Month: September 2014

Cover: A Murder of Crows – Seventeen Tales of Monsters and the Macabre

The cover to my upcoming collection of short horror stories, coming October 27th with preorders to come soon:

Crows-3b

POV Musings

Point of view.  It seems simple:  either it’s first-person (the narrator is an “I”), second-person (the narrator is a “you”), or third-person (the narrator is either looking down on the scene like a god [omniscient], or is a “he” or a “she” [tight]).

But…why?

Which one do you choose?

When  you’re studying POV–or studying how to build characters–what do you even look at, beyond going, “Yup, that’s a third person tight, all right”?

And what if the POV character has an accent?  Should you be droppin’ all the gs, and if so, should you add an apostrophe?

What about head-hopping?  Why aren’t you supposed to do it, if you see it in bestsellers all the time?

When should you use POV to view a scene moment-by-moment, and when should you sum up?

When should you add backstory?  If you’re writing a tight POV, how do you handle backstory–sum up or scene it?  How do you do that without making huge backstory scenes or long blocks of exposition?

Speaking of exposition, why do people say not to do it (i.e., an info dump), but I see it all the time in novels?

Why the hell can’t I do a prologue?!?

Studying POV:

I can’t sort out the answers to all those yet, not clearly.  But this morning I realized I at least have a clue about what to look at when you’re studying POV:

  1. Who is the POV character at the start of the scene?  That is, from whose perspective are you seeing the situation?  It could be a character from within the scene or a narrator–and the narrator could be someone not completely defined within the story (as in the narrator in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or someone defined within the story (as in Hastings, who often narrates the events in Christie’s Poirot novels).  You might even have a temporary narrator–when one character relates a bit of story to other characters.
  2. What is the time period of the scene?  Is it before, after, or concurrent with the main action of the story?  And what verb tense is therefore being used?  (For example, a story told in present tense might use past tense to tell past events, or flashbacks told in present tense; a story told in past tense might use past-perfect [“she had gone”], past-perfect that fades into past [the first few sentences are past-perfect, but then past tense takes over], past tense flashbacks, past tense not in an actual flashback, or even present tense.  For a good example of some of the variations, see below.)
  3. Is the scene in full-scene mode, with events being spelled out in nearly real time, or is it in summary mode, with a few sentences that flash over a longer period of time?
  4. How distant is the POV character?  This is mostly found in third person stories:  there isn’t just third-person omniscient and third-person tight; there is an infinite range of possibilities of focusing in or out on your character.  A distant POV character can be seen from the outside–sometimes from the outside looking in, if you can read their thoughts.  A tighter POV character is seen more from the inside.  If you have a narrator in a third-person omniscient story who is very empathetic, then it can almost feel like, for a moment, that you’re inside the POV character’s head when you’re really not.  Stephen King does this a lot. See below.
  5. When any of these elements change, throughout the scene–note it.

Doctor Sleep:

So here’s a section of Doctor Sleep that I’m working on (near the very beginning).  Granted, any given aspect that you choose to study on King is going to be more complex than pretty much any other hundred authors you care to pick.  King isn’t necessarily where you want to start studying, because it’s hard to sort out everything he’s doing.  But, if you’re looking for an example of how complex POV can be beyond the basics of first/second/third person, it’s fabulous:

[POV: 3rd Om, tightly empathizing with Wendy.  Summary. These opening scenes are backstory–honestly, they’re a prologue!–for the main body of the story, and this story is concurrent with the backstory scene action.  Past tense.]  

Wendy nagged her son out of bed at noon.  She managed to get a little soup and half a peanut butter sandwich into him, but then he went back to bed.  He still wouldn’t speak.  Halloran arrived shortly after five in the afternoon,

[Change: shift into full-scene mode.]

behind the wheel of his now ancient (but still perfectly maintained and blindingly polished) red Cadillac.

[Change: shift into past-perfect tense; this is a very slight backstory.  Shift into summary mode to show that she did this many times.]

