On The Seance of Dead Writers

An interesting conversation occurred this morning between Tess and me. We were talking about the mechanics of voice, specifically Elmore Leonard’s ability to convey entire stories through little more than dialogue. She loves his style or writing, if I heard her correctly, because of the way that it lies.

Now I should explain.

All fiction is a lie. Author literally makes this stuff up, and the trick is we’re sometimes able to make our readers believe that lie as if it were fact. Leonard’s genius is that he lies in a way that makes you feel like you’re witnessing the story as it’s happening. It’s memory. A long conversation that you’ve listened instead of some words you read.

While I appreciate the technique, much of what I’ve written does not make use of this. Per my wife, I should probably think about channeling the voice of Leonard. This is, however, only one possible conclusion of the conversation.

I am now keenly aware of the authorial voices that influence me as I pound out manuscripts. In fact, I’ve noticed that as I’ve developed as a writer, I tend to read with a new found insight into these creative aspects within the domain of any story’s construction.

Right now I’m very much channeling the spirit of Dead Ed with a little Jack London tossed in. For the first time, I’m mindful of the influence these two authors exert on my writing, as I write. I often ask myself if what I’ve written is something they might like to read. Of course, I’ll never know, but the question is an important one for me to answer because the example of their work sets a new expectation that I’m shooting for.

The October Omnibus Update

I’m going to drill down on what’s up with the words. That’s the part that you’re likely interested in the first place, and it’s certainly at the core of everything I do.

Short Stories

Since I sent Shadow Over Your Shoulder out into the world, I’ve been working on another short project. The working title is “Running,” and it’s a refugee story about a woman caught between her culture and an alien invasion.

This has been a difficult writing exercise for me because I’m not a woman and I’ve never been pregnant. For that matter, I’ve never been a refugee, so I’m always reaching. Asking myself, “Given these conditions, how would you react?” It’s an exercise in empathy that can often be very draining.

Currently, Running is about 2,000 words, and there are easily four or five more chapters I need to write.

Plague of Contentment

About mid-September I put this down. I ran into a speed bump, and I needed some time to figure out how to get around it. One of the problems with being high-speed, low-drag I suppose is that don’t always have the elevation to clear these hurdles.

The good news is that Frank and Alice now have a way out of Cle Elem and I know how I’m going to rob them of the RV (without sending them back to the ranch). Ever tried sucking diesel fuel from an underground well through a hose?

Up Slope

Yeah, so I spent the later part of September solving structural issues which were a byproduct of having written the original manuscript as a novel. A lot of this involved moving parts of the story around so each episode had both its own arc and ended on at least one cliffhanger.

I feel that I’ve done this and now I’m digging back into revisions, edits, and rewrites. I’m not sure if there’s enough time for art this month, but if all of these things come together, Episode 2 could be out this month. At this point, I guess you won’t see it until November, and that may be for the best. Lots more time for us to polish this one.

Bone Eaters

I got my NaNo reminder today, and oh yeah, I’ve been using a lot of spare cycles to outline, in great detail, the particulars of a slipstream novel called The Bone Eaters.

The draft synopsis I’m working from is as follows:

”Centuries after a solar flare cooked the planet Ji Practitioner Taego Bou, a young Ax from the Western Cloister of the Pinan Sangha, toils to ensure that this island of a lost world will continue under the protection of the Dragon’s Egg. At the center of the city stands a grand stupa where four bodhisattvas exist in a half-life between Nirvana and death to maintain a pinch in space-time that protects the inhabitants below.”

“Over the centuries, a once benign dogma has become an all-encompassing influence of the time population within the confines of the Dragon’s Egg. Strict population and genetic controls are tightly and blindly managed by a pedantic administration class who clings to the power and privilege of their position.”

The outline is already more than 2,000 words and growing quickly. The novel is about intransigent cultural influence, indoctrination and the revolution of mind and awareness necessary for people to expand. For this novel, I’m targeting around 75,000 words, and I’m planning out all the details (no more pants-ing it).

