Tag Archives: Stephen King

Pen Names

There has long been a debate in the writing world about the pros and cons of using pen names. I’ve read a lot of them, and there are good and bad points on both sides of the argument.

stephen_kingSome people use them to hide their true identities for one reason or another. One of the most famous is Richard Bachman, the pen name Stephen King used for a time. According to him, the main reason he did so was, at the beginning of his career, Viking would only publish one book a year from an author. But Mr. King had more material he wanted to get out, so he fabricated an entire biography for Richard Bachman and published some books under that name. He was discovered eventually, and even had a public funeral for the Bachman character after he “died” of cancer. He even published a supposedly posthumous novel discovered by Bachman’s widow years after he’d died.

Another example is JD Robb, the pen name Nora Roberts uses to write a series of near-future science fiction mysteries. This is a case of using a pen name to write in another genre, as Nora Roberts writes romance.

Then there’s Anonymous, the name used by Joe Klein for his novel Primary Colors, a novelized version of the 1992 Democratic Presidential Campaign of Bill Clinton. Mr. Klein, a political columnist, denied it for some time, sometimes vehemently, but eventually admitted to it.

But when I think of pen names, I always think of William H. Keith, aka Keith William Andrews, Robert Cain, Ian Douglas, Keith Douglass, Bill Keith, and H. Jay Riker, according to FantasticFiction.com. I discovered all these pen names by accident when looking him up on Fantastic Fiction, seeing how many books he had in his Galactic 51-GdRRDxxL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_Corps novels—only to discover I’d already read him as William H. Keith in his Warstrider series of science fiction about a future where we use mecha as an elite unit to fight aliens. I’m not sure why he uses different names, since with the Keith and Douglas names he writes military science fiction. Under Keith William Andrews he has a series called Freedom’s Rangers about an elite commando unit traveling in time to fight battles in the past to save the present. The names Keith Douglass, Bill Keith, and H. Jay Riker are used for military fiction, so I’m not sure why he uses so many pseudonyms.

So as you can see, the reasons run the gamut. I bring this up because at Oghma, we have an author who’s about to do a big reveal for her pen name. I’m not gonna steal her thunder and explain it all, but we’re doing some synchronized blogging to talk about pen names, so I’ll talk about why I decided to use a couple.

Under Gil Miller, the name I was first published under (and which is itself sort of a pen name as my full first name is Gilbert), I write crime fiction. I try to make it gritty, and a lot of it will be based here in my home state of Arkansas, doing what is coming to be called country noir. I won’t stick strictly to that, of course, as I have in mind a novel called Bogus Deal that takes place in 1980s Miami. And who knows what else I’ll branch out into? The world of crime fiction is so wide open, has so many possibilities, that I don’t want to limit myself.

My current WIP is a science fiction mystery, written in a noir style, called Animal Sacrifice. I’m writing it for a couple reasons, the first of which is I read part of a science fiction mystery involving a serial killer and was bored to tears by page 80. It’s probably the first book I’ve read in which I told myself, “I can do it better than that.” So I set out to prove it to myself. This may be the first in a series—we’ll just have to see how it goes. I also intend to publish an ambitious space opera under this name. Basically, Scott McGregor is the name I’ll use for science fiction.

Then there’s Thomas Hawk, the name I’ll use for fantasy. If you’ve followed this blog much at all, you’ll know sf and f were my first loves, and I made attempts for years to write in both genres, most of which failed. Hence the sf mystery mentioned above. I found I have a talent for crime fiction, so I branched back out to sf using something I was familiar with and had reasonable expectations I could finish. I kept the criminal element in place as it’s something I’m very familiar with. For the fantasy side of things, I’ll likely do a rewrite of an old trunk novel I have called The Firstborn, an urban fantasy set in—wait for it—Northwest Arkansas. Right now I’m going through the process of having some people read it and make recommendations on things to do in the rewrite to improve it, and to get its magic system a decent distance away from a role-playing magic system I really admire and used during the writing in order to just get the story down.

As you can see, I’m doing it for genre reasons. I’m making no effort to actually hide these pseudonyms. In fact, if we can ever get the domain name to work, I’ll have a central author website listing all my books under each name as well as my reasons for using them.

N2071There are some who would argue using separate names for science fiction and fantasy doesn’t make sense as they’re almost the same thing anyway. There’s some merit to that, in a sense. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) has written quite successfully in both genres. But I see them as two distinct genres whose readers have different expectations. Yes, there’s some crossover, and there are also authors such as Andre Norton who wrote what I like to call science fantasy—the characters maybe take a spaceship somewhere and then duel it out with magic. Star Wars falls into this category, in my mind, because of the Force. Never mind those stupid-ass midi-chlorians.

Our author wrote under a different name because some of her subject matter differed so much she was afraid it would damage the first name she’d published under. I have a different reason: Over the years, I’ve come to… not hate, but strongly dislike authors who write in multiple genres, and it’s because when I see one of their books, I’m not sure what I’m getting. I’ve been afraid to read Kurt Vonnegut for just that reason. Some classify him as science fiction, but he didn’t care for that classification, apparently.