Wendy had been standing at the window, waiting and watching as she had once waited and watched for her husband, hoping Jack would come home in a good mood.  And sober.

[Change: past-tense, back into full-scene mode.]

She rushed down the stairs and opened the door

[Just a note here–her behavior, although not requiring the shine, is almost precognitive here, opening the door just as someone else is about to open it.]

just as Dick was about to ring the bell marked TORRANCE 2A.  He held out his arms and she rushed into them at once, wishing she could be enfolded there for at least an hour.  Maybe two.

He let her go and held her at arm’s length by her shoulders.  “You’re lookin fine, Wendy.  How’s the little man?  He talkin again?”

[Note–Wendy’s accent isn’t stressed, but Dick’s is; she can’t hear her own accent, but she can hear his.]

“No, but he’ll talk to you.  Even if he won’t do it out loud to start with, you can–” instead of finishing, she made a finger-gun and pointed it at his forehead.

“Not necessarily,” Dick said.  His smile revealed a bright new pair of false teeth.

[Note–no paragraph break, just me.  Shift in tense to past-perfect that fades into past tense after the first sentence.  Shift from full-scene to summary.  Shift into backstory.]

The Overlook had taken most of the last set on the night the boiler blew.  Jack Torrance swung the mallet that took Dick’s dentures and Wendy’s ability to walk without a hitch in her stride,

[Shift from backstory into the present moment.  Midsentence.]

but they both understood it had really been the Overlook.  “He’s very powerful, Wendy.  If he wants to block me out, he will.  I know from my own experience.  Besides, it’d be better if we talk with our mouths.  Better for him.  Now tell me everything that happened.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

After she did that,

[Note that she didn’t bother to retell the story at all, despite the fact that she has to retell herself the story about Jack hitting her with the hammer.  Shift into past-perfect backstory.]

Wendy took him into the bathroom. She had left the stains for him to see, like a beat cop preserving the scene of a crime for the forensic team.  And there had been a crime.  One against her boy.

[Shift into past tense and full scene, in the present.]

Dick looked for a long time, not touching, then nodded.  “Let’s see if Danny’s up and in the doins.”

[Shift into summary mode.]

He wasn’t,

[Shift into full-scene mode.]

but Wendy’s heart was lightened by the look of gladness that came into her son’s face when he saw who was sitting beside him on the bed and shaking his shoulder.

[Completely break focus on Wendy and hop into Danny’s and Dick’s heads.]

(hey Danny I brought you a present)

(it’s not my birthday)

[Shift back into Wendy’s head.]

Wendy watched them, knowing they were speaking but not knowing what it was about.

Dick said, “Get on up, honey.  We’re gonna take a wakl to the beach.”

[Shift into Dick’s and Danny’s heads.]

(Dick she came back Mrs. Massey from Room 217 came back)

[Shift into Wendy’s head, but very distantly.]

Dick gave his shoulder another shake.  “Talk out loud, Dan.  You’re scarin your ma.”

Danny said, “What’s my present?”

Dick smiled.  “That’s better.  I like ot hear you, and Wendy does, too.”

[Shift closer into Wendy’s head; we can hear her thoughts now.  Still much more distant through the rest of the scene than in the beginning of the scene.]

“Yes.”  It was all she dared say.  Otherwise they’d hear the tremble in her voice and be concerned.  She didn’t want that.

“While we’re gone, you might want to give the bathroom a cleaning,” Dick said to her.  “Have you got kitchen gloves?”

She nodded.

“Good.  Wear them.”

Most stories aren’t going to be this complex, but there are still some lessons that non-Stephen-King-level writers might extract from it:

  • POV can be fluid when the story calls for it (like telepathy).
  • Tense can be fluid to help clarify when you’re using backstory.
  • You can shift between full scenes and summing up without making a huge deal out of it–especially if you have a character who dwells on the past.

