I’ve decided that, while I wait for the final bit of this project to come to pass and fall into place, that I’ll try and find where I was when it first began. I wrote a post in my Live Journal back in December of 2003. That was the day that I announced that the publisher of the upcoming collection, Lost & Found, had greenlighted the project and that we could begin work. It seems like a lifetime ago, but things are what they are. Everything has shifted around me, and so, I will go back to those early days and remember the work that I did – the stories I wrote, and why, and share it all again here…
Lost & Found will be a book of stories inspired by the kinetic art of Lisa Snellings. Lisa has inspired my writing more than once, including providing the original inspiration for the noveltte that became my novel Deep Blue. When I realized that I was not the only person she inspired, and that at least one other author had written a number of pieces brought to life through her images, I got the idea to invite that other author, and Lisa, to create a book with me. That book will be Lost & Found – and at this writing it is one half a story from completion – just waiting on my much more famous and incredibly harried collaborator to find some days / time to do it justice. Not going to dwell on that – going to remind everyone of my own part in this ongoing project.
Here is what I wrote back in 2003 about the story that would become “Square Magic,” and that is inspired by a photograph of one of Lisa’s 3D pieces, “The Bendyman”. That story is complete, and spooky, and waiting on my hard drive to be released on an unsuspecting world…
Here’s what I wrote:
deep_bluze (deep_bluze) wrote,
@ 2003-12-12 13:22:00
At this point, I tried not to let anything leap fully formed into my mind. I work better that way, I think, with a vague image, but no set-in-stone outcome. What ended up sticking in my mind was an image Lisa named “The Bendyman.”
If I get the okay from Lisa, I may link to a picture of the 3D art piece that she photographed to give you a better idea of what I was looking at. The Bendyman is a crouching, leering, harlequin character with a truly evil expression on his face. He is crouched sort of Batman style, one hand on the ground before him. On the ground at his feet, much smaller than he is, so he looms over her, is a woman. She is on her hands and knees, hair draped down to cover her features. Over her is a dome shaped cage that might have been formed by bending down the monkey bars on a playground.
The image evokes several sensations immediately. You get a sense of something repressed. Something trapped deep inside, and very powerful, will not release her. You get the impression of something larger than life behind that repression, something – or someone – that she can’t escape, and an underlying sense that this force, or presence, is active, malevolent, and filled with glee over the situation. It’s a powerful piece of art.
That is the foundation. What swirls around that foundation, currently, is a sort of whirlwind of images and ideas I’ve already been playing with. I don’t know a better way to describe it. I go over and over the current obsessions in my mind, and then, eventually, one overlays itself onto the foundation I’m trying to fit, and catches. That is how I got to where I am now. Where that is, is the beginning.
I have had a long time fascination with Talismanic magic. I once owned a book that explained how the sigils of demons, elementals, and angels were to be discovered. This involves, according to the source I read, taking the number that is associated with whatever force you are interested in, and then finding the “magic square” for that number. A magic square, for those uncertain, is – in this case – a square divided into rows of smaller squares. In the smaller squares are numbers, and in every direction you can go, in all rows, they add up to the same number. This gives you a backdrop for drawing the sigil. Then there is another process by which you take the name of whatever it is you are trying to summon, or control, or draw some quality from, and you trace the numbers involved with that name across the magic square. The resultant design is a sigil of supposed power.
Anyway, all of that is neither here nor there. I have no evidence, one way or the other, as to the efficacy of such a process, but it got me thinking. Then I read a story about the folklore behind hopscotch. I started to wonder what might happen if you played hopscotch on a magic square. I started to wonder a lot of things, and when I wondered them at the right time, I saw a hopscotch square warped and bent over the figure of a woman, over-looked by a leering harlequin, and I started to write. Thus far, I have finished the first 1000 words. The working title of the tale is “Square Magic.
Today I decided to try and go back through my old Live Journal in search of the first time I mentioned a particular project. That project, a three-way collaboration that is very important to me, turned out to date all the way back to December of 2003. In fact, it dates back to about a week before Katie was born – because when I found it, I also found another memory – the realization that Trish and I were going to create a life together…a collaboration of a much more intimate and important kind…still in progress, and doing very well, in case you wonder.
I discovered a lot of things digging through all those years of blog posts. I found, for instance, that I used to post every day. I always talked about writing, because I was always writing. We were in our “American Pickers” stage, using eBay and local auctions to fill in the gaps in our ability to pay bills – so there were descriptions of antiques and collectibles. I actually reviewed every CD in my collection (at least the ones I had at work) which was about 200 reviews…four or five a day.
