Friday, March 28, 2014

The Writer's Guide to Life

This should be inscribed in the Preface of the Writer's Guide to Life:  You are not alone.

It's such a simple statement yet so difficult for anyone addicted to writing to fully grasp.  Consider this: A writer sits in a dark room, sharing their innermost thoughts in solitude, except for, perhaps an unsympathetic cat or two, and pours words, words, words into the machine, onto the paper, or into a microphone. There is no cheering crowd at the writer's back, urging them ever onward, no coach on the sidelines shouting encouragement, and no boss to come by and tell you that you are doing a good job. Nope: You get buttkas for the hours spent hammering on your writer's anvil, save blurred vision, a bad back, and perhaps too much of a need for caffeine (should there be a deadline involved.)

But know this: Out there in the real world there are thousands of writers just like you - thousands! They are all brothers and sisters of the word, who struggle with their personal demons, fight the endless self-doubts, and agonize over every rejection, dismissal, or refusal that comes their way. Yes, they may be of your kind, but they are also your enemy and competition, the hated authors who unknowingly flaunt their successes in your face.   You know who I'm talking about.  Their names appear on the covers of books and magazines, they sit on panels at conventions, they get interviewed, and they travel to exotic locations "for background."  You hate them. You love them. You envy them. You wish they would die, die, die so your works would stand a bit more of a chance of acceptance from the editors.

And yet you sincerely and heartily wish them continued success.

The ease with which your fellow writers produce their works is an illusion, you know.  They are just like you in every way.   None of them never, ever created anything memorable without putting forward considerable effort.  Their work appears effortless only because you only see their headlines, their successes, and their fame.  What you don't see is the mountain of creativity that they had to climb.  Their private failures and disappointments are hidden and personal, away denying your perception and understanding.   Every writer has hopes and fears, battles the endless self-doubt, and lives with the constant fear that their muse might suddenly disappear into regions from which there can be no return.  Writers always worry about death, and more so if it should happen before their damned novel is finished.

The Writer's Guide to Life ends with these words:  Keep writing, keep hoping, and know that you are not alone.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Inherent Messiness of Writing

It seems so simple, writing a  little story.  Shouldn't take long.  Couple of hours, maybe.  You know how it's going to go.  Even have a nice hook in mind.  Oh yeah, and a killer ending that will rock every reader back. Great!

So you sit down, read a few e-mails, check your social media suite, hit a couple of web sites and then begin.  Open a blank screen in the old WP and .... and....and....

What was that opening that seemed so awesome in your mind a short time ago? Somehow it doesn't seem so good when you've written it down.  It doesn't matter; you still have that killer ending, right?  But on reflection even it doesn't seem as incisive as you imagined. You can work on those later, after the central story stuff is developed.

And there's a lot of story stuff  that you didn't really think through in that first flash of inspiration.  Neither had you thought through the plot, the way the story would unfold, and what the overarching theme should be.  Those and  thousand details that now conflate your thoughts, so you read more e-mail and social to take your mind off it for a moment before you really settle down.

But how to do that?  What sometime works for me is a diagram or two - you know, to sketch out the progress of the story's scenes. That usually leads to blocking out the time sequences on a spreadsheet so you don't make bone-headed mistake the copy editor can embarrass you with. Oh yeah, facts and settings need to be reasonably accurate, so you have to do research (and yes, cat videos do count, if only for the slight relief they provide!) and have that pile-o-facts readily available.

Your workbench starts to look like an explosion in a library. Spreadsheets, little reference windows, color coded scene blocks, calendars, and of course, your word processor of choice (Scrivener in my case.)  Gods, with all this clutter how can you be expected to get any work done?

But a first draft does get completed and it is what we professional writers charitably call a PoS.  The sequence of events, the motivations of the characters, and the settings are all wrong, wrong, wrong! Worse, the prose itself sounds weak, non-lyrical, and completely lacking in metaphor and allusion. The first draft is a travesty, a miserable attempt that barely stands a chance of improvement.

So you begin to move a few sections about, maybe trim a phrase here and there, check the e-mail, socials, etc, and occasionally think of a better way to express a thought.  Slowly, you breathe life into a character, work hard to make the setting a bit more realistic, and maybe throw out your original opening for something not quite as good, but more appropriate to what remains of the original concept. Crap, now you have to change the ending as well so that it flows naturally from the arc of the plot.  The fifth, sixth, or umpity-ninth edit results in a story not quite as good as you first imagined, but at least it won't embarrass you when you submit it.   It's good enough.

But not  nearly as good as the idea you just had with an absolutely great opening scene.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tax Time Thoughts

Oh crap, where did I put that check stub, or the acceptance letter saying how much I would be paid, or the receipts from Staples?  What about the toll tickets for driving to the con, oh, and the parking lot receipts, that is if I remembered getting them.  Maybe they're still in the glove compartment?  What do I do about the pile of comps on the bookshelf or ......

Filing the US federal tax forms is not only pure freaking misery but forces one to lapse into the reality of their disorganized life.  Don't they understand that all I want to do is write - not be a damned bookkeeper.

