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Every writer has his own way of becoming inspired to write. Some are lucky, and ideas flow out of them like water from a faucet. Most of us work more slowly. I have never run a poll, but I believe that I am on the slow end, not of writing, but of inspiration (certain periods being the exception). I have several methods of kick-starting the Muse (if she will consent to being so treated), all of which have worked on occasion: staring at a blank page, reading heavily in certain genres, not reading in any particular genre, not reading at all, and when all else fails, reviewing my old notes and fragments in hopes of finding something that will pique my interest to the point of finishing it.

That was the method I chose most recently, and I was stunned by what I found there: There were some excellent ideas. I mean, honestly, I found it hard to believe I had come up with these things–they were out there. And they would make terrific stories…if I had any idea what those stories were.

See, looking through your own idea file is like picking up an anthology and reading the story descriptions. Every one of them sounds like a bizarre tale that will send your mind to the limits of its universe and beyond. You breathe a little faster in your wanting to buy this book, and read these stories, and find out how they fulfill the promises made on the back cover.

Except that you’re the writer, and there’s an extra step involved.

I always like to say that anyone can be a writer. All you need are an adequate command of language and a reasonable understanding of human nature. And you don’t have to have them in equal measure, because an overabundance of one (particularly the latter) can overcome deficiencies in the other. Unfortunately, I am wrong. Not just anyone can be a writer. Anyone can come up with an idea, but it’s extending it into a story that makes you a writer. This is why so many would-be writers give up after one or two chapters. Your story has to go somewhere.

And right now, none of those story fragments is going anywhere with me. Something will; something always has. And sometimes it’s the mere fact of writing–even a blog post–that breaks the dam and allows the creative river to flow. (It’s not like I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs; I’m writing a serial. It’s just that I have time on my hands.)

In the meantime, let me offer a bit of advice. If you want to be a writer, write something. And if you find it isn’t going anywhere, stop writing and start outlining. That’s being a writer, too. Or do some research. That’s fun. But whatever you do, do not be one of those people who approaches an author and says, “I have an idea. I’ll give it to you, you’ll write it, we’ll split the proceeds.” Because (a) a fair split would leave you with little to nothing, and (b) your offer will give the author another idea–an idea of how to respond–which will be illegal in most states.

Trust me, nothing frustrates a writer more than an idea he can’t use. So he’ll write it down, and someday, you will be an inspiration–for a dastardly villain falling into his own lava pit. And none of us wants that.

I don’t like to complain about what other authors do. If I read a book and I don’t like it, I just don’t leave a review (but I always try to leave one if it’s positive! Please give reviews!). And I certainly don’t criticize other authors for what they choose to write about; believe me, SF used to be a lot harder to explain away than it is today. At least now if you want to write this stuff, you can point to Game of Thrones or The Expanse or the MCU and say that’s where the money is. Couldn’t do that back in the Carbon Age.

But lately I’ve noticed something that needs to be called out. It’s particularly galling when you’re dealing with indie authors, because they have to do everything themselves, which means that they have to accept the mistakes, too. And I, like a lot of readers, am picky. I don’t have a lot of time. I am looking for a reason not to buy your book.

So what are so many authors giving me a reason? It’s so easy to fix: Proofread! And if grammar wasn’t your best subject in school, find someone to read your stuff for you before you use an apostrophe in a plural, or employ the wrong verb tense! It isn’t brain surgery, but words are your tools as a writer, and if you can’t wield them properly, I won’t read your stuff any more than I would go to a doctor who wants to operate with a dull scalpel.

Now I know there is never a book published without a few typos (not typo’s!), including my own. I can excuse that (and with ebooks you can fix them). But when you demonstrate that you don’t know the difference between the possessive and the plural, how can I expect you to handle foreshadowing, or characterization, or rising action? Even if you can, your mistakes will pull me out of the narrative–and the results can be fatal for your book.

Not all writers were English majors, but… There is a principle in law that says if you are going to represent yourself in court, although allowances will be made, in the end you will be treated as though you were an attorney. If you are going to represent yourself as an author, then in the end you are going to be treated as though you are a writer–and your readers are not nearly as forgiving a judge.

Well, they do, obviously, except when they don’t. Writers love to have copies of their books sell, it’s just that most indie writers don’t like to sell them. As in, getting their work out in the public’s face and pushing the product.

There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, the biggest being that writers are not typically pushy people. They don’t want to get into your face and press a book into your hands. They’d rather just sit back in a corner of the Starbuck’s and write something that magically appears on the Internet and then you buy it off of Amazon while they’re writing the next book. If they wanted to interact with people, they’d be something more up-front, like actors or televangelists. (The irony is that all writers dream of changing lives. They just don’t want to have to do it in person.)

