Archive for October, 2014

The story is that the pyramids were never really finished until the pharaoh died, and then they had to be finished in a hurry. The difference with a story is that if you die, nobody’s going to finish it for you. (Unless you’re already famous, but then this post isn’t for you.)

So you need to finish that story, because the perfect story doesn’t exist–ergo, it’s never finished, and it never gets subbed, and it never gets published. That’s why perfect writers never get published. Of course, the question then is: How do I know when it’s good enough? And as with so many of life’s questions, the answer is another question: How long is a piece of string?

Okay, that’s cheating. The answer is that you probably don’t know. You need someone with perspective to help you out. Preferably another writer, one whose life/job/happiness doesn’t depend on you. But happily, as you mature as a writer, you need less of this help, at least in the early draft stages. You learn to recognize what’s good and what’s not, especially if you have offered (and I can’t recommend this enough) to help some other writer hone his work. There’s no better way to see your own flaws than in someone else’s work. (It also does wonders for your diplomatic skills.)

And as you mature, you will recognize your limits. Maybe this isn’t your best work. (After all, there is only one “best work,” like there’s only One Ring.) But that’s okay. Your “good” stories may be good enough. The secret is to make them the best you can, but be prepared to let them go. Kind of like raising kids, but cheaper and with fewer temper tantrums (at least on their part). And by “good enough,” I don’t mean good enough to sell, but good enough that you’re not ashamed to let them out into the world.

Because like I said, they’re your kids. And they may not be perfect, but they’re yours, and it’s time you let everyone know how proud of them you are.

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In my day job, I work for a law office. We deal mostly in securities issues (not security, we’re not an NSA front), but problems with stockbrokers. It is amazing how many people have money in the stock market and aren’t really aware of it, because their money is in an IRA or a company pension plan and they don’t know what it’s doing. What’s more amazing is how many people consciously invest their money–often their entire retirement fund–and don’t have a clue how the market works, or how much power their brokers have over their money. I mean, you don’t know how your doctor will perform your heart bypass, but at least you know that sometimes you need to get a second opinion before he does it.

The same thing goes in the writing business. I visit various sites and boards where writers of varying levels of experience hang out, and I keep seeing the same questions and misconceptions popping up. Some are about writing itself, which can mostly be solved only by practice, but some concern the intersection between the craft of writing and the business of writing.

Some are simple: “How long should a chapter be?” Answer: “How long is a piece of string?” A chapter (or a book, or a story) should be as long as it needs to be to get the job done. Say what you want to say, and stop.

But others are less simple, and more critical: “How do I know that after I pay the publisher, he’ll give me the kind of promotion I need?” This is like asking, “After you sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, how do I know you’ll give me a receipt?” The writer is concerned about promotion (which he will never get in this case) when he should be concerned with the fact that no reputable publisher will ever ask you for money to publish your book.

And yet this question, in some form, keeps arising. But if you’re like me, and most writers, you’ve spent years and sacrificed many fun evenings to get where you are. Why risk losing it all because of your own ignorance? Good information has never been easier to find.

It’s hard enough to make it in this business without giving it all away. Take the time to learn not just the writing rules, but the business of writing rules. Then you can make enough money to lose it to your stockbroker like everyone else.

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In the latest of our continuing series of essays on why writing is like a whole bunch of other things that have nothing to do with writing, here are my reasons why writing (a novel, particularly) is like driving a car.

1) You can wait for years just to get started.

2) It can take more years to learn to do it right. Having a good teacher helps.

3) Like it or not, everything comes down to you. Nobody else can reach the pedals or steer.

4) Eating while you do it can be counter-productive and distracting and can end up with food in places you don’t want it.

5) Using your phone during the process only keeps you from doing either one correctly.

6) Texting during the process is absolutely prohibited.

7) Using reverse requires watching where you’re going in two directions at once.

8) GPS may tell you where you are and have an idea where you’re going, but it’s not infallible.

9) Sometimes you have to backtrack and take an entirely different road. (See no. 8.)

