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Archive for December, 2014

Recently, I talked about how writers are forever doubting themselves, always comparing themselves to their own future potential successes rather than concrete accomplishments, creating a permanent class of (neurotic) fantasists, in more ways than one.* Just to prove my point, I also want to talk a little about how writers can believe in their work (if not themselves) to a degree that normal human beings would see as highly narcissistic, but which we know as a mere survival skill. Everyone knows that to make it as a writer you have to develop a thick skin; fewer know that you further need to develop the patience of Job at the end of a really bad week.

After you write a story, you submit it to a magazine (or a novel to a publisher). And then you wait. Nowadays, there are sites (like the Submission Grinder) which allow you to see average response times, so you have something to fret about when your story out is an hour past that point. (Kind of like teenagers.) This is a vast improvement over pre-email times, when you didn’t even know if your sub had been received, let alone when it might come back. But 95% of the time, you do get a response (which may well be much later than statistics would indicate, but that’s another topic). And 95% of the time, that response will be a “No, thanks.”

As you progress, that number improves, but we’re talking about stories that come back. And go out. And come back. What do you do with those? After a few “no’s” you re-read it. You tinker. You re-sub. It comes back.

Eventually, you have a choice: Keep subbing, or “trunk” it. Every writer has a “trunk” where stories go into deep storage. (Occasionally, one is brought out again years later and re-tooled.) If you truly believe in the story, you keep subbing. And this is where you need patience, because if you love your story that much, and no one else does, then you need to find it in yourself to keep pushing it. And you may keep pushing that story for years. Or decades. I have one story that sold only after collecting 35 rejections over 25 years. But I loved it, and I believed in it, and in the end I was right.

How can someone whose professional self-worth is built on tomorrow’s successes keep so much faith with yesterday’s (let’s be honest) failures? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe we’re just so obsessed with a better tomorrow that we’re willing to change yesterday to get it.

Or maybe we’re just that into ourselves.

*I also talked about how I had carved an additional 12% off a story that I had previously cut, I thought, to the bone. That story came back a few days later with a polite note expressing to me the reader’s belief that the story was too long. You can’t please everyone.

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The Choking Rain, my Depression-era pulp adventure novel, is now available in e-book form for the first time at Smashwords.com.

The Choking Rain, first in a planned series, follows former WWI fighter ace Eric Reinhold and four fellow adventurers as they fight to find the answer to The Invisible Death, a phantom killer stalking the streets of Los Angeles in the winter of 1932, just months before the Olympic Games are meant to give hope to a beaten-down American public. But if the killings aren’t stopped, the Games will be cancelled, a major propaganda blow to the growing influence of the United States. With the authorities helpless, panic mounting, and the murderous scourge seeming to focus on his own family, Reinhold has to take the law into his own hands, even if it means defying the police, endangering his friends, and returning to fight the war he thought he had left behind–a war which this time, he might very well not survive…

Ranging from the alleyways of Tinseltown to the pathless jungles of South America, featuring gangsters, spies, hidden agendas, unexpected allies, and surprise villains, The Choking Rain is a rousing adventure story in the classic pulp style.

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A great man (okay, it was me) once said: “To readers, a writer is as good as his last story. To a writer, he’s only as good as his next.”

Well, that’s a hell of a way to live. I don’t know any writers who are happy based solely on the work they’ve done. If they’re happy at all, it’s with their current project, or maybe the thing they’ve just sold. Why can’t writers just sit on their laurels? Attorneys don’t judge themselves on their next case; doctors don’t say, “Just wait till tomorrow’s appendectomy, then you’ll see what I can really do!” Quarterbacks don’t look at the Heisman on the mantel and think somebody made a mistake. But writers? A Nebula nomination can send us on a two-day bender, bemoaning the fact that it’s probably the only one we’ll ever see.

The pre-published masses know that just selling one story would validate them in the eyes of the world. In the eyes of the world, yes. In their own eyes? Not so fast. “How do I know it wasn’t an accident? A total fluke?”

What is wrong with us? Neo-pros need to sell a novel; novelists are afraid their next book won’t sell enough and their house will dump them. We’re like addicts, our last fix was never enough.

I blame society. (Of course I do, doesn’t everyone?) Attorneys and doctors and teachers and athletes go to schools or to camps to learn their professions. They climb the ladder toward success during their training process: the best college, the best grad school, All-American honors, etc. They receive validation throughout; they’re constantly graded, given the opportunity to test themselves against their peers.

Writers? Who trains them? There are some programs (I studied creative writing at UCLA), but even then, we’re largely self-taught. There are seminars, but you’re not graded, and the number of classmates against whom you might try (futilely) to gauge your skills is very small. The only chance you ever get to compare yourself to other writers is when you submit your work professionally–and then not only are you treading water in a sea a thousand writers deep, you can’t see any of them, so you still lack the ability to compare.