GeekGirlCon

Yeah, I spent Saturday at Seattle’s very own celebration of fandom. My first impression was that this was a whole lot bigger convention that I had anticipated. Despite my social anxiety I persevered. I’m rewarded for sticking with it.

So much of the CosPlay was beyond believable. The panels were often so well attended that they were turning people away. And I had sushi at Blue-C (with the first grain I’ve consumed in more than a month; they didn’t have sashimi).

My favorite part of the whole thing was getting the opportunity to talk to so many creative, thoughtful people; I walked away from the Con with much to think over including a handful of up-sights. Later this week I’ll get through the stack of contact information and do my best to untangle all these memories in a blog post.

Musical Touchstone

Considering the rollercoaster that the last week became it’s a small wonder this section is chocked full of angry punk anthems. Probably a sign of my aging mind, but those albums are statistically insignificant through September and now October.

Rather, I’ve been diving into downtempo, trip-hop. My ears have been craving harmonies vibraphone, a steady beat and steel strings. Skye Edwards singing “The Sea” for Morcheeba played over the rambling susurrations of the coffee shop.

World Domination

In September we passed the second funding goal for this project, thank you one and all for your participation reaching Incremental Assassination. What this means is that I can now afford to have some prints of cover art made.

The next milepost is just visible on the horizon. I’ve been dreaming of an Isley Scotch Whiskey from Jura, heavily peated. For me, this smokey flavor is reminiscent of my fire-fighting days. I’ve had my eyes on Ardbeg’s “Supernova.” Antici …

Pation.

Let me reiterate my September call-to-action. If you enjoyed SYOS and know someone else who might as well, please feel free to pass it along. With that same sentiment.

Thank You Readers

Every so often, when I’m sitting behind the keyboard, pounding out another tale, I feel the immensity of this challenge I’ve set ahead of myself. I feel alone, shipwrecked-alone. Like there’s no help out there, I’m the only one who’s ever going to read any of this stuff. Sometimes that’s enough, but then there are other moments.

I struggle against this sensation because I know that it’s not true, but when it happens it takes a lot out of me. Instead of focusing on the story at hand, I have to repair the cracks that form in my self-confidence.

But occasionally, one of you mixes up the mortar.

Ser Pan Comido – Matthew Alan Thyer – 4.5/5 – This tale almost begins like something from Aladdin, with the street rats circling trying to get around in a city full of wonders. However, you quickly get a feel for this story, and understand not only the intricate city the Author has built, but the culture surrounding it. Then there is the wreck of this ship laying amongst it. The story follows 3 young teens that manage to gain access to the derelict, and in the process of doing so, get a little more than they bargained for.
I don’t want to say too much, as it will give away too much of the story and ruin it, needless to say, this is a fantastic adventure, brilliant in its story telling, with really clever, well written characters. There are some fascinating parts to this story, especially once they are inside the ship, that kept me enthralled, and in a single session (difficult with young kids!!) His characters are really well written and believable, making this even more enjoyable.
Again, I found myself finishing this tale, and seeking the authors other works as I really enjoyed this story.”

Jas P

Maledicta?

I have been criticized for the use of coarse language in my writing and, you know, that’s fucking fair. Regardless of where the scrutiny is coming from it tends to make me wonder, Could I say the same thing, but keep it pure as snow? This is completely rhetorical noodling, however, and I know it. Don’t believe me, walk out your door and gnaw on a handful of the white stuff. You’ll be spitting dirt, hair, and heavy metals for the rest of the day.

I was born in the early 70’s. Some of the worst atrocities of Vietnam War were taking place as my mother labored over my birth. The 1972 Easter Offensive was only broken by US lead sustained carpet bombing counter-campaign. While estimates of the military personnel lost or wounded during this knock-out, dragged-out slug-fest range vastly even today, we’re certain we’ll never know the actual human toll extracted from the South Asian jungles. Thousands, hundreds-of-thousands in that year alone? Just people in the wrong place, because that’s a lot of death for little more than rubber tree plantations. We know that the final tally went well into the millions of people dead in the name of slapdash policy wonks who inhabited the white halls of capital buildings thousands of miles away. Broken individuals testing their favorite military hypothesis with actual lives.