Some indie authors do like selling, and they do it well. But they seem to be in the minority.

So every once in a while, an author will get the idea that he needs to “get out there.” Today, that’s me. I’ve tweeted twice in 24 hours about one of my stories. For me, that’s a ton. Too early to tell if it’s working, but I’m going to keep it up a while longer.

It is not fun. If I had a table at a convention selling my books, and you came up and asked me what they were about, I could talk your ear off for half an hour (and probably not tell you what you wanted to know), but to go up to folks unsolicited (even virtually) and give them a sales pitch…?

See, this is why reviews are so important. Because they do our work for us. Because you do our work for us. Believe me, we’d all rather be writing. If you like an author’s work, help promote it. You’ll get more stories out of that author, I guarantee you.

Because if you leave it up to us, we’d just as soon never have to sell a book at all.

Venturing into a new and unexplored corner of the speculative realm, my first piece of Lovecraftian fiction is now featured on the cover of Lovecraftiana magazine.

Most of us know that the great, so-glad-we-missed-you Elder God Cthulhu has been slumbering under the Earth for ages, and that when he awakes, well, it’ll be a party to end all parties. (And everything else. And Cthulhu will the the only one passing out favors.)

Still, exactly what happens when he wakes up is a matter of conjecture. What if, a writer might ask, it’s not quite the end of the world as we know it? What if Cthulhu has his own ideas of what to do after a 10,000-year nap? And how come he woke up right now in the first place?

The answers, as they say, may amuse you.

Defending Your Taste

I was reading through social media recently (probably when I should have been doing something constructive, like writing), when I saw someone saying, “I may be wrong, but I like [kind of stories].” And it occurred to me that yes, that person might be wrong, but not for liking that kind of story (even though, as it happened, it was not my kind of story). No, what that person got wrong is that you should think you might need to offer an excuse for liking that kind of story.

It’s axiomatic that we all like different kinds of stories. That’s why there are so many successful authors in so many genres. There is an audience for almost anything. But we can fall into the trap of thinking that if there isn’t a large audience for what we like, then maybe we like the wrong thing. There’s safety in numbers, right? If you like what everyone else likes, you can’t be criticized for it.

Well…not so much. If you delve into any fandom, you will see that there are those who like x about it, and those who like y. Mostly, this isn’t a problem, but there are those who think that only x is worth praise, and y is junk, even if both are part of the same genre, brand, or even individual work. Let’s face it, when people get emotional about something, they’re more willing to fight for/about it, and I’m not just talking about books here.

So why not simply admit that you like what you like, even if it isn’t a huge mega-conglomerate brand behemoth like Star Wars or the MCU? Personally, I’m into pulp literature, the kind they wrote in the 1930s: Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider… I also like Edgar Rice Burroughs: John Carter, the Venus novels, although not so much Tarzan. (See above paragraph.) Thanks to the Internet, it’s obvious there are quite a few of us, even if we’re a drop in the bucket compared to Spider-Man fans.

Does the fact that my fandoms are relatively small make me “wrong” for belonging? Of course it doesn’t. They’re my interests; you can have your own. They don’t have to interfere with each other. Nor do they have to intersect; I have many friends whose hobbies don’t come close to mine (although it’s fun when they do). Occasionally, though, I will be called upon to defend my hobbies, and I must mount my horse of righteous self-interest and joust with the forces of blind conformity, a soldier in the war to preserve the odd and the not-in-style.

To be honest, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting otherwise.

Last night, Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw had a perfect game going through seven innings. Manager Dave Roberts ignited a Twitter war by taking Kershaw out, even though perfect games are rare, and it is considered a pitcher’s greatest achievement.

Roberts made the move because of Kershaw’s history of injuries, the state of the game, and prevalent conditions. He believed (and the sources I checked agree) that the risk of injury early in the season was too great; in other words, there are months left to play, and a perfect game still goes down in the standings as only one win-if Kershaw succeeded. If Kershaw were to injure himself, however, how many games could be lost that he might have won? (For the record, Kershaw agreed, albeit we can assume reluctantly.)

This same principle applies in writing, usually described as, “Kill your darlings.” More correctly, it should say, “You must be willing to kill your darlings.” Just as Roberts sacrificed a potentially beautiful victory for the sake of the season, writers often must sacrifice a wonderful line of description or dialogue because it simply doesn’t fit the story.