So after a lot of thought, I decided to use pen names for one simple reason: you can associate each name with something specific. Gil Miller will be crime fiction, Scott McGregor will be science fiction, and Thomas Hawk fantasy. It all comes from me, but when you pick up a book by each “author,” you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.

Is it a good strategy? I have no idea. There’s the issue of branding—you’re not pushing your books, you’re pushing yourself. Stephen King is a great example. There are people who read him who probably have never read another horror novel in their lives. He’s a brand. Everyone knows who he is.
But very few people know who I am. I’m still, for all intents and purposes, at the beginning of my career, so I can advance each brand. Yes, it’s splitting my energies somewhat, but that’s okay. Better to do it now than later.

Stick with me and let’s see how it works out, okay?

Later,
Gil

The Costs of Publishing

It seems strange to me, but people who’ll spend ten bucks to go to the latest explosion fest at the theater gripe about the cost of a book and tout it as one of the reasons they don’t read. Maybe our special effects budget isn’t high enough or something.

So let’s look at the math, in a general way.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you spend that same ten bucks for a book. Mass media paperbacks are getting really close to that now, so it’s a semi-valid argument.

If you’re an author with a New York publisher, your cut of that ten bucks is gonna be in the range of five to ten percent. That means for that book, you’re gonna make somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar. Now, if you have an agent, he’s gonna get fifteen percent (based on industry standard. Some may be lower), which means you lose anywhere from eight cents (it works out to 7.5, and I’m sure the agent will round up) to fifteen cents, leaving you with forty-two to eighty-five cents.

Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

But that’s not all. Now you have to figure out how much you actually made. How long did it take to write the book? You’ll have to break it down into hours, but after you figure in the writing and multiple edits, my guess is, unless you’re someone like Stephen King, you’re not making anywhere near the national minimum wage, never mind what those, um, people in Seattle thought they’d be making with their fifteen dollar an hour minimum.

So where’s the rest of it go? To the publisher. It’s expensive to print books, and if you’re with one of the Big Five, they do print runs based on how many books they project you’ll sell. Most of the time they’re wrong, judging from everything I’ve been reading online, so if they gave you an advance—something that’s shrinking and even disappearing in today’s publishing world—you likely didn’t earn it back. Which is why the Big Five are mostly losing money and are happy to have surprise hits like Fifty Shades of Grey, regardless of actual quality.

Things are a little different on the indie/small publishing side of things. For instance, at Oghma Creative Media, our standard contract is a 60/40 split, and we’re able to offer the forty percent to authors because we’re basically print-on-demand (POD). Still, to set up a book with Lightning Source, the premium way to go when it comes to POD because using them makes you look far more legit to bookstores and libraries, costs well over two hundred dollars (I can’t remember the exact figure).

Granted, it’s still not great money. You’re getting four dollars of that ten-dollar book, but since we’re still a struggling company, you’re likely not selling many books. Yet. But would you do better with one of the Big Five? Unlikely. I’ve read and heard that ten percent of Big Five authors get ninety percent of the promotional budget. Which is to say, they’re really only betting on sure things. It’s a system set up to fail, made to fulfill their prediction that new authors are money pits. It’s a closed loop that accomplishes nothing.

So the next time you feel you’re paying too much for a book, keep all this in mind. And remember that the vast majority of us writers aren’t making money hand over fist like John Grisham and Stephen King.

Later,

Gil

Long Books

HuffingtonPost.com recently published an article by Brooke Warner entitled “3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words.” The reasons are as follows: 1) Attention spans are shorter, 2) Overly long books are a red flag to agents and editors, and 3) The longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

20f12-readingI think Point 1 is pretty much self-explanatory, but I’d like to single put what seems to be the central thesis of it in the article: Successful long books are the exception, not the rule. She goes on to cite examples from such authors as JK Rowling and Ken Follet, followed by this statement: “…most readers simply don’t have the attention span for long narratives. So if you’re just starting, aim short; if you’re running long and are pre-publication (and you can stomach it), work with an editor to cut cut cut. (emphasis added)”

Ms Warner is comparing apples and oranges here. Ken Follet and JK Rowling are not good examples of “authors [who] are the exception.” They are long-time veterans and bestselling writers, and they made their bones with long novels. Some, in Ms Rowling’s case, got longer and longer.

I will admit there’s some merit to the idea of making your first published novel shorter, but I would also contend that, on the whole, this article is New York-centric, or perhaps Manhattan myopic. You’ll see what I mean as this post progresses.

My first published novel is over 106,000 words. The one coming out next year is over 90,000 words. Both novels are—and here’s the key, a quote I’m hearing from every author I know—just the right length for the story being told. My second novel is cut down from its original length considerably. In fact, by the time I finished it, it was long enough for two novels (the second half will be my third crime novel), and that’s after cutting some 14,000 words from the original manuscript. I ended up with one 96,000-word novel and one 89,000-word sequel.

