I’ve started a new promotional “plan” wherein I’m talking about one of my books a week on Facebook, here, and Twitter. In conjunction with this, I’ve decided that – whatever the book of the week is – I’ll put it on a ten day .99 sale during the time I’m talking about it.
The purpose of this entire promotion is to raise awareness of my work. I hope the stories, histories, anecdotes and notes on my writing process will intrigue people and make them want to read the books. I also hope that, the lower price will entice some people who are not familiar with my work to give it a try – and to generate more feedback, discussion (and hopefully reviews) for the books as I progress.
That said…here are the various links to where you can get ON THE THIRD DAY and DEFINING MOMENTS for .99 between now and the 15th. I added in On the Third Day, which was last week’s book, because the idea of the lowered sale price only just occurred to me last night – and I want that book to have a shot at new readers too. Here are links that give you a search of all my available titles at each of the following sites. The price at Amazon takes a day or so to catch up with the change I made…everywhere else the .99 is already in effect. You’ll have to scroll through my titles to find the two that are on sale at each site:
GO! BROWSE! BUY! READ! Join me on FACEBOOK to discuss Defining Moments this week – or to discuss my writing or any of my books any time.
Back when DEFINING MOMENTS was about to be published, I sat down and wrote an author’s preface to the collection. The preface gives a bit of insight into each story included in the book. At the time, I didn’t know the book would get me another Bram Stoker nomination (two actually) or that one of the stories would actually win me the award for short fiction – which I am very proud of. At the time, it was a collection of words – stories chosen by editor / publisher Robert Morgan. Here’s what I had to say back in 2006…
* * *
I’m happy to have the opportunity to write an introduction to this collection, because it gives me a chance to talk about the stories that were chosen, why they were chosen, and where they fit in the great puzzle that is my life’s work. The process of creating this book was interesting, and I think the selections were very nearly perfect. Having over a hundred and thirty stories in print it isn’t easy to whittle that number down to thirteen, but we attacked them a pile at a time, and with Robert’s help, I think the representative pieces will do very well indeed.
I want to comment briefly on each of the thirteen tales, in no particular order, so that I can lend perspective to each piece and hopefully show how and why I came to write them. I don’t know if this is helpful to the reading experience, but I know that I’m usually fascinated when another author reveals their process. Here’s a bit of mine. (more…)
I have become alarmed over my short period as a publisher by what seems to be a significant lack of concern on the part of my fellow authors toward their own work. Most of us are good at keeping backups of the work in progress, getting through the edits, and getting a book to print, but what is SORELY lacking is an understanding of the importance of “maintaining” those works. Seriously. You spend all that time – all those hours of your life – creating a novel…and you don’t even have a file copy of it? The only thing you have is some old paperbacks in the garage, or maybe a file on a floppy disk your last two computers wouldn’t even read?
This is important, so listen up – particularly in this new age of digital magic, where old words can come back to life and reach out to new readers. If you don’t keep a copy of your book, no one will. It takes very little time and effort to make an archive copy of your books, and being text, they really take up very little space…here are some things to consider.
Keep only the latest draft of books. Don’t allow for the mistake of an older version making it back into circulation – or bypassing copy-edited versions in the publishing process – unless there is a reason to preserve the earlier draft – like a removed chapter, or a shift in plot required of you by a publisher.
Keep a file copy of every book and story you write on your computer. Get something like a Dropbox.com account and put a copy there too (Tell them I sent you, I’ll get free space). ALWAYS have the words available to you quickly and easily.
When you upgrade or change operating systems or Office products, convert your old files to the new format and save them again. If you wait too many versions, you may lose formatting, or not be able to open the file at all. When you update the copy on your computer, update the backup copy as well. It REALLY won’t take that long.
When you turn in a manuscript, and the publisher comes back to you for edits, and you create that final, clean copy – SAVE IT. Don’t save just your working copy that will have to be copy-edited all over again. Also save .pdf proofs if they are sent to you. This way you have the cleanest manuscript possible if you need it again.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing licensed, work-for-hire fiction, short stories, poetry, lyrics, or the Great American Novel. Make sure that once you do the work, you don’t LOSE the work.
I have become a lot more aware of this as I work to bring back the nearly lost books of a number of Crossroad Press authors. It’s good that technology and an IT background have allowed me to scan, recompile, and resurrect these old manuscripts. I hope that the authors I’ve done it for have taken the files and saved them – but if they haven’t? I have. Other publishers and companies are charging what I consider exorbitant amounts of cash to do what we do for our authors free of charge…if those authors had maintained their books and files and stories, there would be no such service necessary.