Now I post irregularly. I write the same way. I am caught up in ghost-writing projects to supplement our income, which takes up a lot less of our house than the eBay business did, but also takes up a lot of creative energy…and I post about publishing. Digital publishing, audiobooks – I’m caught up in a whole lot of new things that I hadn’t even dreamed up back in 2003.
I’m going to go digging some more and find some of the cool things I posted back then…and share them here. I’m also going to try to be more “in the moment” – more creative, and more “real.” AND…
If that one author out there who could finish the project I went all the way back in time to discover the roots of sees this (unlikely as he is immeasurably more famous than I am and incredibly busy) I hope he finds the other half of the words needed for the last story in that book…
I want to see it published…and to see what people think. I finished my five stories for the book back in 2005 – and I have records (in the Live Journal) of the process of writing most of them. Those are five stories no one has read…and that makes me sad…because it’s readers that matter. Writers are a dime a dozen…
Sometimes you have to step back, consider your options, and punt. A few years ago I wrote a book titled Vintage Soul. This book was loosely based on a plot that I tried to sell long ago for White Wolf’s World of Darkness. They didn’t like it – it didn’t fit their universe. The idea stuck with me. Don’t get me wrong – there is no WOD in my novel…just the basic conflict between a magician and a vampire.
Anyway. I wrote the novel, building it around the character “Donovan DeChance,” Donovan DeChance is a supernatural jack of all trades. He’s a collector of old books, manuscripts, and spells, which he is in the process of scanning and archiving onto a huge computer memory array. He works as a private investigator and troubleshooter in times of supernatural crisis. The darker, inhuman elements of the city come to him when things are going wrong, or when they need a particular spell or ancient secret. Donovan understands the balance of powers in the universe, and has dedicated his life to seeing they remain balanced. It has been a very long, very interesting life.
That first book, about the kidnapping of a beautiful 300 year old vampire, came out a coulpe of years ago (two years after being written) and it died on the vine. It was bought for an SF / Fantasy line that died before it was published, and moved to that company’s mystery line, where no one (apparently) knew what to do with it. It got decent reviews, but few sales. It’s now remaindered, and I’ve retrieved the rights. I have also collected comments from fans and readers and have great ideas for revising it before it ever sees the light of day.
Meanwhile, though, expecting that it would NOT flop, I wrote another novel. This novel, Heart of a Dragon, is also based on an older idea – a story I published long ago in Deathrealm Magazein and that has been reprinted at least once in collections. That story was “In His Heart Live Dragons,” the story of a young artist named Salvatore Domingo Sanchez. I incorporated that into a new Donovan DeChance novel, and I have to say – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. It is ALSO a pre-cursor to Vintage Soul, chronologically. This is what I’ve done.
My own company, Crossroad Press, has released “Heart of a Dragon” in all the various eBook formats. It has become Volume I in the DeChance Chronicles. I will be revising Vintage Souland possibly even retitling it, and bringing it in as Book II – both will also have audiobooks available and down the road, print editions. The third book, “Kali’s Tale,” will follow eventually. The hope is that a fandom will build,. If you like series books like The Dresden Files, you should love Donovan DeChance. If you like the idea of a book collector as a hero…it’s another plus. I also plan on ding some shorter pieces that will be “origins” stories for various players in the novel…Donovan, his lover Amethyst (who is a Geomancer by trade) possibly Club Chaos, the local underworld/overworld gathering place … Old Martinez from the Barrio…there are a lot of shorter pieces I could write to fill in gaps. I intend to have fun with this, and I hope it will build into something special. With that in mind, I offer you the links to HEART OF A DRAGON – it’s only $3.99 for Kindle, Sony, Ipad, Kobo, and almost any eBook device you can imagine. Unabridged audio to be announced soon, once a narrator is lined up for the series. I hope you’ll read with me and meet Salvatore Domingo Sanchez, a young artist with an amazing ability – The Dragons, the bike club that befriends him, Old Martinez, sorcerer and guardian of the Barrio, Anya Cabrera, crazed Voodoo priestess, and — of course – Donovan, his cat Cleo, and Amethyst. I hope you’ll love them as much as I do.
—David Niall Wilson
You can buy Heart of a Dragon at:
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.
I have seen far too many ‘gurus’ chime in on this subject, and after nearly a year in the business of growing a digital publishing company, I feel like I have some value-add to bring to the mix. I’m not a ‘guru’ and do not ever want to be considered one, but I have been doing this for a while now, and I’ve observed some things you might find usesful. It’s worth the effort, I think, to try and get it all into perspective in my own mind.
