Writing

Another Blog: Writing Without Rules

You may have noticed that I haven’t been terribly active at this here blog, which is as much a tragic story of authorial incompetence as anything else. One reason I’ve been distracted is the other blog I’ve set up: Writing Without Rules.

WWR is where I’ve been posting all my genius, sodden, slightly warped writing advice (craft and career). The main reason I’ve set this blog up instead of simply continuing to dump my writerly thoughts here is because I’ve sold a book:

BAM!

It’s not out until 2018, so let’s hold our applause. But since you can’t start promoting something too early, I’ve set up a companion blog centered on writing. I’ll be posting thoughts on writing novels, short stories, and other things, as well as my half-assed ideas about promotion and marketing. If you’re an aspiring writer and you’re under the delusion that you can learn something from me, please do surf on over and leave me some insulting comments. And mark your calendars to buy this book when it comes out, as I guarantee you will be a hundredaire after putting it’s concepts into action.

“Black House” is Live

Chapter One of Black House, a novel featuring my character Philip K. Marks, has gone live over at theblackhousesite.wordpress.com, and you should go read it! I’ll be posting new chapters every day this month until the whole novel is up. Then it will stay up until June 15th, and then I’m deleting the site. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Let’s see what happens.

The novel is an experiment for me; I was inspired by an old puzzle book that was a house in the form of a maze, so I wrote a novel that is really a maze. It’s kind of trippy and strange, but I really like it, and hope you do too.

The book release schedule is basically 1-2 chapters every day, so you can check the website every day and find at least one new chapter, often two. I’d encourage you to let me know what you think as the story progresses—it’s be interesting to hear what y’all think in the midst of reading it.

And don’t forget—June 15th, I’m, deleting it. If you want to save the chapters for future reading, do it before then.

Enjoy!

Writin’ Ain’t Easy

I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening with a glass of Michter’s American whiskey, a cat, and my keyboard. It’s hot and humid, and I’m sweating like a pig, but it’s okay, because it’s been cold for so long I’m kind of into sweating right now.

It’s been a decent writing day, but of course it wasn’t all personal work and fiction. I spent a bit of time looking for new freelance work and touching various freelance projects I’ve got spinning. Not a lot, I’m not saying my life is hard in any way, but one thing they sure don’t tell you when you tear off your shirt in a restaurant and shout YOU PEOPLE HAVE HELD ME BACK LONG ENOUGH, I’M GOING TO BECOME A FULL-TIME WRITER is that the phrase “full time” means fucking full time.

As In 24/7

Writing for a living can be exhausting. The fiction is fun. The fiction is me taking my ideas and putting them into coherent form and seeing a world emerge where there was only blank paper or white pixels. The freelance, which pays a big part of the bills, is a different story.

You pretty much have to be an idea machine when you write freelance. While a few of my editors do send me assignments, if I relied on assignments being sent to me passively I’d make about $100 a month. Which, as I discovered in my first, extremely painful year of freelancing, isn’t enough to live on. So you have to constantly send out new ideas, and then you have to badger people to get to you with a yea or nay on those ideas. And then when you get 3 acceptances out of six ideas, you have to start thinking of six more ideas to send.

And you write more or less every day. I’ve tried making weekends into My Time, I’ve tried designated Wednesdays as Jeff Writes Fiction Day, Yahoo and both have worked for short periods of time, but freelance writing creeps in. Someone can only be interviewed on a certain day, or you got day drunk on Friday and so forgot to look for new work, so you have to carve out some time on Saturday to do it. Or, simply put, your earnings on the month are on the soft side, and you need to find a few hundred bucks’ worth of work before the week is out.

So, you find yourself working at odd hours and when you should be napping. It’s offset by the aforementioned day drinking, the occasional afternoon movie, the ability to go hang out with friends and then work at 2AM to make up for it, and, sometimes, the ability to trade a few hundred dollars in exchange for doing absolutely nothing, because no boss can loom over your desk and ask why you’re playing video games.

But damn, it’s exhausting sometimes.

The Unconventional Novelist

SO, I’ve written a book, and the contracts have been signed, and barring extinction-level event between now and 2018, The Unconventional Novelist will be published by Writer’s Digest next year. Huzzah!