At any rate, POV is more complex than just first/second/third 🙂

The Nightmares of my Books

As you may have heard, we are moving up to Littleton…soon.  As soon as Lee’s security clearance goes through, which could be a day or a year, or a year and a day.  Nobody knows at this point.

My books are packed, for the most part.  And they are uncomfortable and ill-tempered in those boxes out in the shed.  Having nightmares.

Anyway, I got to talking to MB Partlow and Shannon Lawrence about horror books–MB started reading the Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books list, and it sounds like a fun project, so Shannon joined her, and now I’m getting sucked in…I was working on another project and found another good list, referred it to MB, and now it’s in the mix, too:  ShortList.com’s 30 Scariest Books Ever Written, an arrogant sort of title but a good list.

Here are the books I’ve read and can remember the plot of, from the Nightmare list:

  •  The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty
  • The October Country, Bradbury
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury
  • Lost Souls, Poppy Z Brite
  • Love in Vein, Poppy Z Brite
  • Sunglasses After Dark, Nancy Collins
  • The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
  • 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill
  • The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  • Bag of Bones, King (Bag of Bones?  Really!?!)
  • It, King
  • Night Shift, King
  • Salem’s Lot, King
  • The Shining, King
  • Skeleton Crew, King
  • The Stand, King
  • The Call of Cthulu and Other Stories, HP Lovecraft
  • Hell House, Matheson
  • Interview with a Vampire, Rice
  • Vampire Lestat, Rice
  • 999, Al Sarrantino (one of my favorite collections)
  • Frankenstein
  • Dracula
  • Ghost Story, Straub

So…only 24 out of a hundred.  Eeesh.

From the other list:

  • Exorcist
  • Dracula
  • Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Witches, Roald Dahl
  • We, Yrweroiwer Zwrlwelekr, I mean, Russian guy whose name I couldn’t spell to save my life.
  • Hell House
  • The Trial, Kafka
  • A Scanner Darkly, PKD
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Naked Lunch
  • The Silence of the Lambs (really, I still like Red Dragon better)
  • Frankenstein

Much better on this list, with about half of the books read.

The plan is to swap reviews (and books).  I’m trying to track down Books of Blood.  Anybody in the Colorado Springs/Denver area who has a horror library that isn’t packed…email or FB me, and I’ll trade favors for books.  Not those favors.  But.  You know.  Favors.

Update:  Another list!  This time from Horror Novel Reviews.

  • The Exorcist
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Haunting of Hill House
  • Pet Sematary
  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Psycho (in progress)
  • Dracula
  • Bubba-Ho-Tep
  • Horns
  • Edgar Allen Poe, complete tales and poems
  • World War Z
  • 1984
  • Something Wicked, although I think I’ll reread it, because my memories are so hazy
  • Let the Right One In
  • It
  • John Dies at the End
  • Jurassic Park
  • Flowers in the Attic (yay!)
  • Ghost Story
  • Hell House
  • The Shining
  • Joyland
  • At the Mountains of Madness & Other Novels
  • Red Dragon
  • The Stand
  • Interview with a Vampire
  • NOS4A2
  • War of the Worlds
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  • The Keep (another probable reread, don’t remember much)
  • Heart-Shaped Box
  • Needful Things
  • Invasion (Robin Cook – another possible reread)
  • The Collector
  • Coraline
  • House of Leaves
  • The Picture of Dorian Grey
  • Dawn (Octavia Butler)
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • Started Chuck Pahlaniuk’s The Haunting, put it back down.  I just kept going “blah blah blah” as I was reading it.  I know it’s supposed to be horrifying, and I’ve read a couple of the “people faint at this” stories, and, uh, whatevs.  I liked Fight Club but haven’t read anything else of his.

Which makes 41, not an overwhelming majority or anything.  Lots of interesting books that I haven’t read yet that aren’t on the other two lists, is the main thing.