Even if you get all your paperwork together there are still problems.  A publisher is only responsible for sending IRS Tax Form 1099 when the total amount paid to a writer in a single tax year is greater than $600.  For the 99.9999% of us who write genre short stories, such huge payments from a single publisher are hardly ever the case - you have to sell a LOT of words to a single market at pennies per word to make more than $600.

In an ideal universe income records automagically flow to the writer from responsible corporations who always file Forms 1099. In this fantasy land the writer should have no problem listing every cent of their income.   But over here, in the real world, this does not always happen - even when payments exceed the limit.  Neither do the publisher/editors who slip payments through PayPal or other e-means provide the necessary forms.  Yet, despite these, the IRS insists that a writer acknowledge ALL income received regardless of whether they received documentation or not. Even if a writer manages to sell a half dozen short stories in a single year they still have to list every one of those pitiful amounts.

Listing a writer's pitiful income is not an arduous task, given a small number of sales, however it is really embarrassing to admit that you received only $10 for a fucking novella that took you six agonizing months to write, even if it was finally (Hooray!) a SALE!

At the absolute bottom of market, one step above fanzines, there are the non-payment "publications" that pay ONLY in complementary copies.  Does a writer count those two or three copies as income and, if so, at what price?  Is it considered barter when you exchange your hard-won words for printed magazines or ephemeral electrons on an obscure website?  Maybe you could charitably consider those as tips except - wait a minute - tips are supposed to be reported as well!

 This forces one into excessive contemplation of work that might be more financially rewarding, of books unread, of shows not seen, and of family neglected.  Putting those aside, the writer grumbles, sharpens the computer keys and drearily enumerates their modest successes, cursing fate, penurious publishers, and citizenship.

Perhaps next  year won't be so difficult.


Friday, March 7, 2014


At the top of speculative fiction reign the lords of literate mien who cast off novels with ease, compel readers into autographing frenzy, and attend conventions as honored guests. Agents and editors alike swarm to their sides while publishers wet their seats in anticipation that these lords of literature should deign to sit beside them at award ceremonies. Their books are easily found in bookstore windows and on end caps.  Some of them even make a living at it.

Below the highly esteemed lords gather the lesser lights, those knights of the realm who produce books that are respectfully written, but somehow fail to gain the public's attention and thereby achieve stardom. These knights are the stalwarts, the strong mid-list host who produce the bulk of literary content that supports the publishing kingdom. Without their diligent efforts the reigning lords, editors and publishers, agents and fans would not exist.

The expeditionary force, the army behind the royal assembly, are those who carry the pikes and shields and trudge along in anonymity, gleaning literary sustenance from the roadside while supporting ourselves by other means.  The spear carriers sit at no signing tables, are not hosted by convention committees, nor do they ever find hordes of clamoring fans awaiting their appearance, yet their number is legion and in total literary output overwhelm the total output of the nobility.

The pen-weilding army can be found battling for attention among the anthologies, magazines, and web sites. You will find them toiling away in their hovels at word rates that scarcely buy a crust of bread or even provide enough to afford attendance at any convention beyond easy commuting range. The struggling spear carrier fights hard to simply to remain within the van.  Ever present in their minds it that failure to produce in their hard-scrabble writing life can leave them forgotten in the wake.

Yet, even the members of this under-appreciated army are not the lowest creatures of the realm.  At the sides of the vast marching host stand the minions; the drudges, the sculls, and wanna-be scavengers who cannot join the march despite years of endless efforts to produce something salable.  These minions beg for scraps as they work long and hard to find the key, the magic words that will unlock an editor's heart and grant them admittance.  Frustration is ever their companion and failure upon failure their only hope as the endless horde marches by, aware of the desperation at the roadside and fearful of rejoining them.

Yet, despite all the barriers of talent and skill, of endless failures, even a lowly  minion can find the strength to wrest a gleaming sword from the stone, raise it above their head, strike a new direction for the march, and become a lord of the future.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

What the hell?

I don't think I'll ever figure out this writing business.  On good days I might have a reasonable grasp of the basics - grammer, speling, and dikshun.  On other days pounding a single bit of dross on my writer's anvil is pure torture. In the end some words gets produced each day and eventually they start to make sense.

What puzzles me is how this happens.  I struggle with an idea for weeks, spend more time on pounding out a draft, even more effort into editing, editing, editing and still being unsatisfied.

Finally, I put it aside to be worked on later, hoping that the creative  muse will grant me a vision of how to get this off my plate.  The put-aside to later pile grows and grows, seemingly without end.

Then one day I might pick one from the pile and struggle a bit before the structure, pace, and content becomes blindingly clear.  The words then flow like liquid gold, phrases sing in dulcet tones, and the story rises above its stumbling beginnings to look as if it had been dashed off without a moment's hesitation.

I don't understand the why of this or do I question its source, but each time it happens I am deeply grateful.  My muse is a capricious bitch, but I love her nevertheless.