This is as relevant today as it was five years ago. Also, I’ve been running this blog for over five years. Yikes.
Maybe you got a letter. It could be something you received electronically. One way or another, a submission or entry upon which you’ve spent time and energy has been rejected. Now, I’m not talking about receiving constructive criticism. That’s always a good thing to get. Iron sharpening iron and all that. What I’m on about is the cold shoulder, either in the form of a bland photocopy of a generic letter or a complete and total lack of recognition for your efforts. It’s like fancying yourself a comedian, telling a joke and waiting for the laughs which never come. It breaks the heart and erodes the soul.
If you’re anything like me… well, you might need a shave. But in terms of this sort of thing, after a few rejection letters or seeing a publication for which you wished to contribute which doesn’t include what you sent, you probably went back over your submission with a fine-toothed comb. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? The questions inevitably leave to negative emotions. Maybe you’ll feel put out by the rejection, thinking your work isn’t good enough. There could be some frustration at the difference that ended up existing between what you envision and what you submitted. And maybe getting rejected for whichever time you’ve just been brushed off just pisses you off.
Not to re-tread old ground, but I’ve said over and over that negative emotions do not need to lead to negative outcomes. There a lot of things you can do with your feelings. One thing you should not do, however, is sit on your ass. There’s work to be done.
Pop the hood on your work. Strip out parts that rattle or shake. In other words, take a look at your creation and figure out the parts that work. Maybe you have a character or two that really connect with readers, or you’ve gotten some feedback telling you that a particular passage really hammers home the good things about your writing. Maybe there’s that one shot in your portfolio that really jumps off the page.
What about it works? Why does it connect while the rest of the work falls away? Step back and examine the situation, the environment and the construction of the parts that work. Once you recognize what makes those portions successful, strip out everything else and rebuild the work around that core of goodness. This might mean you only need to make a couple small changes, or it might mean you need to all but start from scratch. Don’t fret, though: declaring a do-over could very well be a step in the right direction.
One thing you don’t want to do is rush. There’s no need. Take a deep breath. Make some cocoa. Instead of tearing down what you’ve done and smashing it around with a wrecking ball, lay it out and take a scalpel to it. In the course of doing so, you’ll find things that you’re proud of in spite of the rejection and you’ll also likely find something that makes you smile and shake your head in that “What the hell was I thinking?” sort of way.
It might also be the case that you can’t bear to look at the project that’s been so callously rejected. That’s understandable. But you still have a bunch of bad feelings that need to get vented. You have the old stand-by responses of games, movies, booze and cocoa but the best thing to do, in my opinion and experience, is to do something in the same creative vein to get you thinking about what your next step will be. It could be back to what caused you to feel this way or it could be in a new direction entirely. You won’t know, however, until you take that step.
Whatever you do, no matter how many things you find wrong with your work, no matter how much cocoa you drink, no matter how many rejections you’ll have to deal with in the future, don’t give up. You’re trying to do something new and different. Creative people are inevitably going to face a great deal of opposition because the environment out in the world is one where creativity is seen as a secondary concern to efficiency or profitability, if creativity is acknowledged at all. You want to be fast in your process, efficient in your use of energy, but it can be difficult to bang out work promptly if you’re wrestling with bad feelings or unsure of where to go next. Don’t worry about that. Worry about getting from bad to good first. Then worry about getting things out quickly.
Don’t quit. Especially if your ideas and the need to express them get you out of bed in the morning and motivate you to expend your time and energy of turning them into reality. Screw the rejection and the idea that your creativity doesn’t matter because it doesn’t help you file TPS reports more efficiently.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Harold Whitman
Drinking your cocoa from a mug of Shakespearean insults doesn’t hurt, either.
Preparations for the move are ramping up. Q4 is looming on the horizon at the dayjob. I have a dozen things to do between now and next weekend, and smack dab in the middle of all of that is jury duty.
Compared to these things, progress on Cold Streets feels absolutely glacial.
There is progress, however. Slowly but surely, I’m closing in on the heart of the story. Just as much as I want my villains to be more than flat stereotypes, the main crux of the story is about more than just a supernatural murder. I’m not quite at the point where I feel I can take the plot completely off the rails for the sake of building to a climax; rather, I want there to be motivations and background and conflicts that range beyond the superficial. What I don’t want is for the readers coming back for more of what Cold Iron delivered to feel disappointed.
That could be part of what’s holding me back – that fear. Fear of letting people down. It’s idiotic, of course; I should just write as much as I can as fast as I can so I finish my shit. Those are the rules, right? Right.
Yet I make excuses related to distractions and fatigue and a bunch of other stuff. I really need to cram it when it comes to that. Sure, I may be better equipped to sequester myself after the move (seriously, the layout of the current place ensures about zero privacy) and help is on the way in various forms, but right now, I need to try and cut down what I can to focus on the words.
While any forward motion is good motion, more of it would be fantastic.
About a year and a half ago I wrote up a post that differentiated between writer’s block and a dry spell. The former’s defined by a lack of ideas, the latter by outside influences draining the writer’s energy and free time. I’d chalk up my current mental state to a dry spell if it weren’t for the fact that I kind of hate everything I write right now. Especially that last sentence. No, wait, that one was pretty bad, too.
In all likelihood it’s some form of post-holiday depression brought on by diminished energy reserves following the exhaustive spending and binges endemic of this time of year. The best way to deal with it will probably end up being just writing through it. It’s like sitting in a traffic jam on the way to an important or exciting event; you can’t just abandon your car, so you sit and wait it out. Unless of course you see an explosion or the shambling hordes of the undead in your rearview. In that case, by all means, abandon that would-be mobile coffin and run like hell.
I find it difficult to motivate myself, however, when I hate everything I write or even think of writing. I think it’s rubbing off from others, as well. This may sound familiar: I want to improve what and how I write, but the possibility of what and how I write right now is not very good, so I don’t do it. Again, the solution is probably to write through it. And if I weren’t me I’d be encouraging me to do just that. Bear down and write through it. Get the bad words out and scuff them from the edges of the good words later. Write for the sake of writing, not necessarily for the approval of others. Just goddamn do it. Right? Right.
I can see why people hate it when I talk like that. Or like this, for that matter.
I have to say I’m glad I’m not a poet. If I were to agonize over every single word I wrote in the interest of meter and pace, I’d probably be even crazier than I already am. I’d dabble in more journalism but in all likelihood, in this state of mind, I’d write the word “fuckers” five thousand times and call it a column on the supporters of SOPA and Protect IP. I mean even in this obscure little blog I can’t keep myself from referencing more brilliant writers, in whose shadows I stand and weep a little bit.
Jon Stewart once said that comedians always know somebody out there with less talent than they have is making more money than they are. I think writers are similar. I also know that people with more talent than I have are struggling for the same eyeballs I want to put my words in front of. I can’t say I’ve ever not known this, but lately it’s been difficult for me to get around that notion, and the hatred of my own writing, and this general feeling of ennui that’s passing through me, hopefully on its way to someone else’s brain.
So, hey, if you’re one of the few dozen people who actually reads this stuff and you’ve had a similar experience, feel free to drop me a comment. Misery loves company, after all, and it would be good to know I’m not alone when it comes to self-loathing and enervation teaming up to hold one’s motivation to ransom.
So here we are, folks. The calendars have been swapped, the Dramamine passed around, the coffee brewed and we stand now looking at where the sidewalk ends.
It’s not like I think there’s any major cataclysm coming at the end of 2012. It’s far more likely that the Mayans simply felt that a couple thousand years was more than enough time to plan ahead for things. It’s unrealistic to think that they sat there carving dates into stone over and over again just for the carving’s sake. They had lives, after all. Or maybe the lives of the chroniclers was cut short by a conquistador’s saber. It’s something we may never know.
What I do know is that new years mean new possibilities. This takes the form of ‘resolutions’ for most. You can probably categorize what follows similarly, though most of mine are based on the previous year’s shortcomings.
While I did write quite a bit last year, I’ve little to show for it other than a pile of blog entries, a few YouTube videos, a pair of unrefined manuscripts and a half-dozen short stories in that curious limbo between “written” and “publishable”. So the first thing I’m going to do is get my fiction in print. That print may be electronic on an e-reader or out in the wild on one of those dwindling bookstore shelves, but it’ll get there, one way or another.
I discovered Day in 2011, and as he suggests during his daily I plan on simply being a better gamer this year. I’ll try out more games, get better at the competitive games I play – StarCraft 2, League of Legends, shooters and games that of course haven’t been released yet. I’m talking about more than ranks as well. I’ll behave like a better gamer, support the independents and try to deliver as unbiased a review for a given game as possible. And if I find I was mistaken about something, you’ll be sure I’ll do my utmost to correct myself.
Music has been a big part of my life. I’d like to keep it as more than just singing in the car or shower and occasionally playing Rock Band with friends. I had piano lessons when I was younger and it may behoove me to try and blow the dust off that skill set, perhaps growing into guitar & electric bass playing. Returning to music can only help the flow of my creative juices, provided I can make the time and have the resources to do it.