I grew up a child of the 80’s. Some would argue that this was, in America anyway, a period of relative peace and prosperity, and those fuckers would be absolutely wrong. Violence, the threat of loss, these things were everywhere, even in whitebread American suburbs. Always there was the specter of Soviet aggression, and the media played this chord constantly. While I struggle to recall most memories from my childhood, I can vividly recollect duck-and-cover exercises and the unspoken certainty that hiding under a table was rehearsal for bending over and kissing your own ass goodbye.

But it didn’t stop there, never. Red Dawn, Iran-Contra, the War on Drugs, mob battles, train wrecks, plane crashes, refugees, assassination, mass shooting, and buildings bombed; the 1980’s were a violence mill, and this was reflected in the culture of the time.

North

Some of my favorite music from that time is little more than an appreciation of my generation’s violent inheritance. And we made the best, from ribald rhymes intent on eliciting prudish moral outrage to confrontational indictments of the latest criminal insult passing without consequence. We may not have invented the grassroots response, but we did our part to perfect it. Honing our tools the only way anyone had ever shown us.

Our words got sharp. Baby boomer hedge fund managers and MTV executives making piles of cash from the sweat of our backs, politicians and generals extracting the rest right from our hides, we were justifiably indignant. And that indignation is what got us this far because it’s always better than the alternative. Despair is just going to end you.

And now the next confrontation strikes me. This morning, while scrolling through social media, I noticed a displacement maledicta (yeah, that’s fucking latin). One of those curse words composed of similarly shaped eccentric characters designed to suggest the idea of a bad word without actually saying it. “$h%#,” “&*#@&*^%,” and the insidious “@$$hole.” H … e .. double hockey sticks, the message was the product of a guy from my generation. A person who appreciates the same sort of music I grew up loving. Felt the same sort of outrage I did (and sometimes still do). A dude who can and will pepper his speech with the actual negatively pitched expressions.

“I’d rather stay a child/ and keep my self-respect/ if being and adult/ means being like you.” — Dead Kennedys, Life Sentence

Listen, I am well aware that bad words hurt, and in my forty-something years I’ve grown up just enough to understand that there is a time and place for them. So, this isn’t a diatribe against political correctness campaigns, twisted moralist minds, or hypocrisy. And, I should state, matter-of-factly, that I take great pains to improve the diction and vocabulary of my children. But I want to go on record, displacement maledictum are endlessly more insidious and potentially destructive than the actual expression of the swearing’s equivalent.

Just Say No

If your message requires the use of a sharp tool you’ve just reached behind your back and pulled a spoon from your belt. For the pen to prevail mighty, your nib must remain keen.

Advice

130109_mountain_runners5

Yesterday evening, while attending my local writing group, the advice started pouring. A perfect storm of what I needed to read, who I needed to follow, in order to write a breakout novel. What I needed to do in order to achieve my goals with DISTANCE. Everyone was well-intentioned, no doubt, but once I got home and started going over my notes, I felt randomized. Like a few wheels had slipped the track somewhere down the line, and my train was dragging to a halt on under the strain of the extra drag.

Later, I spent some time talking with a friend, mostly about the first couple of chapters. His advice was concrete, easy to understand, and given the arc and direction of the story made sense. It was specific, and it advanced DISTANCE further down the tracks because it was a simple matter to integrate it into the writing process.

I’ve concluded that writers need feedback during the development of a work. I certainly do. We write alone, but we refine in a public crucible. This is one of the few professions I can think of where other people’s early opinions prove critical to the development of the final product. I’m drawing an image in mind’s eyes’ of others so it is useful to know that my sketches cross the void that separates us from one another. Engineers, on the other hand, design something THEN test that thing. While they’re hunched over the draft board, however, they’re not interested or concerned about what anyone thinks of their process. In fact, it’s likely outside inputs may destroy their eventual effectiveness.

