Monthly Archives: November 2018

Practical Rules for Writing (Re: Franzen)

A friend of mine, despite my gentle attempts to steer her in a direction not fraught with poverty and disappointment, has decided she wants to be a writer of fiction. About the time she made this decision, Jonathan Franzen published his piece on rules for writers. An odd collection of fancifully stated obviousness (the reader is your friend, you see more sitting still) and curmudgeonly snark (no one with an internet connection is doing good writing), it’s actually not very helpful at all. Franzen, who is not a writer with a day job (#writerwithadayjob), I think, seems a bit detached from reality—especially when he has to research middle class life to write a novel about the middle class and still can’t help but be disdainful of the people he writes about.

So, to help my friend plant her ass in a chair and do the hard work she seems to want to do (what the fuck is wrong with people?), here are my “rules” for writers.

1) Accept that your first draft will always be shit. Whether you plot out your story in advance or discover it as you go, the first draft will be shit. That’s why it’s best to get it out of your system as soon as you can and get to revising it. You can’t revise blank pages, and there’s no point in revising perfect (and you are never going to be perfect), so get comfortable with writing shit (or get comfortable not writing and be happy doing something else).

2) Since the first draft will be shit, you have to treat the writing of it as you would a bowel movement: do it regularly. Whether you’re a clock-puncher who sits down at the writing desk every day, or not, discover and establish a ritual or system that works for you and stick to it. The only requirement is that your system allows you to produce words on the page consistently, at a steady clip, predictably. Don’t compare the level of your output to others, all that matters is output. If there are no words on the page, you have nothing to revise and nothing to submit. If you aren’t writing, you’re not a writer. I’ve been punching the clock every morning for 21 years now and have missed only about 30 days that entire time and have written 5 complete manuscripts (sold one, but we aren’t talking the business side yet).

3) Writer’s block is bullshit. Those who believe in it, who worry about it arriving and never leaving, will have it and bemoan it, try to make others think it’s real, and wallow in it, expecting sympathy. Nothing getting on the page for the epic novel you’ve been pressuring yourself to write? So what? Try a short story or a poem. That not working? Try an essay. Try journaling. Do your favorite writing exercise (mine’s “I remember . . .”*), whatever . . . put words of some kind on a page, any page. I’ve found that when the words aren’t coming easily it’s because my subconscious is working a problem. If I’m patient with myself and simply keep the words—any words—flowing from my brain to my hands to the keyboard or pen and onto a page it all sorts itself out.

4) (optional if you want to publish). Learn the business of writing and publishing. Learn how to submit a manuscript. Learn how to work with an editor (and how to take constructive criticism). Learn how contracts work, and the difference between an advance (spent that fast) and the mythical royalty (I’ve never seen one because I’ve not earned back my advance against royalties). Learn how the Terms of Service apply to self-publishing platforms. Learn about copyrights and permissions. Learn about how the availability and price of book paper affects a publisher’s decision on what and when to publish. Learn about how bookstores work and how book distribution works. Learn all of that stuff so you can make an informed decision when it comes time to choose how you want to present your work to an audience. Traditional publishing? Self-publishing? Some hybrid of the two? Cool.

Some people think I have a low opinion of self-publishing, and I have to admit that, to an extent, I do. Here’s why—most of the people who end up talking to me about it seem to have a desperate need to justify themselves. I think they wanted to get a big, rich contract (which are like unicorns) but after a few rejections stormed off in a kind of Dunning-Kruger inspired fit of rage and have been angry ever since. Also, as a former indie bookseller, I helped manage a consignment program at the store where I worked, and 90% or more of the books in that program were self-published. The writers of those books did no marketing or self-promotion, and were never seen in the store before they dropped off their books, and weren’t seen in the store again until their contract expired and we called them about picking up their unsold books. They then got pissed off at us for not doing all the promotion and marketing they were neglecting to do and which traditional publishers and the more savvy self-published writers were doing for their books.

That being said, self-publishing does work for some people, and some people are good at it, and good writers are choosing to self-publish every day because of the shrinking acceptance rate at traditional publishing houses. But, self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, and traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone. By learning the business you can navigate that decision more wisely . . . and maybe even be successful at it**.

4.1) Make friends with your local indie bookstore, if you have one. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn and who you’ll meet. The blurbs on my first novel where provided by writers I met while working at Watermark Books.

5) Read. This one should be obvious, but I’ll put it here anyway. It’s the last rule, but perhaps the most important. There’s nothing worse than a poet who doesn’t read poetry. Nothing worse than a writer who doesn’t read. More importantly, you should learn how to read critically. Read so that you know how to spot formula, cliche, melodrama (purple prose), but also so you know how to analyze a well written metaphor, a graceful, moving image, and so on. Reading, and especially reading critically, is the best way to learn the craft, even if you went out and got an MFA in creative writing.