Bear with me here.

The second point Ms Warner makes is that long novels are red flags to editors and agents.

Well, yeah, they probably are in New York. And anyone who bothers to keep up with the publishing scene knows what’s going on there. Fights with Amazon over pricing. Books sitting in warehouses unsold. Publishing houses losing money. Advances going down or disappearing altogether. And I’m sure there are more sad stories I’m not aware of.

So, yeah, they don’t want to see long novels from first-timers. Why? Because they’re schizophrenic. Or something like that. In essence, the Big Five are always on the lookout for the next Stephen King, the next Gillian Flynn, the next JK Rowling. Or so they say. The reality is, they’re looking for that author, but they’re so afraid to take a chance on anyone being that author that they pass up what could be bestsellers because… they want to focus on the next novels from Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, JK Rowling, et al. In other words, they want the next big thing, but they’re afraid to take the risks necessary to make sure people know about the next big thing.

And that’s because of Reason 3: the longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

If you’re publishing with the New York model, that’s true. The New York publishers make big print runs. Essentially, they take a chance on every novel they publish. So, if you’re on the fortunate list of perennial bestsellers that includes the people I’ve mentioned above, that’s not a big deal. Though he may have fallen off recently, Stephen King is still guaranteed to sell big. I doubt Scribner has to worry too much about getting returns on his books.

Ms Warner goes on to finally acknowledge the world outside New York in this point—by citing self-publishing. Yes, if your book is long, you’re going to have to keep the price as low as possible in order to be competitive. But what she fails to mention is that many self-publishers go the e-book route because it’s essentially free, and it’s becoming the wave of the future. She also cites print on demand, another trend that’s gaining popularity.

She completely ignores the indie publishers, and that’s where the myopia shows itself. I can’t speak for other indie publishers, but at Oghma, we’re not concerned with book length. As long as it’s a quality story, we’ll stand behind the author and pay the set-up fees to produce a larger book. In fact, we’ve already done so with Beyond the Moon by Velda Brotheron and Type and Cross by Staci Trolio. And we’ll have more long books coming out in the future.

Most indie publishers use the print on demand that Ms Warner talks about in her article—the one she cites as the wave of the future. And she’s right. She just doesn’t cover all the bases when it comes to the world of publishing these days.

Of course, if you go with an indie publisher, you’re going to have to go with whatever they want. If they want you to cut your book considerably, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Also, listen to your editor. We work hard to make your book the best it can be, and if we see long sections that really don’t advance the plot or are irrelevant to the story in some way—or can just be done in a way that makes them shorter and more concise—we’re not asking you to cut it in order to torment you or make your life harder. We want you to put out the best product possible, and that almost always entails cutting something, even if it’s just a few words here and there. Chances are, if you’ve done your homework and learned your craft the way you should, there won’t be a lot of cutting involved.

Besides, we’re all going to write some novels long and some short. If you want to persevere on the New York route and want to attract a lot of attention, push one of your shorter novels as your first work. My first published novel wasn’t the first one I’d written. Far from it. It wasn’t even the first crime novel I wrote after embarking on that genre. It was the second. I was still revising the first (the one I mentioned above that ended up becoming two novels), so I decided to make Spree—a nice standalone story-my first published work.

The final decision, of course, is up to you. But if you want my opinion, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. And if that means making your first novel a longer one (I didn’t even touch on the way Ms Warner totally ignores taking genre into account), then go for it.

If it’s good, they’ll want it.

Later,
Gil

Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.

Later,
Gil

Big Books

I’ve been encountering something here lately that—to me, anyway—is a bit strange: People think I write big books.

Really? My debut novel, Spree, is a bit longer than I like at 106,000+ words. Startup, due out in June, is currently (it’s undergoing some revision, so the word count will likely bump up a bit) at 90,000+—the ideal length for a crime novel, as far as I’m concerned.

lotr singleI think my books are about average length, maybe even a little short. But you’ve got to keep in mind I cut my teeth on big books. For instance, The Lord of the Rings probably totals close to half a million words, split among three books. But you’ve got to keep in mind that JRR Tolkien originally wrote it as one volume divided into six “books.” His publisher was the one who decided—probably rightly—to divide it up into the trilogy we know today, or so I’ve read. Professor Tolkien never really liked it that way, and, if you’ve got the money to drop on it, you can buy hardback editions that put it in one volume.

But even Professor Tolkien’s “kids’ book,” The Hobbit, is just over 95,000 words long.

And look at Stephen King, a writer famous for producing big doorstops. My two favorite books of his—The Stand (especially the Original and Uncut Edition) and It—are huge. The Stand clocks in at approximately 464,000 words, and I can only find page counts for It, but rest assured it’s almost as big. I’ve read both books more than once, and enjoyed them every time.

Then there’s the Harry Potter series. The first three books aren’t bad, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has to be close to as big as the first three put together. goblet of fireAnd let’s not even get started on The Order of the Phoenix. These, too, are kids’ books. And lots of kids read them. Probably more than once.

