Writers as Readers

Note:  As I was writing this, I realized that I had gone into full nerd mode, which is something that most people don’t need, most of the time.  So I’m going give what I think most people are going to want first, and then leave the full-nerd-mode blog post after a break, in case you are not most people, most of the time.

Here’s a situation that happens more often than I like:

I don’t spend a lot of time reading, said the writer.

Okay.  I get that life happens.  But whaaaa??!?!!???!!  NO CAN BRAIN.  IS NOT THE LOGIC.  Often the writer later begins to speak of all the television they’ve watched lately, and I tune out.  Blahdiblah.  Blah.*

I get that it’s overwhelming to try to select a book to read next when you’re not reading on impulse; I too suffer from decision fatigue.  Anyway, as best I can tell, your best no-brainer plan is to find a top 100 list for books in your genre and start picking your way through them.  At least put one book on your phone and read it while you’re standing in line.  Go in alphabetical order, date order, list order–just pick an order, so you don’t have to think too hard about which book to read next.  It’s fiiiine.

Here are some decent top-100 genre lists, broken down by “I am so not going to think too hard about this” genres:

If you don’t find what you’re looking for here, you could, you know, use the Google to find something more to your tastes.  Or read the full-nerd article below if you’re like WHAAAAA YOU PICKED THE WRONG LIST or THAT LIST I DISAGREES WIF IT.  Up to you, but you’ve already been warned about that.

If anyone has a curated, solid top-100 list for Westerns or overall Historical, or pulp, OMG I have been wanting a good pulp list forever, let me know.

 

*#notalltvshows

Note:  Here beginnith the full nerd.  You have been warned.

Writers read books.  It’s like an internal compass; if you drop a writer in the wilderness then they automatically turn to face the nearest library or bookstore.  And yet it’s possible for a writer to have reading-related issues.

These issues usually don’t look like reading-related issues.  They look like, oh, marketing-related issues, or creativity issues, or grammar issues.  But the root cause often points to not knowing what other books are out there.

So I’m gonna talk about how to get a broader knowledge of what books are out there, why you should bother, and how to drill down on specific problem areas.  Your mileage may vary; if you’re satisfied with what and how often you’re reading, cool.  This is just how I do it.

First and foremost:  are you reading enough?

My baseline assumption is that if you’re not reading a book a week as an author, you’re probably not reading enough (say a half hour to an hour a day).  Some books take longer, some less time; if you’re a reader of epic fantasies than perhaps you may spend an hour a day and not get through a book for a month.  If you have a reading disability, you might cover less.  You might have personal obligations.  So be it.  But I’m assuming four books per month:  not for all readers, mind you.  For writers.

I also recommend finding a way to track your books, so you know what you’ve read over time and can spot the holes in your reading habits.  I like Goodreads and try to write just enough of a review that I can remember what the hell I read and why I liked it or didn’t.  I don’t review–and don’t count–books that I don’t finish.

I personally find myself struggling to keep up with TV shows/movies that are relevant to my niches; I should probably work out a way to burn through more video in general (especially because I work in the horror genre–a lot of seminal work started not in fiction but on the screen).  But that’s another blog post.

How do you know if you have a reading-related issue?  It’s a possibility if…

  • You have no idea what genre or subgenre your book is in.
  • You have no idea what subgenres are in your genre.
  • You can only discuss your genre as it existed fifty years ago, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • You can only discuss the current books in your subgenre, all of which you have read, and you often run out of new books to read in that genre.
  • Your favorite book in the genre is pretty much the only book in that genre you have read.
  • You are consistently screwing up one element across stories.
  • You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.
  • You have no idea what the expectations are in your genre.
  • You have no idea what books are like your book, so that you can compare them to your book for marketing purposes (query letters, book covers, etc.).
  • Early comments on your work include statements like, “reinventing the wheel,” “not fresh,” “it’s just like book X,” “it’s an X knockoff” (“it reminds me of book X” is not a bad thing, though).
  • You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.
  • You can sneer at any category of book (particularly bestsellers).
  • You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.
  • You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well, or blame their success primarily on luck or readers’ stupidity/foolishness.
  • You have no idea who publishes work in your genre.
  • You have no idea what flavor of your genre different publishers publish.
  • You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.
  • You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you (don’t consult your ego on this–consult your shelves).
  • You assume your book will be enjoyed “by all audiences.”
  • You can say, “I read what I like” or “I don’t care about what kind of person wrote the book, I just read what I like” with a straight face.
  • You know the basics of writing but your stories still feel thin and fake.
  • You don’t recognize your readers’ other favorite authors in your genre.
  • You have no idea which of your books to recommend to readers based on what they read.
  • Your ability to recommend books based on a reader’s preferences stops at “buy my book.”
  • You have no idea why some people don’t like your books or might review them negatively.
  • You don’t know where to steal cool new techniques from to make your own.
  • You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

A couple of notes:

I read a lot, and I still do more than a few of these things:  I’m always trying to improve my reading selection.

Also, readers who aren’t writers get to do whatever the hell they want.  Doing the book thing isn’t their job.

Just as writers should know the rules of grammar, they should also know what’s been done with stories and books, both in what’s been written and how they’ve been organized (in genres, usually), and for pretty much the same reason:  know the rules so you can break them.

This means a lot of reading.

If you’re not doing a lot of reading, that’s another blog post for another day, something titled, “Ten tricks to read more” or something.  I’m personally not interested in writing it.  Let me know if you know of a good one and I’ll link to it.

If you’re already doing a lot of reading, great.  What you need then is to investigate what areas your current reading tendencies are missing and find which books you need to fix that.

It used to be that there was a “Western Canon,” that is, a list of books (and other media) that you could point toward and say, “This is what formed Western civilization and is therefore where you should start as the basis of a good Western education.”

However, as of late a lot of people have been saying things like, “wait a minute, that so-called canon of yours doesn’t actually have anything to do with my actual, lived life, or how I see the world now.”  Then other people began saying things like, “but the canon has always been the canon your books aren’t any good compared to the ones in the canon.”  And that’s when the fight between the prescrivists and descriptivists started.

We’re going to skip that part.

The best books for you to read are the ones that accomplish what you want accomplished.  Sometimes the process of figuring that out is mysterious, indirect, and strange–you may have to read some books that strike you as purely repugnant or illogical in order to define what is it that you want to accomplish (“not that“).

I tend to focus on reading lists, so my suggestions are based on finding a reading list rather than other possible techniques, but you don’t have to stick with a pre-made list.  You could also try:

  • Bestseller categories.
  • Award winners (I generally don’t follow these; awards can be selected based on some truly mind-boggling rules).
  • Asking people who are long-term readers of a type of book that you’re interested in (ah!  recommendations!).
  • Bestseller lists, like the New York Times, USA Today, or from a genre publication (e.g., Locus Magazine for SF/F).
  • Books mentioned by your favorite writers (for example, Stephen King).
  • Best-of Anthologies (make sure to read the introductions and honorable mentions).
  • Books that you assume you won’t like for some reason.
  • Librarians.

I tend to use the following guidelines when looking for lists, although of course there’s never a perfect list–just the best list for whatever your purpose is.

  • Consider the source.  A list that somehow factors in a wide variety of opinions without giving undue weight to any set of opinions.  A list argued over by multiple people familiar with the topic is far preferable to some random list on Amazon.  A list by a famous writer who writes the same kind of thing you do is better than a Goodreads list.  A Goodreads list is better than a list made by someone with a soapbox, etc.
  • A larger list is better than a shorter one for genres; a shorter list is better than a larger one for subgenres or other specialty topics.  I like 100-book lists for entire genres or “best books evah.”  I like 10-25 for subgenres.  Trying to do a top 100 of Steampunk means a lot of “yeah whatever, points for participation” books sneak in.  And a top-10 genre list is too short to give a sense of the possibilities of an entire genre.
  • Diversity of the list is important.  If I start skimming through a list and there are 10% or fewer women, I’m out.  If I can’t find at least one person of color on the list, I’m out.  Those lists reflect such an extreme amount of bias that they’re not worth my time.  It’s funny how often that is actually a factor.  If I ever find a list for a genre that reflects the type of people who actually live in United States (let alone the world), I may shit a brick.  And before you comment about “but what about all the collections/lists that only feature women writers/writers of color/insert whine here?” please take a look at the books you read in the last year and tell me whether it reflects the actual demographics of the country you live in.  I know of some people who are exceptions, but I’m not one of them.  Half of what I read for pleasure isn’t women authors.  I can’t even bias my own reading habits toward people who share my gender and who happen to be the majority of human beings and writers in the United States, even when I’m making a point to read more women authors.  That’s saying something.  If you have the attitude that you only need to read the books you like and don’t consider race/gender/sexual orientation/disability/etc. when selecting books, then what the hell are you reading the full-nerd section of this post for anyway?  Full nerd.  You aren’t one.
  • How many books I’ve read that are on the list is important to me, too:  If I’ve read over half, it’s questionable how much I’m gonna get out of it.  But if (and I’m fairly widely read, so YMMV) I haven’t read at least 10% of the books on the list, I won’t bother with it, either; I have no way to assess whether it reflects the genre or not.  With a genre where I’m running completely blind (as I was a few years ago before I started reading romances), I’ll go for a top-10 list for a genre just to dip a toe in, or focus on a subgenre that I know that I’ll like.  Nerdy girls who get the handsome guy and get to wear the pretty dress?  I’m in.  (Regencies.)