 

Playing with the Universal

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of story ideas and which ones will sell, be successful, all that.  Which, I guess, considering how many ideas I’ve come up with lately (I’m journaling 5-10 of them almost every morning), is probably natural.

I don’t have anything solid pulled together yet, this is just notes.

  • I tend to notice this more in music than in writing, but there’s this thing where a creator suddenly becomes aware of the idea of a broad audience and writes an extremely popular work, which is then often labeled a sellout.  “I Gotta Feelin'” by the Black Eyed Peas came on the radio this morning, which is what reminded me of it.  But in the writing crowd, you see people like Scott Westerfeld, who wrote a bunch of SF before he hit the Uglies series.
  • The more popular something is, the “worse” it’s considered by a certain crowd, who seem absolutely assured that the less niche something is, the less value it has.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with craft as such.  This seems to go with the hipster “I liked XXX before they were popular” type of statement.  Is this something I should take into account as a writer?  Should I worry about “selling out”?  Not that I’m “in” in the first place…
  • Then again–and once again I find this easier to notice with music–there are creators who don’t ever seem to get less specific/more universal:  their style stays more or less the same (and is well-crafted), but the world seems to change to fit them.  Tool comes to mind.  Watching Jeff Vandermeer go up the charts on the Southern Reach trilogy is what made me think of this one.
  • A question that a lot of (newer) writers ask–they seem to revolve around it, like moths–is “Should I write to follow XXX trend?”  Sometimes it seems like what they’re really asking is “Should I sell out, and, if so, how?!?” And yet, year after year, what you see from agents and editors is, “Don’t be derivative, write your own stuff, stick to writing what you love.”  And yet plenty of people a) have success being extremely derivative, and b) fail miserably by writing what they love.
  • On a basic level, it seems like the simplest answer to the question “Should I write what I love or sell out in some fashion?” seems to be “If you take care of your audience, it doesn’t matter.”  This is harder than it looks, of course, or everyone would be doing it.  There are just so many moving parts to any type of creation.  You have to learn your tools, you have to learn to put them together.  You have to learn the craft from front to back, and that takes time.  And, once that comes naturally (!), you have to care about the audience.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to writers that no, this particular thing they are so enamored of only works inside their heads and in fact will come across as a) unintelligible, b) unintentionally racist/sexist, and/or c) a complete waste of time.
  • “Universal” and “lowest common denominator” can seem very much the same.  Something that appeals to universal concerns also might appeal to the lowest common denominator, whatever that is.
  • Because humanity is specialized, there’s no real “universal” truth, other than the basic needs of life:  survival, reproduction, the greater good (species survival).  What are the most popular/bestslling genres in fiction?  Thrillers, romances, mysteries (which are all about defining the greater good), and Christian fiction.  What are the genres most usually looked down upon as the fiction of the masses, for people “with no taste”?
  • Erotica:  now there’s a question.  Both forbidden and craved, erotica at base is the pure sugar of fiction.  The opiate.  It hits pleasure centers but leaves very little behind other than a nervous system that becomes quickly acclimatized to quick hits of pleasure–unless you mix it with something else, whether a universal truth or some kind of more niche truth.
  • So, on the one hand, you can cater to the most common, most universal truths (and/or addictions) or you can find a niche that caters to more specific truths.  Some people will naturally gravitate toward more universal or more specific truths.
  • At a more advanced level of answering the question of “Should I write what I love or should I sell out?” there are actually two questions going on:  first, “Do you write well enough that you can focus on your audience?”, and second, “How much of a niche concern is what you love?”
  • If the answer to the first is no, then maybe it doesn’t matter what you write, because you’re not in it to take care of the audience and what they want anyway.  Not yet.
  • If the answer to the first is yes, then…it’s time to look at what you love.  If you truly love a niche, maybe you should write to that, and write so well that the world comes to you.
  • But if you find that the things you love are pretty widespread, then maybe you want to look at writing more universally rather than drilling down, or maybe writing universally in most aspects but drilling down on a couple that really matter to you (e.g., Stephen King–a pretty universal writer who loves rock music, Maine, etc.).
  • The thing is that you should not write to a truth you don’t believe in.  Don’t write a niche you don’t love, no matter how popular it is, because you’ll never truly be in it to take care of your audience.  And if you’re not in it to take care of your audience, go back to the beginning, because you’re not a good enough writer yet.  You will be, at best, a one-hit wonder–or a slave to a genre you hate.  But if what you love shifts–or if a genre shifts away from you–then by all means switch.
  • And, in the end, I’d be very careful with satire.  Because you could be making fun of some universal truth and get stuck with becoming a part of it.  I was trying to come up with satirical ideas the other day.  They were a) quite difficult, and b) very difficult to separate out from straightforward ideas that were emphatic to the point of hyperbole, once I looked at them later.
  • In the end, when questioning whether a creator has sold out, I think it comes down to whether they’re still doing what they love.
  • The difference between craft and art seems to come down to passion.  Maybe I’ve run myself into a logical rabbit hole, where of course once you define things the way I’ve defined them, then logically what’s left after you remove the question of craft from the equation is what you love, so therefore the difference between art and craft is what you love, another name for which is passion.  And yet it feels right.
  • A ton of works written by master creators haven’t survived through the years.  They’ve been enjoyed but haven’t endured except among those who are studying the craft or are just fond of an obscure, old-fashioned niche.  I’m reading Hard Case Crimes, for example.
  • Of the works that do survive, they (intuitively!) seem to have several things in common:  1) They are written by masters in service of their audience.  2) They touch on both universal truths and yet are honed in specific ways, in service to certain niches.  (Or are grounded in niches which have since become more universal.)  3) They are filled with a great love.  When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  All that is gold does not glitter,/ Not all those who wander are lost.  
  • It’ll be interesting to watch the fate of popular books that don’t have those three things in common. Books that appeal to the universal with an eye to a niche, with great passion, and with skill but without mastery (Twilight).  Books written by masters in service of their audience, that touch on universal truths but are honed in specific ways…and yet are written without passion (Patterson).  Books written by masters with passion, yet without an eye to universal truths (or sometimes, an audience) (Umberto Eco, post-Rose).  A hundred thousand minor books perfectly suited to their genre at the moment that try but don’t nail all three points (most books).  A hundred master writers who stick to their niche, come what may, and chance into a wider audience–or not (Gene Wolfe).

