me and edgar

Okay, good news. This morning I learned I’ve been nominated for an Edgar. The Mystery Writers of America have been handing out Edgar Allan Poe awards for short fiction since 1951. The nominations are announced on Poe’s birthday, which is today. Getting nominated is a pretty big deal in the mystery and detective fiction biz.

The nomination is for a short story called Red Flag, which deals with red flag laws (hence the clever title). It’s a story about a man whose career was ended by a mass shooting. He returns to his home state of Michigan, tries to live a quiet life, but gets reluctantly drawn into a situation. A mother is concerned about her son–an alienated young man she’s afraid is thinking about committing a mass murder. Because the young man has broken no law, local law enforcement can’t do anything. So the protagonist cobbles together a sort of plan in the hope of disrupting what he sees as the inevitable mass murder attempt.

It’s an odd story. I was having lunch in a brew pub in a small Iowa town when I learned Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine was going to publish it. I was delighted. The very next morning, there was a high publicity mass shooting in a Michigan high school; four students were killed and seven wounded. Lots of people were aware of the shooter’s emotional problems–his parents, school officials, other students. They all knew he’d made vague threats about a mass murder. They knew he had access to a firearm. A red flag law would have allowed the police to remove that firearm, which might have prevented the tragedy.

The coincidence of selling a story about a potential mass murder in Michigan and an actual mass murder in Michigan less than 24 hours later was weirdly discomfiting. Obviously, there was no connection. And yet, it bothered me. Still does, in fact.

So I have mixed emotions about the story, about its publication, and about this nomination. I’m obviously chuffed about it. But I can’t entirely enjoy it. I’ll always associate this story with tragic events. And since I live in the United States, there’ll always be another tragic event.

Today is January 19th. So far this year there have been at least 33 mass shooting incidents in the US, resulting 48 deaths and 128 wounded. There’ll almost certainly be another one today.

I’m incredibly pleased to have been nominated for the Edgar. But I sort of hope I don’t win. I hope more people will read the story. I hope we can change our culture. I have hope.

But not very much of it.

rabbit hole

I am weak to distraction. Doesn’t much matter what I’m doing, if I stumble across an interesting bit of information, an intriguing casual comment, a footnote in a book, almost anything that catches my eye and my imagination, I’m lost. I’ll stop what I’m doing and leap down that rabbit hole.

This morning on Twitter I came across a quote by novelist Henry Green, explaining the inspiration for his 1945 novel Loving. This is what he said:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: ‘Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.’ I saw the book in a flash.

It’s a great anecdote and an absolutely terrific line by the butler. So…there’s my rabbit hole. I tracked down the quotation. It was an interview conducted by novelist Terry Southern for The Paris Review (TPR) in 1958. Southern was also smitten with the butler’s line and used it to tweak the nose of the TPR’s editor. He wrote, “[Y]ou realize of course that the word ‘cunty’ makes the reply, gives it bite, insight, etc. I mean to say it simply would not do to rephrase it.”

Why was Southern pointing this out? Because five years earlier, TPR’s debut issue had included one of Southern’s short stories in which the term shit had been edited out. Instead of one character telling another “Don’t get your shit hot” TPR printed “Don’t get hot.” That’s a much weaker line.

Southern felt so strongly about the editing that he demanded TPR issue a correction in the following issue. And hey, they did. Sort of. Here’s their disappointing correction:

Terry Southern is most anxious that The Paris Review point out the absence of two words from his story The Accident (issue one): the sentence “don’t get hot” should have read “don’t get your crap hot,” an omission for which we apologize to all concerned.

The non-correction correction infuriated Southern, of course. So he was delighted (and absolutely correct) to force TPR to include cunty in the interview.

This made me happy for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the butler’s line itself, which is simple but poetic. Second, because every writer likes to see an editor put in their place (even though editors are almost always right, damn it). Third, because I had a similar experience years ago.

I’d written a short story called Maybe the Horse Will Learn to Sing, which was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The story included this line:

So in trying to tweak Sweeney’s nose all I’d managed to do was to step on my own dick. There’s a lesson there, I suspect.

AHMM wanted to change that line to read, step on my own foot or something equally awful. Since I wanted to get paid, I agreed to change the line to some other weak analogy (I can’t recall what the final version was). The following year, however, that story was included in the 1999 anthology The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Ed McBain and Otto Penzler. When I was asked permission to reprint the story, I agreed on the condition that they change the line back to the original. Penzler laughed and agreed it was a better line. That laugh was worth as much to me as the check.