Lists take a long time to read through.  I know this.  And you have to track down books that might not be at your library.  But consider the expense and time involved in a grad school program.   Consider how long and how much effort it takes to become a doctor.  You’re a professional.  There are no certifications in “being a writer” land.  There are just all the books you read.  That’s your certification.

“I keep up with my genre.”  A statement that reflects a world of work.  Be proud of it.

 I’m going to go back through the list of issues above, put them into general categories, and address what to look for when you’re reading.

  • You have issues inside your “home” genre.  You don’t know what genre or subgenre your book is in.  You don’t know what’s currently being done or what has been done in your genre.  You don’t know what the expectations are in your genre.  Your book “reinvents the wheel,” etc.  You don’t know what books are similar to your book.  You don’t know your genre’s publishers or why they’re different.  You’re not familiar with other writers in your genre.
  • You have issues with not reading widely enough across genres.  You’re consistently screwing up one element across stories.  You can sneer at a given category of book (and don’t understand why anyone would read it).  You write cross-genre books that aren’t working.  You don’t know where to steal new techniques from, or where other writers have stolen their techniques from.
  • You have issues with not reading from a wider audience’s perspective (people who are not like you).  You have no idea why you’re getting rejected.  You are unable to tell a skillful writer from one you like.  You can’t understand why some books are selling more than yours.  You have no idea why bestsellers are doing so well.  You never or rarely read books written by authors who aren’t like you.  You assume your books will be enjoyed by all audiences.   You “read what you like.”  You can’t recommend books tailored to a reader’s tastes unless they are the same as your own.  You don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t like your books.
  • You have issues with not reading enough nonfiction.  You have a grasp of basic writing techniques, but your stories feel thin and fake.
  • You’re overthinking this.  You have gotten wrapped up in reading like a professional writer and have forgotten how to just have fun with it.

If you have issues within your “home” genre, there are several things to look for:

  • Have you read about 80% of what a variety of people consider the “classics” of the genre?  Do a search for “best [insert genre here] books of all time” or look at the lists at the head of this article and skim through the titles on various links.
  • Are you familiar with your genre’s subgenres?  Do a search for “list of [insert genre here] subgenres.”  Note the subgenres.  Then do a search for “best [insert subgenre here] of all time.”  If you think it might be your subgenre, then prioritize those books.  If you’re interested in the theory behind what makes a particular subgenre what it is, then search for “What is [insert name of subgenre].” There will be arguments.
  • Are you familiar with the current state of your genre/subgenre?  Do you not particularly want to read every possible book in the genre but feel kind of unsure about the various awards and their biases?  Search for “best [insert genre/subgenre here] books of the 21st Century” or since 2010, or of 2015, etc.  “Best new [insert genre/subgenre here] books” also works well.  Look for commonalities between lists.  Finding good sources for recent books in a subgenre is sometimes difficult (“Buy my book!” tends to drown out curated lists), so when you do, bookmark them–they may continue to update their information with new books.
  • Pay attention to the publishers of books that you read and like, and investigate their backlists.  Smaller presses, especially, have a distinct vision of what books need to be in the world.

If you have issues with not reading widely enough across genres:

  • Read the top 100 list from another genre.  Which genre?  I recommend romance for relationships (including romantic ones) and how to write a happy goddamn ending or a satisfying ending, period; crime for any kind of “what is going on here?” story, and also for setting/description issues; science fiction and fantasy (not all SF/F, but the best of it) if you have issues with, hmmm, how do I say this? Not being able to pull off anything original; Westerns for setting and satisfying endings and character; horror for a wide variety of pacing techniques and in accepting how personal a reader’s tastes can be; historical fiction for setting, character, and handling Too Much Information; general fiction for the BIG GUNS of story and a wide range of what it’s possible to do in fiction (hint: a lot); middle grade for making your writing clean and clear without writing down to your audience; YA for character voice.

If you have issues with seeing your stories from a wider’s audience’s perspective:

  • Read for a wide variety of authors.  In the United States, approximately 50% of people are men; 66% of people are non-Hispanic Caucasian; 90-95% of people are cis and straight; 90% of people are abled.  So, roughly, if more than a third of any given list is straight white guys, you already know that 1) it’s been strongly affected by bias, and 2) you are not reading the best possible books.  Some of those books never got written or published, because bias sucks, but you can still find a lot of them if you try.  Search for “women writers of [insert genre here]” or “people of color writers of [insert genre here].”  Or possibly “best international writers of [insert genre here].”  Or best Native American writers…best LBGTQ or queer writers…best writers with autism…best Chinese writers in translation…the list is endless.  If you don’t question the diversity of your reading, then you’re not reading the best of what is possible, or even the best of what is out there, and your mind’s gonna get blown.  To learn how to bust up the assumptions of a genre while still writing solidly within it, read diverse authors.  You won’t even know the assumptions that you’re making until you start doing this.  (For example:  Japanese vs. U.S. horror.  Graphic novels vs. manga.  Historical romances that aren’t set in the Regency, Victorian, Highlander, or Western eras.  African-American sci fi.  Non-Tolkein fantasy…)
  • Read slush.  That’s right, volunteer to read the raw fiction coming in to an online short-story publication in your genre.  Most of them are looking for volunteers.  That which does not kill you will make you stronger.
  • Read the USA Today bestseller list.  It’s a firehose–you can never keep up.  But find the first author you haven’t read before and pick up one of their books from the last ten years.  (The latest book is often checked out from the liberry.)  The New York Times filters, nudges, and winks at the data…USA Today is more of a spigot directly to what most of the people read, most of the time:  not book lovers, not regular readers, but people.  These are the books that out-entertain Netflix and Angry Birds.  Respect.
  • Yes, there should be more male writers of romance.  But that’s what happens when you make an entire genre the “girl germs” of books:  not enough male writers.  I say go for it; I’d like to see more of it.

If you’re not getting enough nonfiction under your belt:

  • I skimp on this all the time because nonfiction is more demanding and slower to read than fiction.  Also, the skill set necessary to select nonfiction books is enough different than fiction books that I have a hard time with it.
  • If you’re not reading a nonfiction book per month, you’re probably not getting enough organized, curated, researched, and considered information to be able to make your stories feel solid.  Granted, you’re probably going to read a lot more if you’re writing historical fiction, historical [insert genre here], westerns, or science fiction, but pretty much any writer needs to be aware of what’s going on in the real world.  The news is one thing–but it hasn’t been put in perspective by a professional in a relevant field.  A book about neuroscience is going to be more considered than an online article summarizing a scholarly paper that nobody can read because it’s behind a paywall.  A book on history written by a historian is going to give you more than a Wikipedia article.  And so on.  Even if you later dig down to primary sources, I think that having a professional–better yet, several professionals–walk you through their opinion on the matter is going to be of great benefit to your writing.
  • How to find the books you want?  Even though they aren’t curated, I’ve had the best luck with Goodreads lists.  Many Goodreads fiction lists make me raise an eyebrow; a lot of authors hustle to get on the lists, then hustle to get more votes.  But I’ve had a lot of luck with the nonfiction lists, and you can get as specific as you like and probably still find resources.  Search for “goodreads nonfiction [insert subject here].”  Another good technique is to find one book you like on the subject and raid the bibliography.

And last but not least, if you’re overthinking this and not reading what you love:

  • At least one book a month (still going off the one-book-a-week minimum) should be a book that you’ve been looking forward to reading, or a book that you randomly grab off a shelf, or a book that you’ve been meaning to reread, or…
  • Whatever books you do read, don’t analyze them until after you’ve read them.  You can yell at the book, you can throw it across the room, you can put it down, you can cry, you can laugh…but you can’t pick it apart until you have declared yourself done with the book.  (I also have a terrible time with this one.)

So now you’ve read the full-nerd version, and you’re like, “Oh, De.  You’ve given me too many things to read now, so many that I can’t even pick the list that I want to work on first, let alone the book.”

I warned you, right?

But I do have suggestions for that.

If you go by a four-books-a-month goal, then consider this as a plan and see whether it’s doable:

  • One book a month to tackle a genre reading list.
  • One book a month of nonfiction.
  • One book a month that’s a bestseller or something deliberately diverse.
  • One book a month for pure pleasure.