Given the above, I’ve become very discerning when I get outside inputs. Like most writers, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what I want to do. Even good, pertinent counsel can distract from my end goal.

So it goes, that last night, I came to another realization. Writing a “breakout novel” is not my goal. This sort of encouragement is nudging me off the rails. Knowing this, I can easily disregard well-intentioned advice which seeks to push my work in the wrong direction.

Yeah, having a breakout novel would be great. And, while I acknowledge that some people enter into the writing process with this as an end goal, it has nothing to do with the story I want to tell. Much like winning an award or holding a lottery ticket with all the right numbers the “breakout” is a potential end benefit.

I’m sticking to the plan.

 

The Ten Year Plan

One thing you can easily and always find on the internet is advice. It’s everywhere and I mean everywhere. Some places will charge you for a little, other people will lavish that stuff on you like scented unguents over a decadent Roman emperor, and free of charge.

I end up accepting, relative to the sheer, mind-boggling expanse of what is available, an insignificant mote of the stuff. So much advice either doesn’t apply or is bone-headed nonsense when scrutinized even for a tender moment. And, this rule goes double for writing advice.

In 2014, at DetCon, I got into a discussion with a couple of much more accomplished authors. We were talking about the advice that is often dispensed to independently published authors about “how to make it.” “It” being that undefined often variable bar after which you have a couple of clams to rub together for all your efforts deep in the manuscript mines. Success, baby. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I made the observation that this advice is usually “lottery winners telling you how to make it big, just like they did.” And my meaning was that most of these people couldn’t tell you exactly what worked for them and what didn’t, and that at least some of their success must be the direct result of luck. That’s the thing about this “career” path; of all authors, no two of them are alike. Some of us make a JK Rowling-sized swimming pool of money after writing a single meritless POJ while others will always languish in obscurity.

This morning, after getting my 1k down, I noticed that Hugh Howey posted the following. So You Want to be a Writer … could be just another repetition of the same tired “work harder, write more” advice that pops up pretty much anywhere, but I’d urge you to spend a little time with this one. It’s not that.

In fact, Howey gives authors aspiring to make a living from their art some pretty objective milestones by which we might plot our own course. Immediately, I saw the utility of what Howey has proffered.

Long-Term Writing Plan: (2016-2026)

Below is my ten-year plan to become a successful author. It is based on the advice Hugh Howey provided in the post linked above, but it’s my plan. Laid out and customized for me.

Reading: Hugh Howey is completely correct. I’m surprised how few writers I meet just don’t make the time to read.

  • Read for at least an hour a day.
  • Log the reading the same way I log my writing.
  • Figure out a way to integrate audiobooks into the ledger.

Practice: Yeah this one is obvious, it almost does not bear mentioning, but this is also where I’m going to quantify my discipline. Where the ink meets the page, so to speak.

  • Three blog posts a week (not about things that make me angry).
  • Weekday writing time is 9:00 AM to 12:00 or 1,000 words. No internet, not distractions before this. This is dedicated story time, not blogging time.
  • One full-length novel, plus two short(er) stories per year for ten years.

Daydream:

  • Hugh’s advice here is spot on. I know that if I’m not filling myself up as much as my work drains me, the deficit will quickly show in my words. For me, the best, and most reliable flow state–where my mind wanders and explores–is when I’m moving. So to daydream effectively, I need to walk, run or ride. Daily, without over-training.
  • You can’t write science fiction without science. So I will continue to network with people working in the sciences. I will stand in awe of them, I will be their fanboy, and I will learn as much as I can from these people.

Learn to Fail:

  • Far from perfect here, but I’m much better than when I began. I will continue to learn from the feedback and review I get, when and where it’s available. And I will revise, revise, revise, and revise until what I’ve written no longer wakes me up in the middle of the night.
  • I will re-read everything I write at least three times before I move on.