Live healthier is one you often hear, but I know I’ve fallen away from healthy living a bit since I started commuting again. I miss walking to train stations and around downtown Philadelphia. There’s a Retro Fitness not far from my current location and it may be worth looking into.
I think that about wraps up the whole ‘resolutions’ thing. Here’s to a great 2012.
I am very, very good at procrastination.
Even as I write this I’m debating putting it off. I need to go to the post office and the library, the little voice says, the blog can wait. Who reads this stuff, anyway? Oh, and it’s about time for a fresh cup of tea. Wasn’t scratching behind the kitten’s ears fun? Yeah, let’s do that some more, then sort some Magic cards. Screw the job search and the writing, that stuff’s just depressing.
Allow me to give that sentiment – and maybe yours – a mental steel-toed kick to its metaphorical balls.
I wasn’t a fantastic student in university. Of the many papers I wrote, only a few were heavily researched and edited before turning them in. Most of them were dashed off based on scribbled, Ramen-stained notes the night before. Still managed to pass, though.
Having milestones, deadlines and checkpoints always helps. They can be major or minor, but like achievements in video games, they’re something to work towards. Sometimes I’ll make it, other times I won’t. But how does one hone a work ethic when there’s no set work to be done?
You set the deadlines yourself.
And you stick to them.
A couple weeks ago I hemmed and hawed about my to-do list. Since then I realized I do, in fact, want to write a sixth story for my anthology. But Red Hood took a lot longer than it should have to put together and a little reading of Revenge of the Penmonkey (available on Amazon and Nook, review later this week, short version: YOU GO BUY NOW) helped me realize why. I’d given myself no deadline. I spent mornings on Monster and Jobfox and whatnot, letting the best and most active period of time for my brain dribble away in a drab, seemingly hopeless and endless search for a new dayjob while Unemployment jerks me around.
Resolved to fix this after last night’s unfortunate turn of events with Building New Worlds (reschedule pending), I jotted down some titles and dates on a Post-it and stuck it onto my desk, opposite my StarCraft 2 reminders and the big one saying I need to write 1000 words that aren’t in the blog every day. I consider that a bare minimum.
Now I’ll be doing it in the mornings because dammit, I have deadlines to meet.
Specifically I’ve given myself until the 11th to finish this last short story. I’ve set Halloween as the date to send the veteran his edited manuscript, and while that’s going on I have until Thanksgiving (almost two months) to tackle the rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds. And after that, Valentine’s Day 2012 is the drop-dead date to complete the first round of edits and second draft of Cold Iron.
See, the thing is, if you don’t establish deadlines, especially if you’re doing something where they’re not established for you, the ‘dead’ part of the word rises from the rest and may very well choke the life out of your endeavor. We get distracted. Important things get our attention. Kitchen appliances explode. Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, smog. Cats rubbing on our shins. Spouses, too.
I’m not saying chain yourself to your desk, glue your wrists to the bottom portion of the keyboard and type until your fingers bleed. Unless you have to. What I’m saying is impose some sort of structure on what you’re doing. Make promises to yourself about the amount of work you’re going to do, and for the love of whichever muse you think visits you in the night to whisper sweet writerly nothings in your ear, do not break them.
When you do, it’s not the deadlines who have the upper hand. It’s you. And when the deadline arrives and your work is done, you’re the one pointing and laughing at the deadline’s postmortem twitches and spasms, rather than being the victim of your own procrastination.
With me? Good. Once again, let us pray.
We blame things outside ourselves for our shortcomings all the time. We’ll blame our busy schedules. We’ll blame the enviroments in which we work. We’ll blame the market, politics, the machination of God or muses or just about anything other than our own shortcomings. Blame the bottle, blame the pills, blame your mother.
Blame your depression.
As far as I know, undertaking most endeavors, especially on one’s own, requires two things: energy and motivation. Your energy is an entirely physiological thing. Brain chemistry, sleep deprivation, spiritual well-being, diet and exercise and all those factors come into your level of energy. Motivation, on the other hand, is all in your head. It’s all about you, who you are, who you want to be and what you love to do. Brain chemistry factors into it, to a degree, but for the most part it’s rooted more in our dreams than our enzymes.
Energy, therefore, is something we only partially have control over. But motivation is all on us.
That’s where depression comes into it.
It can weave a tangled web in your head. Sometimes you won’t even know it’s there until you walk face-first into it. And even after the cobwebs of negativity are sticking your eyeballs shut and creeping up your nose, you might not realize that this external influence is pushing you away from your mental center. Once you do, however, the longer you let yourself push you, the harder it’s going to be to return to where you want to be. Depression lengthens your Shadow. Depression creates obstacles born out of your own fear and self-doubt and failures.
Blame depression for that. Don’t blame it for not overcoming those obstacles.
We do not create anything we cannot destroy. The chemicals in our brains aren’t pumped into our soft tissue with space radiation beamed from Xenu’s invisible invasion fleet. We don’t have direct control over said chemicals, but it’s still taking place entirely within our own system. And since these mental hurdles are constructs of our own minds, we have more power over them than we realize. This means we can defeat depression, if we don’t blame it and do our utmost to resist it.
Do not assume, however, that you can do it entirely on your own.
Some do need medication. Some need doctors. Some need family and friends. Others may need all of the above and more besides.
I’m not a doctor, or a therapist, and I do not intend any of these ramblings to be a how-to guide for kicking the depression-beast in its dour ballsack. Nor do I believe, or wish to give the impression that I believe, that this thing is some sort of early edition AD&D illusion that one can wish away just by disbelieving. This is simply my way of grabbing said beast in my own head by the scruff of its neck and dragging it out of its dark emo corner and into the daylight. Struggling with the job market, facing the prospect of more rejection in writing and the nature of the manuscript I’m editing (not mine) are all things that are giving the beast more power, while my games, my wife and my cats take that power away. However, I can’t just spend time on those things. As much as I enjoy them, they’re not productive.
And if I’m not productive, I’m not going anywhere.
I’m glad I have this blog and people that actually come to read it. It helps me remember that I do, in fact, have a talent worth cultivating and that it does reach people who get something positive out of it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted as a writer. It is my goal, pretty much for life, to have at least one person read what I write, look up from my words and see the world differently, even if for a moment, because of what they read.
I’ll never make it if I don’t write, and to really nail it down I need to write beyond the blog. Every day.
I haven’t been doing that and I feel awful over it, and I will try to be better about it in the future.
Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that sad sack of a beast drooling and grinning in the corner have its way.
So last week’s ICFN was delayed. It’s still on hold. I’m waiting to hear back from third parties that were interested in conveying it to a different format. Awaiting correspondence always makes days or weekends feel longer, from responses to job postings to queries about Magic trades.
But while I was waiting I took a look at the various projects I’ve lined up for myself.
There are three things that go against me when I try to sit down and get my writing pants on: I’m always thinking of new ideas, I’m not terribly organized and I’m easily distracted. All it takes is a cat darting across the floor, a ringing phone or a stray thought on something awesome unrelated to the project at hand to force me to refocus my efforts. I do turn off HootSuite and other things when I’m actually writing, but that only addresses the distraction problem.
You can take a look at my desk, my kitchen sink or either basement I have stuff in (here in Lansdale or at the ancestral place in Allentown) as silent testament to my lack of organization and pack-rat nature. This also ties in to my ideas. New ones creep into my brain all the time. An action sequence, a bit of dialog, a new character in an old setting… this stuff floats in and out from time to time. It takes conscious effort to nail it all down. And once I do, I need to get it into some sort of organized sequence.
Obviously I want to finish things I’ve started before I begin anything new, so let’s get some priorities straight here. This is pertaining mostly to my own publishable (eventually) writing, not other projects I’ve taken on (the Vietnam manuscript) and the weekday drivel in this blog.
I feel I should finish Red Hood first. It’s the shortest piece, and with it my collection of mixed-myth stories reaches a total of five. Akuma (Japanese oni in a period slasher story), The Jovian Flight (Greek myth IN SPACE!), The Drifter’s Hand (Norse myth in the Old West) and Miss Weaver’s Lo Mein (Chinese myth as a modern romance) round out the rest. That may be enough for an anthology, but I’m uncertain. I may want to do a sixth story.
The rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds must come next. I’ve started outlining the new opening, and will track the appearances and growth of characters to ensure they’re consistent and sympathetic, two problems pointed out by at least one review on Book Country. The problem with the way it opened before was I was cramming too much exposition into the first few pages and not giving the characters enough time to develop and establish connections with each other and the reader – in other words, I opened too late. So I’m starting a bit earlier. Giving these people more breathing room. You know, before I kill most of them.
I have an idea for a Magic: the Gathering piece but as it may be nothing more than fan fiction and Wizards has better things to do than entertain the notions of a relatively unknown hack like myself (as opposed to known hacks like Robert Wintermute), I’ll try not to devote too much time to it.
Once I finish up with the other stuff I’ll go back to Cold Iron. I plan on taking this lean, mean and well-intentioned supernatural noir thing I threw together during my commutes of the last few months and putting it through the prescribed Wendig cycle of editing my shit. The Wendig cycle, by the way, has little to do with Wagner’s cycle. More whiskey and profanity, less large sopranos and Norse symbolism.