I read more than that, so I pretty much do this:

  • Book from horror reading list.
  • Book from crime reading list.
  • Bestseller
  • Nonfiction
  • Book from underrepresented group–I tend to skip straight white women as a target group at this point.
  • Between each of those books, I generally read or reread a book for pleasure (lots of graphic novels in here).
  • I finish about three books per week and often go out of order, but try to keep an eye on it.
  • I’ll ditch the “for pleasure” books at the drop of a hat, but it takes a lot to make me put down a list book before the end.  Especially with the horror list, I’m getting a lot of “books that were not written for me, a woman, in any way shape or form,” and I end up going “well, that thing that drives me up the wall, don’t do that” a lot.  But I already know the genre better as a whole than a lot of other horror writers do.

I’m starting to approach the end of the horror list; I’ll probably switch to all things gothic after that.   A lot of the women horror writers that I discover aren’t from the list I’m reading at all–they’re shoved off under other umbrellas, one of which is “gothic.”  This annoys me to no end.  Half of a genre I love is hidden under a code word; no wonder horror books aren’t selling that great, outside King and Koontz. The full range of possibilities aren’t being included–and the genre is starving to death as its target audience gets smaller.

And before you start arguing with me on this one… You know what’s not on that horror list?

  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Bronte sisters
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • Angela Carter
  • Patrick Suskind
  • John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • M.R. James
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Toni Morrison
  • Mervyn Peake
  • Kafka
  • Anne Rivers Siddons
  • Robert Chambers
  • A ton of modern people I’ve never heard of.

So that’s something to keep in mind:  not all these people are women.  In fact most of them aren’t.  Of course a list of 100 books can’t include everyone…and some lines have to be drawn…

But Edgar Allan Poe isn’t on the list.  There are no collections of early ghost stories.  Stephen King has seven books on the list, one of which is the eminently forgettable Bag of Bones.

Every list has issues.  Every genre has issues; that’s one of the things you’ll discover the better you know a genre.  Keep a sharp eye out for bias, watch for patterns in what you read versus what your ego says you read, and send me list suggestions.

Full nerd 4ever :)

 

Pacing: The tentative explanation

Pacing.  What is it?

Pacing is a tool that controls the speed and rhythm at which a story is told and the readers are pulled through the events.

Writer’s Digest.

Okay, fair enough.  But what is that tool?

 It refers to how fast or slow events in a piece unfold and how much time elapses in a scene or story. Pacing can also be used to show characters aging and the effects of time on story events.

Pacing differs with the specific needs of a story. A far-reaching epic will often be told at a leisurely pace, though it will speed up from time to time during the most intense events. A short story or adventure novel might quickly jump into action and deliver drama.

This still doesn’t tell me what pacing is, just its attributes.  It’s skipping the part where you say “Aphrodite is the goddess of love,” but noting that she has a nice butt and tends to sleep around.

Pacing is part structural choices and part word choices, and uses a variety of devices to control how fast the story unfolds. When driving a manual transmission car, you choose the most effective gear needed for driving uphill, maneuvering city streets, or cruising down a freeway. Similarly, when pacing your story, you need to choose the devices that move each scene along at the right speed.

For a moment I got excited…but the passage still didn’t define pacing.

Explanations like this drive me nuts; they’re bandaids of meaning, trying to patch up a hole where “dunno what it was, guv, but it went that way” would more properly go.  It’s easy to note that pacing exists.  It’s hard to put a finger on it, or to use it properly.

So what is pacing?

Pacing is the art of selectively matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content.  Matching the length, structure, and content of every unit of a story to its overall content allows the writer to convey the desired experience of the story to the reader without having to inform the reader of what experience the writer desires the reader to have.

(“This is a fun book!!!  You should read it!!!”)

Pacing is a lens that only writers, editors, and some critics can see.  Even better, most of the time, writers can’t see pacing in their own work either–unless it’s broken and they have to fix it.  The average reader cannot see pacing at all–they can only feel it as the story rushes past, or crawls along their skin, making delicate, wincing bites.

Let’s say you’re telling a joke:

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”

“Wanda!”

“Wanda who?”

“Wanda hang out with me right now?”

This is a simple joke.  If it took five laborious minutes to tell it, it wouldn’t be worth your time.  Short words, short sentences, short joke.

…I was sorry to see Gentleman John Kilian approach the chalk line with a gin-and-gin in his hand. John is a short dapper Englishman with a quick mind and a wicked talent for summatory puns. He’s not on this side of the lake much, and a lot of folks dropped what they were doing to listen.

“I commanded a submarine in Her Majesty’s Navy during the last World War,” he began, tugging at his goatee, “and I propose to tell you of a secret mission I was ordered to undertake. The famous spy Harry Lime, the celebrated Third Man, had developed a sudden and severe case of astigmatism—and many of his espionage activities forbade dependence on spectacles. At that time only one visionary in all the world was working on the development of a practical contact lens: a specialist at Walter Reed Hospital. I was ordered to convey Lime there in utmost secrecy and dispatch, then wait ’round and fetch him home again.”

“Is this gonna be a Limey story?” Long-Drink McGonnigle asked, and Callahan took a seltzer bottle to him.

John ignored it magnificently. “He was an excellent actor, of course, but before long I began to suspect that there was nothing atall wrong with his vision. I searched his quarters, and found correspondence indicating that he had a girlfriend who lived some twenty miles from the hospital. So I called him into my cabin. ‘I can’t prove a thing against you,’ I said, ‘but I’m ordering you–’” For effect, he paused and elegantly sipped gin.

I hated to do it. I’m a liar: I loved doing it. In any case I had seen the punchline coming long since, and so I delivered it before he could. “’–to go directly from the sub, Lime, to the Reed oculist.’”*

Every element of this joke says:  wait for it…

Word choices:  sorry, gentleman, approach, chalk line, gin-and-gin, hand, short dapper Englishman, quick mind, wicked talent, summatory puns, this side of the lake, dropped what they were doing to listen.

The word choices here are longer than those of the the previous joke.  Even the shorter ones are carefully arranged together for a slow, dry comedic effect.  Even the drink is essentially a martini so dry that it has nothing but gin in it.

Sentences:  The sentences are medium to long, except in the interruptions, where they are much shorter.

Paragraphs:  The paragraphs are medium to long, except in the interruptions, once again, where they are much shorter.

Entire section:  The author is so confident that you can’t guess the pun at the end that he interrupts the joke twice in order to dare you to work it out–like a mystery–before the punchline.

The word choices, sentences, paragraph, and indeed the entire section are written in order that each element matches the content–in order to manipulate the reader.  A fair chance at “solving” the pun is offered, but the author acknowledges that it’s a tease and probably the reader won’t solve it in time.

Is one joke’s pacing better than the other?  No.

Both are appropriate for their content–and are designed to effectively manipulate their respective audiences (for example, the first one definitely takes the attention span of a five-year-old into account).

You study pacing just like I did above:  type it in, break it down.  Over and over again.  The connection between the content and pacing of a particular passage might not be obvious at first; it’s probably better to read the whole work, then double back and start studying (although I do do some cold pacing study every week on SF/F/H long-term professionals, and that’s good, too).

Getting to the point where you can “see” pacing is a weird process.  It comes in fits and starts…and I doubt there’s any end to how much depth you can get out of it.  Right now I’m working a lot on the pacing of the openings and closings of various levels of storytelling, and it’s really interesting.  But even if all you do is type in the opening of your favorite book and take a quick look at it, you’re bound to find something wonderful and strangely appropriate.

Pacing.

What is it?

Where writers get really clever.  And often don’t even know it.

 

*Spider Robinson, “Have You Heard The One…?” from The Callahan Chronicals.

 

 

 

August 50% Promotion @ Kobo

Kobo always has a ton of sales.  From now until August 22, 50% off a bunch of titles, including Alice.

Here’s the link for all the books in the promotion.  The promo code is 50AUG.

Alice's Adventures in Underland Book 1

Alice’s Adventures in Underland Book 1

And here’s the link for Alice.

 

Information Management & Storytelling, Part II: Beginnings

So after I wrote the previous post on information management, I let my subconscious play with the idea.  Sometimes, sometimes, if I’ve done my homework and researched my researches and thought my thinks, my subconscious can be set loose on a problem and can come up with an answer.  Voila!  Insight.

It was another one of those blatantly obvious ones, in retrospect.  So blatantly obvious that I had actually told myself the answer weeks ago.

So:  if information management is the art of storytelling, as opposed to a craft, then of course your mileage is going to vary here.  Because there are a thousand ways to open a book or a chapter or a scene–and every one of them is right, as long as it makes the reader happy.

But this is one technique that makes me happy.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I like to cut right to the action in a scene.

This is generally exactly the wrong thing to do.

Because guess what goes in the beginning of a scene?

All the things that people tell me that they get confused about.

Scene descriptions, character descriptions, backstory, opinion, how much time has passed, setup on future plot points, setup on character development, setup on mood and theme…

Ugh.

