Writing What Hurts
(Author’s Note): Just to say… I have not posted any part of this long-in-the-works book on writing in a very, very long time. You’ll find the link to the parts (and a couple of side posts) on the front page of my website at the top. I am working on re-activating my creativity after a long period of too much time building Crossroad Press and ignoring it. I have to find a way to schedule both… Here is the next installment in this book on writing that I may, or may not ever finish…
I mentioned in the previous short chapter that when I started writing, I chose the short story as my format. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the one I’m going to stick with is – I wasn’t ready to write a novel. What is true for me is not necessarily true for anyone else. A lot of people start out the gate writing novels and never really do much in the short form. Some of my favorite authors are very skimpy on stories, and long on novels, or even novellas. Peter Straub and T. E. D. Klein come to mind as authors who chose their length and pretty much stuck to it. While Peter has written a number of short stories over the years, I don’t believe they are his chosen form… That said, he did beat me for the Bram Stoker award the year my collection Defining Moments was on the final ballot.
For me things have always been a progression. In fact, when it comes to the books that have mattered the most to me, it goes deeper. The first novel I wrote that really mattered to me was This is My Blood. Anyone who is a fan of mine will know that the novel was born as a novelette – first published in Starshore magazine long ago, then reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror XIX and a number of other publications over the years. That novelette, “A Candle Lit in Sunlight,” or sometimes mis-titled as “A Candle in the Sun,” was – as it turns out – only the germ of the idea.
It took someone else’s perspective to make me see my error. I was very proud of the novelette. I’d never gotten the kind of notice it brought, and I was even starting to feel a little cocky – the first sense that I had chosen a profession where I had the skill to make a name for myself. Then came my first World Horror Convention. In those days, there were rock-stars of horror. John Skipp, Craig Spector, Poppy Z. Brite, Kathe Koja, David Schow – wandering the halls like the Pied Piper with troops of acolytes and poseurs dangling off them like lichen on a swamp tree. I was a bit in awe of them, but they proved friendly enough, and accessible.
At the time, I was not only starting my writing career, but was in the midst of publishing my magazine, The Tome. I had a table in the dealer’s room, covered in the books and magazines I’d cobbled together to sell and help pay for the adventure. Among those books and magazines were several copies of Starshore with my story. Sales were anything but brisk – there was a lot of competition. Still, I met people. I passed my story on, and on that very first day, it happened.
A short, slender man with a slightly odd accent stepped up to the table. We started talking about vampires. His name, he told me, was Robert Eighteen Bisang. I kind of nodded, thinking it was odd enough to either be true, or an affectation, and that it didn’t matter. He told me he had the largest collection of vampire fiction in the world, first editions of Dracula. I told him that he did not have all of the vampire stories yet. I sold him a copy of Starshore. He promised to read it and let me know what he thought.
I, of course, had heard that a lot since opening the table and seldom seen return traffic. What there was mostly consisted of my fellow small-press editors and authors, and a few people who hoped that, if they stayed close by, I’d remember their names and buy the next story they submitted. Yes – even at the lower levels, we had acolytes. I was pretty new, though, and my “posse” was pretty sad.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Robert came back to my table later that day. He had an odd look on his face, and I’ll never forget what he said. “You know, David, this is really brilliant – but it has to be a novel.”
It took me a bit to get over the “brilliant” part, but I did. His words stuck with me, and so did Robert. In fact, one night out in the middle of the Mediterranean on board the USS Bainbridge, I sat down in the transmitter room I’d claimed as my own (too cold and noisy for most others) and I set to work. I had one of those tiny green Gideon Society bibles that they give you when you go to boot camp. I had my old IBM 386 PC and a Deskjet 500 printer. I had from 4:30 in the afternoon until midnight, day in, and day out.
I went through all the gospels. I wrote down the holes in them, and then I compared those holes to the other three gospels to make sure they weren’t covered somewhere else. I found places where – without changing the original story much – I could insert my characters. I had no idea how long it would end up, but I had a really good idea of where it was all going. This was an important work for me on many, many levels.
Prior to being a writer and publisher, there was a time in my life when, lured to church by good looking high school girls and fun college ministers, I thought my life would go in a different direction. I thought that maybe I’d become one of those fun campus ministers, preach to college kids and high school students, make the church my life. I’m going to stop talking about This is My Blood for a while now, and I’m going to move on to a more memoirish (new word – take note) segment of my tale. I’m going to tell you how a young, naïve man with dreams left small town Illinois, joined the US Navy, outgrew organized religion, and got to the point we just left – the point where this book – this first, important book, was something that had to be written. In no small way, my books are my life. I think that must be true for most creative people – the ones who would create without fame or fortune or fans – the ones that can’t help themselves. We are a sad lot – though the sadness could be dulled by a healthy dose of sales…
In 1977, I graduated from Charleston High School, in Charleston Illinois. Soon after that – things started to get interesting.
- Write what you know.
- POV Matters.
I’m not much for cut-and-dried rules; I write what I write, and I write ‘how’ I write, but sometimes I can go back after the fact and pick out some things that are important. Since this week I’m talking about my novel, This is My Blood, I thought I’d start with that.
When I parted ways with organized religion, the insides of my psyche were not a pretty sight. I had issues. I had some anger, too. Mostly, though, it was growing pains. I was drawn into the “fold” the way many are – I was young, lonely – girls asked me to a Bible study (pretty girls) – it gave me a sense of belonging, and, for a while the notion that I knew something important. I’m not planning on bashing religion in this post. I’ll say that I write fiction, and it can be powerful. Ancient people wrote fiction too, and just because it helped them get through the night, and the stories were passed down from generation to generation, I see no reason to consider them more than they are. Fiction. The world does not need Gods or higher powers to believe in – it needs men to step up and take responsibility for their own good, and bad works.