Meantime, the blog will keep the writing-wheels greased. More Westeros fiction for the Honor & Blood crowd. More flash fiction challenges. Reviews of movies, games and books. Ruminations on trying not to suck as a writer.
And Guild Wars 2 stuff, because that MMO looks pretty damn awesome, not to mention damn pretty.
Stay tuned. I may be down, but I ain’t licked yet.
Writers: when was the last time you went for a walk?
Some of you may do it every day. Some of you might go to a gym so what do you need a walk for? Others? Pfft, that’s what I bought a car for, son. Pedestrians are bonus points to me. I decorate the grille of my Audi with the finger bones of hippies too stupid to get a vehicle themselves.
Probably not that last one so much, but the point is walking is something we all do and are all capable of. Also? It’s one way to meander right past so-called “writer’s block.”
This is especially true if you live near a major city. There’s some saying about there being a thousand stories in it. Feeling stuck in your current narrative or unsure of how to start one? Go find one of those stories.
It could be anything. A gaggle of tourists. A toothless hobo. Some trendy gal in jogging shorts pulling a small yappy dog along at the end of a leash signed by every cast member of the Jersey Shore. A bunch of guys at a halal food truck. The old church on the corner unruffled by the ultra-modern apartments next to it. A street that suddenly changes from macadam to cobblestones. Inspiration can come from any of these things. Or all of them.
Maybe the tourists get jumped by a werewolf. Maybe that hobo is the werewolf. Or maybe it’s Miss Trendy, and she dreams of going furry on The Situation next time he pops a girl in the mouth. The church on the corner my house a weathered by deadly monster hunter and those cobblestones stay there because it’s holy ground.
That’s just an example. But none of these ideas would have come to fruition if it hadn’t been for the stroll you’d taken.
So what are you waiting for? Grab some tunes, some water, an umbrella if it’s raining. Walk a few blocks, or just around yours. As the body moves of its own accord, the mind’s free to do whatever it wants. Let it. You’re only as fettered to your limitations as you choose to be, and if being in your chair feels limiting, get the hell out of it.
I like my female protagonists to kick a little ass, too.
“I finished the first draft of a novel.”
I feel bad that I say those words with bittersweetness instead of a sense of accomplishment. I finished a novel. It should be a major accomplishment. A milestone I’ve kicked in the face on my rampant rise to superstardom. Instead I feel like I just made it to base camp on the slopes of Everest and I’m staring at the rest of the big cold bastard I’m going to be climbing inch by excruciating inch for the forseeable future.
It’s also probably not as bleak as I’m making it out to be, but I’m trying to be realistic about this.
There was a time when I didn’t know a thing about writing properly. Oh, I could write, sure. And I did. So much so that when I was in seventh grade I wrote a novel. It was a spy novel and it was, looking back, pretty awful. I’d filled it with cliches, nonsensical turns in the plot and a protagonist who was so idiotically perfect I wonder today how I managed to make something so absolutely putrid. Then I remember that I was about thirteen at the time and still figuring out how to talk to girls when all they wanted to do was get closer to the football players.
Anyway, I realized not long after that my story was frought with problems. So I looked through it and realized that I liked things about the protagonist but there wasn’t enough bad crap happening to him. It occured to me that part of the problem might be that he was male. So I flipped the gender switch, called down some lightning to reanimate the thing’s rancid corpse, and out of it popped the character of Morgan Everson.
Now, she still needed work. And my first attempt at putting her through a novel, while better, still wasn’t all that great. I managed to finish it in my mid-twenties. A lot of bad shit happened that had me a little pre-occupied, and when I finally circled back again, I realized that while the novel was completely different, it still wasn’t terribly good. Oh, I’d written some good characters in addition to Morgan, but the story was still a little too contrived, a little too cliche, a little too amateur. By then, however, I’d happened upon the world of Acradea in my mental wanderings, so I spent a little time there instead.
Between rewrites of the novel that would become Citizen in the Wilds, I took a few stabs at reviving Morgan while shifting the story into territory that was, quite frankly, pising me off. If I’m thankful to Twilight about anything, it’s making me aware of the fact that there was a need for good supernatural modern fiction with a female protagonist who wasn’t a doormat. All of my attempts to get the novel off the ground that were variations of Morgan as a member of the BPRD (or my analog thereof) went nowhere. This pissed me off even more, and I channeled that anger into the last rewrite of Citizen (which, while decent, still needs some working. Get to that in a moment).
I had ideas born from sessions of World of Darkness tabletopping, notes scribbled about my take on a world beyond our own right under our noses, and Morgan waiting patiently for me to do something with her. It took some mental chasing of my tail, but I finally figured out that what was missing was a common element. I puzzled out the particulars, gave the guy a name, and tossed him into the woodchipper with Morgan hot on his heels.
The result is the first draft of Cold Iron.
I guess some of the bittersweetness comes from the long, hard road I’ve been on trying to get something decent to come out of all of this ambulatory grammatical masturbation. And I’m closer than I’ve ever been. I’m wary, however, that upon reflection I’ll realize that it’s too short, still a bit contrived and too much in a hurry to be awesome that it skips important moments in the lives of its characters. I want to look at it without disgust and with a minimum of mental fatigue (like that’ll happen) and prejudice born of other works. That way, when I tear it apart, it’s nothing personal.
My plan is to finish reading Ghost Story, finish writing the two (maybe three) stories for an anthology of ancient-myth-and-legend-in-varying-genres I’ve been planning (more on that tomorrow) and put Citizen through another rewrite. Once those things are done, I’m circling back to Cold Iron. Not a month or a year after that point, right away. I want to put more writerly irons in the fire. I need to push out more content. I’m not going to go anywhere other than another cubicle in another office if I don’t stay on top of this and keep my ass writing.
I’m looking forward to you all meeting Morgan. I think she’s pretty cool. But I’m not going to slap makeup on her, strap her into a skimpy outfit and kick her onstage to dance to hair metal. I owe her, and you, better than that. I feel exhausted because this is not the first time I’ve chased this woman around a plot structure, and I know it won’t be the last. But when I do finally hammer out a story that’s worthy of her, the idea is that I won’t feel exhausted or bittersweet or pissed off about it. The idea is that I (and, I pray, some of you out there) will consider it worth the wait.
I feel like Karn some days. And not just from lack of coffee.
Bad writing can be just as influential and inspirational as good writing.
That may seem to be an incongruous statement. But in my experience, there have been some instances where I’ve been reading a novel, a story or a post, and have wanted nothing more than to blow the author out of the water, literarily speaking. I find this to be the case especially in writing related to gaming, which makes me twice as angry. It’s one thing to write badly, but to degrade a setting or concept I like through that bad writing should be a hanging offense.
That’s my opinion, at least.
Take, for example, the Quest for Karn. I’ve been looking for a good Magic: the Gathering novel ever since Arena, which is still the best if you ask me. The planeswalkers that Wizards of the Coast have put together are an interesting bunch, but I feel like there’s more that could be done with them, territory in the human experience and the permutations of their powers that remains unexplored. And when you present these characters in as bland a way possible, with no real characterization and a plot apparently paced to make The Lord of the Rings look like a jaunty sprint by comparison, you leave a sour taste in the reader’s mouth, instead of making them hungry for more.
I must confess, however, that doing this to the likes of Venser and Elspeth is pretty harmless, considering what could have been done. As far as I’m aware, Wizards has yet to acquire the services of someone like Richard A. Knaak, who misses the point of characters like a champ. Consider Stormrage. In Warcraft III, we learn that Tyrande Whisperwind is a confident, driven and inspiring leader of her people, a warrior-priestess with thousands of years of experience in doing what she says and making decisions without regret. By Knaak’s hand, however, she’s transformed into someone who never grew out of being a teenager, an immature and insecure person who fears the judgement of her peers and might just be cribbing notes from Bella Swan. There’s no growth in Knaak’s characters. If they’re great, they’re always great as well as flawless. If they’re flighty, uncertain and relatively weak, they’re a girl.
I had to pause for a cleansing breath, there.
Gaming books outside of novels suffer as well. Mage is probably my all-time favorite permutation of the World of Darkness, but the core book for Ascension feels unnecessarily huge. There’s great stuff in there for storytellers and players a like, but it can take a little sifting. The prose passages feel ponderous more often than not, with some overwrought language and long-winded anecdotes that are likely aimed at increasing the book’s gravitas while taking away from the essential information gamers are looking for. I still love the book, don’t get me wrong. It’s gorgeous, the new mythology tickles my fancy and the new spheres of magic are very well thought out. It’s just fluffier than I’d like.
In addition to wrapping up the first draft of one manuscript, rewriting another and editing a third, I think it would behoove me to investigate more deeply the ways and means people find their way into gaming material, from source books to novels. I’ve had great experiences working with Machine Age Productions and I hope I can take that experience to other gaming houses in the future. Writing for and about gaming isn’t just something I want to do, after all; it’s something worth doing right.