10) When you finally get where you’re going, you soon find yourself back behind the wheel doing it again.

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There’s a mystique about being a writer, that it’s somehow a sacred calling, reserved for the most empathetic, the most evolved, highly-advanced meta-beings inhabiting a lofty plateau in the clouds, dispensing emotional wisdom to the masses hungry for their stories and essays and novels, who in turn reap upon these demigods and goddesses riches and accolades appropriate to their exalted standing.

This is, of course, a complete load of garbage out of my own turgid imagination. But then, that’s what writers do. We imagine. Which is why we are all writers.

You don’t need a college degree to imagine. You don’t need a fancy computer, or even a pencil and paper. And you don’t need to imagine great rollicking fantasy trilogies, you might just be dreaming of a better job. The only difference between you and the guy with the trilogy is that he wrote his imaginings down.

You might think writing a novel is hard. Yeah, it is. But you don’t have to write a novel; I’ve sold stories that were only two pages long. Even when you write a novel, it’s divided into chapters, which are sort of like short stories. (I’ve seen more than one aspiring writer ask: How long is a chapter? That’s like asking: How long is a piece of string?)

Being a writer has one requirement: You have to write. And if you can talk, you can write. Just put down on paper what you say. It’s that easy. (It helps if you know how to spell, but that can be fixed.)

Then, once you’ve made that leap, gone to that trouble, once you’ve written and submitted a story (then another and another and a few dozen more), you will know the joy that comes of having a story published. And then you will occupy that high plateau, worshipped and adored and laden with riches.

And we’ll even teach you the secret handshake.

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Eric and Professor Death are ambushed in a deserted warehouse! Ted and Kate follow a suspect only to be captured themselves and taken to “The Master’s Lair.” Chapter 13 of The Choking Rain is available FREE now!

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Everyone is a product of his times. We are not bound by them, but we are shaped by them, and in general we reflect the current mores and contemporary beliefs (at some point along a very long spectrum). This is no more or less true of writers, but it is more noticeable because most writers are fortunate enough to have their work survive them, and in a few cases, it survives them for decades or even centuries. Sometimes, that examination shows flaws, flaws that often stem as much from the times as from the individual.

I’m brought to this point by this blog essay on The Racism of H.P. Lovecraft. (I have a collection of Lovecraft stories, but I haven’t read them in many years, so I don’t recall if I’ve ever noted issues cited.) The author touches on the question: Should we continue to read these stories that would not be publishable today?

The most famous example, of course, is not Lovecraft, but Huckleberry Finn, which even those who decry its racism are hard-pressed to deny is a classic. The remedy, since the book can hardly be banned or even belittled, has been to censor it. And the counter-response is, “You can’t. It is what it is. It’s a product of its time.”

Of course it is. That’s what makes it a classic. You can’t understand what Twain was saying by blocking out the bits you don’t like. The fact that he writes against racism by using what we now consider horribly racist terms is an integral part of the book; you cannot understand the message without understanding the times, and you cannot understand the times without seeing the book as written. The medium is the message.

But what of other books, the not-classics? Does Huck Finn get a waiver? No, being the best of example of a bad pattern doesn’t get you out of detention. Yet the same principle holds for the “lesser works.” I read a lot of pulp novels from the 1930s. They’re light, they’re fun, and sometimes they’re racist. Because that’s when they were written. I don’t excuse them for it; I cringe, and I keep on reading them, because I still enjoy the stories (so long as the problem isn’t endemic) and because ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. I could stop, throw the books into trash (can’t take them to the library, can I?), but it won’t make a difference. They were written 80 years ago. The authors are dead. I’d like to think (even though I know it isn’t true) that those attitudes are dead, too.

But they’re not. And if we toss out those books, or censor the offensive parts, we forget, we allow ourselves to forget, that casual racism was just that, casual. As in, it was a part of life. As if destroying the evidence will erase the crime.

Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. If you want to be honest about today, you have understand something about yesterday, especially its sins.

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In Chapter 12 of The Choking Rain, people are disappearing at an alarming rate…

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