*Rules for “I remember . . .” Start with the phrase, I remember, write for 5 minutes and don’t let your pen stop. If you feel like you’re getting stuck, start over with “I remember.” It doesn’t matter what you put down, a list, even a long string of nothing but I remember I remember I remember is all good. Eventually your brain will get sick of it and spit out something else. That’s it. Find your own favorite writing exercise. Repeat as needed.

**Writers Digest, Writers Market, Poets & Writers – these publication among many, many others will help you learn the ins and outs of being a professional writer and choosing an appropriate publishing path.

Bad Business #4 Drops Next Week.

Episode 4 of Bad Business will drop next week. In Ep. 4 Todd, Paul, and I talk about James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, and Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man No. 89.

The Outrider Podcast: Bad Business Ep. 3

In episode 3, Paul, Todd, and I talk about Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser and Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. NOTE: Despite Heather’s valiant efforts the audio is still a little uneven in this episode, but the conversation is good. 

Bad Business Episode 3 Will Drop Next Week & A Warning

Episode 3 of Bad Business will drop next week. We’ll be discussing Charles Willeford’s novel The Woman Chaser and Megan Abbott’s Die A Little.

WARNING: Despite Heather’s valiant efforts, the audio is still a bit rough, but it’s better than what I recorded. So, put all the blame on me for not being able to manage two live mics and a Skype call.

Bad Business Ep 2: The Long Goodbye

In episode 2, Todd, Paul and I discuss Raymond Chandler and his novel The Long Goodbye. 

The Outrider Podcast Bad Business #2 The Long Goodbye

Episode 2 of Bad Business will drop tomorrow, November 6th.

In episode 2, Todd, Paul, and I discuss Raymond Chandler and his novel The Long Goodbye.

First Saturday Report: November

Writing & Submitting:
In October I started working on revisions to Far Nineteen again. I’ve kind of lost track of how long I’ve been working on this story. I think I might have written the initial pages for it (all revised or cut away by now) a year or more before I began work on The Palace of Winds. I’ve sent Far Nineteen out a few times, with no responses. That’s why I’m revising it again. I’ve been doing some work on expanding and refining an old essay on the place of fiction in society, but it’s gestating after finishing some new reading that I need to synthesize in the old noodle.

I think it’s time to stop sending out The Palace of Winds. I’ll put it in the file with the other failures: The Cinnamon Girl, and By The Still, Still Water.

I also hacked out about a third of the material I’d written for the new project. It had taken a wrong turn somewhere. After letting it set for a few weeks in October, I realized kind of where it broke and performed surgery to remove the offending outgrowth. On the surface, I suppose, it’s a rather simple love story, but for me, once I peel back that first layer of simple there is a labyrinth of human desires, fears, and regrets. And within those desires, fears, and regrets there are more labyrinths and spider’s webs.

For me, as a writer, the problem has always been narrowing the scope. I think that’s why all of my short stories always feel incomplete, or too big for their confines. It’s why I’m always a bit disappointed when readers pass cruel judgement on my characters and write them off. It means I failed to convey the internal personal agony, shame, regret, desire, and fear that ultimately drives someone to be selfish, or cruel. I don’t expect people to like my characters—they often do horrible things to each other—but if fiction is an engine for the empathetic imagination then somethings not firing right if readers aren’t conflicted about the trouble causing catalyst characters.

Let me see if this helps explain it. I went to high school with a young man who had a reputation for being a bully. Some of my friends had been bullied by this person for most of their childhood. I only suffered his wrath during high school, but I too came to hate and fear him because of his meanness and violence toward others. A few years after high school, this young man was murdered in a street brawl. When I told a friend of mine about it, a friend who had been a target of this bully since early in grade school, my friend’s response was simply to say “Good.” In that moment, in the bitterness I heard in his voice, I understood a whole host of things: my friend’s lifelong pain at having been repeatedly bullied; the sense of karmic justice he felt that someone who’d been cruel to others for so long had a cruelty returned. I heard also a release of fear. This friend, a grown man with a wife and kids, I believe, still feared this bully would be able to hurt him the rest of their lives and this death erased that fear for my friend. And then came all of the thoughts about the bully. I never liked this young man, he was cruel and violent to people he chose as targets. His cruelty and violence made him a popular athlete and so much of the cruelty and violence he displayed off the field was ignored, downplayed, brushed off. But what was he hiding? What was he scared of? Who made him scared of the things he was scared of? What was his cruelty a mask for? What kind of boy had he been before he learned to be cruel? How did he suffer? If all the fear and rage that made him cruel could be stripped away, what would he have become?

I write in order to try to explain the world to myself because, ultimately, it is a deep, deep mystery.

There have been some technical delays with the six part Bad Business series, as well as some scheduling and timing problems. So, episodes aren’t coming out as planned. Episode 2 and 3 are on the way, and if I schedule their release properly, we should have enough of a cushion to ensure the last few episodes come out as expected and without any delays.