Things to Lose: These are the things that I’ve got to toss overboard and fast. They’re getting in the way and despite the fact that I know this, I haven’t been able to let them go. No more, they’re going.

  1. Limit game time, approach zero.
  2. Limit screen time, approach zero.
  3. Take care of your house and hobbies proactively.
  4. Get exercise, daily. Stop being a slug.
  5. Want to be the person I’ve envisioned. Cut out the thought loops that make me fail.
  6. Stop talking about what I am writing until it’s ready. Then don’t talk about it much, work on the next project.

Keep me believing: A writer’s plea

The Son of Man, René Magritte

I had a long day out, in the city and away from my island, today. The result was that I had plenty of time to contemplate some words. It’s the end of another year, and I’ve been mulling over what I did, and did not accomplish this past annum. Added to this I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to work on next year.

When I got home, I knew I needed to return a couple of emails. My story contribution to Doomsday Chronicles has been passed along to the editor and consequently there’s some work to compete. I’ve also spent a lot of time stewing over DISTANCE and workshopping FIRE WEATHER. So, as soon as I was able, I opened up ye olde laptop and dug in. Emails off, plot points recorded, I noticed a post from Django Wexler, Myke Cole, and Mark Laurance.

Turns out an aspiring author named EC Williamson sent Mark a short collection of questions that can be summarized “Share with me the secret of your success.” His questions — addressed on Mark’s blog by the aforementioned authors — segue nicely for me.

Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I’m just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.

I’m just getting discouraged, because I’ve been writing for 25 years, and I’m starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an “uber successful” (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.

Without the usual cliche of “just keep writing” – do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It’s the one thing I love to do, and at 43…I’ve been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.

It’s easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don’t think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.

Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.

If not, no problem there either. Just figured I’d try.

EC Williamson and I seem to share a couple of traits, so this is as much advice for him as it is for myself. And while I haven’t nearly the notoriety nor the publishing history of the three authors that have already responded, I do have a plan for making more success from my words.

  • Understand my place in the changing market: This is not a market prognostication. I’m just not smart enough or sufficiently well connected to know where literary markets, genre or otherwise, will go in 2016. Extend that timeline to 2021 or 2026 and my “roadmap” looks more like a crayon drawing done while having a seizure. And frankly, as much as I read about what reader markets are doing, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change either vector or velocity.Put another way, given the storm that constantly rages around me it would be foolish for me to take either hand from the boat or the wheel. Shaking fists at the maelstrom or giving up because the waves won’t stop pounding my pilot house is pure folly.

    Next year I plan on plotting a better course, I want to take advantage of those close reaches near the edges of the hurricane, so I get to my desired destination as easily as possible.

    This year I published some shorter works. With the publication of Ser Pan Comido in Galaxy Chronicles, I finally got my first taste of something that felt suspiciously like success. Based on these data points I can triangulate a better course toward a more fulfilling goal.

    My advice to EC? Better understand where your position. Do you have representation? Do you have a stack of saleable manuscripts ready to send out? Do you know people at publishing houses? Do those people know that you write, have they read anything you’ve written? Do you have a stack of rejection letters? If the answer to any or all of these is “no” then perhaps you need to take a couple of moments to understand better your orientation within the market. You might be trying to sail into irons or against a strong current.

    There are many, many ways to publish, but if you’re only trying to publish one way you’re passing up opportunities.

  • Develop your voice, perfect your platform: If you’ve spent any time at all at conventions or workshops you’ll hear this one often. Usually, it pops up after you’ve made your way through the standard string of banalities. “Just keep writing.” “Work harder” or “work smarter.”It took me a little while to realize what this means.

    Consider if you will, one John Scalzi. Arguably, one of the most prolific authors in our sector of the universe. He understands that regular feeding and proper grooming of his fans is the critical component to his success. And he gives the people that love his work a routine amount of kibble.