So, that was today’s totally pointless but (for me) entertaining rabbit hole. That was probably 90 minutes out of my morning, including writing this pointless but (again, for me) entertaining blog post.

in which i make an awkward speech

Okay, I probably should have mentioned this when it was announced. But that was a month ago, back in the middle of April, at the beginning of morel season, so I was busy. And there was something else going on at the time, though I can’t recall what it was. My guess is it was probably bicycle-related.

Anyway, I forgot about it until last week when Ruth Greenberg emailed me. She wanted to let me know she’d received a royalty check for a book we sorta kinda wrote together. That was back in…I don’t know, the distant past. I was in graduate school at the time, so it must have at least twenty years ago. I could do the math and figure out the date, but it doesn’t much matter.

The check was for 94 cents.

I’ve moved at least half a dozen times since the book was published, and I’ve never bothered to let the publisher know my new address. In fact, I think that publisher has been swallowed whole by another publisher–and I’m not even sure who they are. This accounts for why I didn’t get my US$0.94 royalty check.

But that email last week reminded me of another writing thing…which is the thing I referred to in the first paragraph, the thing I probably should have mentioned back in April but obviously didn’t. So I’m going to mention it now.

A short story I wrote–and which was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine last autumn–won an award. Every year various groups hand out various awards for mystery and detective fiction. Most of those are nominated by…well, okay, I admit I don’t know how the nomination process works. Doesn’t matter. I’ve only been nominated once, about a million years ago, for something called a Shamus award. I didn’t win, so I didn’t pay much attention to it (I’m beginning to sense a pattern here). Anyway, nominations are made, a panel of judges read the work, choose the winner, hand out an award. It’s sort of a big deal.

The award I won wasn’t that sort of award. What I won was a Reader’s Award. You know, where readers write in and name their favorite stories of the years. And actually, I didn’t win that award either; I came in third.

When I got the email telling me I’d come in third in a Reader’s Award, I thought, “Hey, that’s nice.” And that was basically it. I mean, I’d already been paid for the story; that was reward enough. But I was asked to submit a 1-2 minute video acceptance speech for the award (which was being held virtually because of the damned pandemic). My response was basically a casual “Sure, why not?” But thinking about an acceptance speech made me actually stop and think about the award itself, and about the readers who’d read the story and voted for it, and about writing.

Let me be clear about this whole writing gig. It’s just something I do. I enjoy the act of writing. I like the process of writing. It entertains me and gives me pleasure. I like the discipline involved. Most of what I write (this blog, for example) I write for an audience of one–me. Writing this blog forces me to put my thoughts in order, which forces me to support whatever crap I’m writing about. I usually spend a LOT more time thinking about stuff than writing about it. For this blog, I like to write quickly and casually, and edit almost nothing.

But sometimes I write short fiction for money. That means writing for other people. It also means writing more carefully. Because a writer’s job is to give a reader a good experience. Not necessarily a pleasant one, or a happy one, but an experience they find worth the investment of time it takes them to read the story.

But here’s the weird thing. Once I finish writing a piece of fiction, I seem to lose all emotional attachment to it. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it, I’ve written the story, and now it’s done. I submit the story to a magazine; they either accept it (and send me a check) or reject it (and send me a rejection letter), but that’s their job. My job is over. Time to do something else. The finished story is old news; it just doesn’t seem very important anymore.

But I had to give an acceptance speech, right? So I had to think about all that stuff. I mean, yes of course I was writing for an audience, but it was a theoretical audience. Not actual people, sitting at home, drinking coffee and letting the cat shed on their sweaters. Suddenly, they’d become very real to me. I mean, the notion that strangers would read something I wrote–that they’d read it and remember it–that they’d care enough about the story to vote for it in an annual contest? That’s just…weird. It made me oddly emotional.

So I made an acceptance video. Okay, that’s a lie. I made like six of them. First, I did a quick practice video just to see if I actually knew HOW to make a video. Set up my chromebook, turned it on, nattered off the top of my head for maybe 90 seconds, then watched it. It was…well, embarrassing.

So I wrote out a short script saying the things I wanted to say–and shot a second video. That taught me to pay attention to the background (as a photographer, you’d think I’d know that). So I started moving things around, re-arranging furniture, shifting stuff around so it wouldn’t appear I was sitting in the basement, where I write in the evenings. I shot a few more videos.