Now we can argue that some of these are wasted space. I certainly believe the Stephanie Meyer books are—sorry if you’re a fan—and they’re not exactly Louis L’Amour westerns (a writer who was, for most of his career, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the above-mentioned authors, word-count wise). There are folks who don’t like Stephen King, and I’d have to agree with them on some of his later books, but if you criticize The Stand or It, I’ll hit you with one (just kidding; that would be assault with a deadly weapon).

I say: What’s wrong with big books? They’re like a big meal: lots to enjoy there.

I have to admit that my tolerance for long novels has gone down in recent years. I think part of it is switching to reading so many crime novels, which have lower word counts. And it may be that I’m discovering so many books I want to read that I don’t want to take too long on any one of them.

The-Stand-Book-CoverBut I still have a reverence for those huge tomes from my childhood, and I guess I’ll go ahead and keep writing my “big” books.

After all, if you’re gonna tell a story, why not tell all of it (that’s said with tongue firmly in cheek, by the way)?

Later,
Gil

Genre Bending

I started wondering while ago: do we really need genres?

Let’s work this out together.ridgeline

I know of at least three authors who work in more than one genre. Pamela Foster, who has written—or is writing—a literary Western series, contemporary fiction, and even what might be called somewhat speculative fiction, a book called Bigfoot Blues that—you guessed it—has real Bigfoots in it.

Then there’s Velda Brotherton. She writes Western historical romance, contemporary stories about PTSD (her latest, Beyond the Moon, was originally written in the eighties, long before anyone else had PTSD on their radar), a series of mysteries, and she has a forthcoming horror novel.

Then there’s Greg Camp, who writes in two genres predominantly: science fiction and Westerns (they’re not so far apart, if you think about it). And he’s working on a horror short story for an ezine we (Oghma Creative Media) have in the works.

ChangelingFrontCover-200And there’s my friend JE Newman, whose forthcoming novel Changeling is set a couple hundred years in the future after a virus caused a small percentage of the population to become what we call superheroes/villains. But all the superheroes are gone, now, except for one bad guy who’s still around killing people who don’t need killed. Science fiction? Yeah, there’s some of that there. Fantasy? Sure, in the urban sense, what with the supers. But can you pigeonhole it? Not really.

I dare you to tell any of these people they can’t write in multiple genres.

That’s exactly what the major publishing houses will do, though. They argue that your name will come to be known for a certain type of story, and if you write something different, it’ll dilute your audience because they won’t know what to expect from you.

Bull—er, balderdash!

Let me use just one example, and I use him because I’m so familiar with his work: Stephen King.

When you hear his name, what do you think? Oh, he’s that horror writer. And even Mr. King calls himself that.

But I beg to differ.

Yes, almost all of his stories have an element of horror in them, and that’s okay. I could argue with you that even science fiction can have horror in it. What’s more horrible than being trapped in a spacesuit with no way back to a ship or planet? But okay, let’s go with the stipulation that, to be horror, there must be something otherworldly about the story.

FiFirestarter_novelne. Firestarter is about a little girl whose parents partook in some of those (in)famous drug trials college students went through in the sixties. The result is that she has pyrokinesis—the ability to start fires with her mind. That’s straight speculative fiction, with his usual dash of horror thrown in. After all, Charlie—the little girl in the story—has the potential to cause a nuclear reaction, she’s so strong.

Then there’s The Tommyknockers, which involves a crashed UFO full of aliens who have a very bad effect on the humans who discover them. Dreamcatcher has much the same type of monsters. Ditto for Under the Dome, though the aliens in this one are the most appealing to me: they played with the people in the story simply because we were like ants to them. Very realistic, in my opinion (even though I don’t think this is one of his better books, awesome cover notwithstanding).

Then there’s his entire The Dark Tower series, which is so much different from anything else he writes that many of his mainstream fans refuse to read it. Predominantly, it’s dark fantasy, but there’s also the distinct flavor of a Western there, with Roland being a gunslinger. There’s also a dash of Arthurian legend, as well as some rift hopping through dimensional doorways.

Pin that one down, New York Editor!

Want a couple more? Okay, there’s the Low Town series by Daniel Polansky, wherein we have a protagonist who is basically an ex-cop turned drug dealer in a fantasy world who—in the first book, at least—solves a murder. WTF is that? The publisher calls it fantasy, and it mostly is, since the setting is an entire fictional world.

Then there’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. It’s set in a future where Philadelphia has been obliterated, and our protagonist works for a company that investigates all the deaths for insurance firms to see which ones they actually have to pay out on. He’s hung up on this one girl he discovered while accessing the Archive, a repository of every camera feed in the city. He uses the Archive to determine the true cause of death, the hope being that it will save insurance companies billions of dollars. The girl he discovered looks to have been murdered.