My pitch was, in a nutshell, hey I do everything wrong and generally approach my writing career like a drunk guy approaches riding a bicycle down a mountainside, and yet here I am, nine novels in and making a living writing. And the editors took one look at my disheveled appearance and then one look at my surprisingly robust list of writing and publishing credits and decided that they could make some hay with this.

The book will be chock full of the wisdom I’ve accumulated during my lengthy and unusual writing career, most of which goes against received wisdom and, you know, the usual way of doing things. There’s this illusion that there’s a “right” way to get published and make money from your writing, and I am living proof that this is bunk. Also, there are more hilarious footnotes in this thing than is probably wise.

I’ll keep y’all updated. I’ve set up a blog over at https://unconventionalwriting.wordpress.com where I’ll be posting nuggets of drunken literary wisdom and other things, so if you want a sense of what the book will be like, there you go.

Another Novel Experiment

Anyone who pays attention to my wee blog here knows that now and again I try a little literary experiment. I’ve Tweeted short stories, I self-published six novellas that tied together as a new Avery Cates novel, I post free short stories here all the time.

Another experiment: A novel published as a transient blog. Here’s the details:

The Novel: Black House, featuring my character Philip K. Marks, who has appeared in short stories published at Buzzy Magazine (A Meek and Thankful Heart), Black Denim Lit (Howling on for More), and the anthologies Hanzai Japan (Three Cups of Tea) and Crimes by Moonlight (sift, almost invisible, through).

Here’s the synopsis:

All his life, Philip K. Marks has been a magnet for the strange, the surreal, the slightly impossible. His investigations into each macabre mystery that he’s stumbled into have always taken something from him, something essential. Old before his time, Marks is a shadow of what he used to be—but the strange and unusual still finds him. And he still can’t resist seeking answers.

At a rare upward swing in his fortunes, he finds himself able to imagine a more normal, stable existence for the first time in years. If he can just keep his head down. If he can just stay sober. If he can just resist the urge to help the little girl whose father went to look at an apartment and never came back. If he can stay out of the Black House.

The Blog: theblackhousesite.wordpress.com

The Deal: I’ll begin posting chapters of the novel on 5/1/17. I’ll post at least one chapter a day throughout May until the final chapter hits on 5/31/17. The novel will remain up until 6/15/17, and then I’m taking the whole site down.

Why? I dunno. To see what happens. To how it feels. To let anyone interested read what I think is a pretty cool story.

Lazy Writing 101: The Young Lover

You youngsters and your damned energy.

My wife, The Duchess, excels at many things, but her main skill is increasingly getting me to watch terrible, terrible television shows. She does this with a combination of stick and carrot; on the one hand if I mock and refuse to watch a show, she can become surly. On the other, if I mock and complain enough, she will often magnanimously swap a slightly less-awful show in for a more-awful show.

This is how I wound up squirming out from under the rock of Dancing with the Stars and found myself watching The Great Indoors.

The Evergreen Sitcom Plot

Look, I like Joel McHale. I loved him on Community, and he’s a pretty funny guy and a charismatic actor. I’m glad he’s getting a paycheck. The Great Indoors is a mediocre sitcom, and the bar is pretty low for a CBS sitcom to begin with, so mediocrity is nothing to celebrate. It has its moments, yes, but in general it’s a pretty lazy show. Point in fact, one of the first season episodes was a classic Lazy Plot. Specifically, it was the “aging lothario is exhausted by younger lover” (ALEBYL) plot.

The ALEBYL plot is simple: The main character’s virility is challenged (or their vanity is stroked) and they choose to date a much, much younger person. The younger person then puts them through a gauntlet of activities they barely tolerate and can’t possibly keep up with, until they’re miserable. But! They refuse to admit this, for a variety of reasons. Hilarity ensues.

This old chestnut wasn’t new in 1989, when Cheers did it in the episode “Don’t Paint Your Chickens,” wherein Sam Malone dates a younger woman who is very athletic, and pretends to be up to her standards of constant, exhausting activity. It wasn’t new when 30 Rock did it in the 2007 episode “Cougars.” It wasn’t new when it was initially conceived, more or less around the year 1. It is, in fact, a prime example of Lazy Writing.