In short stories, every line must propel the narrative forward. In a short story, every word should propel the narrative. I once had a short story that had been rejected several times. Before I sent it to the last market on my list, I re-read it and deleted five words. It sold to that market. Did those words make the difference? Probably not all of it, but they were very near the end, and driving the last point home means making that ending as punchy as possible. So, maybe…

If you’re writing a novel, you can meander a bit. (Unless you’re Hemingway.) But even then, if your Shakespearean speech doesn’t fit the moment, it’s got to go. One game doesn’t make the season, and one scene doesn’t make the book.

So be ready–and willing–to make those sacrifices, but only if you have to…and only if you’ve saved that paragraph to your scrapbook so you can use it again someday, just like Kershaw will be back on the mound, to opposing batters’ dismay.

I just read on Twitter where someone asked which is more important for a writer, talent or hard-earned skill? Obviously, both, except in those cases where a writer is so brilliant he/she just bursts out of the gate when the bell rings and races across the finish line the first time out. (And I don’t mean the first time out after years of invisible effort; I mean the very first time out.) That’s talent. But often one of two things results: (1) the author never writes another great book, or (2) the author writes a series of popular books but never really gets better, and eventually you can tell. Plainly, I’m generalizing, but work with me.

The more normal course of events, as alluded to above, is that a writer will labor for years on a book or various books, and eventually make good on one. Maybe it’s the start of a career, maybe not. That’s someone who started slowly and improved with hard-earned skill. Certainly, that author also has talent. If you didn’t have a talent for this business you wouldn’t have started it, or if you did, you quit within 50 pages.

But there’s that secret ingredient, the link between talent, which one was born with, and skill, which one earns through practice, and it’s called perseverance. Even the lucky few who break through on talent alone need perseverance. Books don’t write themselves. You might’ve plotted the whole thing in advance, but it’s still a lot of work, particularly if you’re writing the kind of doorstopper that’s popular these days.

And for the rest of us? If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And believe me, it’s hot in there. I hear writers complain that it took them five or six years to be published, and I laugh. It took me decades, a fact I used to hide, except now I know authors who took as long as I did who are now winning major awards. So maybe I didn’t sell my first novel. Or my fifth. It’s not about how long you need to make it, it’s about how long you can take it.

Aspiring novelists often ask their more experienced peers: “How long does it take you to write a book?” My answer: “Until it’s done.” I’ve written books in two months, and in two years. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I kept on for two years until it was finished.

A writer once told me, “No one who refused to give up ever failed to be published.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it was for me. When I get discouraged, I look back on all those years where it made my week that an editor even remembered my name, and I recall the time I met a writer at a convention who had five stories published and I thought he was a demi-god, and I imagine what the kid I was would think of me now, with over 50 publications.

If I could, I’d take that younger me out for a drink, and I’d put my arm around his shoulders, and I’d say, “Everything I have I owe to you. When you had nothing, you didn’t give up. That’s what made us writers.”

The secret ingredient? It’s a cliche: Believe in yourself. Believe in your mission so hard that nothing can dissuade you.

How long does it take to write a book? Ask yourself when you’re done.

Murder for Sale

Well, sort of. The first book of my Nemesis series, The Choking Rain, is on sale for a limited time for the low, low price of $0.99! Return to the days when the country was mired in the Depression, radio was television, and masked heroes conquered evil villains in fifteen-minute installments!

It is February, 1932. Los Angeles is gearing up for the Olympic Games, an economic miracle in these times of high unemployment. But among the record rains that the winter brings, horror lurks. The life-giving water from the skies has begun taking lives instead. Men are dying in the streets, strangled as if by an invisible hangman. When the public realizes the danger, panic will set in and the Games, along with the entire city, will be at risk.

Eric Reinhold, an ex-fighter pilot-turned-barnstormer, foils a mistaken-identity kidnapping attempt on his sister, only to find, as the deaths pile on, how close to home the plot lies–so close as to implicate Eric himself. Unable to appeal to the police, he enlists the help of several ex-Army buddies to get to the bottom of it, but when Eric is shot and lost at sea, his friends must move forward without him to avenge his death.

Battling mobsters, international criminals, and a mysterious assassin, the group uncovers a rendezvous in the deepest jungles of the Amazon, where no civilized man has ever ventured and lived to tell of it, where a miracle of nature has been perverted into a method of murder used in a terror campaign that is only the first step to a new World War.

One of the nice things about being a writer is that your work is out in the world on its own, and sometimes it pops up in places you weren’t expecting, to your surprise and delight. Case in point, Chronos, an anthology I was part of in 2018, has been reissued with a new cover, presented here for your enjoyment. And if you should happen to notice who’s mentioned in the back cover blurb, bonus points for you!

Author Interview

I have a new author interview up at Awesome Gang. If you’re seeking a deep dive into the soul of a writer…well, you won’t find it here. But I do have a few things to say about what I’m doing, and some writerly advice to dispense.