I’m not finishing this book, even though it has some nice touches of hard-boiled noir to it. It’s a little too literary for my tastes (the author has a literary degree, don’tcha know), and he also has an irritating habit of ending probably 98% of his dialogue with em dashes—as if everybody constant interrupts one another. Probably one of those literary devices that shows he’s A Serious Writer. All it does is throw me out of the story.

Still, there’s a bit of a mishmash going on there, isn’t there?

So…do we really need genres? I think Western author Dusty Richards said it best: “We’re all writing the same thing, we’re just using different costumes.” Heck, most of ushaunted mesa read in more than one genre, so why can’t authors write in more than one? Even Louis L’Amour stepped outside of Westerns by writing some detective stories for the pulps back in the day, and experimenting with other kinds of stories just before he died. The Haunted Mesa is probably best described as magical realism with a touch of horror, while The Last of the Breed is a modern adventure story.

I have found my calling in writing crime fiction, but I’ve been toying for a while now with the idea of a science fiction story set on a tropical planet involving drug smuggling. Sort of a Miami Vice in Space, if you will. I don’t know if it’ll ever get off the ground or not, but it might. I also have my ambitious space opera I’d love to try and finish someday, too.

So, yeah, some of us are comfortable staying inside a niche, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we have a particular talent for that genre, as I seem to have for crime fiction. And maybe we have no desire to stray outside our genre. That’s fine, too.

But what if we want to? They’re all, at heart, stories, and that’s what we tell as writers: stories. We have to help the reader suspend his disbelief, transport him into the world of the novel, and get him to stay there for the length of our tale. We have to have characters the reader cares about, and we have to put them in a situation the reader can identify with. Everything else is just stage props.

Independent-PublisherI think this is another area where the independent publishers are going to overtake the Big New York Conglomerates: they’re able to think outside the box, and allow their authors to do the same.

Yes, in a sense, we need genres to give us a handle on what we’re getting into. But can’t good authors do just the same, no matter how many genres they choose to write in?

Later,
Gil

Words to Live By

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

—Stephen King

This little tidbit was posted to my Facebook page by The Writer’s Circle, a group I found at random, and I’d have to say I’m living proof of that. I haven’t even been able to make a post here on my blog for the last two weeks. Finals are coming up, though, and actual homework is slowing down, so I’ve been able to do a little more reading than I have for the past four months or so.

And that makes me feel more like writing.

Not just blog posts, either, I’m hoping. My Lyle Villines prequel is gathering electronic dust on my computer, and I don’t like that. But ideas have been coming to me a bit more here recently, and I hope it’s a trend that’ll last.

Mr. King is right, though. Reading is like fuel for writers. We get our inspiration from it. Sometimes we get whole ideas from it, situations we can put in our stories. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen what I call throwaway lines in other writer’s novels that I decide need more attention. I’ve rarely actually fleshed one out, at least in writing, but they’re good exercise for your imagination muscles. Like going to the gym, only it’s a mental thing.

I know that’s been a big part of my problem lately. I’ve had to devote so much time to schoolwork (and I’ve still got a lot I need to devote with no less than three class projects) that I’ve not had much time for recreational reading—everything’s been geared toward getting homework of some kind done.

That means my imagination engine’s been running on fumes and not doing a very good job of feeding me material. I don’t blame it. It’s not its fault I haven’t had time to write or read. But I’m going to school to put food on the table and all that. We all have to make choices in life, and I have to be practical and say I’m not likely to make a living from my writing any time soon.

Besides, having a skill to fall back on—in my case, networking and web programming—is a wise choice, in my opinion. Very few writers manage to be full-time writers, supporting themselves with their wordsmithing.

So take Mr. King’s words and put them up in your writing space or on your fridge or somewhere that you’ll see them, because they’re words of wisdom and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of them from time to time.

Read so you can write.

Write so you can enjoy life.

Later,

Gil

Location, Location, Location

This past week I managed to get the first season of Justified. For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it’s the story of Raylan Givens, US Marshal. At the opening of the series, Raylan is stationed in Miami, and he’s about to kill some drug cartel hit man he’s given 24 hours to get out of town.

Of course, this doesn’t go over very well with his superiors, who remind him that the Marshals haven’t done that kind of thing in about a hundred years. So he’s shipped out of town—back to Harlan County, Kentucky, his home and the one place he didn’t want to go.

I won’t tell you everything about the series. If you want to watch it, I’d hate to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of crime going on in Harlan County, which is situated in eastern Kentucky and is in the heart of coal mining country. Of course, the coal mining companies don’t drill holes in the ground anymore. Instead, they take the top off the mountains and let the pollution roll downhill into the streams and creeks. There’s plenty of room for stories in this setting, and I’m a big fan of it because of its authenticity. Enough of a fan to forgive them for using areas of Southern California to stand in for Eastern Kentucky. They go to great pains to make it look right (the pilot was shot in Kentucky), and they have to do it for budgetary reasons, so I’ll let ’em slide on this one.

Besides, the stories are just too damned good.

