I love the old pulp masters. I grew up reading Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, E.E. “Doc” Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and those authors made an indelible impression on my creative psyche. I devoured those stories, and they stuck in me down deep in the leaf mold. (See my essay “Cultivating the Fungus”.) The trouble is, if I go back and read those stories, I cannot help but do it with a modern eye, through my modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, as much as I loved it as a kid, a lot of that stuff doesn’t read very well nowadays. One must put on the Nostalgia Glasses to overlook racist and/or sexist passages and themes embedded in the culture of the times.
If you have a writing career that ultimately spans decades, it will inevitably fluctuate with highs and lows—and so will the exultation and despair that follows such fluctuations. Contracts and literary agents may come and go. Publishing companies can dissolve and your rights lost in a morass of legalese and bankruptcy. The “Mid-List Author Death Spiral,” as it’s called, is a phenomenon well-known to several of my author acquaintances. And this is beyond the usual barrage of rejections we all have to cope with. Unless you’re prepared to go quietly into that good night, you will have to find ways to bounce back from setbacks like these—or else you won’t.
If you’re of a certain age in the U.S., you were raised with Westerns. John Ford and Sergio Leone filled cinemas and TV screens with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the dust of cattle drives, the thunder of cavalry, guns, and the war whoops of Indians. By the time of my childhood, Western films were in their declining years, covering ground so well-trodden the genre itself had become cliché, a collection of easily recognizable and increasingly tired tropes.
However, the genre never quite made it to the grave. Since the Western film’s heyday, we’ve been graced with some spectacularly good fare: Tombstone, Unforgiven, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, the remake of True Grit, the HBO series Deadwood, and Dances with Wolves.
If you’ve read my “Cautionary Tales for Writers” over on the left hand page of this blog, you know a bit of history about my early forays into writing and publishing.
The first novel I published was an epic fantasy called The Ivory Star, back in 1997. For almost twenty years, it languished on my hard drive, untouched. Then Wattpad came along, and it seemed like the perfect venue to introduce my early work to a new generation of readers. So I commissioned a snazzy new cover and put the book out there to see what would happen.
Lo and behold, The Ivory Star is featured on Wattpad this week! As hundreds of new readers fly through the chapters, leave comments, and vote on chapters they like, I have found it gratifying in ways I didn’t expect.
You can read the entire book for free right here. Enjoy this bit of fantasy adventure from my distant literary past.
Writers (and creative people in general) face a unique set of challenges in a society that generally doesn’t value what we do.
A few months back, I was at a party with my wife, hanging out, busily meeting people, chatting, etc. We were about a month into our stay in New Zealand. I happened to meet a woman and soon established that she was from Colorado, married to a New Zealander.
She asked me, “What do you do for work?”
“I’m a writer,” I said, having already established with several people at the party that I have five books in print and have been freelance writing for about sixteen years.
“So you don’t, then,” she said flippantly.
I then excused myself in favor of more intelligent conversation.
This stranger’s attitude is bad enough, but it’s even worse if it comes from a writer’s family, and the closer the family member is, the more painful the attitude. You can put up with Uncle Earl at family reunions asking you when you’re going to get a job, but when it’s your mother asking you when you’re going to stop drawing “those funny books,” or your significant other whining about having so little time to spend with him/her and that you’d rather be alone doing that weird thing you do, that’s when it chafes your skin away and ultimately grinds all the way to the bone.
When there are so many out there for whom the above is a daily battle, I know I’m fortunate to have a significant other who loves the fact that I’m a writer. She loves that I can do what I do (and I used that ability shamelessly to woo her). She whole-heartedly believes it to be a worthy endeavor, deserving of the same monetary respect we routinely pay to plumbers, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, etc., even though she cannot fathom how I put up with the rejection, uncertainty, and angst associated with it.
But she has this strange, unfathomable quirk that she likes hanging out with me. And ditto my stepdaughter. It’s like they think I should have meals with them. Or go places with them. Or take them to school. It’s like they can’t tell when I’m in the depths of the Zone, that elusive, mythical place where the magic happens, that place that’s so fragile a simple knock on the door makes it evaporate like the barest morning dew, leaving the writer clenching his fists in frustration.
“What is it?”
“Is there blood?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Is there a fire?”