They were fucking painful to watch. I mean, I was trying to present myself as a writer, and I was semi-reading from a script. It all looked unnatural. So in the end, I sent them my practice video–me nattering on, sitting at my basement desk, unrehearsed and stupid, thanking strangers for voting me the third most popular story for this particular magazine last year. But at least it was honest and authentic. So there’s that.

Anyway, here it is, for your entertainment. The whole thing is about 18 minutes long, which is a LOT to watch. I get introduced at about the 5:30 point. My awkward basement practice acceptance video kicks in somewhere around the 7:30 point.

Oh, yeah…the story. Janet Hutchings, the editor, introduces it in a way that makes it sound significant, portentous. When I submitted it, I was at a loss for how to describe it. It’s a detective story, of course, about the rights of street photographers. But yeah, it’s also about racial profiling. And about a missing teen-aged girl. But it’s also about the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, which I happen to think is important to the story. And I don’t know, it’s maybe about some other stuff too. Who knows?

Anyway, I probably should have mentioned this back in April, when it was announced.

the yawning of george r.r. martin

You know George R.R. Martin, right? The writer. The guy who wrote 5/7ths of a very good fantasy fiction series, which was turned into 7/8ths of a pretty good HBO series? Well, it’s being reported that HBO has given him a five-year deal worth “mid-eight figures” to develop other series based on the Game of Thrones universe.

HBO has deep pockets, to be sure–but I’m thinking it’s idiotic to pay him that much coin. I mean, the guy does good work. There are problems with it, of course–the sexism and racism and all that–but the overall dramatic quality of the work is very good. He just doesn’t finish the work. He’s like a master cabinetmaker who designs and creates a beautiful, original kitchen, but doesn’t bother to install the cabinets. They’re just left sitting there on the floor, pretty but incomplete. And as for George R.R. Martin’s GoT universe? At this point, who cares?

Don’t get me wrong. I still remember when a friend told me I should read the original novel, A Game of Thrones. I’d gone through a period where I read some fantasy fiction, but I’d largely gone off of the genre. It all seemed predictable and derivative. This isn’t a verbatim conversation, but it went something like this:

Him: You’ve got to read this book. You’ll love it. It’s unlike anything you’ve read.
Me: Are there elves in it?
Him: No elves.
Me: Dwarves?
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dwarf Dwarves. There’s a character who is a dwarf.
Me: But not with a long beard and an innate skill for metallurgy.
Him: Right.
Me: Okay then. What about dragons? Are there dragons?
Him: No. Well, yes, but not like Dragon dragons. Mostly just eggs.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You’ll love it, trust me.
Me: I don’t know.
Him: You know how when you read a book you pretty much know who the heroes and bad guys are? You pretty much know who’s going to die and who won’t?
Me: Yeah.
Him: Well, that doesn’t apply here.

And hey, he was right. It was unlike anything I’d read, and I did love it. The characters were wildly diverse, mostly complex, but they still managed to be internally consistent. It was clearly fantasy, but the fantasy elements felt grounded. I mean, sure there was magic; you have to expect that in fantasy fiction. But it wasn’t airy fartsy magic–you know, a wizard in a goofy hat holding up a staff and firing off balls of lightning. The magic was magic in the same way menstrual fluid is blood–it was messy, maybe, but basic and honest.

And yeah, there was no way to guess who was going to live or die. Main characters were killed. Not killed in noble, honorable, heroic ways. Killed ugly for stupid reasons. Killed ugly and pointlessly (well, not pointlessly in terms of the narrative, but pointlessly in terms of the story world). They just got killed or maimed, and there it was. Nobody in the story was safe. It was awful and completely glorious. Okay, as the story progressed and the novels got longer and more popular, the main characters became safer. But the precedent had been set, and you were never quite sure if they were really safe.

I had to wait almost a year for the second book in the series to be published. And it was worth the wait. A Clash of Kings was as good as the first novel. We knew at that point it was going to be a trilogy. The third novel, A Storm of Swords, also took about a year and was equally good. By then Martin had decided there’d be six books. That was a tad concerning; six books is a LOT of story. But if Martin could maintain the quality of the work and the novels were published at a reasonable rate, then yay.

We had to wait five years for the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. Five years. Half a decade. Still, it was quite a good novel. But lawdy what a long wait. The only good thing about that long wait was that, just before the fourth novel was published, I had time to re-read the three earlier books so I could remember what had happened.