If you are an out-of-print author, and looking to get your old books back into the hands of readers…drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org – drop by our store, http://store.crossroadpress.com and see what we’ve already done…
Care for your words…
This is another excerpt from my Live Journal back in the day. One of my friends – someone I lost back then, D. G. K. Goldberg, she of the sharp wit and love of NASCAR, sent me some questions one day as a sort of “challenge,” or “meme,” or whatever. I answered them…this is what I said. I’m saddened to see that some oriental spam-bot website has assumed control of the url dgkgoldberg.com – but in actuality, I can imagine what she would have said/written about it, and smile…
Current mood: amused
Current music: Still Nick Cave…
Questions From dgkgoldberg and answers from Me
This is a five question “challenge” sort of interview spawned in the live journal of dgkgoldberg I decided to post her questions and my answers here so everyone could share in the nonsense. Besides, I almost never get interviewed….
1. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started writing?
This is obviously a trick question assuming that I know things now. I can hardly even figure out where to START an answer, because if I’d known any particular thing, all the other things that led up to me knowing the rest of what I know would be skewed. I guess that if there was one thing I sort of hoped to be true at the beginning, but know to be true now, it’s simply that I am good enough to do it. The writing, I mean. When I started outI was not good enough – I was the best who ever lived and would soon eclipse everyone. Now I know that the truth is simply that I have some things to say, and a way of saying them, that people are interested enough to read, and in the end, it’s better than eclipsing things would be. If you cause an eclipse, one side of you always gets burned.
2. What is the one item for resale that you would most like to come across and resell?
There are a lot of things that would fall on the most like to find column, but the hard part is making yourself resell. I think if you are talking actual items that really exist, I would like to find that last existing copy of The Declaration of Independence that is still missing. Why? Not because it’s the most valuable thing I could find, because it isn’t, though I’d be rich for the rest of my life after selling it. The reason is because I’d like to hold it in my hand, read the words inscribed there for myself, and then – when I got the chance to return it to the country and to whatever weasel-snouted politician is currently called Mr. President to his face and a laughingstock on the Jay Lenno show, I’d get the chance to commentate. I have a lot to say about the Declaration of Independence, the rights of Americans, and the country in general, and I think if I found and resold that particular piece of parchment, I might get the chance to make those comments, and actually have a few people hear them. It would be spitting in the wind, but at least – for a change – it would be my spit.
Barring that, there are some lost films that no copies of have survived that it would be cool to locate in a frigid vault somewhere.
If you allow the fanciful, I’d probably take something simple like The Holy Grail, or Jesus’ actual remains – both of which would be worth enough to bankrupt the Catholic church. I remember what happened when a guy found that body in a novel called “Another Roadside Attraction,” though, and it might be more trouble than it’s worth.
3. What is the one thing that if you came across it at a yard sale you would most fear?
Hmm. A lot of things would bring downright terror, but the question says specifically at a yard sale. Again, you open two doors with one question. Should I be artsy and interpret this to mean anything real or fanciful, or should I interpret it as straightforward and pertaining to something one might find at a yard sale.
Cursed objects would bring me that fear, particularly if the person ‘s item was up for sale because the curse took them out. Let’s do this with a bulleted list, all organized and some junk:
· A painting of myself, beginning to molder right where my hair is thinnest on top? · A cheesy romance novel with #1 Bestseller at the top, a raunchy pirate bending back a buxom maid with my byline on it in a dusty box of books I didn’t write, dated 3001? · A sealed, carved box with a label that says “If found, please return to Pandora”· Any relic or holy object that proved the narrow-minded Christians have been right all along.· Any relic or holy object that proved Christians were, without a doubt, absolutely WRONG, because it would be like a train wreck. I would have to buy it, and I would have to make it known, and they would kill me, as they have so many others – not to protect their faith, but to protect their power.
4. Which writer who has not been alive in your lifetime would you most like to spend an evening with?
It I only get an evening, I would have to go with Byron. I love his poetry, and only the dim among us don’t know he has inspired everyone up through Stephen King. He wrote about vampires, and he provided us with lines like, “She walks in beauty, as the night…” while instilling Polidori with dreams of Dracula, and Mary Shelley those of Frankenstein. He played Cricket though he was lame, and drank like a fish (thankfully before there was any driving to be done, and in any case, he was rich enough to BE driven). I think the night would be memorable, and if he can send others off with the inspirations that became classics, why not myself?