Here’s the thing: I watch it as much to get pointers as I do to enjoy the show.

My major story is set in Arkansas, as you well know if you’ve followed me, but I believe I have trouble keeping it authentic. And I think maybe that happens because I’m too close to the setting.

Years ago, when I made some rather lame attempts at writing horror, I wanted to follow Stephen King’s lead of setting novels in his home state and set my stories in Arkansas. I also made an attempt at writing some paranormal/post-apocalyptic stories that took place in Arkansas. I didn’t feel like I was doing the surroundings justice when I wrote them, and I spoke to a great aunt who was a writer about it. She told me that she wasn’t able to write properly about the hills of Northwest Arkansas until she got away from them, had some emotional distance.

Maybe there’s some merit to that.

Part of Lyle’s initial story is set in Santa Monica. I used it for two reasons: 1) I knew the territory I was gonna write about and, 2) I figured it was a place a drug lord like Chapo Guzman could sneak in and out of fairly easily. I ended up going what I think might be overboard on the descriptions of places like the Santa Monica Pier and the 3rd Street Promenade, and I was able to do it because these areas held fond memories for me and because I had some distance from them.

One of the authors in our group, Pamela Foster, has at least two books set in her home turf of Humboldt County, California. Now, while I can’t speak for her reasons, I suspect loyalty to home was one of them, along with the fact that these stories involve Bigfoot, and Humboldt County is one of the epicenters of sasquatch activity—whether you believe in them or not. I also suspect it was easier for her to put in her descriptions because she’s got some distance from the place (Pam, feel free to agree with or contradict me here; that’s the whole purpose of my posts: to invite comment. Hint, hint). Her descriptive passages are so spot on that I can feel the cold fog roll in off the ocean at night, and hear the drip of water off the eaves.

I’m not sure if I’m capturing my surroundings as well, no matter how hard I try.

How do you do justice to some of the white trash trailer houses here? Or the still prevalent feeling that this is an agricultural state, and that as a result farming is still a major thing?

How do you include apt descriptions of the rolling hills, the dark, mysterious hollers, the way Spring feels so damned welcome after a long, gray winter?

What’s the secret to telling you how it feels to be somewhere and feel like you’re about the only person for miles around?

How do I include that subtle feeling of menace you feel when you’re in certain parts of the countryside, when you just know there’s likely some marijuana moonshiner or meth cook watching you really closely?

I mean, there was a time when, if you spotted a pot patch out in the woods, it was probably a good idea to retrace your steps exactly for fear of tripping a booby trap. There are probably places out there where this is still true.

How do I capture the fandom for the Arkansas Razorbacks that permeates the area? Even if you don’t care a whit for

Arkansas-Razorback-Logo-2001

the Hogs, you can’t escape the bumper stickers everywhere and the Go Hogs boosters that pop up around every corner.

For that matter, how do I capture the atmosphere of Fayetteville, a college town with all the usual liberal trappings of a college town, set amidst a sea of conservative farmers and rural people? Fayetteville—along with Eureka Springs—is a local refuge for neo-hippies, and you see them all over town, driving their Subrarus and Priuses, Love Mother Earth stickers screwing up the appearance of otherwise nice looking vehicles.

And there’s so much more. I’ve not even included the way country music and the lifestyle it describes are pervasive here. It’s hard to go anywhere and not see some 4×4 pickup without a Rebel flag or maybe something across the top of the windshield saying Stone Cold Country By The Grace of God. And I’ve lost count of the number of stickers I’ve seen that say Why, Yes, I AM clinging to my GUNS and RELIGION.

This is the South, baby. Live with it.

So what’s your solution? How do you capture that local feel, whatever your local may consist of? Any words of advice for me or other writers on how to do this when you’re really close to your subject?

Later,

Gil

Old Material

I once read somewhere that you should save all your old writings and go back over them occasionally to see what you’ve learned since. I’m not sure where I read it. If I knew, I’d give credit where it’s due. It’s sort of a moot point, though, because others have said it, too (and, naturally, I can’t remember who any of the other sources are, either).

Anyway, thanks to this piece of advice, my documents folder has more aborted mss than I’d care to count. I’m a great starter, but not as good a finisher. John Scalzi, on his blog Whatever, recently posted that he always reaches a point in whatever novel he’s writing where he knows just how it’s going to end and he gets impatient to finish it and move on to the next project—so much so that it’s difficult to complete the current work.

Well, for me, I’d get story idea, think about it a day or two (maybe), and then sit down and write. When you write seat-of-the-pants as I do, most times you need to sit down and write something when you get an idea or it’ll escape from you, never to be seen again. And for a long time, that meant I sat down and started writing the story idea down. I’m very good (usually) at getting beginnings, followed by endings. It’s the middles that usually bogged me down and tended to end all forward momentum.