Then I waited six years for the fifth book. Six years. It only took two years for Magellan to circumnavigate the globe in a goddamn carrack (with a similar body count, by the way). Six years, and by then Martin had decided there’d be maybe seven books in the series. Seven fucking books. Maybe. I bought the book, whatever it was called, and read it, but by that point I’d rather lost my excitement about the story. There were a few characters I was still interested in (Tyrion and Arya, of course), but the story itself had pretty much lost its meaning for me. I sort of recall enjoying the fifth book, but it felt bloated and sluggish, like it had overeaten and just wanted to take a nap.

That was ten years ago, and we’re still waiting for the sixth book. Wait, that’s not true. I’m not waiting for it at all. I no longer care if the sixth or seventh novels ever get published. I watched the HBO series, and for me the story is done. I’m told the series ending may be different from the ending of the novels, but Jeebus on toast, who cares?

Look, George. R.R. Martin gave us three really solid novels, as well as a couple of pretty good ones. That’s no small thing. But he’s let his readers down. He built up their expectations, then failed to meet them. He effectively promised–and continues to repeat that promise–that he’d finish this story. He should either plant his ass in a chair and finish it or just admit that he’s done–that the story is going to remain unfinished. He needs to be honest with the readers, who are rightfully disappointed in him.

We also have a legit reason to be disappointed in HBO. They produced six good seasons of Martin’s story–and one season that was only okay, as well as the massively awful final season. But that’s also partially down to Martin. The HBO series was flawed but mostly solid so long as they had access to the source material–the novels. When they tried to go beyond the novels, even with Martin’s help, the quality of the story suffered.

Maybe the new HBO-Martin projects will be good television. Maybe it’s clever of HBO to buy access to Martin’s story world, but leave Martin himself out of it. Maybe they can produce good work if they decide not to rely on Martin for anything other than ideas. I don’t know.

What I know is this: I don’t much care what George. R.R. Martin is doing now. Or what he promises he’s going to do. I’m grateful for his early work, but that’s it. I don’t care that HBO is preparing more shows based on his story world. I’m grateful for the few good seasons of GoT, and that’s it.

But the promise of more of Martin’s work? Pardon me while I yawn.

Mount Doom and the Tuscan Sun

It’s not always this simple:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

It sounds like good advice, and if you’re a White Rabbit giving testimony in a jurisdiction in Wonderland, it apparently works quite well. It may also apply to some writers when they’re working on a story. But it doesn’t work that way for me.

Begin at the beginning. Yeah, that bit works. The beginnings of stories are always easy. Always. A cool idea or premise for a story pops into your head, you’re excited by it, you’re enthusiastic and engaged, and you bang it out. Then, of course, comes the long, dull, grunt work of actually writing the middle of the damned thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel-length manuscript or a short story, the middle chunk is like Mordor without the dramatic scenery. Enthusiasm isn’t going to get you to Mount Doom. The middle is a slog. It’s work. The middle is where most stories give up, curl into a ball, die a slow lonely death, and are never heard from again.

But hey, if you can gut your way through the middle, you can usually cobble together some sort of ending for your story. A lot of writers (me included) like to come up with an ending before we actually start writing. We may not actually use that original ending, but having an ending in mind when you begin can give you direction and a bit of momentum, which is handy when you’re wondering how much farther Mount Doom is.

But endings can be tricky too, because there are almost always a LOT of possible endings to any story. I mean, after you’ve hauled your story all the way to Mount Doom, do you just chuck it into the first fiery chasm you come across? There may be a better, more satisfying fiery chasm just down the path, right?

Here’s the thing: you’re probably never going to find the perfect fiery chasm. So usually you pick the one you think will work the best, and you chuck the ring in, and go on to your next story. Unless you’re like me. Sometimes you’re just not really happy with any of the fiery chasms; there’s nothing particularly wrong with them as fiery chasms, but they just don’t feel right. So you just park the ring in a drawer and forget about it, hoping that some day you’ll think of a better fiery chasm. So to speak.

An almost entirely unrelated image from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (because I feel like I need to include an image in every blog post…sorry).

Why am I nattering on about this? Because back in November of 2017 I couldn’t come up with an ending I liked for a short story. And I wrote about it (sorta kinda, in a rambling blog post). The story is about a part-time burglar who steals a Leica and later gets in trouble with the police for shooting photos in a park where kids are playing. Since it was just a short story and I wasn’t in urgent need of funds, I set the story aside and forgot about it.

