Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I went to dinner with some other writers during the World Fantasy Convention over the weekend (nothing fancy, we walked next door for some pizza), we were talking about writing (surprise!), and I hit them with my standard rhetorical question: “Writing is hard, and we’re never satisfied, so why do we do it?” To which they dutifully answered, “Because we can’t not do it.”

Writing is hard, and it doesn’t pay well. The only way to make it pay well is to write novels (or screenplays, yikes!). There has long been a debate in the field, though, about how you come to write novels. Should you try to make a name for yourself with short stories first, or is that no help and you might as well simply start drafting a three-volume space opera?* It occurs to me that I have an answer. It may not be your answer, but it works for me.

I recommend starting with short stories–not because you will necessarily make a name for yourself that will launch your novel career (although it certainly might; win the Short Story Hugo and wait for the offers to come in), but because short stories are, word for word, harder to write than novels, and I believe that if you can do the hard work, the easier stuff is…easier.

In the seminal work, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises you to focus your writing on the smallest detail possible, then work outward. In Zen and the Art of Archery (a fine book I cannot locate now on my newly-reorganized bookshelves), Eugen Herrigel spends years simply learning to draw his bow. If I were a writing teacher, I would ideally spend all my time teaching my students to write a sentence. “If you can write a sentence,” I would say, “you can write a paragraph. If you can write a paragraph, you can write a page, and if you can write a page, you can write a story.”

Or a chapter. Each chapter of a book is in some sense a story. But compared to short stories, novels are lazy. Yes, they take more effort in the absolute sense, but in a short story, you have to pack everything into a small space (usually less than 5000 words). In a novel, you can wander for days and still find your way back. I needn’t give any examples; we all know some.

So I would start with the form that requires the greatest discipline. It has the added advantage that you can write a half-dozen to a dozen short stories in the time it takes to write a novel. A dozen 5000-word stories would give you a pretty short novel, but it would also be six times as varied an exercise.

There are, of course, people who jump straight into novels and succeed that way. I can’t say that they don’t write as well as those who start out with shorter work, but I also can’t say that they didn’t spend the previous ten years writing short stories that never saw print. It’s possible. There are as many ways to become a writer as there are…

No, actually, that’s wrong. There’s only one way to become a writer.

You start by writing a sentence. Because you can’t do anything else.

_________________________________

*Whether you submit the first volume on its own while writing the second, or wait until all three are done, is a question in and of itself.

 

A Sign(ing) of Progress

I probably shouldn’t mention that having two people ask me to sign copies of an anthology I was in years ago, after my panel at World Fantasy Convention, was the highlight of my weekend, because it was the first time that ever happened to me. It probably paints me as a total newbie author. And I’m probably not supposed to talk about attending the mass autograph party at World Fantasy Convention, because it makes me look like a pathetic loser, since absolutely no one asked for my autograph there.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because I was there, and I was on a panel, and I was sitting in a chair behind my own nameplate at the autograph party. I’m an author, dammit, and it’s about time I owned it.

I immediately recognized that look, that hesitancy, after my panel when I was talking to my wife and a man with a book in his hand stood six feet away, watching me without looking directly at me. (It’s always six feet, that’s the standard, close enough to interrupt but not so close as to impinge.) I knew that look, because I’ve been there so many times, waiting for an author to finish his conversation so I could trouble him for an autograph. And it took only a second to appreciate that now I was on the other end of the transaction, that he was waiting for me to notice him. What a rush…

And then later, at the autograph party, I took a seat where I could watch the room, and laid out my business cards so my table wouldn’t be completely blank. No one came, but then I didn’t anticipate anyone would: I know the realities of book signings when you’re not famous, and most of my sales are e-books, so I had no expectations. (I did bring books for others to sign, and I got to them.) But while I was sitting there, the convention staff brought me pens, and water, and treated me just like every other author in the room. (Con staff are heroes, by the way. Been there, done that. If you haven’t, you should.)