And say you win out, your story is chosen. Anyone who has swum the Sea of Submissions for any length of time knows that rejections are subjective and unpredictable–so why shouldn’t acceptances be the same? If rejection isn’t a reflection on you, why should success be?

I suspect that a couple of Hugos, a Nebula, maybe a Worldcon GOH invitation would serve to soothe some of these feelings of inadequacy, but it’s entirely possible I’m wrong. Maybe every writer spends his life seeking the Holy Manuscript, that one shining achievement of which he may be ultimately proud, the novel which spawns a movie trilogy, a TV show, a Broadway musical, even a line of toys.

But I also suspect that the next day he will sit at his desk, turn on his computer, and think: “Great job, Self, but what have you done for me lately?”

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“Kill your darlings.” That’s what they tell you in Writing 101. Don’t hesitate to cut sentences, even paragraphs, no matter how much you love them, if they don’t serve the story. Take your writing scalpel and remove them from the body of your work.

In a recent survey of market opportunities cross-referenced with the stories I have available for submission, I came across a pro-rate paying magazine whose guidelines immediately put me in mind of a certain story.*

Now, this is one of my favorites. I have held onto it, refusing to submit it to less than pro-rate markets, knowing in my heart that it is good enough to pull down top money—despite the fact that all of the top markets so far have rejected it (even if one did request a rewrite). New markets pop up with some frequency, however, so I’ve been living in the hope that it would find that one editor who would believe in it as I did.

I didn’t recall, though, sending it to that market. “Is it possible I never subbed that story to that magazine?” I wondered. “How could I not?” But in checking my files, I saw that no, I never had. Why? Because a second review of the guidelines showed that their maximum length was 4000 words, and my story was 4500.

I immediately thought, “Five hundred words? How am I going to cut 500 words from a 4500-word story?” I live by the rule that after you’ve drafted and polished a story, you should go back and cut another 10%. I had already done that. But I bent to the task, intending to try to identify some scene that could be excised, much as I believed it impossible. Every scene was absolutely crucial!

It took exactly one pass to remove 450 words.

The rest fell quickly after. There were unwieldy constructions and unnecessary exposition. I even added a few words at one point to make a critical scene clearer, and still managed to reach my goal. The whole process took less than an hour.

What’s the take-away here? Should I change the 10% rule to 20%? I don’t think so. You don’t want to compile so many rules about how to write that you forget just to write. Truthfully, when I started this essay I didn’t know myself where it was going. But the answer was in front of me almost from the beginning: You can’t set a story on a pedestal. Sure, when it’s published, out in the world, it’s set. But until then, it can always be improved, no matter how much store you set by it.

Kill your darlings with a scalpel? Sure. Except when a machine gun will do the job better.

*According to SFWA guidelines, “pro” rates start at $0.06/word.

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As you may have noticed from elsewhere on this page, I have published a novel called The Choking Rain at Wattpad.com. For those not in the know, Wattpad is a site where anyone can self-publish short stories or serialized novels, offered to Wattpad users for free. Wattpad membership is also free, so your potential audience is very large indeed.

Much of what one finds on Wattpad is fan fiction, and much of what finds appears to be worth exactly what you’re paying for it. This is not to denigrate Wattpad authors—not only are some of them quite good (I am not the only published writer using it, by far), but even those who are not so good are honing their craft, a necessary step for any author—in fact, it never ends.

The Choking Rain, frankly, is an example of that. I wrote it quite some time ago, and I like to think I’ve improved since then. I did review it before I put it up, and I would not have done it at all except that I personally like the novel and, although it failed to find a traditional publisher, it was rejected more for being too “niche” than any other fault I could determine. So, with a little updating, I felt it was safe to publish without tarnishing my reputation. It also helped that the story lent itself well to serialization.

In researching Wattpad, I found its offerings boasted an astounding number of readers. (The site keeps public count of “reads,” which is anyone who looks at a story or chapter. A full perusal of Rain by one person would yield 35 “reads,” one per chapter.) Even taking that into account, however, a lot of novels were recording several hundred thousand reads over the course of a year. Divide 100,000 reads by 35 chapters and you’re talking a lot of fans.*

So I tried it. At first, I was pulling in about 20 reads a day. Considering that before this, nobody had read the book, 20 reads was significant, even if most of them were restricted to the first installment. As I progressed, the number remained pretty static, but at least a few readers were following the story.

Then Wattpad contacted me and said they wanted Rain to be a Featured story. This means you get on their menu of promoted stories for a couple of months. No fool I, I agreed, and the entire book was Featured as on December 1.

It went from 20 reads per day to 500 in less than a week. And it has remained there, so that as of this writing it is just under 7500 reads. Most of them are still limited to the first installment, but there’s a fair number of people actually reading the book, and that’s cool. And around 500 new people per day are clicking on my story, so that’s very cool.