The Getaway

Part of the reason writers get away with this laziness, of course, is our short cultural memories. The earliest example I can come up with off the top of my head is from 1989—nearly thirty years ago, sure, but still pretty recent. The simple fact is the doom of men is that they forget, and a new generation of idiots thinks the episode of The Great Indoors referenced above is the first time this old plot was ever done.

The three examples I’ve offered here are all slightly different. Cheers isn’t so much concerned with the age difference as it is with the younger person’s higher athletic ability and energy. 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is practically an asexual character, and the relationship serves to underscore her (often hilarious) combination of intelligence and dire insecurity. The Great Indoors leans in to the currently hot topic of how ridiculous and silly millennials are when compared to older generations. All of them, however, rely on a fundamental concept of sitcom comedy writing: Old people feeling their age are hilarious.

Maybe I’m just bitter, being an old person. But then I didn’t want to stay out all night when I was 20. Once when I was about 25 a friend invited me to have dinner with her and some of her friends, and I was delighted … until she told me she’d see me at 10PM. For pre-dinner drinks. TEN FUCKING PM. I’ve been an old man longer than you’ve been alive.

Look, older generations are always going to be convinced that the kids are vacuous morons. Any story that gently pokes Olds in the ribs about their age while simultaneously mocking Youngs for their idiocy and ignorance will be a hit, and the ALEBYL plot fires on all those thrusters. You can expect to see it at least four more times on different shows before you die, and there are probably two dozen examples I’m not aware of.

The Point

So what’s the point? The point is, you can discover valuable lessons about tired old tropes and lazy writing anywhere … even terrible CBS sitcoms. Eyes open, kids.

Gout, Dementia, and Inspiration

I Got Me the Gout

Long-time readers of this blog (and possibly my old zine The Inner Swine) might recall that a decade ago I was diagnosed with old-timey disease Gout. Gout is a pretty awful affliction, but it’s manageable, and there are much worse diseases out there—specifically, diseases that will kill you. Gout is painful, but with a good prescription and some discipline it can be dealt with. Although it does make you feel Old, with a capital “O”.

What really makes me feel old is the word “rheumatologist.” My grandmother had a rheumatologist. Young, vibrant people not on the verge of dementia and death do not, as a rule, have rheumatologists who greet them by name, so simply by making an appointment to see my doctor I feel instantly 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, it’s not just the gout and the rheumatologist making me feel old: It’s also my tired, malfunctioning brain.

The Somers Curse

My brain has always failed me. My memory is terrible, and I forget things about five minutes after learning them. And I often think I understand stuff, and get irritated and impatient when people insist on explaining stuff that I clearly understand, only to realize hours later that I totally did not understand. You might think that that at my advanced age—and age so advanced I can be diagnoses with gout, for the sake of Pete—I’d be aware of my limitations, but no such luck.

For example, last week I was heading into Manhattan to see my rheumatologist so they could evaluate the broken glass-and-bubble gum that comprises most of my gout-ridden joints. I know that my wife, The Duchess, is partial to baked goods, so I offered to pick something up for her while I was in the City. A good husband, after all, knows just how to suck up and curry favor.

She said she wanted a slice of cake from Magnolia Bakery, and proceeded to explain to me where the most convenient location was in Penn Station. I waved her off. “I have a smartphone and a brain,” I declared. “I’ll find it.”

Yes, you see where this is going.

Cut to two hours later, and I’m sweating and panicked on 33rd Street. My smartphone is telling me I am more or less inside Magnolia Bakery, despite being clearly on the street. I can’t call The Duchess and admit I’m confused, so I spend the next forty minutes desperately exploring Penn Station, trying to find the god-damned Magnolia Bakery, because I cannot—can not—return home without cake. To do so would be admitting I hadn’t paid any attention when my wife explained the details of my mission.

I suppose I take some comfort in the fact that my brain has always been this way: I think I understand things when I really don’t, and my confusion usually turns to rage at the people who have failed me, then, quickly, shame. If this was a new development, this combined with the gout would be a good excuse to put me away in a nice, comfortable home until I died and my organs could be harvested (except my liver, which has been used badly). But since I’ve always been this idiotic, the fact that it took me an hour to locate a bakery and buy a slice of cake is cause for mockery, not worry.

So, the upside? My confusion and difficulty with simple tasks isn’t likely to be the first sign of an age-related decline. The downside? This is who I am: A sweaty man who spends 45 minutes circling the same spot in Penn Station, completely confused as to the location of a bakery. And yes, dammit, I eventually found it. No thanks to you.