“Then why for hast thou knocked upon this portal?”
“There’s a spider.”
This was a constant struggle when the girlfriend became the cohabitating partner a few years back. Writers are a special kind of introvert, in that their very profession demands that they spend great swaths of time alone. These swaths of time are in direct conflict with the time required to maintain the bonds of love. Tons of difficult conversations later, we have reached a détente, and the bottom line, despite endless whinging on my part, is that the problem is not intrusions or distractions or interruptions.
The problem is always me. More on that in a minute.
It’s too easy for that infinitely fragile creative butterfly that we imagine is within us to be crushed or driven away by a knock on the door, a text, a phone call, a clearing of the throat; so even when your significant other is amazing and supportive, wants your to feel fulfilled, wants you to reside forevermore in the afterglow of creation like you’ve just had cosmically awesome sex, you push for more room for our art. It’s art, dammit!
One of the worst feelings in the world is when you’re in the rush of creation, and you know it’s gold, and you can feel your fingers brushing through the river of the divine–and someone comes into your space and requests your attention. A knock. A text. A phone call. A clearing of the throat. Flow: destroyed. Muse: fled.
And they have no idea what they just did to you.
I was in a seminar a couple of years ago listening to a panel discussion on productivity for writers. At the time, the difficult discussions mentioned above were ongoing. One of the panelists was a successful, best-selling novelist who’s been writing fiction full-time for over twenty years. He mentioned that work interruptions were still a point of contention between him and his wife. “Well, surely you have time to run this errand for me. It’s not like you keep set hours or have a boss who’ll fire you.”
Hope that my own struggles would ever be resolved began to evaporate.
After such discussions with my family, there is one thing, however, that I keep coming back to in my own reflections.
Boundaries. Staking out a little patch of creative space, internally or externally. A room. An office. A table at your favorite coffee shop. When you’re in that space, you’re working, the same as if you were on the production line at the factory. And you must defend those boundaries with fire and swords because the biggest enemy who will assail those walls is you.
This can be a difficult thing to do. Who likes telling their children ‘no’? How do you tell your friends that you can’t go out because you’ve got a writing schedule? How do you tell your partner who’s had a rough day that they can’t just barge in and start venting?
Once you’ve established your boundaries, those who truly support you will honor them. Those who don’t honor those boundaries don’t truly support you, a circumstance that might require more drastic measures (but that’s a topic for another time).
But here’s the really hard part. (What, you mean this writing thing isn’t difficult enough?? Screw this! I’m gonna be a janitor! I need a raise!)
The problem, as I said above, is not them. It’s not outsiders horning in on your creative time. A writer’s worst enemy, worst time-destroyer, worst butterfly-slaughterer, is always himself.
Yeah, you can run that errand. Yeah, you can pick the kids up from the pool on that Saturday afternoon. Yeah, you can go to the recital. Yeah, we can see that movie because we haven’t had a night out in weeks. Yeah, you can come and kill that spider. Yeah, you can surf social media, or check email, or obsess about your sales numbers, or spend hours marketing to blogs who have all of twenty regular readers, or braid your beard, or weave pocket lint into a picture frame, or shave the cat, or…
Any of these things is easier that sitting down to write.
So what then is the answer?
There ain’t one, kids.
Except to sit down and write anyway. Find the reason. Find the space. Make your peace with the struggle.
“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, on the creation of The Lord of the Rings
Where do your stories come from? Writers are often asked that question.
The short answer: they come from leaf-mold, like Tolkien says.
As Tolkien was a philologist, the leaf-mold of his life was largely the study of languages, linguistics, and their relationship to history, so it’s no wonder why Middle Earth’s races and history are so meticulously constructed.
Let’s deconstruct the above quote and expand its scope.
The creative well runs dry. The heart is as desiccated and desolate as a dusty Old West street, because you’re certain your Work in Progress is utter cowflop. You shout into the endless black void, listening mournfully for a few spurious, uncertain echoes. Where can writers go when they need to pour some fire back into their souls? The same place that got us into writing in the first place: Books.
At various points in your life, you’ll encounter books that are like a blessed bowl of warm chicken soup on a wintry day when your nose is crammed with snot and you ache in every bone. You’ll encounter books like the smooth, sweet burn of good whiskey that warms you from the inside. You’ll encounter books like a smart kick in the buttocks from that hot personal trainer.