I don’t know that this is going to make me any money; I don’t know that it has so far, certainly, but it’s been fun watching the numbers climb, and the comments have been for the most part gratifying. People are reading what I wrote.

And that’s very cool, too.

*2,857, just to save you the trouble.

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One-hit Wonderer

Through the miracle of modern technology, I am in contact with/able to read the utterances of various writers across the globe, many of whom are in the same somewhat-pro-but-not-terribly-well-known boat that I inhabit. I’ve recently run across the writer’s version of the well-known “one-hit wonder” syndrome that we usually associate with music (i.e., a band produces one big hit and never charts again. The examples are legion.) In this case, a writer may produce one story which sells big, gets reprints, and generates award buzz, but after that he has trouble selling to Dog-Catcher’s Quarterly.

I hadn’t really known that this was a thing. I’d heard of the novelist’s plight: you write a series of books and the first or second or third doesn’t sell very well, and you’re dropped by your publisher, leaving you and your series (and readers) high and dry. I didn’t realize it applied to short stories as well.

It did get me thinking, though, about the definition of success, and how that definition changes as your perspective changes: Success is a moving target, and they’re hard to hit. For years, my definition was “to sell a story.” I achieved that, so now my definition is…hmm. Ultimately, it’s to have people say, “You know, Stephen King is okay, but that Lowe guy, he’s something else.” Perhaps it would be wise to have an intermediate goal.

But that’s tougher. If I were to go back 20 years and show my list of sales to the Me of 1994, his jaw would drop. He’d think he’d made it to the top of the mountain and the view must be incredible. The Me of 2014, on the other hand, would shake his head pityingly, and say, “Kid, you have no idea.” Because today, although I take great pleasure in my accomplishments (I will never forget that first sale), I can’t consider myself successful. And that’s without comparing myself to my peers. (Don’t ever do that. It’s the first, second, and third steps on the road to madness.)

So here I am, thinking I’ve barely scratched the surface of success, and along comes a new worry: Even if I make that next big sale, will it be the only one? Will I be a one-hit wonder? And then I think, wait, you sold that novelette to IGMS last year, your biggest sale ever. Maybe you already are a one-hit wonder.

Eventually, I soothe my own shattered nerves and remind myself where I started. I go over how far I’ve come. If I were to re-read my own early stories (all lost, probably for the best), I would see that the writer I am today is light-years ahead of that kid. And I tell myself that if I were to meet the Me from 2024, his publication list would floor me.

Of course, maybe the Me from 2024 would shake his head pityingly and say, “Kid, you have no idea.” But I’ve got ten years to make him happy.

And maybe he’ll be saying, “Keep aiming, kid, you’re getting closer.”

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To a writer, a life is like a tube of toothpaste: It starts out all plump and round and smooth, and the writer must squeeze and squeeze until it all comes out and the tube is squashed, and wrinkled, and has nothing left to offer. Then the writer has to find a new life and squeeze it until it’s empty, and so on. That’s how you create stories.

The hell of this is that most often, that toothpaste tube is you.

“Write what you know.” Why can’t Truth be simple? That one simple bit of advice, given to every fledgling writer. It’s so damn true it hurts (which is the point), but it’s never simple–most obviously for speculative fiction writers. How do you write about what you know if you know nothing about life on Beta Centauri, or Middle Earth, or what it feels like to jump over tall buildings in a single bound? And what does he mean when he says “it hurts, and that’s the point”?

Hint: It ain’t about Beta Centauri, or being a hobbit or a Kryptonian. It’s about being a human being.

Writing what you know means squeezing your own toothpaste. (I apologize, but there’s no way to write that, that doesn’t sound dirty.) To get to the deepest parts of our collective psyche, you have to travel the path of your own life, because you don’t get that same insider’s view of anyone else’s.*

And unfortunately, the part of our collective psyche you have to examine is the part that leads to conflict, because conflict drives all stories. And even then you have to do more than simply regurgitate your experiences, because usually conflicts between normal, everyday people arise over petty matters that are highly important to them, but no one else. This would make for a dull story. Would you rather read about nine brothers fighting over inheriting an antique table, or nine guys embarking on a quest to destroy an artifact that, in the wrong hands, would enslave the world?

We need big conflicts. This gets tough, because I believe if you surveyed most writers, you’d find they don’t thrive on conflict. The stereotypical writer shuts himself up in a garret all winter and eschews human company. (That’s why he freezes; he hasn’t gone out to buy more toothpaste. Think about it.) Of course, most writers aren’t stereotypical, but we do shut ourselves away for lengthy periods to work. This is not the lifestyle of people who thrive on conflict. And yet without it, we creatively starve (or freeze).

So when you next see your writer friends, feel free to tell us your stories, your pain, your conflicts. Just don’t argue with us or berate us when we tell you you’re going into our next novel.

We’re writers. We have enough conflict in our lives.

*Maybe a telepathic writer would have an advantage there, but I think more likely he’d simply go insane.

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