I was in the shower (you know that showers are the quickest way to get ideas, right?) and suddenly I realized it:  I had figured out the theory of the thing in my current state of advice to other writers:

Beginnings introduce the story in its various aspects:  character, setting, plot, theme, etc.

SO MAYBE IF YOU’RE CONFUSING READERS ON ONE OF THESE ASPECTS, THIS IS THE FIRST PLACE TO CHECK.

[Slaps self on forehead.]

Anyway, I started a new book for a client, and he’s giving me feedback as I’m writing it, which normally annoys the holy shit out of me, but is working well now–because I’m taking his notes about things that are confusing and writing new beginnings on the scenes where he’s confused.

And it’s wonderful.

Instead of trying to bury the information that I need to bury somewhere in the scene, I write a new opening to the scene.  If he is not confused, I don’t.  I have a couple of scenes that don’t have a lot of opening to them at all–but now I can look at them and go, “There’s a reason I don’t need to introduce the scene for more than a line or two.”  In one case it’s because the scene after that scene is all backstory that explains a timejump (and shows how much the character grew over his obnoxious teenage years while we weren’t following him around, thank God); in another case, it’s because the setting is the scene–a guy is getting chased around a city, and you get description of the city layered in as he runs.

Whenever he says he’s confused, I find a new way to open the scene.  Usually I don’t have to rewrite anything–I’m just add a completely new opening of the scene, right before what I thought was the actual opening of the scene.

I’ve been typing in a lot of Dan Simmons’s The Terror lately (and am thinking about working deeply with Drood, too).  His chapter openings (and endings) have multiple layers to them–he’ll do an opening that establishes character, and then another opening that establishes setting, and then another opening that transitions the reader from the inside of the character’s head and into the action of the story.  He’ll have thousands of words of a character pondering their backstory, then the dark and the ice and the stinking ship upon which they are stranded, then come back to the here and now as they get ready to talk to someone.

Granted, The Terror is a really thick novel, in more ways than one.  But a technique of using multiple openings is a thing, and I can do it if I want to.  Or at least to the extent that it works for me in each chapter.

Nyaa.

Something I’d like you to do, if you have a moment:  go back to the beginning of this post and read it again…but only after the first set of section-break formatting dots.  Those three dots are where I would have started a week ago, thinking that I had said everything that needed to be explained in order to set up the blog post.

One of the things that I’ve been shy on (and I think a lot of not-yet-long-term-professional writers would have to agree with me here) is…beginnings.

I approached this blog more like I’ve been approaching those ghostwriting chapters:  take some time and set things up.  I didn’t think too hard about what was going in there; I just wrote.  But I think the blog post flows better with it than without.

Those chapters very certainly do–the client is very happy.

Blog posts take time that I’m not using to write fiction.  So if you’d like to express your gratitude for this post or my blog in general, sign up for my newsletter.  I’m really behind on it so I think you’re pretty safe from newsletter harassment, but if I do get one sent out anytime soon, I promise to include a couple of bad puns.  I’m trying to ease myself out of doing so much ghostwriting, and into writing more for myself–and one of the best ways to do that is to build a mailing list of people who are a) loyal fans, b) moderately interested fans, or c) can be bribed into forwarding things on social media.

If you’re not a fan of bad puns, all I can say is that at least the newsletters don’t come out very often…

 

Information Management & Storytelling

So I had another one of those big-picture insights.  I wish I had an interesting story about how it came about, but I don’t.  I was just sitting in front of the computer working on an outline for a client and…pop!

It happens sometimes, you know.  I have a brain like a computer.  You set up a properly-worded program, and the computer masticates its painstaking way through said program until it pops out results.

I was complaining to Jamie Ferguson that I hate trying to deal with information management in stories–when to tell a piece of information, how to deliver it, when to hold it back, etc., etc., because I seem to be so bad at it.

“Um, great story but it was confusing” = story of my career.

I just got another rejection that was like, “Hey, I can tell you have a great voice but goddamn if I can figure out what was going on here.”

Siiiigh.

The conversation drifted, as it does, but apparently I said something that triggered the internal computer to start grinding its way through the question.  What is information management, that I am so bad at it?  Is it more than the obvious, of just picking the right time to tell your reader what they need to know?

So it busily ground away, without me really paying much attention. Until…pop!

I probably couldn’t have come up with this until just now, or at least after the previous realization about defining story.

When I sit down to write, I basically just transcribe whatever the voice in my head is saying until it runs out of words, and then I go do something else until it catches up again.  Sometimes that’s housework; sometimes it’s just staring at the screen and drooling.  As you do.

That time, I ran out of story-words and thought,

Hey…isn’t information management just how you tell the story?

Hey…isn’t how you tell any given story all about the information management?

I drooled and stared at the screen.

After a while, I got up and did the dishes and made some tea.  For a while, the little black marks on the screen didn’t make any sense.

Then, fortunately, the part of my brain that was working on the actual story caught up with me and started saying the same words over and over again, which is usually my cue to sit down and start dumping them on the page.  Until…

Everyone manages information differently, you know.  How much, how little.  When you tell the reader.  Why you tell the reader.

How much you lie.  How much you make the reader wait for it.

One of the funny things about one of my clients is that he is always fooled by my outlines.  What I think of as the most obvious twists, if I don’t warn him and have to stop in the middle of an outline for some reason, he’s like, “DON’T TELL ME THAT THE HERO IS REALLY GOING TO DO X.”  I have to leave him notes:  “Note:  Really, the hero has faith in the heroine, he’s just faking it in front of the bad guy, he doesn’t really break up with her at this time.”

It feels like the Grandfather talking to the Grandson in The Princess Bride sometimes.

I love that.

That’s what storytelling is, spits out the program as it works through its iterations.  Plots never change, characters never change.  Good storytelling is just really good information management.

Just watch the first couple of minutes of that movie:  kid coughing, a video game with the sound going slightly flat.  A bored kid, a plastic-faced patient mother who gives him the forehead-fever kiss.  The grandfather is here to see you.  I don’t want him to come, he always pinches my cheek.  He’s already here, be nice, he’s old.  Ta-daaa! says the grandfather, already having read the look on the grandson’s face an instant before he speaks.  He has a book in his hand…

You already know it’s gonna be good.  Moment one, all the ducks are already in a row.

When you set all the craft aside, that’s where the art is.  

Nothing more than information management.

***

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Current Fiction Writing Advice – 8/1/16

OVERALL

  • The best people to get fiction writing advice from are long-term professional writers who have been supporting themselves through their fiction work for 15+ years, publishing at least a book a year (therefore not relying on a fluke).  Short story collection = 1 book.  Other types of writing (e.g., graphic novels) don’t count.
  • Therefore I’m not the best person to get advice from; feel free to read what I got but a lot of it’s repeated from other sources and there may be a lot lost in translation.
  • Business writing advice is a whole different ballpark; I’m not going to cover that here, and I suck at it anyway.
  • What makes a story good isn’t the plot or characters or any separate aspect of the story–what makes the story good is the storyteller, not only in the sense that the storyteller has a job to do (making stories), but also in the sense that the storyteller is the story.

HOW TO WRITE (the short version):

  • Be yourself.  This is more important than it sounds at first.
  • Read a lot.  For pleasure first, even if later you get all analytical.
  • Write a lot (in the millions of words range).
  • Type in, outline, and research the work of long term professionals whose work you love.
  • Experiment with other people’s advice rather than swallowing it whole.  If it works, great.
  • Don’t wait to get “good” before locating opportunities for rejection.  (It doesn’t count if the possibility of getting published doesn’t exist.)
  • Don’t work for free.  This is not just a business move.
  • Either readers give a shit about how you make them feel or they don’t.  If they don’t give a shit, it’s on you–either up your game or get better readers or both.

HOW TO WRITE (higher level theory)

  • I mostly deal with Western commercial “genre” fiction.
  • Western commercial fiction (from the cultures descended from European countries) is all about beginnings, middles, and endings.
  • Western commercial fiction relies on conflict.
  • Modern Western commercial fiction relies on free will and resolving or failing to resolve one’s conflicts rather than the actions of the gods or fate, although those elements can be used if handled with sensitivity.
  • Modern Western commercial fiction relies on tricking the reader into feeling that they are either “in” the world of the story, or are otherwise emotionally connected to it.
  • Current techniques for studying modern Western commercial fiction involve breaking down fiction into different aspects–plot, character, mood, theme, etc.  However, these things aren’t truly separate and divisions between them are artificial.

HOW TO WRITE (medium level theory)

  • Beginnings introduce the story in its various aspects:  character, setting, plot, theme, etc.
  • Middles carry the story through permutations of conflict.  The character tries to resolve the conflict, continuously failing to do so in one way or another–either because of their own actions, or because the situation gets worse.
  • Endings resolve the conflict, either successfully or unsuccessfully, and wrap up loose ends so the reader feels at ease with finishing the story.
  • The patterns of beginnings, middles, and endings are repeated on every scale and through every aspect of fiction.  Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and ending; each scene has a beginning, middle, and ending; each beat has a beginning, middle, and ending; each character (and each character trait) has a beginning, middle, and ending; each setting has a beginning, middle, and ending; etc., etc.