First of all, books are books. Stephen King’s eBooks sell better than those of a new writer no one has heard of. Blogs about and reviews of Stephen King books get more notice than those of lesser-known authors, and generate more sales. Authors – in short – who were already popular before putting their titles out in eBook format are still more popular than authors who were not. Authors who bring an audience from mass market publishing to their eBooks sell better than those with no track record. These are facts, and no amount of blogging, posturing, or tears will change them.
So what do you do?
There are solid answers. Covers matter. That said, you don’t need to go out and break the bank on a professional cover designer to get a very good, commercial cover. I’ve done some extensive analysis on our titles, and I can tell you that there is absolutely ZERO evidence in my data to show that the cover art is a huge factor unless it is godawful. If your little brother did it in Microsoft Paint, or you let Calibre generate it for you, or the colors are all mis-matched, you’re going to lose sales for the same reason a similar cover would not work on a print book. It looks amateurish.
That said, there is a lot that can be done with Photoshop, and there are people out there with some amazing artwork that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. You just have to look for them. Join the community at Deviant Art and meet some of the wonderful artists there. Browse the public domain photo sites. You may pay some for the rights to an image, but you can often find one you’ll like for a very reasonable price – or even free. Then all you need is to study some books, see what sort of font and text arrangement appeals to you, and find someone capable of dropping it onto your image. All that is a fancy way of saying – most of you aren’t going to make hundreds of dollars on your eBook right off the bat, and investing a bunch of cash in a cover is a serious risk that isn’t really necessary, in my opinion (and experience). Some of the covers we’ve used that I think are the most mundane have resulted in great selling titles, and several titles with amazing covers have not done well at all.
Copy-editing and format matter. If you just run a word document through some conversion program and slap it up, it’s not going to look good. If you don’t get at least one other set of eyes carefully going over your work, it’s not going to read well – it’s going to have typos. Almost no-one is perfect enough to write without errors…and though you may see them easily in another person’s work, you may also NOT catch them in your own. Do yourself a favor and – even if you have to pay a small fee for it – find a proof-reader worth their salt. Then salt them.
On most eBook sites you can assign “Tags” to your books. This might seem trivial, but it is not. There are whole groups out there cross-tagging one another’s books to bring the numbers of people “agreeing” with them high enough to bump them up the search ranks. On Amazon, for instance, if you search the word BLOOD – the book with the highest ranking on that search term is going to come up first. Also, books that have the word BLOOD in their title may start getting that book listed in the “related” products and sent out in “you might also be interested in” e-mail notices.
Price matters. If you are a known quantity,and you present new, original work, you can get more for your eBook. If you are NOT a known quantity, or if you are bringing back older work that can be bought used and cheap in print editions, don’t be greedy. If you charge the $2.99 league minimum at Amazon, you will get more per sale than you ever got from a print publisher per sale by a huge factor. Print books pay (average) 4-10 percent royalty. If you sell your book through Crossroad Press – for instance – you get 80 percent of $2.05 (about what Amazon pays us per sold title after deducting their “delivery” fee) – that’s a good chunk per sale, and it adds up fast. We sell new, original works higher – $3.99 and $4.99 – and those seem to be workable prices as well, but keep in mind what you are asking of your readers. Ignore everything else and buy my book. Give them as many reasons as you can.
Do a good write-up for the book. I sometimes have a hard time getting my authors to help with this, and I do what I can, but a good solid “hook” in the product description is crucial. In print publishing you usually have little or no input to what the publisher puts up as a description, but here – in the digital world – you can write it and even change it with impunity.
When you get reviews, respond to them positively, even the bad ones. Never drop to thelevel of a sour-voiced reviewer. You’re just playing into their game, and you’ll regret it before all is said and done. Remain professional.
Visit forums and bulletin boards and blogs that are related to a: your genre and b: eBooks in general. Be a pro-active part of their communities before blowing your own horn, or it will backfire.
Make sure your author info is available. Set up your Amazon Author’s Page. Set up your Smashwords profile. If you get reviews complaining about typos – proofread and re-publish. Never believe that because someone else did a thing, you can copy what they did and it will work for you…it’s not going to. Each book, and each author, is unique in some way, and requires an individual approach.
Product, product, product. If you have words sitting around out of print, or languishing for years without publication, I suggest you dust them off and get them out there. A body of work in eBook format can generate steady sales much more quickly and reliably than one, or two eBooks. One thing is certain – a story or novel on your hard drive for ten years unread made you no money at all.