Many who know me would have guessed the Marquis de Sade, who, while a horrible author of porn and nonsense, was also a brilliant man, but I suspect he wouldn’t have been much fun at dinner, and I’d hate to think what sort of entertainment he might provide.
5. If you had to be a character in a book and live it out as it was written who would you be and in what book?
I could cheat again. I could say Judas Iscariot from “This is My Blood” – my own novel, because I would be the real hero of the gospel, and being a vampire-born-of-fallen-angels would still be alive to tell the tale, but that would be wrong.I think I’d have to say I’d like to be Roland of Gilead in King’s Gunslinger novels. He’s a hero, and a desperado, an asshole, and a legend. He had abilities and memories that others can only dream of, and his destiny? To save not only this world, but all worlds…or die trying. He has loved, been loved – yep. Roland of Gilead for me.
Of course, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at being Harry Potter, though his life tends to suck at times. (Don’t’ they all?).
This is the entry I made long ago about Bunting Miles’ tombstone, which does, indeed, still live in our living room, propped up against the NEW fireplace. It’s an interesting story. We have since learned that he was probably a laborer, a black man living in a portion of Norfolk that used to be called something else. We have not been (quite) able to track relatives. He is welcome right where he is, if he traveled with the stone. We’ve had some odd, ghost-like goings-on near where the stone has been placed for years…anyway, here’s what I wrote a few years back:
|deep_bluze (deep_bluze) wrote,
@ 2004–03–05 08:41:00
|Current music:||Bauhaus – 1979-1983 – Volume II|
I own a tombstone. It isn’t MY tombstone, but it does live in my living room (perhaps not so well named), propped against the fireplace in the main living room where all our most precious, gaudy, and should-be-living-in-a-Victorian Whorehouse furniture, gold gilt, dark velvets, old wood are kept. And Bunting. Bunting Miles, to be precise.
Years back, my good friend Richard Rowand came to visit. Richard was then editor of a sci-fi mag called STARSHORE – four glorious, full-color national distribution issues, one of which carried “A Candle in the Sun,” My first really big sale, the story that was reprinted in Karl Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror (despite his threat never to print anything with a vampire in it) and later became This is My Blood, my first critically acclaimed work (that no mass-market place will touch, despite the great PW review). But that’s neither here nor there.
Richard came to visit me in a house I’d just bought at the time (long gone down the drain of bad marriage and bankruptcy). He brought a house-warming gift. Sort of.
He brought me a concrete tombstone. It is so old the material threatens to crumble slowly away. It is marked, simply, Bunting Miles – who died in 1867 ( or it could be 1857, I will put up a picture, eventually). I have searched the net. I have contacted the freaking MORMONS who have a great database for this. I have consulted libraries, the 1870 census, have discussed it at length over food and wine and whiskey and I cannot find a trace of this man. I do not know who he is, where he came from. I have his tombstone. Every year I put lilies on it and drink a glass of cognac while I’m watching them wilt.
The tombstone came in a load of fill dirt. The fill dirt was delivered to Richard’s neighbor, and when he went to spread it, there was the stone. The dirt came from either Portsmouth VA or North Carolina. It was delivered to Virginia Beach. The neighbor, knowing Richard was “Strange,” brought it to him. Richard’s wife, who is NOT strange, consigned it to his garage, and later on, just wanted it gone. Thus it passed to the next strangest acquaintance up the chain. Me.
The fact is, it probably leaped and bounded its way to the top of the strange pile, because I kept it. I have tried to find its original home.
I’ve had it suggested that this was the marker of a freed black slave, or a native American. I have had it suggested the fill dirt actually came from the ballast in the bottom of a cargo ship and could be European. Many scenarios have been offered. At one point I was nearly certain I’d nailed it down to a freedman who worked a farm in Virginia who actually worked for an ancestor of mine, but that fizzled.
I intend, when time permits (soon I hope) to put a link from www.deepblues.net called the Hunting Bunting page with all pertinent info in pace. I’d love to bring him home.
If not, there’s probably a book in the hunt somewhere…
Style is a word you see tossed about a lot in literary circles. There have been epic battles fought over stylistic writing vs. plot-driven writing vs. character driven writing. There are authors who understand words and punctuation and the painting of images in sequences of letters so well that they can twist and turn the language into intricate pretzels of brilliance…and there are an even larger number claiming “style” to hide a lack of proper grammatical understanding, or a simple misunderstanding of the term.