In any case, there I was. I had recently decided NOT to become a campus minister, but had studied quite a lot toward that end. I had a wealth of biblical knowledge, and some very strong ideas about what I did NOT like about Christianity. It had nothing to do with Jesus, or with God – for that matter, though he seemed (and still seems) far too clinical, judgmental, and violent for my taste. It had to do with rules, with the men who made and enforced those rules, and the hypocritical nature inherent in anything important that becomes ‘organized.’
I started with my plot – it was straightforward. Someone near Jesus would be cursed with vampirism. I did not want to change the main story. I did not want (as many suggested I should) to turn it into some sort of cosmic romance novel. I had something to say, and I needed the proper voice to say it. So I started with what I knew.
Religion – particularly Christianity – is based on faith. You don’t’ get to know things, you have to trust…God, The Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Church. You just take what they say on “faith” and forge ahead. That is the flaw. It is not enough, and it never was enough, because men are creatures of intellect. We can think for ourselves (and should do so) and in a faith-based system, that’s not only frowned upon, but you are told in many cases that the thoughts and facts you encounter are just tests from some dark, evil entity trying to lure you from the fold. Clearly, then, none of the men surrounding Jesus was going to be able to tell the story as I wanted it told. It had to be someone who knew the truth. Someone who had walked where Jesus had walked, had absolutely no doubt there was a Heaven, and a Hell – someone without the false support of faith crumbling beneath their feet.
I chose an angel. I chose to have Lucifer raise one of the fallen in the form of a woman, ostensibly to test Jesus’ will to resist temptations of the flesh, but in my mind, to provide the perspective – the point of view – that could make my book more than a vampire story.
I don’t want to get mired in talking about that book, because I want you to go and read it. I’m greedy like that. I love feedback. The point is, as Mary often tells us in the novel, she has walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell, and her memory will suffice. She was disgusted by the greed and infighting among the apostles, astonished at the blindness of those witnessing miracles, and five minutes later arguing over points of “law” as if their opinions mattered a whit. She knew what was at stake, and so, as she walked along through the gospel of Judas Iscariot, she was the perfect voice to comment on things that had been left unsaid, to voice the concerns and fears that the Bible ignores.
She was MY voice, my message to my past, and my hope for the future.
I call these posts “Writing What Hurts” for a reason. When you are really writing, everything about the words matters to you. Sometimes you are just storytelling. Sometimes you are fulfilling commitments, or putting bread on the table. Other times, like the time I spent writing This is My Blood¸ you are consumed by the work – obsessed with it – invested so deeply that every comment, every reaction, every turned page matters to you. If Clive Barker is right, and we are all books of blood, then our best work is flesh torn from our hearts.
When you decide what your book is about, think about who is involved. Think about all of the points of view from which the story could be told, the problems inherent in each, the gains and take-aways of each choice. Think about how you want your readers to react, and to which characters – and events. Choose your book’s voice wisely, and stay true to it. You may find that, by the time the work is done, you’ve learned as much as you’ve taught.
Now, as I’m certain I’ve caught your attention – Buy This is My Blood now at Amazon.com…
The novel Deep Blue finds its origin in the novelette by the same name published in an anthology titled Strange Attraction. In Strange Attraction, all the stories were inspired by the “Kinetic” Art of Lisa Snelling, each author choosing one of the characters on an intricately detailed Ferris wheel sculpture. I was honored to be among authors such as Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in presenting our separate visions of what lay buried behind her art. From the images presented, I chose a harlequin, hanging by a noose from the bottom of one of the Ferris wheels seats. I took the image, made it the wallpaper on my computer, printed it out and carried it around with me, and let it sink in. I could have written any number of stories that would have sufficed, but somehow I knew there would be more to this work, and so I waited.
The publishers of the anthology, Vince and Leslie Harper, invited me to have dinner with them one night when my mundane job took me to Washington DC. We met for Mexican food and went together to see the movie PI which, at the time, was newly released. On the way to meet the Harpers, I walked down into a shadowed subway, and I was assaulted by some of the most haunting saxophone music I’ve ever heard. It bordered the blues, walked down old jazz roads, and I never saw the musician. That set the mood for what was to come.
I reached the restaurant without further incident, and we spent a pleasant hour scalding mouths and stomachs with jalapenos and washing them down with beer. Then came the movie. I won’t go into detail about PI, but I’ll say it’s a black and white film, very surreal, filled with symbolism, and it left me visually and emotionally stunned. I parted company with Vince and his wife, found my way back to the subway and my hotel, and called it a night.
The next day, a friend of mine and I set out to visit The Holocaust Museum. I have always wanted to see it, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the images, the displays, and the words I would find in that short hour visit. I purchased a book of poetry written by the victims, and left with so much bottled up inside from those two days that I thought it would be the end of my sanity.
That night, I started to write. I started to write about The Blues, and how deep they might really get. I wrote about pain, not my pain, but the pain bottled up inside the world, as the pain had been bottled up inside me, and I wrote a way out. That was Brandt, his guitar, and his blues. The story, like the pain, refused to be bottled up in just the few lines of that novelette, and so I released it into the novel you now hold.
Everyone comes to their crossroads eventually – the defining moment of life. As Old Wally, one of the novel’s main characters tells us – “Crossroads, or the crosshairs.” Forward or back, but you can’t stay stagnant – that way lies madness. I give you . . . Deep Blue.
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.