The Dubious Connection

This stuff always makes me think about writing, because I don’t know about you, but my inspirations—my ability to think of new ideas and shape them into stories—is a bit mysterious to me, and so I live in daily terror that one day I’ll wake up and it’s gone.

The worst part is, I might not even know it. There are plenty of artists working who continue to put out new material, but it’s lost that spark, that certain something that made their prior work interesting. And I wonder; are they aware that they’ve lost it? Are they haunted by it? Or do they think they’re still killing it? So moments when my brain isn’t working too well make me worry that I might have already entered into that period of decline where my writing is no longer all interesting, and I’m not aware of it.

That’s the worst part of being creative, sometimes: Your lack of control over your own ability. It’s like a random light shined on you, and it might go out at any time, without your permission—or even your awareness.

On that cheerful note, I’ll conclude by letting you know there’s no need to worry: The Duchess got her piece of cake, and I was not physically punished for failure. Not this time, at least.

Writing: The Work You Don’t Want to Do

It all makes sense now.

The cold truth is, writing is the easiest part of writing for a living. The actual writing? Easy. Give me a topic, five minutes on the Internet, and a keyboard and I can gin up 500 words on just about any subject. Give me three months and a monetary incentive and I’ll write a novel. The act of writing words has never been much of a problem for me. I understand I’m not everyone; some writers do in fact struggle with the actual writing, and many of them produce great work. As Diff’rent Strokes taught us, it’s take different strokes to move the world. What might be right for you might not be right for some.

<wanders off, singing the Diff’rent Strokes theme song>

Where was I? Right: Writing is the easy part. If you want to make your living writing, however, a lot of more difficult skill sets come into play. If you want to actually make money from writing and you haven’t been able to get the six-figure advance or sell the film rights before you’ve even written the damn book like Garth Risk Hallberg, you’re going to have to learn to do a few things that—if you’re like me—you don’t really want to do. Things like

Make the Phone Calls. I do a fair bit of freelance writing to pay my enormous liquor bills, and some of it requires me to make phone calls and speak to people, usually people who don’t find me entertaining or charming. It’s my least-favorite aspect of the work, but it must be done.

Write the Synopses. If you’ve ever tried to sell a novel, you know the peculiar hell of trying to boil 90,000 words down to three paragraphs of pithy plot. But if you want to sell that novel, you have to do it.

Make the Pitches. When you freelance, pitching ideas is a constant. It is something you do every day, and it’s kind of exhausting sometimes, but you either do it or you earn about $500 a year.

Take Edits. Look, you and I both know that sometimes we nail it. Sometimes we write something great, and sometimes the feedback we get from clients or editors is less than coherent. Sometimes you get that edit letter and you just have to step outside and let out a primal scream … but you go back in and revise.

Massage Text. Sometimes your first draft is perfectly fine, but you have to go back and massage it anyway. Maybe to fall in line with style or SEO guidelines, maybe to hit a specific word count or other formatting metric, or maybe just because a client or editor didn’t like it.

These are things no one wants to do. I’d much rather write whatever I feel like and collect fat checks for each piece as I finish them. But if you’re looking to write for a living, forget twaddle like write every day–that advice is basically telling you to do something you already want to do. Instead, do the stuff you don’t want to do. That’s the best use of your time.

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

Artist’s Conception of Your Humble Author as a Child Writer

Here in 2017 we’re all basically waiting around to be woken up at 2AM to the news that the missiles have launched and we’ve all got about five minutes to say our goodbyes or go crawl into our bomb shelters with our cans of Dinty Moore and our gold bars. It’s hard to soldier on and try to write novels and such when you’re pretty sure the morons we’ve elected to the government — suddenly not simply an outsize insult, but rather an accurate description — are either stealing everything not nailed down or eager to destroy everything.

But soldier on I do, mainly because civilization has not crumbled yet to the point where the whiskey reserves are free for the stealing, right before they dry up completely because civilization is sort of necessary for things like whiskey.

So, I’m in a contemplative mood. And I am contemplating the fact that Christopher Paolini is 33 years the fuck old.