He’s smiling because he just killed someone you love.
Writers are essential to modern entertainment. Without them there are no movies, no TV shows, no plays and no novels. Just about anybody can tell you who their favorite writer is and why. Look up those writers and they can tell you what inspires them, how they got started and what’s coming next. Some writers will even lay some ground rules for good writing, from creating good characters to avoiding contrivance in plotlines.
What people don’t tell you about being a writer is that it means bucking the system.
I should clarify my meaning. To write fiction is to buck the system. A lot of writers who struggle their way to success – and it is a struggle, don’t let anyone tell you different – are not what many in the common populace associate with ‘successful’ in their minds. They tend to think of CEOs in suits that cost more than some cars, movie stars with legendary good looks and politicians who decide the course our world takes.
Large men that look like Santa Claus’ evil twin brother? Housewives from Arizona? Unemployed British ladies?
Writers are iconoclasts. They’re troublemakers. They stir things up because they ignite people’s imaginations. They encourage their audience to think, to interact, to take joy out of something that can become more than a mere distraction. Even the people who rise up in arms against a work or a franchise are engaged in an activity that excites them even if that excitement takes the form of indignant fury.
This is a good thing.
The CEO worries about the bottom line. The movie star worries about paparazzi. The world leaders worry about any one of the Four Horsemen riding up to his or her door.
The writer of fiction should worry about doing something new that wakes somebody up from their miasma of daily living.
Something worth noting about the writerly minds behind many of the thriving stories in our Kindles, TV screens, bookstores and theaters is that all of them are causing trouble in one form or another. They’re setting their work apart. They’re trying something new. They may not get it right and they might even piss some people off, but they’re making the attempt. And even if they don’t realize it, the people they’re making angry are engaging them in the creative process. There’s a lot of energy to be had in the debates, arguments, praise, criticism and fanatical gushing that comes in the wake of a new work that has the chops to make it through the slaughterhouse of rejection that stands between the new writer and the public eye. And the people that are talented, dedicated and lucky enough to make it through got there by not giving up on what they waned. They pushed back against the pressures of modern life. They crammed their passion into whatever cracks they could find. They made messes. They broke shit.
And in the end it paid off.
I want to be one of those troublemakers. Looking at the people who’ve made it, and how they’ve done it and what they’ve done it with, how could I not?
The goal since I was about 10 has been, to put it simply, getting published.
Back in 80s, when this goal took shape fully in my embryonic little mind, getting published meant traditional print. Robert Heinlein, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Diane Duane got themselves ink in hardcover and paperback books. The Internet was an infant. Reading fiction on a handheld device smaller than one’s Trapper Keeper sounded like something out of Star Trek.
Here we are, in 2011. We’re still waiting for our jetpacks, but electronic word delivery is thriving while many traditional publication schemes are dying on the vine.
It’s still out there, to be sure. I’ll be shelling out for the next Song of Ice and Fire and Dresden Files books. But I’ve gotten caught up (mostly) with Chicago’s professional wizard thanks to the gift of books through the Kindle. And publishers like up-and-comer Angry Robot are on dual tracks of traditional dead tree formats and the shiny hotness of e-publishing.
I think it’s past time I shook myself free of the big-hair coke-sniffing Reaganite idea of only ever making it as an author if I get a book on the shelves in a Barnes & Noble. Sure, Starbucks is going to keep its live-in partner alive for a while but most traditional bookstores are really feeling the pinch. The Internet, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere.
Neither are authors like Chuck Wendig.
Yeah, he gave me another kick in the ass this morning. I’ve been wondering how exactly I’m going to juggle writing one novel and rewriting another and still have a shot of getting fiction into the hands of readers before I get much older. And then Chuck’s post underscored something that’s been staring me in the face: I’m sitting on a bunch of it.
What’s to say I can’t write one novel, rewrite another AND put together a short story anthology?
I know a few of these stories are available to you currently for free through the link above. Others have appeared before (or have been promised to – I’m looking at you, Polymancer). But the free fiction’s pretty raw. Like a bunch of carrots in the store, you need to wash them off and maybe take a peeler to them before they’re at their best.
In other words, I need an editor.
I’m also going to need a cover artist. Maybe a photographer, maybe a more traditional pen-and-tablet artist, but somebody with visual arts skills far exceeding my capacity to doodle is going to have to help me out. I’m not about to wrap up a couple stories in twine, dump them on Amazon and say “Here you go, suckers, buy buy buy!” I’d like to think I’m a bit more professional than that.
I have no idea how I’m going to pay these intrepid and conjectural helpers, but hopefully something can be worked out. If you’re reading this and want to help, let me know.
Finally, in this anthology-to-be is going to be one story never before seen. Partially because it’s going to be another of those odd hybrids of disparate genres, and partially because I haven’t written it yet. It’s my hope that this, coupled with revised & edited versions of previous tales bundled into an easy-to-read one-stop shop will give folks enough incentive to pick it up.
And in doing so, they might become interested enough in my voice, style or sheer insanity to want to read more, which is where the novels and future shorts will come in.
One can only hope.
ABW, BTFO, etc.
Don’t worry, the blog probably won’t turn into this. Probably.
So The Art of Thor will come back next week, when I’m not so out of practice with StarCraft 2 and am back to my normal schedule of writing on the train and not wasting two hours in the car screaming at douchenozzles driving BMWs who think they bought the road along with their pretentious Bluetooth headsets and designer shirts monogrammed with the initials BIYM,
In other words, it’s on hiatus.
That strikes me as a somewhat dirty word for fiction writers. Going on hiatus means an interruption of the story. It means your audience is left hanging. And unless they’re deeply invested in your narrative or the characters, they’re going to go elsewhere for their entertainment, and you may have some trouble bringing them back.
The alternative is delivering a sub-standard product.
Think about it. If you don’t have the proper preparation, breathing room and time to edit and revise what you’re working on, if you shove it out the door just to shove something out the door, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be any good. And if you want to hold onto your audience, you’ll have to deliver quality, not just quantity. There are approximately 1.34 bajillion blogs, story sites and author portals on the Internet, and most of them aren’t dispensing anything all that new or interesting. Now, this isn’t to disparage any of the authors whom I’ve read and even worked with in the past. But it’s a fact, and here’s an example off the top of my head. The law of averages states that for every Chuck Wendig or Machine Age or JR Blackwell there’s between 5 and 5000 substandard hacks trying to push their schlock onto the teeming masses.
Hell, I might even be one of them, but that’s beside the point.
The point is, you won’t get anywhere or hold onto an ever-growing audience if you don’t give them something worth reading or watching. Doing that takes time. Time isn’t going to just saunter up to you and sit in your lap for you to take advantage of, either. You have to go after it. Chuck goes into detail about this and in a way that probably isn’t quite so indicative of his libido. Although one never knows.
So you need to take time to go about your entertainment the right way. And sometimes that means taking time away from other endeavors like ‘regular’ blog features or playing video games or training yourself to be the next dog whisperer. Given my schedule and the ways in which I’m trying to change & take charge of it, that’s meant getting some things in order and working around other events, and while the dust is settling and the end of a touch of darkness is in sight, there’s still going to be chaos here for a day or two.
In other words, the hiatus isn’t necessarily bad and Art of Thor is taking one til next week.
There are things we can’t control, and things we can. For example, we as individuals can’t control the price of gas, the degree to which our water pipes rust or the behavior of elected officials. We can, however, change our commuting patterns & schedule to consume less gas, adjust our behaviors to use less water per day and vote for different people in the next election. Things that we can’t control may frustrate us now, but when we consider what we can control instead of what we can’t, things become more clear and less stressful. Normally.
Case in point: you can’t control the expectations and tastes of an agent, but you can control your writing and its presentation.
It’s not up to the whims of a muse or the machinations of fate or the trends of the industry. You control your writing. If you don’t write something, nobody else is going to write it. Period. Schedules are going to change and even get thrown into upheaval, writers get distracted by issues large and small, and when the day is winding down and you finally make it home, sometimes you just want to vegetate in front of some rapidly-moving brightly-colored images. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, it’s part of life, but you must keep in mind that the only person who can write what you want to write is you.
For example, I can see the next few months of writing laid out in front of me but I know I won’t get there if I do nothing.
By the end of July I want to be finished with Cold Iron. The outline tells me I have about six chapters to go. I’m getting started on Act 3, so to speak. I should be able to maintain the momentum of the narrative if I can carve out more time for it around everything else that’s being held together with chicken wire and duct tape.
August is when I begin the rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds. There are at least three major changes I need to make, and there will be more than that as things take shape. I may adjust the ending to reflect a different or more coherent line of thought from our hero, even if it ends up making him less heroic. The goal is to make him more human. If that means he does something that pushes him away from the shining ideal of heroism, so be it.
I may drop the current working title for something else. Not just for marketing purposes. The title of the book should tell you more about its contents, and I don’t know if Citizen in the Wilds works when our heroes are only in the Wilds for a portion of its action. There’s also the fact that when I’m done with the rewrite, the book will be different. I want it to be more unique in its content, more driven in its narrative and more immediate in its appeal. Like a prime cut of meat, it’s at a decent starting point but needs a better marinade and proper cooking time.