The bottom line is – you don’t need a guru. You need hard work, patience, attention to detail, and the same bit of luck you always needed to succeed. It’s easier to get IN the door of digital publishing, but the doors are open very wide. In the old days readers clamored at the publishing door for more to read. Now those doors are big and revolving, and the readers disperse in all directions as they pass through. Latching onto them and drawing them to your work is a whole new ballgame. Pay attention, learn from what you see, don’t let ANYONE tell you the best way to do a thing is”blah blah” unless they can show that “blah blah” has worked for a lot of people over time. And just SAYING that it has worked isn’t enough. Show me stats on how that new expensive cover built sales. Show me, in other words, the money. And don’t do it by showing me someone already successful.
Also, don’t listen to tales of inflated sales. You can go to Novelrank.com and put in the AISN of any book there and track it. If it’s already being tracked, you just log in and add it to those you are tracking. This way, when someone claims a thousand sales, you can check, and if you see a title upcoming you want to keep an eye on to see if something someone did worked for promotion – you have some (albeit imperfect) stats. I’ve seen some eye-opening whoppers told on the net about huge sales that I observed personally through Novel Rank to be much smaller. Keep in mind that Novel Rank is not perfect, and that it only tracks from the moment you START tracking, so any sales prior to that you can’t see. Hype is what it is.
I am happy to offer advice if asked, but that’s all it is. I don’t know how to make your book sell better for CERTAIN – I only know what is working at Crossroad Press. We’ve grown in leaps and bounds, sales are up (best month ever happening now).
One last thing…Kindle Nation Daily sponsorship. While this is not a guaranteed success – I have found that if you listen to them – go in with a good cover price, a decent cover, at least a couple of good reviews on your book already (and not fluffy, gushing ones either – real reviews) – you can generate a good number of sales that last over several days…
We have sponsored several books there, and at least three of them did very, very well. I would recommend their service to anyone.
Enough for one day…
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.
Okay, I am one of the least likely people on the planet to utter a racial slur. I fully understand that perception can be everything, and that many of our children have a hard time disassociating themselves from modern culture when experiencing history. My seventeen year old son watched “Blazing Saddles” with us last year and was horrified by the same thing that bothers people (apparently) about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…that stupid “n” word.
But there is no excuse for watering down classic literature. Mark Twain didn’t write Native American or slave into his original text, and I don’t want my kids reading the book some new, less dynamic way just to shield them from what bastards their grandfathers and (in many cases) fathers) were. Why not just write into our textbooks that things didn’t really happen the way they did and …oh. Wait. They’re doing that too.
Listen up, you mooks. This is not just ridiculous, it’s dangerous. Throughout history the civilizations that allowed their history to be rewritten to political or social agenda were almost always the same ones reviled by future generations. If we change the way things were, we not only do a disservice to our own heritage, but we risk losing the truth in the shuffle…teach the kids why the language is the way it is in Mark Twain. Discuss it. Learn from it. Don’t change it so it’s just a nice little story about two boys…
God only knows what they’ll want to do to my books – but I can tell you – libraries across the country carry them currently – and now, along with the fear of dropping into obscurity – I can add the notion that I might become censored, or known for writing something in language that isn’t even my own.
In the words of Brittany’s defender on Youtube… “Leave Twain alone, man…”
There are two more days until we uproot everything we own and move it about twenty minutes away from where it now rests. That probably seems a lot less significant when you put it that way than it really is. Honestly, we’re moving from a 100 year old historic home to a brand new home. We’re going to save a lot on utilities and taxes. We’re going to halve all commutes and school trips. We’re going to have a house without drafts, where the doors and windows work…there are are many other things.
As a writer and publisher, I hope it will free up more time, help me organize the clutter, and in general give me a better attitude. All of these are productive things moving into a new year. I hope it will bring more serenity to the family. I hope we’ll like the new place, the neighborhood, and the situation. I don’t know where my computer will sit, or where I’ll write – that will be new.
Still, I can’t imagine anything more refreshing than a total reboot, and that’s basically what has been accomplished here. I won’t take much credit for it – Trish worked long and hard to find a place; providence dropped buyers into our lap in a market when we had no good expectation of finding one…the stars apparently aligned. I’m good with that.
Exciting things will happen with publishing this year – both digital and audio – and if all works out, even some print. Who knows? Maybe the long-awaited book featuring myself and Neil Gaimain writing fiction inspired by the art of Lisa Snellings will happen. I believe it might…we are one story away, and Neil has begun writing it.
For now, I have to wait. In a few days, we’ll be in a new place. I’ll have more to say then. For now, I will fill the hours with the current ghost-writing project and some publishing catch-up…
Change that makes a difference…