We’re planning a second Outrider Live show for December. We’ll have two readers for that show, Shawn Craver and Michelle Barrett. We’ve not finalized the musical act yet. The live shows are at a small, private venue. So, if you’re in Wichita for Dec 8 and would be interested in attending, let me know. Seating is limited.

The Altar of the Only World by Sharanya Manivannan (finished)
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers (reading).

I always feel like I should read more, but then there’s the writing, the day job, the desire to just sit and stare at the wall so that my brain can just process and purge and knit. For the first time ever, I’ve been keeping a reading “diary” of sorts. Not recording thoughts or perceptions, but just keeping a list. Up to 22 books read this year. By the time December finishes off I should be around 25 or so. That’s about two books a month. I’m sure someone out there is letting out a snide chuckle, and reciting some obscene number of books they read this year and thinking I’m a lazy reader for a fucking writer. It’s not a competition—and my number might be higher, but I spent the first part of the year reading Ulysses and talking about it on the podcast.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. Sharanya Manivannan’s collection The Altar of the Only World is beautiful, and highly recommended. Here in the states you’ll have to order off Amazon since it’s not actually published here. It’s published by Harpercollins India. But it’s worth the effort and bit of money that Bezos gets to suck out of your pocket. Hopefully, she’ll land an American agent or publisher and we can start clamoring for her books in independent bookstores. She has her first novel coming out, I believe this month (again, India only) called The Queen of Jasmine Country. I first encountered Sharanya back in my early blogging days while I was putting out the DIY journal The Project for a New Mythology. She’d posted a comment on something I wrote about Michael Ondaatje and we chatted over email for a while. I was all set to publish one of her poems in the journal when she had to pull it because, well, there was someone willing to pay her more than contributors copies for it. I was disappointed, but ultimately happy for her because, I think, that poem helped her get her first book, Witchcraft (2008), published. Her writing is so very sensuous, compassionate, and wise. I’ve been buying multiple copies of her book The High Priestess Never Marries—like some black market importer—and giving them away to fellow writers and literary minded friends.

Fast on the heels of that, I’m reading Shaindel Beers’ new collection Secure Your Own Mask. This is her third collection, and I’ve fallen in love with it as quickly as I did the other two. Shaindel’s poems strike a very familiar emotional and cognitive chord with me. I suspect she sees the world tinted with the same colors that I see the world with; however, those colors and the knowing that comes from them are just different enough, perhaps because of gender and experiences, that I seem to see things I thought I knew with a renewed mystery. Like Ms. Manivannan’s work, you should go pick up some of Ms. Beers’ and share them with friends – just like you would with beers. Hell, share Ms. Beers’ poetry with friends over beers. I think she’d approve.

Let’s see. For classic movie night in October, I watched Creepshow, which I don’t think I’d seen since I was a preteen. Went out to see The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I’d never bothered to see before. Other than that, I’ve been catching up on the Marvel TV shows on Netflix, specifically the most recent season of Luke Cage.

I finally got around to restocking some of my Red Hot Chili Peppers catalog that got lost way, way back in the mid 90’s when a case of cassette tapes got stolen out of my car. Repurchased Mother’s Milk.

After listening to Marc Maron talk with Sir Paul McCartney I’ve started sorting through his catalogue and making a list of stuff to get. So much of it is in my head, put there by my father, that it’s hard to decide where to start. The Beatles, Wings, his solo stuff—every time I put on a McCartney song I feel as if I’ve slipped out of the timeline, stepped into some limbo where I’m all of my assorted, cast off selves from childhood to now. I can remember the thin green carpet in our house in Dodge City, the sloped back yard, and the rude, abusive odor from the feed lots around town. And I can remember that young version of myself, naive, gentle, open to everything, especially the slights and pains cast out by others.

Random Thoughts
I feel all over the place with things right now. Stuff from my day job is crowding in on the rest of my life, and I don’t want it there. I want the day job to stay in the confines of the fucking building where I do it, not leeching into my writing time, my reading time, my quiet daydreaming time.

There’s the impending election and my dark and hopeless fears that we’ve lost the impetus for peaceful change and that come November 7th, I will have witnessed the destruction of my country’s democratic experiment. Between Russian interference, right wing fear stoking, and plain old GOP corruption and election rigging, I fear that the fascist leaning GOP leaders will either steal the election from the majority of Americans, or they’ll react violently when the shear weight of pro-democratic, progressive action overwhelms the voting system regardless of all they’ve done to suppress the non-white, non-republican votes.

I’m worried about loneliness, and certain physical limitations and impairments that I’m struggling with and how those will impact my future hopes and desires around that loneliness and its elimination (how’s that for vague?).

I’m worried about money.

I wonder if I’ve reached the limit of my talent, or that I used it all up writing The Evolution of Shadows. I fear I’m finished as a writer and that all that stuff above is simply the universe, which is infinitely more patient and powerful that the will of any human, finally grinding me down into the nothing.