Archive for January, 2015

1. Novelists have to do all the work themselves. When you write a book, you have to do all the work. You don’t have a director to lay out your scenes, or actors to fill in your characters. You can’t just say “Scene 1 – exterior – day,” and have someone else dress the set. (Of course, we don’t have to pay those people either, or put up with their whiny “But my character wouldn’t do that” tantrums, but such considerations do not inform my thesis.)

2. Novelists can’t just blow something up. In a movie, when the plot lags, you blow something up. Novelists can’t do that. We don’t have the permits.

3. Screenwriters can always blame someone else. Once you draft a screenplay, you give it to the studio, who usually gives it back–to another screenwriter. You often end up sharing credits with 30 other people you’ve never met. Then there are the directors, studio suits, and naturally, those whiny actors who wouldn’t know what to say if you didn’t write it down for them. (They probably have assistants to read it to them, for that matter.) So how could anyone blame you if the final product tanks? Your vision was pure. A novelist, though, he’s got an editor, maybe some marketing guys, and way back in the line, his critique group. Who’s he going to blame if the book doesn’t sell? “The cover was awful.” Yeah, that always works. Who judges a book by its cover? And if the book is a hit, who gets the credit? (Well, yeah, okay…but how often does that happen?)

4. Screenwriters get respect. In LA, you go into a coffeehouse, or a Starbucks (Starbucks isn’t a coffee house, it’s a coffee bar, don’t get me started), and half the patrons are on a laptop. Of those, half are students, and the other half are writers. Ask one of these laptop users: “What are you working on?” First, you’ll have to ask three times, because they’re all wearing headphones. But when you get through to them, the answer is either, “I’m writing a screenplay,” or “I’m writing a book.” The response to the former is, “Cool. What’s it about?” The response to the latter is, “People still read books?”

5. Screenwriters don’t have to find space to write. See no. 4. After enough people interrupt him, the novelist gets discouraged and goes home to drink his coffee, because they won’t let you put booze in it at the Starbucks.

All right. Enough of this. I’m halfway through my venti latte and I haven’t done any work yet.

Scene 1 – exterior – day

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In a blatant self-promotional tactic completely unprecedented on the Internet, I am using my own blog to point out that my comedy/fantasy/martial arts/Rocky & Bullwinkle meet Monty Python novel, Once a Knight, a Tale of the Daze of Chivalry, is on sale until January 30 for $1.99, a price so ridiculous it makes the book itself look somber. And when you’re talking a story that blends Kung Fu, Maverick, and Robin Hood, that ain’t easy. I mean, when was the last time you read a book that featured samurai, pirates, Vikings, assassins, and male models?

(Really, if you have an answer to that last question, I’d like to hear from you.)

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For those of us who make our living—or hope someday to make a fraction of our rent payment—at the keyboard, writing is a slog, a muddy trek through the mire, the sedentary equivalent of Frodo trudging to Mount Doom. Except, of course, for that small subset of authors for whom it is a walk on the beach, a stroll along a country lane, Legolas skating along a castle stairway, smiting orcs with a sly smile.

I hate those guys.

You should, too, if only for the fact that they drive your favorite author insane. “Why can’t I write like that? What’s wrong with me? Three books a year just requires more discipline!”

Naturally, that line of thinking is totally off-putting, completely distracting, and utterly wrong. You might as well wonder why, if you play three-on-three at the gym every week, you’re not LeBron James.

It doesn’t keep us all from thinking it.

I first encountered this sort of writer at a mountain retreat several years ago. It was my first workshop with real, published authors. We even had a Hugo winner. Color me star-struck. But one guy, who as it turned out (unsurprisingly) had dozens of stories and zillions of articles published, could literally come up with an idea at breakfast and write a 3000-word tale by lunch. Never mind how you conceive a full-blown story that quickly, how the hell do you type that fast? I mean, let’s see…divide by four, carry the one…okay, so it’s not that fast. But it still doesn’t explain the speed of writing, which is an entirely different thing.

Naturally, I hate that guy. Haven’t seen him in years, haven’t talked to him, really nice guy, doesn’t matter. I loathe him.

Because it’s easy. If people like that are going to have it so easy themselves, then it should be equally easy to hate them. It’s only fair.

So you go on a nice rant, vent your spleen for a while, blow off some steam. You know what? You still haven’t written anything, and he’s probably got a new story out. That’s when you realize, too late, that you should have poured all that venom and outrage into your story. Then you’d have finished one too. Then maybe people could hate you for a change.

See? Easy.