Until earlier this year, when I got involved in an online discussion that tangentially related to a scene in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun. After that discussion, I took a walk, and on that walk I realized that what my old burglar-turned-photographer story needed was a connection to that movie. Which, okay, I realize sounds nuts. But I thought about it, went home and rewrote much of the story with a totally new ending, and tossed the ring into the fiery chasm.

Yesterday I got a note from the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine saying a contract for that story will be showing up in my mailbox by the end of the month.

The moral of this story? The King’s advice to the White Rabbit isn’t always good advice. Sometimes you need to begin at the beginning and go on until you decide the fiery chasm is all wrong, then wait for Diane Lane to invest in real estate in Italy.

rules for ghosts

I do a fair bit of manuscript doctoring; it’s one of the things I do to put beans and tortillas on the table. What the hell is manuscript doctoring? It’s like this: sometimes a writer finishes a novel manuscript (or almost finishes it) but feels it’s not quite working. Or maybe the manuscript has already been rejected by an agent or a publisher because it didn’t quite work. The writer sends me the manuscript, and for a reasonable chunk of money, I read it carefully, try to figure out why it doesn’t quite work, then offer a few suggestions for ways to ‘heal’ it. It’s a weird gig, but I enjoy it and I’m pretty good at it.

Over the last few years I’ve been seeing a number of supernatural manuscripts. They’re a pretty marketable genre — supernatural private detectives, supernatural love stories, supernatural thrillers, supernatural cozy mysteries. It’s not my favorite genre, but the concept offers a writer a LOT of flexibility in terms of plot and character development. I totally understand why it’s popular for readers and for writers.

But as a manuscript doctor, the thing that makes these stories interesting is also the thing that makes a lot of writers stumble: magic (or magick — and yes, for folks who work in this genre, there’s a difference; magic is grounded in illusion, magick is based on the physical manifestation of the supernatural or the occult). The most common problem I see in these stories is that the magick is used as a lazy way to solve problems in plot and character instead of as an existing supernatural system.

Here’s the thing: a novel is a cosmological event. By that I mean the writer is creating an entire world. Since most of those worlds are based on the one we actually live in, it’s fairly easy to keep the world internally consistent. Once a writer decides to stretch the parameters of the world, things get a lot more complex.

I mention this because I had a parting of the ways with a writer who has written a very good story. Her characters (both living and not-living) are interesting and well-defined, her dialog is bright and witty, the story is structured in a logical and supportive way, her writing is accessible without being pedestrian, and while her plot isn’t entirely original it has to be admitted that very few plots are. I won’t go into detail about the story itself but I can say this: it revolves around a murder victim whose ghost/spirit is trying to help the detective who is assigned to investigate her murder. As I said, it’s not an original idea, but it’s very well written and told in a charming narrative voice. It could be a very marketable manuscript.

So why have we parted ways? Because we fundamentally disagree on one thing: rules for ghosts. I say she needs a coherent and internally consistent set of rules for ghost behavior. What are the limits of what a ghost can do? She says rules and limits would stifle her creativity. I say rules and limits will actually force her to be more creative.

It doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are; it only matters that they’re clear to the writer. They needn’t necessarily be spelled out to the reader (and in fact that would almost certainly be bad writing). They needn’t even be clear to the ghost (I mean, it’s probably the first time the ghost is ghosting, and it may take some time for her to learn how to ghost). But the writer has to know what the ghost can and cannot do.

How does haunting work? That’s pretty basic ghost stuff. Traditionally, ghosts haunt a place. That’s where the term haunt comes from, after all — from the Old French term hanter, which meant “to frequent, visit regularly.” Writers aren’t bound by tradition, of course, but the question still needs to be answered: where can the ghost appear? Is the ghost limited to the scene where the murder took place? Can the ghost shift between locations that were important to the living person? Or can the ghost just go anywhere it wants? If the ghost can go anywhere, how does spirit travel happen? Does it take place immediately? Or is there a time element involved? Does the ghost wink out of existence in, say, the apartment where it lived and immediately appear across town in the architecture firm where it was employed? Can the ghost decide to travel to another continent? Can the ghost travel to the moon? 