My take on it is as simple as my take on most of the big writing arguments. In fact, let me qualify this by stating my opinion on most such squabbles up front. If you are arguing over style, or plot, or who is right about what particular aspect of the craft of writing, you aren’t writing. If you spend all your time worrying over how other work, or whether you are doing it “right” then you aren’t concentrating hard enough to actually create anything useful. Creation requires your full attention – don’t waste it on irrelevant nonsense, because, in the end, if you don’t actually create something it’s all so much wasted breath.
Style is what it is. While I believe you can recognize a style that you like, emulate it, study it, twist it and turn it – it isn’t your style until it develops into something so ingrained in your psyche that it occurs without thought. It’s like I tell my oldest daughter, who is fond of telling everyone how she likes to be random. If you are trying to be random, it’s not random. If you are trying to write with a particular style you may be in a developmental stage, but it can’t be considered completely your own. I would go so far as to say that even if you absolutely LOVE the style of another author, unless it molds itself to your mind and becomes something entirely new, you are writing in someone else’s style, and can never be more than a reflection.
I wrote early on in this piece about influences. You can’t avoid them, and should not try. On the other hand, you also can’t get caught up in them. Like drinking, or television, or video games – if you let yourself get too tangled up in one influence or another, you will lose yourself, and if you don’t personally have anything to say, why are you writing? If you don’t believe your own words, in your own style, will reach out and grab people – or get your message across – or do justice to the voices in your head, what is the point? It’s not arrogance to believe you are as good as anyone out there, it’s mental survival. Never strive to be second best, or the next “so-and-so” – strive to make what you are a thing that others envy and want to emulate. Be the first you.
And with that in mind, a bit about style. Just like everything in the arts, you have to be careful with that hat that says “stylist” on it. The publishing world, and subsequently the world of readers and consumers, is very fond of labels. The thing about literary labels is that they come with their own particularly sticky and difficult to wash off adhesive. If you write a horror novel, and it does well, you are a horror writer. You can overcome this over time – particularly if you are a pretty successful author, like Dean Koontz, or Poppy Z. Brite – but it’s not an easy task.
The problem from the publisher’s side of the fence is a simple matter of marketing. To create a best-selling author, you begin by publishing and marketing that first book – and you build on it. You try to create a recognizable brand – a product you can quantify, qualify, and pop onto the right shelf. If the aforementioned horror writer turns in a mainstream novel or a mystery, you have to either build parallel paths (possibly with one genre under a pseudonym to keep from getting it all messy) or start all over in the new genre, building that brand. I get this – and you should too, if you plan on putting that stylist hat on.
For one thing, if you are going to be a stylistic writer, you had better have the standard styles down pat. You’d better be able to communicate and articulate, punctuate and prove it. If you become a rule breaker, you have to be able to prove that you know you broke rules, and didn’t just do it because it sounded “cool.” You’ll get called on it. The problem with writing as a stylist is that most of the readers who are interested in that type of writing are a very literate crowd, and they are quick to flush out “poseurs”.
Also, think long and hard about your reasons. Some authors, Caitlin Kiernan comes to mind, write the way they do because it’s the way they write. Kathe Koja has a “voice” that has been present since her first novel. It’s not an affectation, in other words, and I believe that to be effective, style can never be an affectation. It has to be a naturally occurring voice.
That brings me to the actual point (sometimes I really get there if you stick with me). The point is, we are all stylists. Your ‘style’ is how the words come out when you are in your ‘zone.’ The Zone, for me, is that place where I’m working – the words are flowing – and I am not thinking about them at all, just pounding the keys and letting it flow. That’s the natural state of your work. It is possible to force that work into other voices, and styles, but a rare occasion when you pull it off without losing something in the translation.
It’s also important to understand what stylistic means. There are any number of quirks that can distinguish one literary voice from another. Short sentences, long sentences, punctuation that uses flips and tricks to reach an end, stream-of-consciousness, quirky first person, clipped phrases …you get the idea. Early in my career, I used WAY too many ellipses. Sometimes I still do. I used to think it was part of my “style” and now I know, sadly, that it’s a flaw in my grammar.
One of my pet peeves in writing could, I suppose, be considered nothing more than a stylistic preference. The use of the word “could” to modify verbs irritates the crap out of me. If you take a paragraph full of “He could see the campfire from where he stood” like sentences and change them so they read in the immediate, real-time way I think they should, you get “He saw the campfire.” Over a few pages, this can tighten and trim up a manuscript with incredible swiftness and aplomb. That’s what I think. In practice, I see everyone from Stephen King to John Grisham tossing the “could” word at verbs and I have to live with it, or not read their work. It only bothers me when I notice it one time in a jarring sentence, but from that point on it can irritate me right out of my happy place.
