Writing What Hurts
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.