A lot of these truncated mss have become more rare as I’ve learned to just jot down the idea as a sort of mini synopsis that I can refer to later. That way the idea’s not preying on my imagination—the initial idea, I mean—and my mind’s free to wander on and see if it can develop further ideas to support the beginning. I’ve also learned that just because I have an idea doesn’t mean I’ve got a book—and since I’m kinda terrible at doing short stories, I generally need to give it time to develop and see if it plays out.

I carry a small notebook around with me at all times and jot ideas down if I get them, then transfer them to a document on my computer next time I get a chance. I scoffed for years at the idea of carrying around a notebook when an author recommended it. I actually have to credit my lady love Carolann with encouraging me to carry a notebook—she bought me my first one, though it was so I could remember everyday things I needed to keep in mind. I’m the kind of person who needs to make out a list when I get ready to do things much of the time, or I’ll forget. I need shopping lists, a list of things to look up online when I make it to the library, a list of books I want to read—heck, it’s a wonder I don’t need a list of my lists.

At any rate, I don’t seem to have as many false starts these days, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I switched genres. I still get the occasional idea for a fantasy or sf story, but I rarely jot them down—though maybe I should. And since I started writing crime fiction, the ideas haven’t seemed to come as fast and furious as they once did. I actually consider that a blessing, as it allows me to focus on one or two things at a time.

I think maybe another reason it doesn’t happen is that I’ve learned the difference—thanks to a book by Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit—between an idea and a plot line. See, an idea is good for a short story—you don’t need a fully developed plot for a short, just an idea to explore. A plot, however, is what you need to sustain a novel—a fully developed idea that has more detail than a short story does.

The confusing part can be that they often sound the same. For instance, my Pipeline story started as an idea, but it continued to extend itself as I wrote. Same with Spree. The more I wrote, the more of it was revealed to me. Very much as Stephen King says: it’s like you’re a sort of paleontologist, carefully uncovering the story bit by bit. The more you see, the more of the overall structure makes itself known to you. For me, it seems to do it exponentially, too.

But either way, there’s still all that old stuff I’ve got in my documents file on my computer—not to mention a few old spiral-bound notebooks with handwritten mss in them. A lot of those old handwritten mss have been typed up, though, and reside in my computer.

What to do with them?

The idea behind keeping all your old work, as I’ve stated, is to enable you to look back and see how you’ve improved. I can understand that. Thing is, though, I almost never go back and look at my old stuff, so what good is it doing me? Sure, I can scroll through these old works, some of which are so unfamiliar I have to open the documents to see what the heck they are—and maybe revisit ideas, maybe even entertain the idea of trying my hand at them again.

Of course, there is another aspect to keeping all these false starts: maybe you can take them and make them a section of something you’re working on now. But since I’ve switched genres, I’m not sure how much of my old sf/f stuff I can use. Yeah, we’re all writing the same stuff, it’s just the costumes and sets that differ, but still…when your idea is about the meeting of a vampire and a mage (one of the last things I ever did in the sf/f field, and I finished it, as well), how do you transpose that to a crime novel?

Still, even though I can’t see much use for these things, I’m a packrat by nature and can’t quite bring myself to delete them. Like I said, sometimes I like to look through them and revisit old memories. And you never know what’ll happen when you do. You might see something that’ll work in a different way if you just tweak it a little bit.

What about you? Do you believe in keeping your old writing? Has it done you any good? Or is it just taking up space on your hard drive (or maybe an old filing cabinet)? Is it worth keeping this stuff, or should we empty out our (virtual) closets? Drop me a line, let me know what you think.

Later,

Gil

More on Editing

Here a few weeks back, my daughter, Jesi,  wrote a post on her blog about editing in which she talks about my formula—lifted from Stephen King—of editing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10% (I lifted it from his book On Writing,which I can’t recommend enough). Jesi stated that she didn’t necessarily subscribe to that formula. Furthermore, she stated

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...

that I’ve told her if I want, say, a 90,000-word ms, I’m gonna write 99,000 words.

Guilty as charged.

Where I think the misunderstanding comes from, though, is her thinking that I pad my work only in order to have the requisite ten percent to cut. I say misunderstanding, but to be quite fair, I think that misunderstanding is my fault, because of the way I stated things.

See, it’s my belief—and the vast majority of writers and editors would agree with me—that first drafts are good, but always need work…and they’re usually too long. Especially if you write seat-of-the-pants as Jesi and I do. I’ve deleted whole pages from some of my stuff—false starts that felt good when I wrote them but didn’t pan out as the novel progressed. I had loads of those in Pipeline, and I admit it freely and without shame. If you look at the book Writing Fiction for Dummies, authors Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy devote quite a bit of space to describing the different methods people use to write—from full, detailed outlines to sitting down at the keyboard with no idea on God’s green Earth what you’re gonna write about. (Okay, maybe that last is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) What they say it all boils down to is that you either do all your work at the beginning or in the end. Although there are several ways to write a story, and they cover the entire range I mentioned above, they reduce to two end results: do the work before or after.

What that refers to, for the most part, is working out your plotline and plugging up any plot holes.

But even outliners have to edit.