Where I’m at right now is that story ideas–to get back to the starting point–for me, since I’m not really a niche writer so much as I have general trends and a few common elements, should touch on the universal, yet be grounded in a niche.  I should keep working on craft (who shouldn’t?).  And I should keep an eye out, as I’m writing ideas, to make sure that I’m dealing with things that I love.

Simple stuff, but I suck at simple stuff.  Eight POV characters, one of which is really someone completely different, in a kids’ book, 25K or less?  No problem.  Figuring out what to write (that might sell well)?  Just shoot me.

Also, I think I’m just going to let go of brainstorming satire ideas.  I’m just not built for it.

 

 

The Nothing.

You remember The Neverending Story?

I forget who recommended it to me.  I want to say it was this guy who had casually decided that I needed to be a pothead.  I have this vivid memory of walking beside a shelterbelt of elm trees with him and another guy who kept chewing on a grass stem.  They were talking about the first guy’s knife collection and how good he was at throwing them, and how easy he found violence.  They were both headed off to college that year, I think, and I was back for the summer.  We’re walking along the shelterbelt and suddenly he broke off talking about trying to keep his brother out of some fight and said, “You’d make a good pothead, you know that?”

And I, being a smartass, answered that books were my drugs.

I don’t actually remember either of them talking about the book, but when I went looking for my earliest memory of The Neverending Story, this was what was there.  It’s probably wrong:  the movie came out in 1984, and more than likely, if I hadn’t read the book by college in 1992, my friends from Rapid City would have put it in my hands personally, glaring at me the whole time because it just wasn’t right that I hadn’t read it yet.