After that I begin editing Cold Iron. The pruning shears will stay out. I’ll reload the darling-slaying shotgun. I’ll vivisect the thing and ensure the characters dance on their strings exactly how I want them and look human and three-dimensional while doing so.
That’s the kind of thing you need to do as a writer, I feel, from time to time. You must assume control of your work and push yourself to improve it. Otherwise, you might as well not bother, or at most try to sell yourself as a novelist for a collectible card game or a scriptwriter for Michael Bay.
Sooner or later, you’re going to run into difficulty. It’s a fact of life. Everything isn’t always hunky-dory. A tire goes flat, a check bounces, a bone gets broken, a job market tanks, a lover cheats, a bill gets skipped, a chore gets neglected, a payment gets forgotten. It happens. There’s no way around it.
Even when you do everything right, even if you put yourself onto the rails of a carefully-laid plan for moving forward, someone or something is going to put a penny on those rails and you’ll have to respond accordingly to the subsequent disaster. That’s life. It’s a mess. It’s conflict.
Why should the lives of our characters be any different?
It’s fantasy, you might say. It’s fiction. We can have our characters exist in a consequence-free world if we want. It’s our world so it’s our rules, right?
This will work in a video game like Grand Theft Auto or Just Cause. But can you imagine the world of Harry Potter as one without conflict? Or A Song of Ice and Fire? Or hell, Jersey Shore? Yeah, I said Jersey Shore’s fictional. Those might be people in a reality show, but I challenge them to be ‘real’ in any sense of the word in person. I mean if they look fake, sound fake, act fake and give out fake expectations…
Yeah. Conflict. Let’s have some of that.
We want to live vicariously through our fiction. But fiction without conflict and without consequence is ultimately boring. The stories we truly enjoy, the ones that stick with us and pull is back in just by glancing at a title or cover, are the ones with deep conflict, long-lasting consequences for the characters, the sorts of things we dive into fiction to escape from. Why?
Because we empathize. We understand. And in the end, we root for the characters who are just as under the gun and behind the 8-ball as we are.
In writing one draft and preparing to revise another, with a tip of my hat to the brutally honest people of Book Country, I’ve realized that with this conflict comes passion, even if it’s dark and often misdirected passion, and that passion is an emotion onto which readers can also grab hold. Or, in other words, it’s something that will grab the reader and pull them bodily into the narrative.
I was wondering where my hooks were. I think I answered my own question.
Without conflict, there’s no passion. Without passion, there’s no hook.
Therefore we must begin with conflict. And we can’t let up on it until the end.
The conflicts may change. One may end as another begins. Or multiple conflicts may intersect or even collide with one another. Good. The more conflicts and chaos, the more deep and nuanced the story becomes. The challenge for the writer is to keep all of this chaos straight, at least in their mind, to keep it from becoming a jumbled mess of angst and post-modern darkness.
I’m not saying to open with something exploding or a big gunfight or a little spaceship being chased by a bigger one. You can, but it’s kid’s stuff, really. Open with a deeper, inner conflict. One set up by society rather than bullets. Find the deep things that bother your character, their fears and what pisses them off. Tap one of those veins right at the start, and you’re more likely to suck in a reader within your first page.
Conflict should suck for our characters, and be as prevalent and relentless, as it is for us. Otherwise, what’s the point?
“[A] writing career is about putting a bucket on your head and trying to knock down a brick wall. It’s either you or the wall.”
Reality’s a stone-cold bitch. That’s why I mostly write fiction.
I identify first and foremost as a writer, not necessarily a programmer or a social media guru or mediocre gamer. As such I’ve come to accept several truths about myself.
- Any emotional problems from which I actually suffer will be exacerbated by the short-sighted stubborn sociopathy inherent of being a writer.
- If I take up writing as a full-time profession I am going to dodge debt collectors and utility bills even more than I do now. (Don’t panic, family members, my knees are unbroken and will remain so. I’m just not dining on steak and drinking cognac. More like dining on pasta and drinking cheap pop.)
- The longer I do not write full time and cram writing in whenever I can into the nooks and crannies of a packed schedule, fueled by whatever energy I can spare, the more my writing is going to suffer for it and the less likely I am to get published before I’m facing off against Gandalf and Dumbledore in a long white beard growing competition. Which I’ll win because they’re fictional.
- While writing is an evolutionary process that requires several drafts, torrents of trial and error, and accepting that one’s final effort might still be a flaming pile of poo, processes in the professional world are very different, and being writerly will rarely be tolerated long in the face of clients who want what they want yesterday for less than they want to pay. If you don’t get something right the first time, there’s the door, don’t let it hit you on those fancy pants you thought you were wearing.
- I am never, ever, for as long as I keep breathing, going to give up writing.
Sure, I’ll be miserable more often than not. Who isn’t? I’ve learned to seize and capitalize on my joy when I find it. My wife’s smile. Pulling off a win in StarCraft. Meeting fellow geeks in person instead of just over the Tweetsphere. The open road on a sunny day. Poutine. The Union scoring a goal. A decent movie or video game with a coherent story and three-dimensional characters. My mom’s cooking and my dad’s laughter.
And finishing a story.
That’s the hidden beauty of writing. If you do it right, you get to finish it multiple times. After your first draft, you go back and edit it. And when you get through the edit? Guess what, you finished it. Awesome!
Now go do it again.
Work, edit, revise, cross out, swear, drink, work, write, grind, swear, edit, DING.
In my experience it’s not a case of diminishing returns. The next round of edits might not be as heady in its completion as the last, but it’ll be different and it’ll still be good. And let me tell you, it’s a long hard road to get there.
Even if you do write for a living, you still have to produce. Instead of the aforementioned clients you have looming deadlines, a constant and gnawing doubt that your writing just won’t be good enough and the cold knowledge that at least a dozen younger, hungrier and more talented penjockeys are just waiting for you to fuck up so they can take your place, and your paycheck. Pressure from clients or deadlines or those lean and hungry wolves becomes pressure on you, pound after pound after pound of it, and when you go home at night with even more words unwritten, you’re going to feel every ounce of that pressure on your foolish head, and every word you haven’t written will pile on top, each one an additional gram of concentrated dark-matter suck.
It’s a love affair with someone who never returns you calls when you need them but always calls just when you think you can’t take another day of this tedious, soul-eroding bullshit.
I said earlier I mostly write fiction. This, for example, isn’t ficton. I wouldn’t mind writing more recollections like this, but guess what, I’m not getting paid for it (I could be if somehting hadn’t gone wrong with my ad block, thank you SO much for that, Google Ads). My movie & game reviews, short stories, commentary on geek minutae, Art of Thor series, IT CAME FROM NETFLIX!, the Beginner’s Guide to Westeros? Not a dime. I don’t write any of that because I get paid for it. I do it to entertain those couple dozen of you who cruise by here every day. I do it because I feel I’ve got something to say that hasn’t quite been said this way before.
And yes, I do it because I love it.
It’s in my blood and my bones. It keeps me awake at night more than bills or code or politics or Protoss cheese or ruminations on the Holy Ghost. And since I doubt I’m going to be getting rid of it at this point in my life, I might as well embrace it and make the most of it.
I’m going to suffer more hardship. I might have to move, or change jobs again, or go through some embarassing procedure because I tried to hock my words at passers-by on the train and had made one of the first drafts of my manuscript into what I felt was a fetching kilt (nae trews Jimmy) and a matching hat that may or may not have been styled after those conical straw numbers you see atop badass samurai in Kurosawa movies.
So be it.
Say it with me, writers.
I will not whine.
I will not blubber.
I will not make mewling whimpering cryface pissypants boo-hoo noises.
I will not sing lamentations to my weakness.
I am the Commander of these words.
I am the King of this story.
I am the God of this place.
I am a writer, and I will finish the shit that I started.
Columnist on WSJ is a jackass! Read all about it!
Plenty has already been said about this WSJ article pertaining to young adult fiction. As usual, Chuck has written what we’re all thinking with an extra dose of profanity and buckshot. Instead of adding more fuel to the fire by talking about how wrong this opinion is, I’d like to furnish you with an example of contemporary fiction, aimed at a younger audience, that works effectively and is well-written without being saccharine-sweet and ‘safe’ all the time.
The example is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
… Yes, I watch My Little Pony. Get it out of your system now.
Anyway, I vaguely remember the original cartoon from the ’80s. My sisters were into it. I was more of a mind for Transformers, as I’ve mentioned, because robots that become cars and change back were far more gnarly than girly ponies. I was too young to pay attention to things like plot (which was non-existent), characters (who only rose above ‘broad archetype’ on rare occasions) and Aesops (that got beaten into your soft heads every episode) when things were exploding in a colorful fashion. But that was kid’s programming back then. It was safe.
Fast forward about twenty-five years and some hard-learned lessons about what does and does not make for good storytelling. When I was first made aware of the new Ponies, I was skeptical. I’d seen what they’d done to Star Wars and my beloved Transformers, after all, and besides it was ponies. I didn’t indulge or even glance at the show for the longest time. Then my wife got into it. I figured I’d try at least one episode, make her happy, secure the future of my sex life, maybe have a laugh.