The point of this short aside is just to note that this is a quirk of my own style. I’m not necessarily right, or wrong about it, but in my own writing you’ll not find me using that sentence structure very often. It’s the tip of a huge iceberg. I will be getting further into my own style as we progress, and hopefully examining where elements of it came from – why they stuck with me while others did not – and how this may, or may not relate to your own writing. Stay tuned.
When I started writing seriously, I attacked the challenge of the short story. The first few times out the gate I remember how difficult it was to hit what I considered the minimum length for a serious story – 2500 words. I worked out characters ahead of time, almost like a role-playing game stat sheet for each one – not because I intended to use all of that information, but because if I knew it, it could inform the decisions and dialogue of the character.
I believed that there needed to be a set number of plot twists, and that there was a particular point in the story where you had to be working on the conclusion. I was fond of twist endings, cliché as they usually turned out. I read constantly through the pages of Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and I bought all the popular books on writing. Oddly, what I don’t recall doing is sitting down and trying to emulate a particular formula or style. Considering all the dissecting, prodding, poking and plotting that was going on, it’s an odd omission.
I don’t want to dwell on formulas just yet, though, I want to talk about the constant desire of authors I have known (myself included) to keep score on the words. As I said, in the beginning, a 2500 word story seemed pretty long to me. Over time, I started to stretch them out to 3, 4, and even 5000 words, but throughout that time I managed to hold onto the ability to be succinct. To this day I can write flash fiction under a thousand words without much effort, and with pretty good results.
Unfortunately, in the world of short fiction, you are paid by the word. In the world of novels, you often have guidelines you need to fall within – like 70-80k, or “about” 100k. If you are winging your novel, writing from the seat of your pants, these sorts of guidelines can drive you crazy. They are one reason that I took up the fine art of the outline a few years back. I don’t need explicit instructions when I travel – in this world, or one I’ve made up – but I like to know where I’m going and about how far I expect to travel before I get there.
I remember clearly a cruise I took on board the USS Guadalcanal, one of the ships I served on in the US Navy. I had two computers at the time – I took the older one with me to the ship. It was an old 386 with Word Perfect 6.0 loaded and ready. Along with that computer I had a Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 – the sturdiest, most reliable printer I have ever owned. I took a drawer full of ink cartridges, and a case of paper. I remember sitting down before I left and figuring out that, at 250 words per page, there would be half a million words printed if I used that entire case. I came very close.
I was the Leading Petty Officer of the Electronics shop during that period. I didn’t have an office of my own, but I had a UHF Transmitter room that I sort of took ownership of. Most of the equipment in that room was mine to maintain, and there was a workbench that would hold my computer. I also had a large “boom box” and a box of CDs. Those became the soundtrack for several novels; not all written on that cruise, but at the very least revised and completed. I had floppy disks with all my books and stories, and I worked constantly. The ship served dinner between 4:00 and about 5:30. After that, every night that I did not have duty, I was in that room, typing away, until around 11:00 PM – sometimes later.
Depeche Mode and Concrete Blonde were my friends. I memorized the first two Crash Test Dummies CDs and learned to love a band called Ten Inch Men, whose album Pretty Vultures is still one of my all-time favorites. The singer from that band, Dave Coutts, went on to sing for “Talk Show,” along with members of the Stone Temple Pilots. I met Dave, and several other members of Ten Inch Men, when they found my review and comments on their music in my Live Journal online. Again – another story.
The point is the words. You just don’t see how they add up until you let yourself think about it. Most professional writers I know claim about a 2,000 word per day output. In those days on the Guadalcanal I averaged 3500-5000 a day and had days that topped 10k. These days I fall in the 1500 -2000 word range, but here’s the thing.
One of my great pleasures every year is participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge. 50,000 words in thirty days. When you say it that way it seems like a horrifying challenge. When you break it down to the reality – 1,667 words a day, you see that a lot of working writers write more than that every month. If you add in what I do for the Crossroad Press site, and the blogs I write to promote my work, I’m sure I’m still doing the 5k a day shuffle myself.
So…in reality…if you concentrated, you should be able to churn out 3-6 novels a year with some regularity, although broken up by short stories, essays, reviews, etc. Writers write, and though there are certainly times this is less true than at others, a steady stream of words produces a prodigious output over time. I have been at this a very long time, and have determined that I do not – at this point – want to know how many words I have written. In fact, I cringe at the thought of it and want to run away, pulling out what little hair remains to me and go screaming off into the night. I’ve written so much, and yet, I feel as if there is so much still to accomplish. There are so many stories waiting, and now they are piling up against the end gate as I plow into them, trying to fight my way through in the allotted space of a lifetime.