HOW TO WRITE (ground level theory)

  • Find what works for you.  This is what works for me.
  • Get in character with sensory detail, character attitude, and internal monologue about the setting:  beginnings.  Plot takes a backseat for a bit.
  • In the beginning of the middle, exploit the possibilities hinted at in the beginning as tools for resolving the conflict.  Drastically change the level of conflict in the middle of the middles.  At the end of the middle, prove that none of the tools from the beginning will work, even as the external situation gets worse.
  • Detail the logical consequences of trying to solve the conflict at the endings (which often goes poorly…until the last second, perhaps, during the final scenes), then hint at the next thing to come OR tell the reader there’s no more (the end of the end).

HOW TO WRITE (butt level theory)

  • Whatever works to get the words on the page and out the door is the right thing to do.
  • If it does not get the words on the page and out the door, it is not the right thing to do.
  • “But I just–”
  • No.

FAQ

  • Should I write to market?  Up to you.  The market changes.  As soon as you get good at one thing, you have to switch what you’re doing and write something else–if you only write to market.  If it’s fun, though.
  • Should I get major in English/get a creative writing degree/go to a Masters program/take an online class/go to writer conferences/take a free class?  Up to you.  Main question:  is the education being provided by a long-term professional writer who has supporting themselves through their work (not by teaching classes) for the last 15+ years, publishing a book a year?  If not, apply salt proportionate to cost.
  • Should I self-publish?  If and when you’re reasonably prepared for a one-star review from someone who doesn’t get your work and who insults you personally, you can self-publish.
  • How much should I edit?  Nobody cares as long as the story makes them feel the way they wanted to feel.
  • What story structure should I use?  Whatever works.  Nobody gives a shit what story structure you use unless it doesn’t work.
  • Should I outline or not?  Nobody cares as long as the story is good.
  • But so-and-so said I had to…  No.  Nobody cares as long as the story is good.

 

Dragon Boat Festival

So far, one of the major differences I’ve noticed between Colorado Springs and Denver (other than the fact of neighborhoods, which is a concept that’s halfway between a sports team and a social class, who knew?) is that infrastructure is far, far more important.

In Colorado Springs, I went:  Just look at the goddamn roads.  Look at them.

Because, really, if you’re not in the right part of town, the hell with you, your roads, your streetlights, etc.  The city does the best it can with the funds it’s given (as far as I know), but some areas get just a little bit more of the best than others.  Just navigate south Academy, one of the main non-Interstate thoroughfares, and you’ll see what I mean.  If you’re lucky.

If you’re not, say goodbye to an axle.

Denver:  it’s not so much a question of whether the roads are any good (there are, at least, no foot-deep potholes that I’ve had to swerve around…yet) but a question of whether you can go at all.

Example, of a positive nature:

Jennifer LaPointe asked me if I wanted to go to the Dragon Boat Festival this year.  Why, yes! I said.  One of my favorite books ever* has a dragon boat race in it and I’ve always wanted to see one.  It’s just a matter of whether I can manage not to wig out or not, because introverts, stress, and people do not mix.  But knowing that other people will know whether or not I’ve actually gone will help motivate me.

Great! she said.  You should park at Sports Authority Field, it’s five dollars, cash, and they have free shuttle buses from there to the festival.  I mostly go for the food but if you’re interested in the dragon boat racing you should go to the opening ceremonies.  I’ve seen it and am not getting up that early…

Later, she sent me a reminder that also included a reminder about the parking situation.

Okay.  I tend to copy what the person in front of me is doing the first time I do something; I mean, I’m not the greatest person with a hint but this sounded easy enough.  Probably the five dollar fee would go to a good cause.

Drove up, paid, parked, saw a line of school buses, five or six of them.

Huh.

Put on sunscreen (this was another one of her reminders), checked bag for water, put on hat, walked to bus, accepted program from volunteer.

Entered bus and sat in seat behind driver.

The bus pulled away; the bus driver was asking for directions (eep!), as it was her first run of the day.  We lurched through the streets, school buses not being the most elegant of beasts.  There was a normal amount of traffic–but I was glad to have paid the parking fee; it looked like finding a parking spot along the side streets was going to be a pain, and it might be hot in the afternoon, at which point I wouldn’t have wanted to walk back to the car.  Good advice, Jen!  They dropped us off in back of the festival at Sloan Park, behind some fencing.

Once upon the grass, I checked my program, which included a map.  I wasn’t sure where to go to see anything, stuck the program back in my overladen purse, and started walking until I saw the dragon.

It was on what looked like disembroomified broomsticks and was made out of satin and shiny trim–the kind that you put on Old West barmaid dresses, with the long loops on it.  It wasn’t in the best repair and didn’t cover its handlers at all, but was still wonderful.  It had a red ball in front of it that the dragon head chased as it wended this way and that.

The rowing teams were lining up behind a huge drum, which was right behind the dragon, and the word “ready” was being thrown back and forth.  I stopped to take a few phone snaps, then started walking to keep up with the front of the dragon as it began to move.

Dear reader, I chased that dragon through the rowing teams’ area, through the first food court, past the main stage, through the stuff and health area, through the second food court, and then lost them as I noticed that there was a floating pier, upon which several people were watching something out on the water.

I walked out onto the pier:  the races were already set up.  And in fact an announcer from a nearby tent said that they were lined up and almost ready to go…it was going to be a real arm-buster…

And the first race of the day was off.

I couldn’t hear the drummers; the boats were specks on the other side of the lake.  A light haze hung over the water; birds swooped over the surface.  The boats seemed to ripple and I had to blink–for a moment, out of the corner of my eye, it had looked like the boats were dragons, Chinese ones, long and low, hovering just over the water.  As the rowers stroked the water, they bobbed and wove, almost in harmony–the imperfection of it, the haze, the bright sunshine–it looked like there were dragons on the water, I swear.

I teared up.

Closer…closer…finally I could hear the drums.  The boats slid past the finish markers floating in the water.  The winners cheered and the others congratulated themselves on a good try.

Then I saw that the dancing dragon had disappeared, and was nowhere to be seen:  oh shit.  Fortunately there were a number of people in similar shirts standing in line between the tents.  I followed them up to the main stage and parked myself under the awning.  The pale and freckled woman in front of me had a sunburn across her neck; I offered her the use of some sunscreen but it turned out the sunburn was from a previous outing, thank you, she was fine.

The boat teams were introduced and cheered for themselves, with greater or lesser enthusiasm.  The last team was Team Simpson.  I say THEE, you say SIMPSONS.

The speakers on the stage gave speeches; it was remarkably like listening to the speeches at a writers’ conference banquet, except for the Guest Storyteller of Lengthy Exposition that you usually get at these things, explaining how they became writers and You Can Too.  I got to see the mayor in person as well as two congresspeople, Diana DeGette and Mike Coffman.  People were relaxed and funny, except Mr. Coffman, who sounded like he was giving a class president speech from Invader Zim.  He sounded blustery, contentless, and uncomfortable.  Not sure whether that’s normal for him or not.

Then there was a ceremony from the Denver Zen Study Group.  An altar sat at the back of the stage; about eighteen people in black and brown robes took the altar and a celebrant (a sifu) with orange silk over his robes stood in the center, back to the crowd, and they all chanted:  after five minutes I was completely convinced it was time to zone out and sleep.  When they finished, I blinked–it was like the sudden end of a squally rainstorm.  Relaxing.  Good thing I was sitting in the grass by then.

I followed the train of people, led by the dancing dragon (look, doing so hadn’t let me down yet) through the crowd again.  People were giving me dirty looks as I walked behind a couple of the sponsors.  Cutting in line, oh cutting in line, won’t you join me cutting in line, tra la tra la.

We threaded through the park again and ended up in front of the pier.

The dragon boats had been dragged up on shore and were waiting to have their eyes painted in.  Unfortunately, the rest of the crowd was already waiting over there, so I couldn’t see.  So much for following the dragon.

A waft of the breeze reminded me that there was a food court right next to the pier and everyone else was currently distracted.

I ditched the rest of the ceremony and quickly looked over my options.  Upon seeing that the Ethiopian food truck line was sparse, I selected it.  On the advice of the cheerful woman at the window (I kept staring at her hypnotic and beautiful braids; I was hungry and more than a little spacey by that point), I got two delicious vegetarian things that I can’t remember the names of but would instantly recognize on a plate again (red lentils and a potato/cabbage/carrot thing) and lurked past the end of the truck, watching the three cooks working in the back.

Whereupon I discovered a guy behind the truck dealing with huge stacks of perfect injera bread.  I could reach out and grab one.  Or maybe two.  Or maybe like a whole bag of the stuff.

I looked at him; he looked at me; I decided not to try to abduct one of the huge plastic bags stacked with delicious, delicious bread–but it was close.  He looked away and they called my name.