I wasn’t expecting to get hooked.
I wasn’t expecting good characterization. I wasn’t expecting well-done animation and decent voice-acting. I wasn’t expecting legitimately funny, frustrating, joyous and touching moments.
And I certainly wasn’t expecting dragons, hydras, a cockatrice or a griffon so bitchy I’ve never wanted to roast a lion-bird on a spit so much in my gorram life.
My Little Pony isn’t afraid to go shady places. It deals with jealousy (a lot, I guess that’s a problem for girls growing up), isolation, growth from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, fear and even crisis management and racism, all in the context of the magical kingdom of Equestria and without being terribly overt or insensitive about things. Sure, there’s an Aesop every episode but they range from mildly anvilicious to rather well-presented. I mean, they do a Clients from Hell episode. I wasn’t all that inclined to like Rarity (the seamstress unicorn) but watching her put up with the demands of her friends as customers made me a lot more sympathetic and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Clients suck, whether you’re building websites or magically assembling pretty dresses for your pony friends.
She’s not a shopaholic. She’s an artist. HUGE difference.
…Where was I? Right, children’s lit.
My point, other than these ponies being awesome, is that the show and its writers go into the darker corners of a girl’s adolescence and drag some pretty nasty issues kicking and screaming into the light so that the girls in question can face them without fear or shame. As I said, some of the Aesop-dispensing is a tad on the overt side, but when this show cooks it does so with gas as well as gusto. The relationships of its characters, the way they handle situations and the delivery of their lines is handled so adeptly and consistently that I can’t help but feel very strongly about the show. This is how children’s entertainment should work. This is how you write young adult lit well without sacrificing decent characterization, complex themes and dark subject matter.
The writers and animators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are wise in that they handle their stories in this way, and also in the way they keep the humor working on levels other than juvenile slapstick for any adults that watch and in the very adept and clever ways in which they handle character relationships and their reactions to the subjects at hand. While some cartoons and even major motion pictures and triple-A video games look at writing as a necessary evil to string together a series of flashy spectacles, this show knows its writing is the foundation upon which its appeal and meaning are built. Those other, flashier, more ‘masculine’ forms of entertainment could take a lesson or two of their own from this humble, pretty, bright and very awesome girl’s cartoon.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do something manly. Like bench-press something, or drink really crappy beer while yelling obscenities at a sporting event.
I’m sure you’re familiar with treasure maps. They lay out the land for you. They show you a path to some sort of prize. They’ll tell you what dangers you will face. What they don’t tell you is what the treasure will actually be, or how valuable it will be to you.
Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey is like that. Just imagine the treasure map is smelling faintly of booze, covered with profanity scrawled in Crayon and smeared with… …well, it’s smeared.
Kidding aside, it’s a valuable resource if you’re a writer or aspiring writer of any kind. Novelist? Magazine writer? Game developer? Postcard scribe? Coffee mug actualizer? Executive Vice President of Placemats? There’s something for you in this book.
(I said kidding aside, didn’t I? Dammit.)
Admittedly, the writing and advice of Chuck Wendig is infectious. This is a book that will make you laugh, make you think and make you question your own sanity. You’ll wonder if Chuck somehow crawled inside your head while he was writing Cannes-worthy screenplays and juggling his freelance gigs with the new baby his intrepid wife just had. Because a lot of his experiences feel like they are talking to or about you, personally.
At least, they do to me. So maybe I’m the crazy one. I’m sure some doctors would back that one up.
I could go through article by article, post by post, and tell you exactly what is in Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey. But doing so would cheapen the experience. The journey laid out in its pages, a trail blazed in the posts of his terribleminds blog and bounced off of the rubbery brains of his peers, is one that should be taken (if possible) without preamble, explanation or tutorial save for the following: Get in, sit down, shut the fuck up and hang the fuck on. The book includes more notes on his thoughts, expansions and even reversals of his opinions, frank questions posed to the author and plenty of Chuck’s signature style. It will brighten some days, and others may quickly tire of it. Your mileage may vary, but the advice and anecdotes are more than the sum of their stylistic parts and worthy reading for any would-be author. It’s just hard to say how much each bit will help said would-be author, which again falls into that whole variable mileage thing.
The mind of a writer is a dark, confusing and occasionally frightening place. Chuck wades in with a knife between his teeth, a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. The path a writer must take to publication is fraught with danger and pitfalls. Chuck shows you how to sidestep the pits and tell the danger to fuck off home. The excuses of a writer that keeps them from writing are many and varied. Chuck demonstrates the proper technique in beating the shit out of those excuses with that bottle after you’ve drained it of its biting but somehow soothing contents.
Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey is the writer’s life in microcosm. The insanity, the drive, the laughter and tears, the deepest valleys and the dizzying heights – Chuck Wendig covers it all and somehow emerges on the other side with a smile on his bearded face. If you have the wherewithal to pick out the gems that are missing from your experience, you can do the same. Hell, you might even grow a beard of your own while reading it, and for you lady writers, I apologize on Chuck’s behalf if you weren’t planning on growing one.
If you’re a writer, thinking of being a writer or wondering exactly why that writer you know is chained up in the corner frothing at the mouth and grumbling to himself about unicorn semen and candy-apple witch tits, you should already own Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey. It’s a collection of advice, anecdotes and cautionary tales bound together by a love of the written word and the power of good booze.
Get it, and if you do so in actual print as opposed to some sort of electronic hoojeywhatsis, put it on the writing shelf next to Elements of Style. And let me know how that goes. I’m pretty sure Chuck can take those Strunk and White dudes in a fight.
Let’s say you’re a writer. You like, love, need to write. Ideas, characters, plots and events chase each other around in your noodle while you’re collating TPS reports, shoveling coal or telling morons the bleedingly obvious. You want to bring them to life, invite other people into the worlds and lives you create, provide a small measure of escape and solace to your fellow man through the art of the written word.
Or maybe you just want to make a quick buck. You’re tired of the commute, the daily officer routine, the dirty or suspicious looks from your boss and you believe you can write your way out of it.
Well, I commend your ambition and can sympathize with whatever sentiment that’s motivating you, but you need to be aware of a harsh truth that might be difficult to swallow. You might be aware of it, peripherally, or because writers much better than me have already issued similar warnings. But here it is: Getting published sucks.
If it were easy, everybody would do it. A thousand gamers and a million housewives and a billion Harry Potter fans would be getting their work published and making money if the process weren’t soul-grindingly difficult. And it’s not difficult in the way algebra or biochemistry can be, it’s difficult in that it curts right past the idealism and imagination that got you writing in the first place and dumps you without preamble into the ice-cold shower of reality.
Let me hand you the soap. You don’t want to bend over.
Finding an Agent Sucks
I hope you like rejection.
Who am I kidding? Nobody likes that. I can’t think of a single person who breaks into a smile when they’re told something they’ve worked hard on sucks. Even when the creative person can admit it to themselves, it’s a tough thing to face and harder to overcome. And just when you think you have overcome it, refined that lump of coal into a diamond, polished that work until it shines?
“Sorry, this isn’t good enough.”
Not good enough for the market. Not good enough for the agency. Not good enough for the individual agent’s taste. Just. Not. Good. Enough.
It’s what every form rejection letter boils down to. And let’s face, agents are busy as hell. They get flooded with queries, full-out manuscripts, love letters and blatant bribes every day. They can’t respond in person to every single one. So they use the form letter. Nine times out of ten, it isn’t personal. They don’t mean to come off like they don’t care. It’s not their intent to act like your hard work will never amount to anything.
But boy, the write can certainly feel that way.
The payoff, though, is that when you do get the attention of the right agent at the right time, you have a voice in the publishing community. Somebody with established credentials is now on your side. They have the pulse of the market. They know who to talk to, where to go, what to say to get your work into the hands of someone willing to put it in front of readers everywhere.
They will go to the mat for you and you will love them for it.
You just have to find them first. If you can.
Publishing Yourself Sucks
Fuck that! I have sent queries all over the place and gotten nowhere. I’m even more miserable and broke now than I was a year ago when I finally finished my seventeenth draft! I’m hip! I’m with it! I’m a digital native! I’m gonna publish myself, dammit!
Not so fast there, Sparky.
First and foremost, let me point you in the direction of someone who’s been out there, who’s seen what it’s like to face the demons on Amazon and those Barnes & Noble guys, who wrestled with what to do and what not to do with his bare gorram hands while bringing a child into this world.
Get it? I hope so. You take a walk down the road of self-publication, you are in for just as much work and heartache as finding the right agent, if not moreso. There are a thousand things an agent will do for you in the course of a day if you’re fortunate enough to retain their services. There’s networking, marketing, promotion, pricing and contracts, a heaping handful of moving parts that keep the machine of your dreams humming along towards actually getting paid for your work.
Without an agent, take a guess who needs to do all of that.
If you guessed yourself, give yourself a No-Prize.