Allow me to be so bold as to suggest some books for writers that have made an impact on me.
Something new has appeared in the wondrous–and sometimes helpful–oddities of the internet. A means whereby creative folks like myself can gather their most ardent fans to chip in a few bucks every time the creator does something cool. It’s a new form of crowdfunding called Patreon.
I’ve been hankering for a few months to try it, but first I had to do some soul-searching, get some life-changes squared away, and move to another country two hemispheres away from my old digs in Colorado. I’ll be living in New Zealand until mid-2016.
I’ve done two successful Kickstarters for the last two books in my Ronin Trilogy. Each time, I raised $5700-6000 to fund the publication of those novels. I was incredibly gratified, and the result was the completion of a series of which I’m immensely proud.
Patreon, however, is a whole new ballgame for creative projects. Unlike Kickstarter, where you pledge to support a project before it’s finished, Patreon allows you to give a little tip to the creator after something is created. You get to become a patron of the arts and a supporter of the makers you love.
This year, the editor of my Ronin Trilogy gave me an incredible compliment: “In Spirit of the Ronin, every scene does exactly what you intend it to do.” On a day when I was dreadfully worried about whether the newly finished novel draft was any good, this came at the perfect time.
I’ll quickly avert my gaze from the implication that apparently I didn’t quite hit that mark every time in previous books. Chalk it up to the learning process.
A lot of know-how about writing scenes is packed into this one sentence, and it comes in levels and/or number of trunk novels.
Sword of the Ronin meets nine other historical eras in this fabulous e-book bundle from Story Bundle: The Historical Fiction Bundle.
From Story Bundle’s website:
“History is made up of stories, and those stories are vast, and varied beyond compare. The Historical Fiction Bundle comprises a total of ten terrific titles by top-notch authors, together representing exactly this breadth and variety of experience. These stories blend real-world historical settings with romance, adventure, fantasy and mystery to bring you whole worlds of fun! You’ll visit ancient Egypt, the Americas, the Caribbean, Great Britain and Japan; you’ll meet pirates and warriors, witches and princesses, detectives, time-travelers and more.”
Pay what you like. Support yours truly and six other indie authors and support a worthy charity: Girls Write Now.
That sounds like win-win-win to me.
As a writer who gravitates to the dark and desolate and desperate, I often inject a syringe full of horror into my stories. “You got your horror in my fantasy!” “Oh, yeah? You got your fantasy in my horror!”
This month, I’m going to talk about a technique that the best horror writers and filmmakers use masterfully—leaving things off-screen.
So before this wild assertion spurs someone to argue with me, someone whose tastes prefer everything upfront and in one’s face, let me say that I enjoy strategic splatter.
The human mind—especially that of a hard-core reader—possesses prodigious powers of imagination. I was reminded of this when I was writing Sword of the Ronin, the second book of my historical fantasy trilogy. A number of beta readers expressed some difficulty at getting through a scene where the hero, who has been tortured and imprisoned for some time, has no choice but to witness the execution of a fellow prisoner. My wife read that scene and told me that it was one of the most excruciating things she has ever read. She was quite surprised when I pointed out to her that everything in that scene had happened off-screen, so she went back and looked at it again. None of what happens in that scene is visible. The protagonist only hears things and sees indirect evidence of what’s happening. Nevertheless, it is a scene that sticks with a great many readers.
H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is where this quote appears, and is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to write scary stuff. He used this technique over and over again. So many of his most memorable beasties are terrifying because we can’t quite see them. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the creature is invisible. Ghosts scare us worst when we know they’re there, but we can’t see them. The monster in the shadows. The strange sounds in the night. The serial killer hiding among us. The guy next door keeping someone chained up in his basement.
You don’t want to use the clichéd, cheap jump from the cat jumping out the cupboard. You want the kind of tension that lets the audience keep squirming in their seats.
The bottom line is that we’re more afraid of what we can’t see than what we can. In the aftermath of a great horror book or movie, we remember the fear we felt during the experience, but don’t find the monster as scary anymore—because we’ve seen it.
Should you keep everything off-screen? You certainly can. It’s an artistic choice; some audiences prefer their horror a bit more sedate. But you don’t have to.