So yeah, I only signed two books, and (unless my panel appearance so utterly brilliant as to push people to Amazon), didn’t sell any, but I don’t care. I have worked far too long to get where I am now not to take the perks that come with it. I can go to cons now, and I can be on panels, and I can hang out in the green room with other authors, and I can even go to autograph parties and sit down behind a nameplate and wait for the lines to form.

You don’t have to ask me to sign a book. We can argue about why they should change the name of the Hugo Award. But if you would like an autograph, the convention gave me a nice pen…

#SFWApro

As we all know, the urge to procreate is biological; in other words, it’s built into our DNA. Spreading our DNA, in fact, is the basic reason we exist. Writing is like that; we can’t not do it. And similarly, the urge to spread our writing is just as powerful. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, just because we have these urges doesn’t mean we have the opportunity.

With this in mind, I have tried to come up with a few ways that trying to publish is like dating.

  • You’re going in blind. Whether it’s an on-line profile or submission guidelines, you will only see what the other person wants you to see.
  • Expectations and desires are always changing. Just because it says that “sexual content is okay if it’s necessary to your story,” that doesn’t mean your definition of “necessary” and theirs match up.
  • More often than not, you’ll strike out. And there’s no guarantee it will only happen once on a given day.
  • Read the guidelines. If you’re making “simultaneous submissions,” be sure that’s okay beforehand.
  • Don’t complain about rejections. They’ll tell you, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Accept it and move on.
  • When you succeed for the first time, behave like an adult. Seriously. Act like you’ve been there before–until you’re out of sight. Then scream like a maniac and drink yourself silly. But hold off on changing your Facebook status.

#SFWApro

 

“See, here,” the old man said, settling his bones into the decent office chair that he had finally gifted himself after years of sitting on a hard seat, “I’ve been writing since the only way to find an editor was to buy the magazine off the rack and check the editorial listings. We had to type each and every draft out separately, and if you wanted a copy of your final, you used something we called ‘carbon paper.’ Then you went to the post office and had to buy double the postage if you wanted your manuscript back after it was rejected.

“Oddly enough, we do not call those ‘the good old days.’ On the other hand, it means I’ve been writing longer than just about all of you out there, and maybe I’ve learned a few things you haven’t yet. So gather ’round, and if any of this is helpful, you’re welcome.”

  • If you don’t write every day, you’re not a failure. Of course, you should write every day if you can. And you have to want to write every day. If writing isn’t in your blood, you’re not a writer. (It isn’t something you do, it’s what you are.) But the only way to improve as a writer is to write, and you’re going to have to get in that million words somehow. The more you write, the faster you get there.
  • Be yourself. Writing isn’t easy. It doesn’t tend to pay a lot. It requires years of practice to attain any proficiency, you will be working on it the rest of your life, and you will never be satisfied with your progress. But there’s joy in it, too, if you can find it. If you can’t, that’s not a knock on you; maybe your joy is elsewhere, or maybe it’s simply not the right time. Writers have been known to quit for a while and return.
  • Nobody is judging you. Some say writing is lonely. I say it’s peaceful.
  • You don’t have to write sequentially. Who said you do? There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers, and every time someone starts writing, he invents a new way. So long as it makes sense in the end, what matter if you write forward, backward, or in a circle?
  • Never show anyone your first drafts. Not your spouse, your teacher, or your dog. (You can show your cat. She won’t care anyway.) First drafts are for you and you alone. Once you get that through your head, it will free you up tremendously.
  • Stories are about people. I once had a friend who thought writing SF would be the easiest genre because you don’t need to worry about characterization, just put in a lot of ray guns. There’s a reason he never became a writer. You can succeed with cardboard characters and lots of ray guns, but if you can write relatable characters, people will read their laundry lists. And cry.
  • You don’t have to finish everything you start. Again, you should try. Quitting gets you nowhere. But sometimes a story just won’t work, and if you can’t fix it, it’s okay to set it aside and move to another. Still…
  • The ending is in the beginning. Before you shelve that wonky story, go back and try to see where it went wrong–probably earlier than you think. An editor once requested I revise my ending to give it more “bang.” After thinking about it for two years, I dumped the entire second half of the story and wrote it all again. He bought it.