At any rate, I contain the story for The Neverending Story.  Not word for word, not even plot-point-by-plot-point.  Sometimes stories get graven into you, they’re part of you.  If every single copy of The Neverending Story suddenly disappeared, I could recreate it.  It’d be twisted by my memory, of course, and colored by my experiences and voice.  But the story, I could recreate it.

The first half of the book (and the first movie) are taken up with Bastien Balthazar Bux reading a book called The Neverending Story and gradually learning that he has to save the world, Fantasia, from destruction by the Nothing.

What is the Nothing?

Because my memories of reading the book are so hazy (and probably wrong), I’m not really sure whether I ran into the concept of the Nothing first, or felt it.

I started writing (as opposed to making up stories) sometime in my first couple of years of high school.  It was either that or drawing mandalas and mazes.  I had to do something as I sat at the back of the classroom, homework done, riding through the long, dull parts of the class where the teacher explained everything again…and again…and again.  Plus a teacher (a grammarian) dragged me off to writing camp.  I enjoyed it, I liked the people there, I got a brief crush on a poet and another one on a novelist with gray hair and cowboy boots who stood a foot shorter than I did.

I came back with an identity:  I was a writer.

And, well, I sucked, but I had a purpose.  Mostly I wrote poetry.  I found it easier.  Also, if you stuck your nose up in the air and held to your guns, you could write poetry in lower case, which saved on the number of times I had to type out each page, because that was back in the day where you could more easily get time on a typewriter than on a computer, and because nobody was passing out free whiteout for corrections.

But the reason I was writing–that was the most important part.  Why write?

Because it was something to do, that I did better than a lot of people, that could define me at a time when I was flopping around, that I could connect back to my storytelling in childhood.  All that.

But also because I was lonely and isolated, and writing took that away.

Books were my drugs.

But writing was also a drug.  It made me feel important, or at least not some kind of bland, formless mush whose main personality trait was shyness.  It made me feel like this yawning chasm underneath me had a ladder, a way out.  I had a purpose.  A meaning.  More than that, it felt like I was a puzzle piece about to slide off the table, and instead I had been snapped into place.  A calling.  A function.

An answer to the blackness, and the emptiness, and the loneliness.

The Nothing.

The other half of the book is important, too.  You have to learn, as a writer, how not to think that the things you make up are just for yourself.  You can do whatever you want:  but what you should be doing is writing to bring this stuff, stories, the Water of Life, if you will, to other people.

But the Nothing.

If you don’t fight the Nothing, then you’re done.

When you stop fighting the Nothing, then you’re done.

When I don’t write, I have nightmares.  Before I started writing in high school, I’d sneak into the bathroom at night and lie on the floor with the lights on.

It seems incredible to me that I’m one of the people that has to fight the Nothing, that black despair, that emptiness.  Who, me?  We’re screwed.

But in reality, well, we all have jobs, don’t we?  We’re all shoring up the world against ruin, in often misguided and short-sighted ways.  It’s not like we’re actually alone in our work, no matter what the wolves working for the Nothing try to tell us.

When the despair takes hold, keep working, that’s all.  Get better at what you do.  And remember that you’re doing it for someone else, to shore them up against despair.

Someone has to fight the Nothing, after all.  And if you don’t fight it, you’re the first one it’ll take.

 

 

 

The Outrage Machine

Over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe the thing where certain people are just always up in arms over something. This is, admittedly, somewhat like a fish developing a word for water. I am trying to crawl up on land, as it were, but I’m still having to think these things through.  Painfully.

Lately I’ve been thinking of this thing as “the outrage machine.”

The outrage feeds into the worst of us, and, although social media sites are really great for a lot of things, they are really and truly effective at feeding the outrage machine.