Another important question: can the ghost interact with physical objects? Can it move a chess piece? Can it move a kitchen table? Can it lift a car? Does the relationship between the ghost and the physical object matter? Can it more easily move things it valued in life? And how does that relate to ghost movement? If, for example, the ghost can ‘lift’ a wedding ring, can it move that ring from one room to another? If the ghost can de-materialize and move between locations, what happens to the wedding ring? Does it move as well? Or does it drop to the floor when the ghost leaves the room? Can the ghost use a typewriter or a computer’s mouse?

Does/can the ghost have an actual physical manifestation? If the ghost sits in a bathtub, does the water level rise? Who can see the ghost? Is the ghost visible to everybody, or just a select few, or just one person? Does the ghost have any control over its visibility? Can it choose to be visible to some people and not to others? Can it be visible when it chooses and invisible otherwise? Does the ghost have a physical appearance? If so, how does it manifest itself? Is it transparent? Is it dressed? If so, in what? If the ghost was murdered while scuba diving, does it appear in fins and a mask and a bikini? Can the ghost change its appearance? If so, can it change at will, or does its appearance depend on the person being haunted or the ghost’s present location?

Can the ghost communicate with people? If so, how? A ghostly whisper only the haunted person can hear? A disembodied voice that anybody nearby can hear? Is the ghost actually speaking or somehow communicating psychically? If the communication is vocal, is the voice identifiable? If the ghost wasn’t known to the investigator, how does the investigator know it’s the victim’s voice? If the ghost is actually speaking, can the hearer smell its breath? If the communication is psychic, can those unbidden thoughts be ignored? Can anti-psychotic medication mute the ghost’s psychic voice?

Those are the sorts of the questions I asked my client. Again, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the rules are. It doesn’t matter if the rules violate the laws of Newtonian physics or quantum physics; maybe that stuff doesn’t apply to ghosts. All that matters is that rules and limits exist, that they’re consistent, and that the writer is aware of them.

Why? Because readers aren’t stupid. Nor are agents and publishers. Readers will wonder why your ghost in Chapter 3 is able to locate your detective in the evidence room at the precinct and travel there, but in Chapter 9 is unable to locate and travel to the detective when he’s been kidnapped and tied up in the back of a Volkswagen van. Readers will question why your ghost in Chapter 8 is able to psychically suggest your detective ask a question he hadn’t thought of himself, but in Chapter 17 is unable to psychically inform the detective that the guy he’s talking to has the murder weapon on him.

If a writer is only using the supernatural as a convenient way to move the story forward, that writer is not respecting the reader. As far as that goes, the writer isn’t respecting the craft of writing. As goofy as it sounds, ghosts (and the readers of supernatural stories) are better served when the ghosts have rules. It’s really that simple. And by the way, that’s also true for witches, and necromancers, and kitchen boys who inherit magic rings, and vampire librarians, and half-demon private detectives, and travel journalists who find a djinn in an antique bottle, and and and.

Again, all fiction is a cosmological event. All believable universes operate within rules. And from now on, when I get asked to evaluate a supernatural novel manuscript, I’ll send the writer a link to this post — just to save time and grief.

nobody cares

“Sometimes I feel like I should just give up.”

One of my writing students recently said that. In fact, I hear that with distressing regularity from my students. (As an aside, it still occasionally strikes me as improbable that I’ve become a Person Who Has Students.) That statement is almost never posed as a question, but the question is always there as a not-very-subtle subtext. Should I just give up? And that question always masks another question, which is generally phrased as another statement: I’m never going to be good enough to get published, am I.

The question at the heart of all this is an awkward question. It requires a graceful answer. It also requires an honest answer. As a Person Who Has Students, it’s my experience that honesty and grace don’t always dovetail together.

The graceful response is easy. “No, of course you shouldn’t give up. If you approach your writing with diligence and sincerity, you can become good enough to get published.” There’s some measure of truth in that. If you work hard at any craft — writing, cabinetry, weaving, brick-laying, pottery — you can improve. Most of my students have the capacity to be good enough to get published.

But most won’t. That’s the honest answer. Hard work doesn’t guarantee mastery, and mastery doesn’t guarantee success. The unwelcome Truth is that while most of my students have the capacity to improve, relatively few will actually fulfill that capacity; they either lack the necessary persistence or are prevented by circumstance from achieving it. And even whose who ARE good enough, may still not be good enough. Even if they produce excellent work, the first publisher to read it may reject it. And so might the second and third. And the fourth and and and.