There have been exceptions to the rule, of course. Isaac Asimov didn’t rewrite because he believed doing so robbed the

English: This image is a reproduction of an or...

English: This image is a reproduction of an original painting by renowned science-fiction and fantasy illustrator Rowena http://www.rowenaart.com/. It depicts Dr. Isaac Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life’s work. Français : Peinture de Rowena Morill réprésentant Isaac Asimov sur un trône décoré des symboles de son œuvre littéraire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

story of its spontaneity. And I’ve read that Thomas Harris (Red Dragon; Silence of the Lambs) simply won’t accept editing. He also won’t do interviews, so I’m tempted to tag him eccentric. If you can get away with that kind of thing, more power to you. Both are successful writers, even if they’re at opposite ends of the scale output-wise.

So why do we need to edit? Mostly because first drafts require it. Let me give you an example from the first draft—and I mean the first draft, since it’s ended up going through several by now—of Pipeline:

I pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. I could hear an airplane flyin’ by way off, but it was almost drowned out by the wind in the trees and the birds singin’. The road I was on ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. There was an old field on the other side, but it was growing up in weeds and brush. Didn’t look like anybody’d bush hogged it in a long time.

The driveway was washed out some. It ran up the hill and disappeared among the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. I looked at the ground and saw that the county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in awhile. ’Course, far as I knowed it might must lead to some old field, but with that mailbox there I kinda doubted it.

Not that bad, right? I mean, for a first draft and all. Now compare that with the edited version:

I pulled over and got out. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. The buzzing of an airplane off in the distance was almost drowned out by the wind and birds. The road ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. An old field across the road was growed up in weeds and brush. It hadn’t been bush-hogged in a long time.

The driveway ran up the hill and disappeared in the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. The county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in a while. ’Course, far as I knowed it might just lead to some old field, but that mailbox said probably not.

Says the same thing, but with some changes, huh? Another thing to note: the first passage is 202 words. The second, 160. That’s quite a bit more than ten percent, and I picked it that way on purpose because I wanted to show several cuts and edits. I’m sure some of you out there can see others that still need done in the second draft, but you get the idea.

Now, of course, not all of the ms gets this much editing. If it did, I think I’d start considering another dream to dream—macramé, maybe. Stamp collecting. Something like that. There are even a few pages that didn’t get notes put on them (though they probably would if I looked at them again, now that I’ve got more emotional distance).

But, see, I don’t pad or fluff just to have words to cut. Not at all. Sure, I shoot for a word count roughly ten percent over what I want my goal to be. But it doesn’t always work out. In my novel Spree, I ended up with over 108,000 words. If I want it back down to my goal of 90,000, that means I gotta cut over 18,000 words. If I cut ten percent, that’ll just put me at around 97,000 words—still too high. So, what do I do? Well, I’ll go ahead and do my usual edit, but I’ll be looking closer for scenes I can cut. I’ve already got some ideas on that score, scenes that haven’t really played out. If you put your mind to it, you can cut a lot out of your story. And, as Stephen King says, if you can’t cut ten percent, you’re not trying very hard.

Yeah, I can hear some of you now: he’s full of it.

Maybe. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll do it my way, you do it yours. We’ve all got our ways of doing this writing thing. It’s said that Kurt Vonnegut edited each page as he wrote, so he might not get more than one or two pages a day. But when he finished, it was ready to print. Can you imagine doing that in the days of typewriters? That guy must have had a huge trash bill.

The bottom line is, you edit to make your story better. If you think others are interfering and trying to tell you how to do your writing by giving you a convenient formula—and especially a formula that seemed to bring them closer to success almost immediately—then don’t listen to them. Do it your way.

I’m not published (yet). I don’t know how much my opinion on how to do things counts. But I do know this: life experience has shown me that I can learn a lot from people who’ve already been there and gained success doing it a certain way. There are far too many folks out there trying to get published for me to ignore someone like Stephen King, who’s been a bestselling writer since the 1970s—that’s closing in on forty years. Not a bad record in an industry where careers are often measured in single digits, not the number of decades. Doesn’t mean he’s infallible, and I don’t subscribe to everything he says. But I’d say I agree with at least ninety percent, and probably more. Whether you like his writing or not, he didn’t get where he is by accident or by knowing someone.

Does that mean you have to whore yourself to the publishing industry?

I give you an emphatic “Hell no!” It’s your work, and your name will be the one associated with it. I see certain conventions going on right now that I will not allow in my work—such as using the word alright for all right. I think I’ve harped on that enough that I don’t need to explain my position on it. There’s a difference between bettering your work and making yourself look like an illiterate idiot, and I refuse to do the latter.

I’ll finish this post off with a paragraph from page 18 of Writing Fiction for Dummiesthat explains what I mean very

Cover of "Writing Fiction For Dummies"

succinctly:

Great writing never happens in the first draft. It happens when you edit your work—keeping what works, chucking what doesn’t, and polishing it all till it gleams.

I couldn’t agree more.

Later,

Gil