I took my plate over to the one slip of shade at the end of a table, at which point the woman across from me started talking to me in classic Colorado fashion.  Another woman had tried to talk to me earlier, just as I got to the awning by the main stage.  She had a fabulous floppy straw hat and two small dogs, one of which looked like a Jack Russell cross and the other from the fine tradition of ugly off-white shaggy mutts that’ll bite your ankle off.  She said something about my beverage (cafe mocha protein something? from the grocery store), but I couldn’t make out her accent, and that made me sad:  having strangers make random comments to me in public is one of my favorite parts of living here.  This other woman was from Sterling and gave the impression that she was pleasantly drunk.  We discussed having the empty lot behind her house filled with a Zen temple; she said she’d give up smoking and drinking and just listen to them chant all day, which was probably a valid plan, although she might want to keep some chocolate vodka in the freezer, just in case.

By the time I was finished eating, the food lines were hopeless, as predicted.  HOPELESS.  I eyed them with regret but moved on and covered the rest of the festival, getting sucked in by a Totoro mug with a silicone hat (with a teeny Totoro on top) to keep your tea from getting cold.  This may have been an extremely fortunate purchase; I have been drinking the half-forgotten tea of flawed memory for years, a tepid beverage of apathy and sorrow.

I watched a hat dance on the grass by tween girls in neon pink pajama pants, silk tops, and hats so big that a mariachi tourist band would have been proud.  The girls kept rolling their eyes.  Can you believe it?  I’m up here, performing this dumb thing.  I applauded enthusiastically.

I watched a little bit of a martial arts exhibition in which one person threw another onto a plywood floor set on the grass.  Tonk.

I watched another set of dancers, this time on the main stage, that looked more Indian than anything else (but actually I have no idea).  The background track was prerecorded but the drummers were live, right in front of the stage.  The girls ranged from about eight to teenagers, and were all smiling.  Hee hee hee lookit lookit we’re on staaaage!  Maybe the difference was the status of the stage.

I watched kids and a pair of drunk women run around in circles in those floating inflatable tube things on the lake, the kind where you think, Oh I could roll that down a mountain no problem, and then you start wondering what would go wrong if you hit a cactus or a mountain lion or a very sharp rock.

I watched another boat race; for some reason it was just one boat, and was far more passionate than the first race I’d watched.  I think it was the drummer; this one was much louder and faster, anyway.

I looked at all the food places again:  had the lines gone down?  No, they had not.  Curses.

I started to feel faint from the sun and the heat and decided to go back to the bus.

Oh, God.

There was a line at least a hundred people long waiting for the bus, politely queued up in a web-strap maze (several people cut in line, the bastards, pulling up the strap and ducking under…one…two…three kids, two grandparents, parents…wave wave wave, you too…Oh Lord…).  I’m not gonna make it.  I’m not–

Fortunately, the line moved quickly.  Five minutes later I was not just on the bus but on the bus with a free lemonade in hand, which was probably a good thing.  I drank most of it on the way back.  The bus parked at the end of a long line of buses (which had to be only half the buses–what with the steady stream of them picking up passengers and bringing them back) and I was released back into the parking lot of the stadium, which damn had filled up considerably since the last time I saw it.

Drove back, stopped at Costco, got home, and collapsed for two hours with a cold washcloth on my head.

Signs of sunstroke:

  • High body temperature. A body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main sign of heatstroke. I was frying.
  • Altered mental state or behavior.  Maybe?
  • Alteration in sweating.  Buckets.
  • Nausea and vomiting.  Nausea.
  • Flushed skin.  Yes.
  • Rapid breathing.  Nope, until I had to go up a small hill at the stadium–then it was almost panic attack time.
  • Racing heart rate.  See above.
  • Headache.  Ow.  Owowowowow.

If it hadn’t been for those buses, I would never ever ever  go back again.  The side streets, where they weren’t blocked off, were absolutely packed, I wasn’t feeling well, and it would have been hella easy to get lost on the way back to the car.

It wasn’t until I got back that I realized how miserable I still was, over an hour after I’d left the festival and subjected myself to the full blast of a/c in the car.

As it was, I had fun.

Lessons learned:

  • When Jen bothers to repeat something, it’s freaking important.
  • Pay attention to parking.  You can’t just go places and expect to be escorted to a convenient parking space, not for love or money.  There are just too damn many people.
  • Hats good.  Sunbrellas better.
  • I just finished my first cup of tea out of the new cup, and it was still hot.

 

 

*The book:  Eight Skilled GentlemenBarry Hughart.

 

 

 

Guest Post: James Aquilone’s New Zombie Detective Has a Kickstarter, See…

Dead Jack Kickstarter with Logo 560

James Aquilone writes fun, fast, funny, and twisty fiction; I’m thinking this is gonna be good.  He’s doing a Kickstarter on the project to a) make sure he raises interest in the series, b) pay for illustrations, and c) streeeetch toward funding an audiobook.  Read a sample of the book below–and check out some of his short stories here.

+++

James Aquilone has launched a Kickstarter to fund “Dead Jack and the Pandemonium Device,” the first book in a new fantasy/horror series about a drug-addicted zombie detective and his homunculus frenemy. Visit the campaign here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Dead Jack isn’t the best detective in Pandemonium. He’s just the cheapest. In fact he’ll work for fairy dust. But don’t judge. Jack needs it to curb his hunger for sweet, succulent flesh. In “Dead Jack and the Pandemonium Device,” the first book in the series, things go bad for the brain-licker after he tries to score from his old dealer. Jack and his homunculus sidekick Oswald find themselves on the run from angry leprechauns. But they have bigger krakens to fry, because Pandemonium is in danger of going bye-bye — and our duo is its only hope. Lucifer help them!

Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1666154725/dead-jack-and-the-pandemonium-device

EXCERPT

Waiting for My Wee-Man

I reached into my jacket for a Lucky Dragon once the shakes began. The undead aren’t known for their dexterity, so I had a bit of fun getting that hellfire stick. I was like a drunken mummy trying to do jazz hands. I burned off half the skin on my left index finger lighting the damn thing. That made four fingers now that were practically nothing but bone. If this kept up, I’d end up a skeleton inside a cheap suit and fedora. I doubt anyone would notice.

Being a member of the great unwashed undead isn’t all bad, though. I was happy for my dulled sense of smell. The alleyway stunk like rotten cabbage and sour apples.

I took a deep drag on my hellfire stick. Smoke poured out from the hole in my right cheek like exhaust out of a busted tailpipe. I sucked that thing halfway down and it barely made a difference. My hand still trembled like a virgin at a satyr convention. I needed fairy dust. Bad.

I had tried everyone in downtown ShadowShade, but no one was holding. Out of desperation I came here to Irish Town, in search of Flanagan, my old dealer.

Without dust, the hunger becomes overpowering, and when I’m hungry no one’s safe. I’d eat my own mother.

I had been waiting in the alley behind Finn McCool’s for at least an hour before the leprechaun finally appeared.

Flanagan isn’t your typical lep. First off, he’s not that short. Maybe five-foot-two. He’s broad shouldered, barrel chested, and someone you don’t want to mess with. He also has the saltiest mouth in all the Five Cities of Pandemonium.

As he entered the alley, he sang, rather jauntily:

“There once was a fellow McSweeney
Who spilled some gin on his weenie…”

A large sack was slung over his shoulder as he swaggered past the reeking dumpsters full of what must have been hundred-year-old cabbage.

“Just to be couth
He added vermouth
Then slipped his girlfriend a martini…”

“Sorry to interrupt that charming little ditty,” I said, and slipped out of the shadows as I blew smoke out of all the holes in my face. All nine. Real bad-ass.

The lep stopped deader than my libido. Like I’d caught him bathing naked in his pot of gold. (Leprechauns don’t really have pots of gold, by the way, but they are known to carry sweet, sweet fairy dust, the closest thing to heaven in this godforsaken world.)

The sack jerked and he gripped it tighter.

“What’s in the sack, Flanny? Someone didn’t pay their vig?”

“None of your fookin business. Now if you wouldn’t be minding. I have better tings to do than converse with a brain-licker.” The lep took a step forward, but I blocked his way.

“Look, meat bag, I don’t want any trouble.”

“No trouble. I’m just looking for dust.”

The lep exploded into laughter. He actually placed his hand over his belly. A real guffaw.

“You fookin dust head. Oh, Jackie boy, I thought maybe you were on a case.”

“Just a gram. The hunger is starting to eat through my innards.”

“You have innards? Figured it’s all just sludge inside ya by now. Like your brain.”

“The last time I went cold turkey, it ended real bad for some fairies. I went wilder on them than a pack of werewolves. I’m still not welcome in The Red Garden.”

“You ain’t threatening now, are ya, ya dead dick?”

My hands shook and my bones rattled as I held them up. It looked like I was trying to conjure a pixie spirit. “I’m desperate.”