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In my day job (the one I use to hide my secret identity as Superfiction–not be be confused with SuperChicken), I work in a law office. Much of my job involves writing legal documents, or what I like to refer to as “creative non-fiction.” Given the type of law our office routinely deals in, I have a certain latitude not available to scribes in more constrained areas of practice, a circumstance which lends itself well to my talents.* I can give a freer rein to my literary spirit than others might, and this serves very well. I am, in short, very good at my job.

Oddly enough, I find that is far easier to become emotionally involved in writing legal non-fiction than in my fiction. There are two likely reasons for this: First, we represent consumers who have been wronged, often horribly, by large corporations. It’s not hard to take a harsh stance under such conditions. Second, legal complaints and briefs are designed with a specific goal in mind. You never have to wonder about character motivations, or whether you want an ambiguous outcome. Motivations and desired outcome are already determined, and you simply have to work toward them. As a bonus, the time it takes to receive a ruling on a legal argument is often less than the time it takes to get an answer from a lot of magazine editors (and in my case, the incidence of positive returns is much higher).

So if creative non-fiction is easier, more focused, and more fruitful, why do I prefer the other kind, the hard stuff, the things that may take years to sell (if they ever do)?

(Yes, I’m probably not right in the head. We’ve been over that.) The difference is what I need to write versus what I want to write. Complaints are what I write for other people; fiction is what I write for myself. If I write a brief that brings a ruling in our favor, I might high-five the boss. If I write a story that sells to a pro market, I dance around the room like an idiot. (No one who has seen me dance will argue that point.)

When you write a brief, you gather up case law and arguments that other people have made and incorporate them into your situation, and it’s all perfectly fine, but at the same time it’s not all you. But a short story–that’s all you. At most you put your draft (after you’ve written it, alone) out in front of beta readers and they make suggestions, but it’s still your idea, and your draft, and your decision what to use in the end.

Is it, then, creative control that determines the issue? Is it the personal stakes? Is it, perhaps, the very fact that the odds are so much more daunting? Which of these explains the conundrum?

The answer, I think, as so often occurs in life, is “all of the above.” Oh, and that insanity thing, too. Don’t forget that.

*And by “latitude,” I mean strictly in the stylistic sense.

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Being a writer is like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you. Or maybe she does. Then she doesn’t. Sometimes you even break up over it. But when you do, it’s never about her, it’s always about you. Except it’s really about her. And you. Writing is like love; it’s very confusing.

When you’re a young writer (or lover, let us treat the two as interchangeable for our purposes, or this essay will be filled with parentheses), you don’t know how to treat the object of your desire with respect. You are at the outset of life, everything is shiny and new and will last forever. You have time for all of it. So you’re reckless, and perhaps careless, and you don’t pay attention the way you should to the details. And you get shot down. This is called “learning from life,” and it sucks. The worst part is that it never ends.

After some time, you learn to take that extra care, and along the way you learn that just because you think something is going fine, not everyone agrees. You have to take other people’s feelings into consideration. You may be the center of your own universe, but each of us can say the same, and each of us considers his feelings and his interests to be paramount. So you learn some more. It still sucks, but maybe a bit less, because you’ve been through it before.

Eventually, you have some success. You sell a story, or embark on a real relationship. You have learned to accommodate someone else. Here is where writing and love diverge. In writing, you have to accommodate lots of people (i.e., your fans). You’ll never please everyone, or even most people, but if you please enough, you can have a career. The more you please, the bigger your career. On the other hand, in love you need to concentrate on The One. (Please no, Matrix jokes. Or Lord of the Rings jokes. And yes, we could go on.) In love, if you try to please more than one person, you’re going to get slapped down harder than you did when you were young and naive.

And yet, contrary to logic (and what about life isn’t contrary to logic?), while writing and love diverge, they remain similar. You still, in the end, have to please yourself, even while you’re pleasing others. You’d think that pleasing yourself in love (get your mind out of the gutter) would be easier than in writing because there are fewer people involved; that’s not the case and we pretty much all know it. But if you don’t manage it, both will suffer. As will you.

There are those who say that writing is easier without love, and vice versa; each demands too much time to accommodate the other. That might be so, but without love, who would support you when the writing is hard and the sales are few? And without writing, how could you be yourself?

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Self-publishing is spreading. And it’s a bad thing. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t allow you to blame anyone else for your mistakes. Self-publishing (“self-pubbing”) requires you to be creator, editor, art director, publicist, accountant, and publisher, unlike regular publishing which only requires you to be creator, editor, publicist, accountant, and Chief Submissions Officer. So there’s, hmm, one more thing that you have to be responsible for. Still, it’s a lot, because you have to bemoan the responsibility of cover approval instead of bemoaning your lack of authority over cover approval.