I’ve seen it on all sides of the political/social map, even moderates. Need to feel superior to someone today? Join the outrage machine and forward a news article about something negative.  Call someone a troll.  Crush them for having some irrelevant flaw in their argument and pronounce a victory.  Hijack a comment thread.  Get into a petty bickering war.  Fill up the psychic space of everyone around you with outrage, either at the original issue or at the fact that they disagree with you.  Or, almost worse, get into a circlejerk of being outraged with other people who are outraged about the same things as you.

Right or wrong, it’s a nasty, smelly thing. Because the tone of the conversation is limited to outrage, anything you do to combat outrage–unless it’s walking away–just feeds into the machine.

Now, there are things we should truly be outraged at.  And then we should let that outrage go.  Because it does nothing good.  Outrage can inspire action, but it never actually helps with the solution.

It makes even the most uplifting cause into a sewer.  It distorts everything we hear, driving us to express our outrage quickly, without thought or compromise, in order to prove that we belong to the right groups and believe the right things.

Outrage is a tool.  It’s an abyss that looks back into you.  It has no sense of humor, no subtlety, no shades of gray.  It doesn’t listen.  It demands proof, then rejects it.  It has no joy, it loves nothing (even as it screams about how it’s defending what it loves), it brings no peace.  It destroys art and turns artists into slaves.

If it can be fought at all, it is fought with patience and empathy, as a kind of firewall between outbreaks.  It is fought with laughter.  It is fought by turning one’s back on it.

And moving on.

 

 

 

Sometimes you go fallow.

You probably don’t want to read this post:  it’s one of those self-centered “taking stock” posts.  Although if you’ve been hurting lately on the writing front, maybe.

So I’ve had what has been (to me) a rough year.  I won’t go into too much detail, but it seems like there’s been at least one major stressful life event per month to deal with:  life threw more at me than I could handle.

Other people deal with far more, with far better grace.  And yet it’s been constant, and from multiple directions, and my life is pretty much set up to not be under constant stress.  I close up into my little shell under stress.  I stop being human and switch over to invulnerable robot mode.  I turn off my emotions and am constantly low-grade ill.

I worked hard not to be in this place, and yet here I am.

One of the things that’s come out of this is that I’ve stopped writing a lot of my own fiction.  I still write–a lot–but it’s mostly for freelancing stuff.  I’m writing imaginative fiction; I’ve finished (and been paid for) five novels this year and am almost done with a sixth.  I love doing it, but…part of the reason that they’re so easy and fun to write is that they’re someone else’s responsibility.

I don’t come up with the ideas.  I don’t judge whether they’re good or not.  I don’t have to market or format or edit or anything.  I get to just write.

The writer’s dream, right?

Please don’t tell me that I need to be working for myself, blah blah blah.  There are reasons I’m doing this, and not all of them are because I’m too terrified to work on my own stuff some days.  Some of them are extremely practical, including cash flow and the desperate need for my internship in writing to be paid at this point–for my peace of mind.

And because I needed a break from writing things for myself.

A lot of the time when I write for myself lately, I’ll have a hair up my butt about something, and I’ll write a story explaining all about the hair up my butt.  And then I’ll go to sell it and think, “Who the @#$% wants to read about this hair up my butt?”

Sometimes people do, you know.  It’s weird.  But it’s not sustainable.

So I did a few things to try to get myself out of that:

  • I ditched a lot of books that I thought I “should” read, the award-winners in my genres, because a lot of the award winners lately have been, IMO, hair-up-the-butt stories, and I need to stay away from that for a while.
  • I started reading more in the classic crime genre.  Hard Case Crimes, Westlake, Block, that crowd.  Because there is no forgiveness in that crowd for lack of story, hair or no hair.
  • I stopped (mostly) posting about anything I have a hair up my butt about.  It was hard.  And I stopped giving a shit about writers with hairs up their butt.  Either you write good shit or you @#$%^& don’t.  I’m tired of the politics, both on the macro and micro scales.  Politics mess me up as a writer and a human being.
  • And if you get into my comments here or on FB and tell me why that justifies your politics, I will block and delete you.  Because you’re @#$%^& poison.  I still read about politics.  I may even read your screed on your website/FB feed and enjoy it.  But stay the @#$% off mine.
  • I stopped writing for myself for the most part, and worked on writing for other people.
  • I pretty much stopped blogging.  And newslettering.  And all that sideshow crap.  I just couldn’t keep it up on a regular basis, no matter how good it’s supposed to be for my career.  Minimalist writer.  What does that even mean?  Should I try to find out?  News at 11…