You can get buried in the words. You can get lost in worrying over the numbers. In the end, those that can’t be held back will escape your fingers, and your personal mountain of words will grow. I’ve decided to make mine tall enough to touch the sky, beautiful enough to attract climbers and wildlife, and solid enough to withstand time. Foolish, simple dreams that make me smile, and keep me working. I have always loved the mountains.
One of the most popular subjects among authors and those who study authors is that of influences. It is a natural trait of those who teach writing, and those who study writing, to want to know cause and effect – to see if there is a combination of outside events and internal decisions behind the success, or lack of success, of a given writer’s work. When I’m asked about my influences, it can send me into a tirade, or drop me back into reflective silence. It all depends on context, and where my mind is at the moment the subject is breached.
It’s easy to get caught up in analysis. Nobody works in a void. Someone influenced every creative voice in history, and the two –pronged question is how much, and does it really matter? If you ask the question directly you may get a pat answer filled with all the right names. You may get a group of avante garde trailblazers, or a group of the most popular, financially successful authors working. You might get movies and relatives and heroes and mentors, but what you will never get is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
You can interpret the question more than one way. Who influenced me? Well, popular authors influence me all the time; some of them because I love and devour their work, like Stephen King and John Grisham. Others because their phenomenal popularity has struck a chord with the world, and I want to be a chord-striker too – even if I can’t get interested in their writing. Dan Brown is a good example for me. I know that millions of people enjoy his fiction, but for me – if it’s an influence – it’s on the choice of subject matter; I don’t care for his writing style at all.
I think the question goes much deeper than what other writers have influenced you, though. There are things that form you as a person, and when writing is at its best – as you might gather from the title of this work – I think it is very personal. The writing and the writer are not far removed from one another, and so, whatever influenced the formation of the writer is what influenced the writing. Religion – philosophy – experience – relationships – all of that, and so much more. What music do you listen to? Why? When did you listen to that music, and what was happening in your life. Do you like art? What artists – what types of art – why? Who introduced you to them, and why do they stick with you.
There are too many influences in a writer’s life to categorize them all. I think you can break them down into categories though – or periods. I grew up in small-town Illinois. I was a nerdy book reader, not great at sports but participated anyway, picked on by several different groups and types of other students and friends with some great kids. From that period I brought Vonnegut, Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Tolkein with me. I left behind The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Abraham Lincoln and Kenneth Roberts, whose historical autobiographies kept me glued to the page for days at a time and taught me the truth behind history – that it’s rewritten again and again and really just a form of fiction. The book that set me straight told the full story of Benedict Arnold, who was far from the traitor we are taught in school. I also left behind a ton of comic books, and somehow never re-acquired the love of reading them I had as a boy.
What came next were my US Navy years. I brought from those Stephen King, Salvador Dali, the music of Steeleye Span and a thousand rock groups, the ability to play guitar and the first few novels of my career. I left behind mountains of fantasy trilogies, elves, goblins, and other such critters, even as I moved to and through Dean Koontz and on to Clive Barker. I also left behind my first publishing venture – a magazine called The Tome – the editing of which was eye-opening and deeply influential on my career, as well as my writing.
I’m cutting each of these periods far short. I visited countries and continents in the US Navy, lived in Spain, joined a Bike Club (Tiburon MC) – visited Masada and Jerusalem, Rome and Pisa and Florence, Greece and Crete. I loved and lost and married and divorced. In other words, I lived – a lot. All of that is in my writing if you look for it, though it may not be easily discernible to anyone who didn’t share all of that experience (a person, in other words, who does not exist).
You can gain absolutely nothing from huge chunks of your life and be influenced forever by just a few moments. What you take from a book might be a short quote you can’t shake, a style of getting a particular bit of plot or information across, a conversational tic. Stephen King’s characters often say, “I had an idea that,” or “I had the idea that,” and that sticks with me. I haven’t used it, but I recognize it in his work and smile when I see it.
Since we’re still in the introductory part of this book, I’m going to close the door on this influence thing for a while with the note that throughout the pages of this book, the things that have influenced me will become apparent. I’ll tell you stories. I’ll reference other writers and talk about thing I like or do not like in their work. I’ll say repeatedly that all opinions are subjective, and that these are just mine…something I have learned to say through the influence of Mr. Richard Rowand, editor of the late and much missed STARSHORE MAGAZINE – who published my first major genre piece, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” which later became the novel “This is My Blood.” He used to tell us – right before hacking our work to bits – that we should keep in mind that all reviews are subjective.