2. It doesn’t allow you to blame anyone else if the book doesn’t sell. Writers have hard shells but fragile egos. Look at every article that tells you not to read reviews if you don’t believe me. We can handle rejection before a sale, but not after. If a traditionally-published (“trad-published”) book doesn’t sell, we blame the cover art, the marketing, the shelf placement. If a self-pubbed book doesn’t sell, well, you chose the art, you did the marketing, and there are no shelves. So you can feel rejected even without a review–or, ironically, if you don’t get any reviews.

3. It takes the job of reading out of the hands of professionals. A trad-published book in the store is the end result of slushers, editors, copy-writers, and salesmen all working together to make sure that your book is the book they want to sell (regardless of whether it’s the book you naively wanted to write). These professionals work long hours for inadequate pay to ensure that the reading public sees only the cream of the crop of all submitted novels (and Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks, because they sell really well). Self-pubbing allows anyone to be a published author. How are you supposed to be able to read the best books if no one tells you what they are?

4. It overloads the reviewers. There are a lot of reviewers out there. In fact, the same Internet that allows self-pubbed authors also allows self-pubbed reviewers. But still there are not enough of these selfless and dedicated public servants to cover all the books that are published. This results in overworked reviewers, who then have no time to write their own books. Can you believe that there are reviewers out there who have never had the time to write a single book? And yet they bravely attempt to criticize others who have the time to do what they can only dream about accomplishing. I tell you, the word “hero” is tossed around pretty casually these days, but…

5. It threatens to create a permanent, mentally-skewed underclass. As I have repeatedly described, writers are insane. We are, in fact, completely nuts and should never be allowed around sharp objects like, say, pens, for example. (The only exceptions are those scribes who have recognized their affliction and attempt to minimize their own capacity for harm by submitting manuscripts in crayon. Editors should applaud these highly-disciplined individuals.) The only factor that has limited this plague of lunacy (or, if you will, this Confederacy of Dunces), is that getting published has been so difficult. Now that safety valve is gone. I fear for the future.

Given more time, I certainly could elaborate, but I hope this essay will serve a public service, much as the editors and reviewers have done until now, in educating the world as to the true costs of self-publishing. And if you, dear reader, need any further proof, I have three self-published books. Read them, and learn how dangerous it is to allow just anyone to express himself.

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As both of the regular readers of this blog know, I recently posted a novel of mine, “The Choking Rain,” on wattpad.com, a free site for posting novels and short stories, whether original or fan fiction. According to the site’s own tracking, successful authors can attract thousands of fans to their work, and while there’s no direct monetary return, if you have a blog or other, non-free content to offer, it has the potential of drawing all of those people in.

My own experience, as recounted here, was far more modest. Even after being a Featured story, “The Choking Rain” has attracted hundreds, not thousands. Still, that’s hundreds of people who had never heard of me before, and it’s still accruing nearly a hundred new readers a week, of whom a measurable number appear to be visiting either my website or my Smashwords page. Not bad for a free service.

I attribute the popularity of wattpad.com, and blogs, and such things, to our innate need to make ourselves known, to rise above the crowd, to scream “I’m here!” to an uncaring universe. We all want to believe we’re special and have something to say, right? Wrong. I was a little surprised when an acquaintance who had previously written a piece of Star Wars fanfic (maybe 5000 words, no small feat), said she wasn’t interested when I told her about wattpad. She said her work was too amateurish, too juvenile. I told her, in all honesty, that a lot of what I had seen was more amateurish than what she’d written. (As I have said before, this is not a criticism. Everyone starts somewhere.) But she didn’t care, wasn’t interested, didn’t want to know, so I dropped it.

Now, not everyone wants to be a writer. (In fact, in my book, this is the first test for determining if a person is sane. You don’t have to be insane to be a writer, but you won’t have to wait long.) But if you’ve already got the story written, if once upon a time you cared enough to devote the time to think and write, and maybe even edit a little, and to distribute it to even a few of your friends, then why not take the plunge and put it out in the world? For heaven’s sake, if you’re that ashamed, use a pseudonym–it’s the Internet, after all.

But hey, I’m not on that committee. It’s not my story, not my life. To be honest, there’s stuff I wouldn’t put up there either. Although now that I think about it, maybe I should…

Then again, I’m a writer, so I’m probably not sane anyway.

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