Let’s compare the two tracks. If you pursue an agent, after months (if not longer) of rejection you finally get one’s attention and they like your work enough to represent it. You might need to do a couple more edits before the work is ready for prime time, but once it is you and your agent can work together to get it out there.
Go your own way, and you’ll need to bother a lot of people on your own. Relative strangers to give you honest test readings. Maybe an editor if you’re pressed for time. Definitely a professional cover artist (you do want people to check out your book, right?). You’ll need to set the type yourself to make sure the finished product looks good on mobile devices. Then you need to get it onto the marketplaces people use and promote the hell out of it. Offer incentives. Get reviews and post them everywhere. Shill until your voice hurts and your fingers are sore.
Neither of those seems like very much fun, do they?
Doing Nothing Sucks
There’s a third option, of course.
You could just do nothing with your work. Write for your own enjoyment. Maybe post your work on a blog or a forum, if you have time. After all, who needs that aggravation? It’s a huge expenditure of time and energy and it’s going to frustrate you, depress you, enrage you and wear you out. You need that energy and time for things. Chores. Trips. Games. Chatting up attractive members of the opposite sex.
Of course, if you do nothing with your work, nothing will come of it.
You get what you give. Just give it to a forum or a blog with a couple viewers and you’ll get a couple encouraging responses and little else. Take a chance on finding an agent or put in the work to put it out yourself, you’ll get a lot more. Possibly some extra income. And that can’t do anything but help the aforementioned activities.
Those are the paths open to the writer. The path you choose is entirely up to you.
Disclaimer: Blue Ink Alchemy in no way endorses or encourages the use of substances such as those described in the following post in excess or in lieu of healthier activities. It is important and responsible to use these or any other substance or activity in moderation to ensure as long and fruitful a life as possible.
It is also important to use moderation in moderation lest you become dull.
I’m not an entirely virtuous or pious person. I’ve got quite a list of character defects going. I’d like to think that I’m not a horrible person, but I’m no saint. I don’t exercise outside of walking to and from various train stations, I’ve never counted carbs or calories and some of my personal hygiene habits are a little disgusting. And even if I did all of those things and refrained from some of my worse habits, I’d still have flaws. I’m human.
The point I’m going to try and make is that your characters are human, too. It’s been said before on more than one occasion but it bears repeating. If every character you create is a squeaky clean paragon of virtue free of negative emotions, habits and experiences, your story is going to be boring. And if the character is ‘perfect’ even as disaster is occuring all around them, the character is boring.
When I get into the office in the morning the first thing I do (after disabling the alarm) is make a cup of coffee. Caffiene kick-starts my brain. It tends to be sluggish first thing in the morning. I’m actually writing this post on the train before my first cuppa and it’s been a stop-and-start procedure. In the same way, not every character is going to pop right up out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to face the day’s challeneges or the monster of the week. Sure, a lot of young adult works are going to start this way, but a lot of young adult works are trying too hard. Ask any agent.
Caffiene, for all of its morning-abating qualities, is in fact a drug, and it’s highly likely that using it daily will cause dependence. On Sundays in particular I can develop bad headaches if I don’t bring some into my system using coffee or soda pop. It makes it difficult to concentrate; things don’t flow as they should. More than once I’ve actually had a similar feeling while writing. Things aren’t flowing as they should; the story is missing something. There’s a shot of narrative espresso that will get things back on track. Have you ever encountered this? Have you ever felt your creative gears grind to a halt, only to start back up moments or days or months later when a stray thought falls into place like a caffinated cog?
So here comes the stereotype involving writers and their booze. My liquor cabinet is a shambles, along with a great deal of my apartment, but a couple beers a week tend to find their way to me due to the charity of friends and the fringe benefits of being part of a community-minded cutting-edge start-up. I’m sure bottles of gin and scotch will soon grace my shelves again, but I certainly don’t expect my writing to improve just by them being there. Alcohol does, however, tend to illicit altered behavior, from fostering relxation to causing soft-spoken people to pick fights with strangers of imagined slights. Have you ever imagined a character of yours on a bender? Would they stumble around town? Hit on someone else’s significant other? Wreck their house in a sudden fit of rage? Curl up in a corner and weep? All of the above? The better your know your character and the more human they are, the more you can predict the results of a night on the town. How about when they get in a fight sober? Or get their heart broken? Or lose their job? Our flaws define our reactions and ambitions just as much as our dreams and strengths do, and our characters are no different.
I’ve broken out the tobacco pipe on more than one occasion, though my good one has a broken stem and I can’t find my super glue. I’ve had encounters with other substances, and like President Obama, I did in fact inhale. Experimentation is a part of growth, and a part of our wrting as well. Try something new, turn a trope on its head, change a character’s race or gender, kill your darlings and any witnesses close to them. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to rewrite some words to undo any damage you’ve done to the narrative. As long as you learned something about where your work is going and how you ant it to turn out, it’ll have been worth it.
Your chararcters are living things, even if it’s just on the page. And for every strength they show to the audience, there should be some sort of weakness, even a fleeting one. For every virtue, your character should indulge in a vice. This will make your work more interesting to write, and increase the chances it’ll be interesting to read, too.
Going out into the wilderness is a somewhat dangerous prospect. Wildlife, weather and our own wherewithal are all factors that must be taken into account when facing a journey into the unknown. And when someone like Bear Grylls or Les Stroud enters the wilderness alone (or at least with no overt help from the camera crew) we are in a bit of awe, simply because the scope of such a journey is so staggering. To say nothing of everything that could go wrong.
Most people looking at that sort of undertaking are going to want some company. We take our spouses and significant others on romantic getaways and our friends on road trips. At the same time we’re sharing the road, we’re also sharing the load. Work is less grueling and physical feats less daunting when such things are tackled by more than one person. And when things go wrong, it’s wise to call for help. Fire up the radio, check for cell reception, send up a flare.
It’s not just the wilderness of the world we face, though. Writers, Olympic athletes, artists, professional ball players – when people like this set their sights on a goal, it’s often one that means their name in lights, and their name alone. But that doesn’t mean that they need to get there alone.
It’s foolish to assume that an individual knows everything they need to know to get what they want. For one thing, it’s impossible to know everything; for another, it’s highly unlikely that they have enough experience to adequately predict what will happen next in their quest for their goal, and react appropriately. In spite of this, a lot of people will struggle in silence, trying to forge ahead on their own without asking for an adequate amount of help to overcome their obstacles. They don’t pose questions. They don’t easily admit to weaknesses. They don’t send up flares.
With so many resources available to someone undertaking a new journey, be it in a new artistic pursuit or just a hobby, looking for help when things aren’t going well seems a logical and sound thing to do. And yet, some put off asking for help until they’re at the point of desperation, or they approach asking for help in the wrong way. It’s one thing to admit you suck at something; it’s quite another to invite people to look at your work and tell you just how much you suck. It takes humility and a realistic viewpoint. The people with good enough hearts to respond earnestly to a request for help aren’t going to be looking to tear you down with what they say when they see your work. They’ll want to see you not only improve but also truly enjoy whatever it is you’re doing.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there’s no reason to be afraid to send up a flare. By this I mean find the forums on the Internet catering to your interest. Engage people in discussion about your passions. Let them give you honest opinions on how you can improve, and take the advice to heart without taking it personally. Believe it or not, putting yourself in front of an audience, even if it’s just for them to tear your work to bits, takes bravery and humility. These are virtues people want to see, and when they do it may be surprising just how many come forward to offer assistance, earnestly, wanting to see you get better. Sending up a flare illuminates everything around you, and when people see your light, it’ll cause them to look towards the heavens as well. And who knows what can happen then?
Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re a human being. I mean, you could be an automated online process looking for SEO terminology, but if that’s the case you won’t get much out of this post. I tend to write more in coherent thoughts than barely-connected keywords. Anyway, the majority of my audience are human beings, and if there’s one thing all human beings do, it’s make mistakes.
Okay, all human beings do a lot of other things too, but I don’t have much of a knack for poop humor.
When mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, a lot of energy is generated. Disappointment, rage, confusion, dread; all of these emotions tend to fall towards the negative end of the spectrum. But like any energy source, it can be redirected. But how, and to where?
When you fail, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is “Why?” Provided that your failure isn’t due to some sort of natural disaster, there’s a human being that can be referenced as the cause for the failure, be it yourself or someone else. Note that this is not about assigning blame, it’s about understanding the cause that lead to the effect of you feeling at least somewhat drained and broken.
Examine the circumstances. Was it something you said or did? Does the product you’re offering require more polish? Did you miss an essential bit of data in the process of assembling your solution? Did you approach the wrong audience? Was your timing off? Did you forget anything?
Quite a few of these questions, all expansions upon “Why?” are largely personal. There may be some navel-gazing involved. However you appoaching answering this first overarching question, as you hunt down the causes you will collect data. Your failure may be time-sensitive and require a rapid response, so you might not have too much time to gather all the facts. Still, the more data you can reasonably collect, the better you can answer the second question.
That question is: “What now?”