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Instead of responding directly to my student, I asked a question: “What matters most to you — writing a good story or getting published?” Everybody wants both, of course — and logically one should follow the other. If you write a good story, it’s got a better chance of getting published. But knowing which of those matters most changes your approach. If getting published matters most, then you let the marketplace direct the work. If the marketplace is hot for zombies, then you write zombies. Some folks will sneer at that, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a professional approach  Getting paid for your work is a wonderful thing, and the best way to get paid is to give the market what it wants. And down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story — just with zombies.

If it’s the writing itself that matters most, then your approach is different and the reward is different. In that case, story takes precedence over the marketplace. You might still write a story about zombies, but it’s the story that’s driving the process, not the zombies. And I’m going to repeat myself: down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story. It’s an issue of whether you’re writing a good zombie story or a good story that has zombies in it. In either case, it’s got to be a good story.

A few days after my chat with the student, I came across this video by Ted Forbes. You should watch it. Not right now, necessarily (because c’mon, I want you to keep reading this, don’t I) but at some point take a few minutes and watch it. It’s called Nobody Cares About Your Photography.

I don’t know Ted Forbes; we’re ‘friends’ on Facebook, which just about the most tenuous sort of human connection possible. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged a word with him, but I watch his Art of Photography videos. I don’t always care about the subject matter, but it’s always worthwhile to listen to anybody who’s passionate about something talk intelligently about it. I’m pretty confident that if you listened to somebody talk passionately and with intelligence about lawn bowling, you’d learn something you could use in writing. Or in photography.

Forbes says nobody cares about your photography — and he’s basically right. In the same way, nobody cares about your writing. There are SO many writers out there (and so many photographers or lawn bowlers) that it’s easy for you, as an individual, to be ignored. And if you’re proficient enough to care about your work and intelligent enough to wonder about your place, you’ll almost certainly at some point wonder if you should just give up.

Forbes, I think, makes two important, related points. He says No more easy shots and The world needs work that matters. What the hell does that even mean? And how does it translate into writing?

I don’t think he’s saying you need to be trying to create work that will be of historical importance (if he IS saying that, then the poor guy is delusional — but still worth watching). I think when he says No more easy shots he’s basically saying not to do the same old shit you’ve always done just because you’ve always done it. Do different shit, or do that old shit differently. Don’t relax, don’t sit down, don’t do it in your sleep.

And when he says The world needs work that matters I don’t think he’s saying the work must be Very Important Work. I think he’s saying to think about what the work actually means and how it fits into our culture. That sounds impressive as hell, doesn’t it. But consider the works of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s fluff. But it’s incredibly well-written fluff. It’s not easy to write comedic fiction that light-hearted.

Does the writing of P.G. Wodehouse matter? I’d say it does. People need a bright, witty escape from the world. They need it and deserve it. The question isn’t whether the world needs another novel about zombies — or about elves, or former special ops soldiers, or a sharp-witted nanny who is kidnapped by Barbary pirates. The question isn’t whether anybody really cares about your elven special ops zombie romance novel. They don’t.

But they do care about stories. They care about what stories do. About what stories make them feel. About the things stories inspire them to think about.

The world needs good stories. Stories matter. Grace matters, honesty matters, passion matters, intelligence matters. Stories will always matter. You may not write one that finds its way to an enthusiastic reader. But you can try. If you can approach your work with grace, honesty, passion, and intelligence, then it might matter. It might.

Lawn bowling

Lawn bowling

If it doesn’t — well, there’s always lawn bowling.


two of this, two of that

Occasionally I’ll take a walk with the specific intent to shoot photographs. More often, though, I take a walk just to…well, to take a walk. To get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air, to stretch the muscles and make the blood pump just a wee bit faster. And it helps me clear out the cobwebs when I’m having writing issues — like when I’m unable to think of a metaphor and I have to resort to a cliché like ‘clear out the cobwebs.’

Sometimes when I take a walk, I’ll stick my little Fujifilm X10 in a pocket. I almost never take it out. Almost never is another way of saying Sometimes I do. On a strangely warm morning back in January, I did. I took the camera out because as I walked through a small suburban park, I saw these two trees:

two treesBHere’s the problem. I’ve been working on a novel for a while. A novel is as much an exercise in persistence as anything else. I’ve published a lot of short fiction in various genres, I’ve published several nonfiction books, but I’ve only published one novel. So I very much want to get this novel manuscript finished and out the door. But I’m also heartily weary of the damned thing. Don’t get me wrong; I think the manuscript is good — but at this point I know everything there is to know about the characters and the plot. That leaves me with nothing to do but put words in a row. That’s not easy, of course. They have to be the right words. And that can be fun sometimes. But the real fun of writing fiction is, for me, the bit where you’re actively making shit up.