Okay, that’s all for now. Go get yourself a latte somewhere and write something. … Yeah, in the old days we didn’t have lattes, either. Makes you wonder how we got anything done.

#SFWApro

Happy to announce that I will be a speaker at the World Fantasy Convention in Los Angeles, October 31 – November 3, 2019. My panel is called “Switching Gears,” which sounds more like steampunk, but here’s the description.

Switching Gears: Some writers work solely in one genre. Others write create in several genres, including fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime, etc. Which writers do, why do they do it, and how do they do it? What does it take to able switch gears between fantasy or horror and, for example, mystery? And for the writers who do “switch gears”, how do their various genre works compare to each other.

For the record, I have published science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction (as well as non-fiction). My fantasy (which seems most relevant) ranges from noir (the theme of the convention) to Gothic to humorous adventure. Come to think of it, a lot of my SF is humorous as well. Whether the panel will consider “humor” to be a separate genre worthy of discussion remains to be seen.

Spoiler alert: I don’t think writing in multiple genres is a big deal–you read in multiple genres, right? I guess it’s going to be a short panel…unless I manage to stick my foot in my mouth again–although I still maintain that the Star Trek panel riot wasn’t my fault.

So if you’re coming to the con, stop by and see me. But please leave the tomatoes outside.

#SFWApro

 

 

So I heard that these were a thing: Sailor Moon condoms. And my first thought, naturally, is: “Why?” And my second thought is: “What’s going to happen when a guy pulls one of these out of his wallet? Not what he thinks is going to happen, that’s for sure!”

And then the third thought: “What other wildly inappropriate products might be out there? And if they’re not, can I invent them and get credit?” Here’s what I’ve got:

Alien chestbuster vapo-rub. When you’ve got that congested feeling, this will help you clear your lungs. And your heart. And the room.

Wolfman baldness prevention shampoo. Losing your hair? Want to keep that from happening? Believe us, when you try this product, thinning hair will be the least of your problems! (And if  you’re going grey, this will get rid of that silver!)

Red Skull sunscreen. “Hi. I’m the Red Skull. I had such sensitive skin I had to wear a mask all the time just to keep from turning red(der). But now I look like I moved to an entirely different planet with no sun at all!”

Spider-Man anti-perspirant. Use the roll-on that Spider-Man uses, to avoid that “sticky” feeling.

Nosferatu dental paste. When you get up close and personal, your teeth say a lot about you.

Westeros Family Counseling Centers. Advisors to the royal houses of the land since last Winter.

#SFWApro

In my day job, I work for a lawyer. Although I spend much of my days wishing I were independently wealthy so that I could reside in a well-guarded tower room where I could do nothing but write,* the two occupations are not so dissimilar. For example, here are a dozen commonalities:

  • Whether writing a pleading or a story, someone is always going to judge you.
  • The rules of the game are voluminous, arcane, and ever-changing.
  • How long will it take? How long is a piece of string?
  • In court, you take your plaintiffs as you find them; you take your readers the same way.
  • If you can’t support your point, you lose the jury.
  • No matter how many times you tell your story, no two people will ever come away with the same meaning.
  • Reviews, whether law or Amazon, are an important part of your portfolio.
  • All of the “important” results come out of New York.
  • Everyone outside of the business thinks they really understand how the process works because of what they see on TV.
  • You can never predict exactly what your characters are going to say.
  • No matter how carefully your map out your plot, something new will always pop up at exactly the wrong moment.
  • A satisfying ending doesn’t always answer all your questions.

And one difference:

  • “Killing your darlings” may help your writing, but in court…

*Yes, writing. Not looking at Facebook, or playing games, or any of those silly time-wasting habits that other writers have… Ooh, look, puppies

#SFWApro