Allow me to point toward one of the most effective horror movies of recent years, The Descent, which tells the story of six women exploring an unmapped cave. This movie is an incredible mix of both on-screen and off-screen horror. First of all, it’s in a cave, so unless the flashlights are on, the screen is pitch black. On top of the incredibly claustrophobic environment (it was often a wonder to me how this was filmed), tension is built by half-glimpsed somethings at the edge of the light, or by strange sounds in pitch blackness. Throughout much of the film the horror is barely glimpsed, suggested, implied. But then at a certain point, the flood-gates open, the gloves come off, and we are drenched in blood, ichor, and violence. It was one of those movies that’s so effective at what it set out to do that I don’t think I want to see it again.
Like all tools—from paintbrushes to tack hammers to prepositional phrases—it’s the artist’s craft that decides when to use it to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes you need the splatter, the dripping fangs, all eight of the giant spider’s luminous eyes in hairy close-up. But those are often best used as part of the Big Reveal, the Climax, the Gruesome Finale. Sometimes, you need the shadows, the invisible threat, the last glimpse of a foot being dragged around a corner, the knife that wasn’t where you left it, the sound of something slithering through underbrush, to crank up the tension. Prime the audience with unrelenting tension so that the Big Reveal produces an audible gasp.
It’s strange how a writing career propagates in waves. Just by timing and random chance, I have a whole raft of short stories coming out now and in the near future.
- “The Metal of a Man” appears in this month’s Electric Spec magazine. What does an aging cyborg do when he knows that parts of his body will outlive him?
- “Aisa’s Beast” appearing in Legends of the Dragon, Vol. 1. (Trade paperback edition available soon.) A strange, subterranean creature is drawn to a gaudy pageant of strange mortals called Dragon Con, where he is enslaved by a cruel Faerie princess.
- “For the Honor of a Geisha” came out in an anthology called Tokyo Yakuza. (Available either as short story or whole anthology.) A yakuza cyborg must transport priceless data through the territory of an enemy gang. Little does he know the lengths they will go to steal it.
- “The Sharpest Horn” appearing in A Game of Horns. A young woman struggling with reality and mental illness is imprisoned by her parents, until a blood-red unicorn comes to her “rescue.” A Game of Horns is a charity anthology benefiting the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship Fund.
- Apex Magazine. A guilt-ridden school-girl despairs the suicide of her friend, until she discovers that her friend still exists, but in a terrible new form.
- “The Girl with No Name” will appear in an upcoming issue of New Myths magazine. A Filipina immigrant girl in modern-day Japan uncovers the supernatural truth behind a gang of thieves, and they discover her as well.
- “Branches of Infinity” will appear in Weird and Wondrous Work from World Weaver Press. A linguist studies the strange effects of an alien phrasebook that could literally change the whole world.
- “Where the Devil Resides,” a dreadpunk novella, will appear in the next issue of Alembical by Paper Golem Press. In an alternate-history American South ravaged by a Civil War that went on far too-long, a Yankee minister must save his daughter from the clutches of the notorious swamp rat, “Smilin'” Jack Welch. What he discovers in the Everglades takes him farther down the river of human darkness than he thought possible.
- “Demon-touched” will appear in March, 2016, in Fiction River: Visions of the Apocalypse. In a world gone mad, a lone neuroscientist struggles to find the cure for a plague of demon-possession.
- “Death Bunnies of Toxic Island” will appear in May, 2016, in Fiction River: Last Stand. Haley loves everything about bunnies. When her bunny is horribly slain right in front of her, she must go on a quest to assuage her shattered well-being. And where to? An island full of cute, fluffy bunnies–that won’t be just bunnies for much longer…
- “The Ballad of Osmosis McGuire” will appear in July, 2016, in Fiction River: Superpowers. A high-school student discovers that he has the ability to steal strength, intelligence, and dexterity from other people. But then a girl walks straight out of his dreams and things go terribly awry.
- “Redline”, a story that Kristine Kathryn Rusch described “an incredible piece of writing, a story that will stick with you”, will be appearing in November, 2016, in Fiction River: Pulse Pounders–Adrenaline. Three rednecks, one ex-Navy SEAL, one pit bull, and two thundering muscle cars in a desperate chase to the end of the line.