Before I continue, I’m going to sit back and listen to some Hank Williams Senior and follow that with Charlie Johnson’s Birdland – music picked up while being influenced by Poppy Z. Brite’s novel “Drawing Blood,” though ol’ Hank was with me since my childhood (and you can read about that in my novel Deep Blue). Onward.
Back in high school I had some unique individuals as teachers. One, for instance, was Mr. Montz. I may be botching the spelling of his name, it doesn’t matter. Mr. Montz was famed throughout the school, both for being the best and the strangest history professor in the school’s own history. Mr. Montz began with each new class by listing Montz’s Laws on the blackboard. I don’t remember all of them, but there are a few that stuck with me. A Student is one who studies. An instructor presents information. A Teacher is one who teaches.
And Mr. Montz was a teacher. Some of his students were allowed not to attend class at all. He made the deal first day that if you came to class on the day of exams and maintained an “A” average you did not have to come to class. Everyone came anyway. He was also very adamant to suggest welding schools near you if you were not doing well. He did this in an non-insulting manner in which you knew your best interest was at heart. You never knew whether he would be talking about the American Revolution, or reading to the class from the Just-So stories by Rudyard Kipling. He had the perfect voice for it – and I’ll never forget hearing him read about the Great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River. I’ll also never forget that I learned in his class – that it was what education should be about. Not a list of deadlines, some memorized facts that sift in and out of the brain and disappear. Lessons – some about history, others about life. He was a great teacher.
I was probably blessed when it came to teachers. My creative writing teacher, Nell Wiseman, still teaches (I think) and has won acclaim for her work in Illinois education. I wrote a great number of poems in her class – that is what I remember best. We had to complete a poetry notebook that was turned in to an Illinois women’s literary society (don’t recall which one). First prize was something like $10 – more money then than it is now. I wrote what I thought was a very creative poetry notebook, and one of my poems – the Ballad of Daniel Dunn (notice the alliteration?) won second prize. What I remember best is that my poem about a bear caught in a forest fire due to a careless smoker won first prize.
Except I never got that prize. I had sold the poem (and an entire second poetry notebook) to a friend. He won first prize, and he didn’t’ even share the money. That was the down side. The up side is that at that moment in time, I knew I could write. I was certain of it. I had competed against all of the kids in my school who thought they might be interested in creative writing, and I’d taken first and second place. Of course, I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be able to write…that knowledge came years later…but it was the start.
I also had a teacher named Mrs. Plath. She was a very strict disciplinarian, but she truly seemed to love books. In her class I discovered Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (I had to go to the desk and ask her after reading most of the book if she was aware of all that happened in that book because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for writing about it). I also wrote a long poem called The Torture Chamber (lost to history) as an extra credit assignment, and a short story titled “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.” That story, years later, was rewritten and actually published in 365 Scary Stories. Even at that age I was writing the sort of thing that would draw my creative attention later in life – and fairly well, I think. Still…I didn’t take it as seriously as I needed to. Later in this book I’ll talk about turning points, and how I think my career would be different if I’d applied myself even a little bit sooner than I did, but that is digression.
My early life was filled with teachers. My grandfather, an absolutely amazing man, taught me a lot about life – about being honest – about working with my hands. He took me fishing and taught me to polish stones to make jewelry. He taught me to make a Vinegar Sling and the wonders of foods like “brains and eggs” and homemade yogurt by the mason jar. He escaped a nursing home once, stole his own car from his house (a bronze VW bug) and drove it eighty miles to my house for a visit. He was a great man, and he blessed me with a plethora of images, ideas, and stories that continue to color and populate the worlds and stories I create.
You never know when you will encounter a teacher. You never know what the lessons will be, or when you’ll put those lessons to use. I was fortunate enough to have a wide range of influences at a very early age, and to be gifted with the sort of memory that not only recorded them all in detail, but that can sift them and rearrange them and put them to good use. The best of your stories come from your life; the things that have mattered to you, brought you to tears, scared the crap out of you and brought you to your knees with pain. All the rest is trappings and fluff…the important words flow when you are writing with emotion.