“Then you’re out of luck. I don’t deal anymore. I have new opportunities.”

There was a clink, like a glass bell, and the sack flew up. Flanagan nearly lost his grip on it but was able to pull it back down.

“What’s in the sack, Flanny?”

“None of your fookin business, ya filthy corpse.”

He drove his shoulder into my crotch, shoved me into the wall, and took off down the alley.

Maybe the hunger had reached its apex or maybe I didn’t like the way he called me a filthy corpse. I didn’t mind the crotch shot. As for my zombie genital situation, let’s not go there. Either way I was on him like a werewolf on a moonpie.

About the Author

James Aquilone was raised on Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, and Cap’n Crunch. Amid the Cold War, he dreamed of being a jet fighter pilot but decided against the military life after realizing it would require him to wake up early. He had further illusions of being a stand-up comedian, until a traumatic experience on stage forced him to seek a college education. Brief stints as an alternative rock singer/guitarist and child model also proved unsuccessful. Today he battles a severe Tetris addiction while trying to write in the speculative fiction game.

His short fiction has been published in such places as Nature’s Futures, “The Best of Galaxy’s Edge 2013-2014,” “Unidentified Funny Objects 4,” and Weird Tales Magazine. Suffice it to say, things are going much better than his modeling career.

He lives in Staten Island, New York, but don’t hold that against him.

Website: http://jamesaquilone.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jamesaquilone/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/jamesaquilone

Rules of Thumb

So I’m forty-two now.  When I turned forty, I didn’t suffer from any extra insight into life or anything; I certainly didn’t have a mid-life crisis, unless you want to count having some random thoughts that I hadn’t accomplished much for my age.  Then I remembered how much time I spent trying to be the ideal wife and mother and “female,” and had to laugh.

Forty-two, though.

have wasted time.

It isn’t just that I spent all that time doing stuff that I was supposed to do for free, it’s that I internalized the logic of it and applied it to the rest of my life.

I believed I had no right to say no.

I could tell my daughter no, but only if she was going to hurt herself, short-term or long-term.  Everything else, I was supposed to be supportive and understanding of.

I could tell my husband no, but only if it conflicted with another duty that I had or was going to be physically detrimental (and even then, I was supposed to drug up and get over it).

I could tell other men no, but only because I was a wife and mother.

Everything else, I was supposed to bend over backward for.

Imagine how well that worked for me as a freelance writer and editor.

RULE OF THUMB:  No means no.

You only get the one chance.  As soon as I say no, and you don’t take that as an answer, you’re out of my life.  I do try to separate whining from trying to get around my boundaries, but only for so long–and then I know it’s not just whining.

Last October I had a stalker client that wouldn’t take no for an answer–fortunately he was overseas.  He harassed me over multiple emails, sending other clients of his to beg me to take him back, and still shows up in my spam from time to time.

I walked after the first time he wouldn’t take no for an answer–and it was January before he let things slow down.  Imagine what it would have been like if I had once said yes.  He never would have given up:  some people are addicted to the possibility that they might get what they want if they try just one more time.  Just ask anyone at a casino.

This was the easiest one to understand, but almost impossible to implement at first.

RULE OF THUMB:  Politeness counts.

Two chances here; it’s not as immediate a threat.  If you are rude to me once, then I challenge you to make sure the rudeness was intentional.  If so, it’s open season, although I generally tend to give people the boot.  They’re always so shocked that their behavior could possibly be considered unacceptable.

The root of politeness is treating other people as if their free will matters.  When you try to control people–or when you run over them because they’re in your way–that’s rude.  You don’t have the right to do what you’re doing.  You don’t have the right to be in my way.  You don’t have the right to feel differently on this issue than I do.  You don’t have the right to exist.

Now, some people like to take the issue of politeness and claim that people who insist on being treated politely are intolerant, because they aren’t tolerating other people’s actions and feelings.

Which is bullshit; “politeness” isn’t about putting up with other people’s behavior, no matter what.  It’s an agreement.  If someone refuses to, for example, stop calling me names, then there’s no reason to continue with the agreement and I am perfectly within bounds to be rude.  Politeness is the social embodiment of a game strategy for winning the Prisoner’s Dilemma–tit for tat.

If you are not censuring the people who are rude to you–you’re not being polite, just passive.

That one took a long time to learn but has been lots more fun.

RULE OF THUMB:  Equal standing

Here’s the new one.

If I have to tell someone to stop doing something twice, or if they try to make me “prove” that they need to stop before they’ll stop, then I gotta walk.  People who see you as their equals stop first and look for reasons after.

This seems to be what I’m working on this year.  Not only have I had to use it in my personal life and business life this year, but I’ve used it as advice for someone else.  It always seems to make more immediate, direct sense if I put it like this, though:

If you were having sex with someone and they hurt you, and you told them to stop multiple times and they didn’t or if they told you that you had to prove that you were significantly hurt (by their judgment, not yours) before they’d stop–you wouldn’t make excuses for them.  Why would you make excuses for the same kind of behavior in “real” life?

People who are interested in working with you rather than using you will work on keeping you happy and interested in the relationship, whether it’s personal or otherwise.  If you aren’t happy, they aren’t happy, and their priority when you express hurt or discomfort is to stop and find out what’s going on–whether it’s something that’s an issue on your end that’s not really their problem (like stress or overwork) or something on theirs (say, for example, a bad contract).

People who are interested in using you will work on controlling you.  Any behavior of yours that interferes with their control will be punished, regardless of whose “fault” it is.  Examples:  “Just suck it up, you big baby,” “Life isn’t fair, get over it,”  “You were asking for it,” “If you didn’t want to get burned, don’t go into the kitchen.”

But that’s not how this works.

Sucking up, in this case, means that you accept that you’re not the equal of the person who is hurting you, making your life harder, making you uncomfortable, etc.

There is no situation in which you are not the fundamental equal of another human being.  There are situations in which you give up some of your standing for one reason or another–but those are, or should be, voluntary, an agreement to be terminated at will, and which should be equitably recompensed.

When someone treats you as less of a human being, and it happens a lot, then you aren’t required to cooperate.*

For example, I just walked away from a client who wouldn’t stop doing something that was preventing me from doing my job, and who otherwise showed a pattern of taking advantage of me without providing equitable recompense.  I told him to rethink what he was doing twice; I gave him options.

He didn’t take them and tried to push me into accepting the same kind of treatment all over again.  To him, I was being irrational and he was being generous.

I walked.

Every time I put up with that kind of bullshit, it’s a waste of my time.

Forty-two.

I gotta wonder how much of my life was sucked down the drain over that one thing, the belief that I wasn’t worth as much as the people who were telling me what to do.

 

*And yes, I get that I’m saying this from a position of privilege, and that people are killed all the time for not cooperating with someone who thinks they’re better than they are.  Sometimes you do what you have to, in order to survive, and it sucks, and I’m sorry, and it shouldn’t be this way.

Defining Story.

So I’m only writing this down because my subconscious is insisting on it; I’ve been struggling with my actual, pays-me-money writing for the last two days straight, trying to fight off the urge to blog about this.

Because it is so supremely nutty.

(Don’t say that, you can’t say that, people will think you’re even more nuts than they already do.)

I’ve found a definition of story, though.  And it isn’t even mine, except that it is, because I went on an epic quest to find out something I already knew, and when you do that with something, it’s yours, like a smelly, matted-fur cat with bloody cuts on its paws and a missing tooth, which you have invited in your house with tuna.  Even if you kick it out, it’s coming back and peeing on things.

And so here I will claim the idea as my own (it isn’t) and let it move into my writer-brain, and move on with my life.

I’m pretty sure it’s the case that there’s no teaching people what a story is; you have to find out for yourself.  And you can’t just look it up; there are no sources that can accurately tell you what a story is.  Zeeeee-ro.   It’s not that it can’t be told; it’s that we don’t have the ability to hear.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

I mean, I just talked to a writer who told me about a session at a recent writers’ conference taught by the guy who writes the Dexter books.  He had this exercise where the students would take one story–I don’t know, The Da Vinci Code–and change it from one format to another (fiction to songwriting to a poem, etc.).  The idea, as far as I could tell, was that you were supposed to extrapolate story by noticing what fell by the wayside, and what remained.

But no:  that doesn’t define story.  That exercise, while possibly helpful, would never get me where I wanted to go.  I’m too analytical for that.  I don’t actually trust that kind of intuitive bullshit–you’re just supposed to know, and if you don’t, it’s because of some flaw in you, not the exercise.  Jeff Lindsay.  That’s the guy’s name.

(Personally, he struck me as a Conquistador who had found the Fountain of Youth quite some time ago and has been screwing around and bilking people out of money one way or another ever since.