    First, he writes stories that people want to read. This is important, and it’s one of those things we can all use as a model. If I find the magic munchables that will bring many new readers into my herd then I will write that story a million times and then sideways to keep them begging for more.But Scalzi was never content to stop there. He’s made it a routine to take the witty dialogue that anyone might find in his books and send it out into the internets as often as possible. His blog, his twitter feed, his public appearances — all of those things are chock full of the words you might expect to read in any of his stories.

    Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act. I believe that this is his voice, both within his storytelling and in his routine life. The fact that so many people find his banter compelling while entertaining is exactly what we all want. He’s built an impressive career in words just by being himself.

    In 2015, Ser Pan Comido did okay. I felt it was an okay story too, but in the days running up to its release I started to wonder if this was my voice. Would my words dazzle in just the right way to win me a bigger audience?

    Right now, it feels like most people read it because they’re doing me a favor. That’s not what I want. That’s not how I want to build this beast. If I were sitting next to a blazing fire telling that story tonight, I know it would come out differently. Perhaps I needed more time with it?

    GOAT, on the other hand, I know is a better story. I was moved to write it; I anticipate it will move some readers too. This is how I think and talk. It’s based in my experience, events and adventures that moved me, so the hope is that it will do the same for some of you.

    In 2016, I’m going to examine what I can write that works and why. Then incorporate those lessons into the new collection of words I will produce. It is about building trust with the readers you have so they know what to expect from the words you’ll soon write.

    My advice to EC? Pay attention to the way people react to you when you’re talking. Figure out what works and what doesn’t because the way you relate to other people in person is almost certainly embedded in what you write. Your voice as a person and your voice as an author are conjoined and if the former doesn’t do the job, the latter will fall flat. Look for ways to build trust with your readers. They want to trust you, so don’t let them down.

  • Read more: My final personal goal of 2016 and last piece of advice, read more.I came across this bit from a 1935 Esquire article written by Hemmingway and I believe that it’s an excellent writer’s rule.

    “The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”

    My plan? Read what I’m writing in exactly this manner. In fact, I do this already. But to be able to “correct” as I go along most effectively I’ve got to give other people’s work the same degree of criticality.

    Understand what does and does not work. If I learn to discern adequate writing from truly inspired and memorable prose in other’s manuscripts, my writing will consequently and effortlessly be improved.

    This last year I had the privilege to read a number of books and works in progress. And in that hairy mess of words and imagined moments, there was this one perfect hook that haunts me while I write.

    “Despair could never touch a morning like this.
    “The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea — air like a telescopic glass, so that the snowcapped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away.”

    “Pacific Edge”, Kim Stanley Robinson

    When I read this I knew that I wanted to approximate the truth of that first sentence in something I’d write. I hold it up and compare words I’ve written against its precision. I measure myself against its impact.

    Advice for EC? Read what you write, read it until you like what you’ve written. Read it, rewrite it, until you’re certain it’s as good as, if not better than, your favorite writing.

Look, I’m 43 years old too. I’ve been writing for a long time although presumably I haven’t been trying to make a living at it as long has you have. But listen, I understand your despair. I too, from time to time, toy with the idea of quitting.

We both know that the genesis of quitting is the bastard child of a mutual frustration with our own personal limitations coupled with the mean anxiety of obscurity. It stinks being a featureless member of the crowd. But it is a far worse fortune to languish in a life devoid of story, lacking even clumsy expression.

That is why I write. I want to create something new, special and completely my own.

Words shouldn’t be written for a profit, notoriety, or even recognition. Those are all potential fringe benefits; possible consequences of publication in an increasingly democratic marketplace. If you need something to believe in then consider the notion that you might write some true words, you might be able to relate a moment of emotion with a stranger and have them utterly understand, you could dream up the world’s funniest joke, or describe a sunset that invariably provokes people to shed tears of joy.

All of these things are only possible if you believe in yourself and then write solely from that faith.