all out at my author page, or see the entire Smashwords promotional catalog.

And of course, the first volume of the Stolen Future trilogy, The Invisible City, is also available, at the special introductory price of $0.99.

July is a long month, and you have to fill it somehow, so why not try some new fiction? (A word to the wise: Don’t take your Kindle into the pool…)

 

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