(I was pressed into telling him that–he didn’t care for it, not one bit.  I may have turned him off to me personally, though, because before that I was talking to him with a rather conservative writer who went off the deep end with conspiracy theories earlier in the conference, and I suspect he had me labeled as a neo-Nazi after that.  I forget what the theory was exactly, but it left a ghastly frozen smile on my face at the time, the kind you get from whatever the Joker gasses you with when he wants to leave an amusing corpse.

(Anyway, no blood no foul, Jeff Lindsay.  And South Dakota is a real state, by the way.  If it weren’t, then the government couldn’t store all their quasi-mystical crap in a warehouse out in the Badlands.)

So what is story?

I don’t like to come right out and say it; you can’t get there from here.

I’ll give you one of those “what it ain’t” definitions:

It is not a diagram.

If you can diagram it, it’s plot.  Or narrative tension (whatever the hell that is).  Or emotional arcs.  Or character arcs.  Or timelines (a.k.a. plot).

Whatever.  It’s not story.

Like every single tool you could hand to a writer, diagrams are both a help and a hindrance.  At first they help you sort out the mush in your head.  But they can only take you so far, and then they start holding you back, and you either ditch that kind of thinking or stay in one spot, forever, like some kind of Greek demigod who got in trouble with the celestial CEOs.  Diagrams are hubris, I tell you, hubris.

If it’s a tool, then it’s not story.

Let me tell you, since I’m still not willing to come right out and say the definition, how I got here:  my epic quest.

It went like this.

First, I was a kid who ran around and made crap up.  I would walk and talk to myself (and anyone who would listen) for hours.  I made up some terribly vain things–for some reason, I would spend hours designing dresses in which only my main character would be featured in her adventures; I didn’t care how anyone else was dressed.  I thought they were so original, but of course they all happened to have broad shoulders, a v-shape somewhere in the waistline, and a somewhat-poofy skirt.  Ah, the Eighties.  Those dresses would make me look tough and yet still attractive, and I would have silver hair and silver eyes, because what I really was, was a dragon (let’s not pretend that I thought my parents weren’t my parents, here; it was more that I knew that we were all dragons and they were just too scared of revealing themselves to the outside world to risk telling me).

Instead, my eyesight got weaker and weaker.  I have terrible eyesight.  No silver involved.

And then, in high school, I ran into a teacher who kindly dragged me kicking and screaming into a writer program in which I was driven to the other side of a state with a group of teenagers who were all more interesting than I was, including the guy with the tan hair and skin, who was a communist and had sai that he brought with him on the trip.  Oh, God.  I was a boring, introverted kid.  Why they even bothered taking me I didn’t know and couldn’t imagine.

I had written a perfectly awful story.  When I got there, the coolest person there was a poet, who was also a dancer, who had long, curly black hair.  I wanted to be her.  Unfortunately, no.  Just no.  At any rate, I was stuck in a short story workshop when clearly where I needed to be was in the poetry workshop, with my Muse.

I survived that travesty and started writing poetry, typing it on the school typewriters and printing copies on the school copy machines.  It wasn’t great, but I got a couple of things published, and at least the school didn’t make me pay for making copies.  It was better than the fiction I was writing, at any rate.

Jump ahead:  I’ve written so much poetry that turns into some kind of tale that I’ve decided to break down and switch to fiction.  I don’t care what anyone says.  Fiction is harder.  (I’m up in the air about plays and screenplays and comic book scripts.)

Jump ahead again:  I’m deciding to stop screwing around, get serious about this writing thing.  I vow to write a hundred words a day.

Jump further:  I’m publishing an ebook on how the really important thing is to get the words done.  A hundred rejections, that’s nothing.  Your first million words, that’s nothing.

Jump even further:  I’m taking a ton of classes from a couple of professional writers, Kris & Dean, and eating increasingly large (and yet always insufficient) slices of humble pie.

Jump even further yet:  I’m at a backyard concert with my husband, I’m a full-time freelance ghost writer who can barely pay her bills, and I’m listening to a singer who’s pretty good but isn’t great, and I’m working out why he’s not great, and I come down to these three principles:

–Stories want to be retold

–Stories want to resonate

–Stories want to be remembered

But I still can’t put a finger on why the guy isn’t moving me, not the way some singers do.  He’s good at tapping into existing melody and song structures; the songs sound almost familiar.  And yet I can barely remember the song before the current song he’s singing, the songs are pretty to listen to but don’t give me any feels (that’s the current slang for “resonate,” by the way:  all the feels).

I’ve been putting together my list of Rs for stories for a couple of weeks now, maybe a month.  I threw some other items out, both because they didn’t start with Rs and because I wasn’t getting any juice out of them.  When I came up with the “retold” rule of thumb, new things started popping out at me:  here was a Cinderella story,  there was a high-fantasy Deadpool remake with less cursing.  As you do.

The “remembered” rule I came up with a couple of years ago, from reading the submissions pile (slush) of a couple of online magazines.  I had forgotten it for a while, but appropriately remembered it.  It seems self-evident, although no writer wants to admit their work is forgettable.  Forgettable work can be sellable…but it’s gonna get beat down by memorable work every time.

The “resonate” rule is the latest one, which I came up with at the concert–I just wasn’t feeling all the feels.  It’s not that I lack empathy, either.  (Although I definitely lack tact, which people seem to get confused for empathy a lot of the time.)  I was tapping my toe, nodding my head, and enjoying every aspect of the songs.  I just couldn’t remember it.

Until the guy got to his last song, and sang something about his goddamn bicycle getting stolen, time and time again.  At first he simply complained.  Then he admitted it was probably happening because he was kind of an airhead and a dreamer.  But finally he really just wanted to know who’d taken his goddamned bicycle.  It’s been days now, and I still remember that song.

It also happened to resonate with me:  I’ve been an airhead all my life.

Is the song “retellable”?  I don’t know.  I, personally, have no urge to retell it.

But what, I wondered, made that one song stick out?

It came to me.

Wait…that can’t be right.

I listened to the rest of the song, walked around in a daze, and babbled to my poor spouse all the way home.  Yes?  No?  I remembered that there might be a reference somewhere in the Sandman graphic novels to the same idea, the one I was chasing.  I knew who the character was who said it; I even knew the particular storyline and sequence where he said it.  (I was right about the character but not the sequence.)

I could tell you now; you wouldn’t agree with me but you might be able to see the rough direction that I was coming from.  But let’s wait.  Not to build up suspense but to note a caveat:

Human beings can take things that don’t go together and stick them together in such a way that they are a) completely plausible, mentally, and b) compelling, emotionally. So when I say something like “stories want to be retold,” I’m giving an example of that.  Stories don’t actually want anything.  They aren’t alive.  They have no free will.

They’re something, though, that appears to live and appears to have free will–because of how our minds are built.  “Rumors have a life of their own,” I can say, and that will resonate.  You know it’s true, even though it literally can’t be.

So before I get to my definition, let’s stipulate that a good story takes on a life of its own.  That life isn’t  like the lives of other stories, not really.  Bad stories are a lot alike; good stories–really good stories–are all different.

Sure, they can be retellings of other stories–Shakespeare ripped off everyone.  But West Side Story is not Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which is not Dire Straits’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Not even close.

They share tropes; they share plot and other elements.  They’re memorable, they resonate; people rewatch and relisten to them all the time.

And yet they aren’t the same–and not every story based on the same lovers has the same appeal, plot, emotional arc, or even ending.  These elements are not the sum total of story.

So when I tell you, keep in mind that people sometimes credit intention and motivation to inanimate objects, like cars, and even nonexistent things, like Justice and Love (which are, by the way, both blind).

…and yet I still don’t want to tell you.  I want to listen to covers of the Dire Straits “Romeo & Juliet” and close off here, so that you’ll never know what I figured out, because it’s still not going to mean to you what it means to me, not unless you go on your own epic quest, and then you’re still likely to come back and say, “That’s not it, that’s not quite it…”

But no.  The cool thing is that I get to tell you what a story is, and it will still be a mystery.  (I think that would please at least one of the characters in Sandman.)

Here it is:

Story is a point of view.

Not, you know, like first person or third person omnisicient.  Story is a way of seeing the world.  That’s why people say things like “Stephen King could write a grocery list and I’d read it.”  Because it isn’t about plot, or character, or theme, or…whatever.  It’s about a guy who believes in scaring himself first, a guy who has a serious thing about Maine, a guy who plays guitar in a writer band, a guy who loves baseball and who bought the van that hit and almost killed him, so it wouldn’t show up on eBay.

point of view.

So while you’re shaking your head and pretending to ponder that (good grief, all that leadup, and that was it?), let me leave you with two things.

First, a link to a great version of Mark Knopfler playing “Romeo & Juliet” with an orchestra.  Because I don’t want this self-indulgent blog post to be a total waste of your time.  And second, the panel from Sandman (spoiler alert):

I think I finally get it.

(It’s okay, Abel.  I first read that line in 1997 and I didn’t get it then, almost eight years after I started my quest, and I didn’t get it for another nineteen years after that.  I’m not spoiling anything.)

You and me babe, how bout it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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