Most of what I’ve written that I believe matters in more than a superficial way came to me when I was writing what hurts. That’s what this book is about, at its core. Writing what hurts, what blinds, what uplifts and what captivates. Writing in that zone where the world fades, and you disappear into the words. Writing things that, when others read them, make you hold your breath and cringe in the fear that they’ll hate them, or not understand them, or laugh…
I suppose a book about writing needs to be broken into sections of some sort. Characters. Plots. The tools of the trade. I’ll get to all of that. First I want to establish the ground floor of this house of cards. I call it that because, in the face of someone else’s methods, dreams, and career, all that I write might blow away like it was caught in a stiff wind. Writing is a solitary occupation, and no two writers occupy the same little world, in the end. You take what you can use, discard the rest, and focus on the work. Let’s get to it.
Among the myriad things I do, the one that is probably most important to me is writing. I don’t want that to sound like writing comes before my life, happiness, family – it doesn’t. What I mean is – there are a lot of answers to the question: “What do you do?” – and I usually shift that question in my mind to – “What are you?” I’m a writer and a personal statement writer . When I’m awake, on some level, the words are churning. I may not sit down and process them immediately. I may not even realize when something is coalescing that will become a work of fiction, but I’m always doing it. I’m aware it can be a character flaw, but it’s not something you can put on and take off at will. In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor, “I am what I am.”
With that in mind – I’ve been working on a semi-autobiographical book on writing and my writing process…I’m going to start at the beginning and post it here in pieces. Once a week. Also, there is a category titled “Writing What Hurts” and that’s where you’ll find the posts as I write them. Hopefully by year’s end, I’ll have enough for a book…if not, the catharsis should be more than worth the journey. I give you – Part I:
There are a lot of books on writing, and I honestly hesitated before deciding to add to the woodpile. I’m a reasonably successful author, but I have no best-sellers behind me at this point in my career. You won’t find my books face out in any bookstore I haven’t visited personally, and to date no cable company or network genius has commissioned a mini-series for one of my novels.
When I thought about it, I realized there are also a lot of different types of books on writing. There are those with formulas and instructions. There are those laid out like a syllabus for and English Composition course, and there are others – like Stephen King’s “On Writing” – that are as much about the writer as they are about the craft.
Then there is the fact that writing is only a small part of the magic. I am also a reader, have been addicted to the written word from a very young age. I have written endless reviews, essays, and commentary on stories told in every imaginable format. There’s value in that. I have been a publisher, and an editor. I have mentored authors who are making their own marks now, and helped to discover others.
All of that winds down into the same barrel, I suppose. I think if I’m careful, I can dip out all the most important parts and share them. I’ve seen a half-century of life, and at least half of that was spent with the following words on my lips and embedded in my mind. “I’m a writer.”
That’s what I told people who asked what I planned to do with my life. It’s what I told people when I joined the US Navy at age 17 and set out to see the world. It’s what I continued to say, despite the fact that all I’d written for a very long time at that point was poetry, none of which I’d shown to more than half a dozen people, and the lyrics to songs that never made it to the stage.
Then, while stationed in Rota, Spain, I started reading Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer. I read the adds, and the articles. I thought about what I might actually write. I even started working on a novel – a young-adult fantasy where the last of the magical creatures of the world appeared near Chicago for one last shot at putting the world back the way it once was – back to a time where magic worked. What happened, in the end of that story, was that the city demanded taxes, and the government sent the army…it ended with the heroes carried off by Valkyries. It was horrible (not the idea, so much as the execution).
I, of course, thought I was a genius, and that the only thing between myself and publication was the act of actually writing something down. Time passed, and my service in Spain ended. My wife at the time, Chrissy, was also in the Navy, so we worked a deal to be stationed together in Norfolk, VA.
A lot of things happened in a short period of time. I took a course from Writer’s Digest School, for one. My assigned instructor was Jerry (J. N.) Williamson. Jerry had dozens of published horror novels to his credit at that point, and his list was growing fast. He also had two other important things. He had an innate ability to teach, and he had connections. I’ll get to why the connections were important eventually. Let’s start with a simple statement.
I have always said that I am a writer. I don’t believe that became a true statement until after I finished that course, and I will always be grateful for Jerry’s help and guidance. He was one of the nicest and most helpful professionals I’ve met in a long career, and he is sorely missed.
So, that is the first thing I’ll say to you. If you are reading this because you have always said you were a writer, but have not really written anything, taken it seriously, or agonized over it – I hope I can be the one who pushes you off the brink – or pulls you back and sends you on your way without getting hooked. I think that writing is either a mild form of insanity, or a particularly tricky form of therapy. Either way, it can consume your world if you aren’t careful – and if you are, it can leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Sounds great, eh? Believe me when I say, we’re just getting started.