The impulse in light of failure, especially repeated failure, may be to quit. Why band your head against the wall repeatedly? You won’t get anywhere, it tends to start hurting and someone else might own the wall and sue you for damages while you nurse that concussion. Better to quit and do something less frustrating with our time, right?
Quitting is the only true failure. It’s surrendering, admitting defeat. It’s saying that whatever it was you were trying to do, that you had devoted time, energy and talent to doing, simply isn’t worth that expenditure, and you were wasting it before you decided to run up the white flag.
Now, not everything we do is going to have a profound impact if we keep at it. The world isn’t going to end if you decide a puzzle has stumped you or a game is too difficult to overcome even on the easiest settings. However, creative endeavors and the potential fruits of labor at the workplace tend to have deeper meanings, even if it’s just how we’ll be seen by those who write our paychecks.
So more often than not, I would encourage you not to quit. Tenacity is a virtue that can be hard to find in an age where more creature comforts, distractions and products focused on ease of use help people become lazier. There are those who simply don’t see the point of doing something they can’t excel at or aren’t the least bit passionate about, and quit before they’ve even begun.
In other words, they’ve failed without even giving themselves a chance to try.
This isn’t to say that everybody shoud do everything they can or have the inclination to try. There just isn’t time. But people who develop ideas for a narrative, or a career, or a new artistic endeavor, or a unique community initiative, or an unexplored workplace solution and do nothing with it after it’s emerged from their imaginative centers tend to baffle me. Why don’t they do something with their ideas? What’s stopping them from seeking further inspiration, time to develop those products or at least finding a partner with whom to collaborate?
If they’re anything like me, they’re probably reminded themselves that they suck one too many times.
It’s imporant to be humble, there’s no doubt about that. Having the attidue of “I don’t know everything but I want to know more” when it comes to creating something or playing a game or being a better driver or just about anything is a much healthier one than “I know everything and am always right.” But the exact opposite of that unfavorable mentality is “I don’t know enough and never will so I’m just going to give up.”
I mentioned in yesterday’s post how demoralizing the realization of just how much you suck can be. You get schooled in a game. Your art or writing doesn’t turn out how you thought it would. You get nowhere in a project at work, and the deadline is breathing down your neck. Encountering resistance is going to happen, and when it does many people (myself included) feel the impulse to just give up.
But I’ve learned to do something else with that impulse. Other than kicking it square in the teeth.
The Internet Is For More Than Just Porn
We are more connected to one another than we have ever been. While the world is running out of space and resources for the human race, it’s also shrinking in terms of distance between people in terms of communication. People who might never have met just ten years ago can now trade information, pleasantries or insults instantaneously.
It’s one of the best tools you can use for turning your failures into fuel.
Chances are there’s a community based around your area of enthusiasm. Find one and start asking members for help and opinions. Since the community is full of other enthusiasts, chances are at least a couple will share your passion, understand your struggle and have advice to give. There’s all sorts of help and encouragement available to you, you just have to hunt it down and ask for it.
The Path Ahead
Again, I want to stress that you should not feel obligated to treat every single one of your failures like this. Time is a limited resource and we each only have so much in our lives. Choose what truly interests you, what makes you come alive, and leverage that into a hobby or even a career. And when you fail along the path to achieving your goals related to this empassioning interest, that’s when you should ask yourself why, figure out what’s next and seek help and encouragement. To me, that’s how you succeed at failure.
If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
Yesterday on The Big Picture, MovieBob brought up the recent incarnation of Transformers on the big screen. He wondered why the bulk of both films seemed much less concerned with the mythology, characterization and interaction of the titular characters than it did with Shia LeBeouf allowing millions of frustrated teenagers to vicariously court Megan Fox. It’s relatively common knowledge that the Transformers grew out of a toy line from the 80s, and the animated series primarily aimed at moving more of those toys spawned a movie of its own. It was certainly no great gift to cinema or even to genre fiction, but at least it let the Transformers be the actual stars in a Transformers movie, instead of shoving them aside for gratuitous shots of US military hardware, misfiring bodily humor and Ms. Fox or some other walking wank material providing shallow titillation.
Let me reiterate that. The original Transformers movie was slightly better than the modern movies, but it still wasn’t all that great.
I mean, sure, I can watch it and smile but that’s mostly due to the memories. I can remember being a child, clutching a plastic toy, eyes full of the characters I retreated to daily coming to life. I spent even more time in my head back then than I do now, and seeing things I’d only imagined manifesting in front of me with full stereophonic sound and professional voice acting blew my adolescent mind right out of the water. Nowadays I’ll pick apart the plot, shake my head at the silliness and laugh at the effects, the acting or both. But there’s still a part of me that wants very badly to love the movie. It’s the part of me that’s never grown up. The Randal Graves part.
Just because something was first experienced when we were young does not necessarily mean it’s better. We just remember it fondly as a bright spot in a more innocent time. We didn’t have responsibility, the weight of obligation or the guilt of past transgressions getting in the way of our joy. We didn’t have to suspend our disbelief because, for the most part, we didn’t have much disbelief yet. I’m sure there are some kids who are growing up skeptical, questioning and very smart. This is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Some of us just didn’t come into our critical thinking skills until later. And we look back on the times before those skills developed, on what we enjoyed, and don’t necessarily apply our critical minds right away. In a way, we don’t necessarily want to.
Case in point: Tron.
The original Tron as one of the many, many films that debuted in 1982, the year for genre films. I was introduced to many of the titles of that year at a very young age. When I first saw Tron, nothing like it had been seen before. The special effects employed laid the groundwork for the plethora of CGI methods to come, and many digital artists in cinema and video games today owe much of their craft to some of the techniques pioneered by works like Tron. The concept of a world inside a computer, populated with programs capable of interacting like people and battling it out in disc duels and lightcycle wars was overwhelming to my young mind. That idea stuck with me and colored my recollection of the film even as I re-watched it a few times. Things have changed for me. I can tell you that the original Tron suffers from badly aging effects, some questionable acting and characters that are nearly non-existent. You can name them and know them by sight, but you don’t get a really good sense of who they are.
Now, compare it to Tron: Legacy.
The concept of a living world inside a computer remains intact and gets a lot of fleshing out, but more importantly, we have characters who are not only given depth but also come across as somewhat realistic. The leads have good chemistry reinforced by solid writing, the effects look gorgeous and the score is absolutely phenomenal. The execution still isn’t airtight and it feels at times like the film is more concerned with either invoking old-school fans’ nostalgia or trying to lay the groundwork for sequels than remaining in the story in front of us. While this is also a problem in a movie like Transformers or G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra, Legacy pulls it off a hell of a lot better than either of those two. I wasn’t wondering when they’d get to ‘the good stuff’ or why we should care about the lead protagonist.
It’s not great, but it’s very good. It’s no Inception but it’s far, far better than many other attempts to revitalize older concepts and play upon the nostalgia factor of nerds like myself. It shows that the techniques of modern storytelling, from cutting-edge digital tools to the experienced hand of a writer concerned with character and pacing instead of merely concept, are superior to those used years ago. In other words, if you want to create a story with its roots in something that’s come before, you must remember that the nostalgia factor should only be an incidental concern, not an overriding or guiding principle.
Or as Yahtzee put it once, “Nostalgia’s a mouthful of balls.”
Last night at the Old City Creative Corridor meeting, I had the privilege of listening to Rakia Reynolds, a creative ambassador of Philadelphia. She spoke about branding ourselves as creative natives of this great town, and one thing in particular she said stuck out in my mind. I’m paraphrasing, here, but it boils down to this: “If you can find what you want to do, do what you want.”
I issue this challenge to my fellow writers. Walk into a bookstore. I mean, physically. Make the effort to get out in the world and walk amongst the shelves populated by the works of those who’ve already made their mark in our rarefied field. Take a look in your area of interest – speculative fiction, biography, self-help, instructional books on Twitter, whatever. Chances are you’re likely to find something that may, in passing, resemble what you want to do. The thing is, though, it’s not exactly what you want to do. So, go do exactly what you want to do. Then, shop the hell out of it. Sooner or later, all of the rejection and all of the negativity you feel you’re coming up against will wash away in the wake of one, just one, person giving you an enthusiastic response: “I like this idea. I am ON FIRE about it. Tell me more.”
I say ‘rarefied’ because not everybody feels they have what it takes to put words to paper in a coherent way that’s easy to read. It’s like everybody else who shares our interests knows something we don’t. And maybe, on a basic level, we know it too.
The difference is, to put it bluntly, we just don’t care.
If you start something, if you embark on a new creative endeavour, you’re going to run into static. There will be resistance. Practicality and logistics will rear their ugly heads to tell you the myriad ways in which what you want to do can’t be done. The work of others and a litany of failures will present evidence illustrating why your idea might not be a very good one. What separates the people we envy from the people we’ve never really heard of is that the people we envy didn’t let that static or their own failures stop them from reaching the heights to which they aspired.
Being great and making a difference aren’t really a matter of doing something entirely new or different. It’s a matter of being willing to fail, and making the most of success when it happens. And that willingness, that hunger to capitalize, comes from doing what you want, what you love.
As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”