The Child Author

I wrote my first real, actual novel when I was about fourteen; there were “novels” before that, but they were very likely just novellas or even long short stories. Cravenhold was a short novel, but I wrote it. And promptly began trying to sell it. And telling everyone I met that I was just fourteen and I’d written a novel, as if that somehow warranted special attention. Like the president of Ballantine Books was going to call me up and congratulate me for being a super genius after offering me a million dollars.

The reason I think about this now, when I am withered by age and practically on death’s door with a whiskey in one hand and my smartphone in the other, is because it’s not unusual, believe it or not, to see kids posting to various Internet writing forums and announcing, smugly, that at the tender age of (14, 15, 16) they have written a novel. And I want to tell them, with all affection and sincerity, to go fuck themselves, because it doesn’t mean anything.

I sort-of, kind-of sold my first novel when I was 16; this wasn’t Cravenhold, but a subsequent novel titled White Rabbit. And believe me, I told everyone and more or less dug a hole for myself, so that when the deal dissolved like tears in the rain I had a lot of explaining to do.

Look, writing something recognizable as a novel when you’re still a kid is an achievement. And if, like Paolini, you manage to sell that novel and publish it to strong sales, that’s amazing. But simply writing a novel as teenager isn’t anything to shout about. Writing a novel at all isn’t something to shout about, actually; people write novels all the time — and routinely write them in a month or less. Sure, writing a novel is an achievement. But it doesn’t mean you’re destined for greatness or anything. Heck, I did it, but I didn’t sell my first real novel to a real publisher until I was 28 years old.

I always assumed that when editors read about my tender years they would be impressed; of course now I wonder if they didn’t immediately stuff the manuscript into the return envelope, rolling their eyes. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what I imagine happens now.

Writing for the Wrong Reasons

One Monies, Please

One Monies, Please

Friends, I’m not a very smart guy. Oh, I have a head filled with trivia, which in these low times often passes for smarts. Being able to win your local tavern’s Trivia Tuesday (increasingly difficult, let me tell you, when you’ve been banned from most of the local watering holes due to ridiculous and oppressive “must wear some form of trousers” rules) doesn’t mean you’re intelligent, it just means you absorb a lot of useless information very, very quickly. A skill, to be sure, but not the most useful skill.

Being able to write clear, well-constructed sentences about compelling stories and characters is also a skill I sometimes claim, but it also doesn’t make me smart. A lot of very dumb people make good livings writing words, and I am also very afraid that I am secretly one of them. Any time I start to think I might secretly be smart, all I have to do is gaze upon my works and despair, though. By which I mean any time I start to feel smart, I just look at some of the terrible novels I’ve written when I wrote for anything other than inspiration.

Take This Job and Shove It

The term “working writer” either sounds ominous or exciting to you. If it’s ominous, it’s because you’re smart and you know that the “working” part probably means you’re writing 300 catalog descriptions of sex toys at $1 a pop. If you’re excited, you’re like me and you imagine yourself lazily writing novels when you’re not busy cashing extravagant checks from publishers—not check for anything, just gifts of money they send you in the vain hope that you’ll choose to publish your next book through them.

Anyways, every now and then I get this idea in my head that part of being a Working Writer is trying to write something commercial, in the sense of writing something that will be easy to sell to a publisher because its part of a broad trend or somehow marketable. Don’t get me wrong—I want all my books to sell like hotcakes and I have no snobbery when it comes to genre or category. It’s just that sometimes I think I have to try a little harder to be, I don’t know, mainstream or something. So I’ll work up a story and write a novel not because I’m excited about the idea, but because I think it’s going to be an easy sell.

I am always wrong. And it is always a disaster.

Some writers might be able to pull this off, but whenever I’ve written a book for anything but pure inspiration and excitement, it doesn’t work out so well. Oh, as novels they’re fine. I’m usually fairly happy with the story, the writing, all that jazz. But there’s always something missing, some soul or other ineffable thing that means the novels fail. They look like novels, they tell a story that I like, and yet they fail. Whenever I try to be smart and engineer a book because I think I know something about selling books, the end result is a manuscript everyone reads and shrugs over. Meh, they all say. It’s not bad. But we can’t sell it.

The lesson here is obvious: Writing for anything aside from inspiration doesn’t work for me. The good news is, a lot of the books I write because I want to have sold. So one wonders why I think I need to change up my approach in the first place. Aside from the fact that I am, you know, not smart.