I’ve been too drained to put too much of myself out there lately.  And completely unsure of whether I should.  When Ray first had her surgery, I couldn’t write.  For like two weeks.  Imagine, if you will, being put on furlough for two weeks for a job that you have been fighting for years to make minimum wage at, so you no longer have savings or sick time or any reserves whatsoever.

Even after I started being able to write again, I had to rebuild stamina.  I’m just now getting back to the point of being able to write with any kind of focus for six hours at a shot.  Think of that:  normal people work eight-hour days.  Don’t think in terms of “Six hours of writing at a shot?  That’s impressive!”  Think in terms of income.  I still have days where that can’t happen, where my brain’s fried.  And I still have another hour’s worth of (unpaid) email and the like to deal with every day, and still no bennies or employer paying most of my taxes, and still too many would-be clients who are like, “But I can’t affooooord to pay you what translates to minimum wage.”  And pro markets, which I rarely get accepted by, that don’t pay professional wages anyway.  And more schadenfreud than you can shake a stick at, every time I bitch about how hard it is to do indie at all, let alone well, and the constant advice about how I should just throw more money at the situation and everything would be magically all better.  Yay.  Advice from middle-class day-job writers and writers who are already successful in traditional markets.  Yaaaaay.

So:  ghostwriting.  It’s been a blessing.

I forgot to mention a point:

  • I write five to ten story ideas every day, with the goal of finding story ideas that I can imagine selling well and that I actually would want to write.

I’ve written hundreds of story ideas lately.  Hundreds.  Some good, some bad, some so derivative that even I was rolling my eyes even as I wrote them down just to add to the list.  I know how to come up with story ideas.  I just didn’t know how to unite my interests and anyone else’s.  Another hole in my arsenal:  the one that most people start with, I think.  “I have this idea for a book; we could split the profits 50/50.”  I have heard some variation on that phrase probably more often than I get actual, out-loud comments about my last name.  “You know that your name looks like the word nipple, right?”  At any rate, I’ve gotten better at coming up with ideas that both sound good and seem fun to write.  As with anything, the key to bootstrapping a new skill is practice and repetition combined with good theory.

So I’m starting to feel more confident about ideas.

But I’m also having to start over a little bit.

If I have to produce so many hours of freelancing per day (and I pretty much do), then where’s the time for my own writing?

After regular business hours.  On weekends.  If I skimp on something else, like family or friends or, God forbid, cut back on social media.

It’s kind of nice, actually.  My own writing isn’t my job anymore.  So I have more room to screw up, which is another way to say play.  And my soul has been hurting this year, I won’t lie.  It needs some play.  But staying in my own little sandbox won’t get me where I want to go.  So I have to come out eventually.

But in a lot of ways, I’ve enjoyed being just slightly fallow, letting the part of me that constantly stresses about I’m not getting enough published I’m not promoting enough I need to blog more go on blog tours promote promote promote  just lie there and sleep.  I haven’t, for example, given a shit about Facebook ads or Google Play for months.

In the end, I think I would rather spend the time getting better as a writer, and maintaining skills on everything else at this point.

And remembering how to be brave enough to play in public.

That’s what hurts the worst at this point, now that I am handling the stress better.  I miss being able to share play with people easily and freely.  But rather than making grandiose plans about MY COMMITMENT TO MY READERS and all that, I think I’ll just have to wait and see.

Chop wood, carry water, write words.

 

 

 

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