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because it means my mind has already moved on to other projects. My mind can be a real asshole. When I take a walk, instead of thinking about my current project, my mind is kicking around ideas for the future. So when I saw those two trees, my mind began to build a scene around them. An anonymous guy running slowly between them. A guy running from something? Or toward something?

I turned around to see what he’d be running toward. And I saw these two horses:

two horsesHere’s another part of the problem. I’ve only written for an adult audience. Not ‘adult’ as in ‘adult movies’ but adult as in ‘not young folks.’ But a lot of the most creative fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years has been in the Young Adult genre. I find myself wanting to write a YA novel. Most of the fiction I’ve published has been in the mystery and detective fiction field — and I’d like to try something altogether different. Over the last few years I’ve been drawn to the sort of world-building that takes place in fantasy fiction. However, I can’t really abide stuff with dragons and wizards, or magic swords, or those grand epic stories in which the pot-boy turns out to be the bastard-heir to the throne. If I ever write anything like that, you have my permission to stab me.

I much prefer stories that drop ordinary folks into extraordinary situations. So I’ve been wanting to write a YA novel revolving around a fairly ordinary kid who gets caught up in a situation having fantasy overtones. When I saw those two trees and those two horses, my asshole mind began to concoct an opening scene. An ordinary kid sitting on the bench near the horses sees an anonymous guy running slowly in his direction from between those two trees. The kid, of course, would be the protagonist. And the kid would have to be asking the very same question I was asking myself as a writer.

two bollardsBTension. It’s almost always the driving force in fiction, and it often expresses itself in some form of question. Like Who is that guy and why is he running towards me?

I kept walking and considering possible answers to that question, and soon found myself behind the local Salvation Army store, where there was a rubbish hatch tucked away between two bollards. A great place to hide, if somebody was chasing you. But who is being chased? The kid? The guy? Maybe both of them? Maybe the guy was being chased until he met the kid, and now the kid is being chased by whoever was chasing the guy?

I checked the rubbish hatch; it was locked from the inside (of course it was — this is real life). But one of the advantages fiction has over real life is that it doesn’t have to completely conform to reality. It only has to conform enough to be believable. There are a lot of ways to deal with a locked rubbish hatch. But what we’re after at this point is tension, and one way to ratchet up tension is to offer a release from the tension — then snatch it away. You show the protagonist (and the reader) the convenient rubbish hatch, you let them think a solution has been found. then you turn the apparent solution into another problem.

This is how writers torture readers and make them happy.

two crossingsBI walked along, thinking of various ways to construct the scene. You’d want the kid (and maybe the guy) desperately trying to open the hatch, looking back over his/her/their shoulder for whoever the hell is chasing him/her/them. Maybe have the kid and the guy (if he’s there — and there would be some distinct structural advantages to having the guy there) run off together. Maybe have them run off separately, never to meet again. Maybe have them run off separately, only to meet later in the story. Maybe have the kid run off and the guy stay behind to face whoever is doing the chasing — give the kid a chance to escape. So many options.

As I walked I saw two potential avenues of escape. The first, a shiny railroad track passing between two crossing signals. Hop a slow-moving freight train? Maybe one that picks up speed and becomes too dangerous to hop off? Lots of potential there — an ordinary kid sitting in a suburban park, and half an hour later he (or she, of course) is on an express freight high-balling out of town toward some unknown destination.

The second, by turning the other direction you see two muddy ruts leading to some old out-buildings.

two tracksBMore places to hide. And who knows what might be stashed away in those out-buildings? Farm implements, maybe. Rows of high-stacked pallets filled with potting soil and fertilizer and grass seed. Maybe rusting circus equipment. Or a meth lab. I spent the rest of the walk thinking of things that might be found in those buildings — everything from a secret missile defense system to the bastard heir to the throne who’d been turned into a dragon by a wizard with a magic sword. (I told you my mind can be a real asshole.)

That was back at the end of January. This is early April. Over the intervening two months I’ve continued to grudgingly work on the existing novel manuscript — but almost every time I set out on an idle walk, my asshole mind returns to this story idea.

An ordinary kid sitting alone in a park at dusk, a stranger slowly running towards him.