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For My Writer Friends

Duh…

This blog is mostly directed toward the readership—specifically, my readership, as nascent as it is. Today thought, I’m going to stab the right pedal, throw in a little right cyclic, and while keeping the power pegged at around 85%, exit the pattern to do something a little different.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a little pissed with authors who are always hocking their work. Back at the turn of this century, I made contact with one David Brin, the scribe who presented us with the Uplift War series, a truly fantastic science fiction serial that set the (SF literary) world on fire back in 1983 with his second entry, Startide Rising. (I’d bought his first entry, Sundiver, back in maybe 1980 but actually read it after the second book.) I’d thought back then that maybe, possibly, I’d be able to foster something of a relationship between us, author to author. Instead, I got the standard “buy my stuff!” with breakdowns of all the past works and upcoming works, and a quick “And hey, you’re from my home town!” just to ensure there was a bit of a personal connection. (At the time, I was in Los Angeles, California. I recall LA fondly, which is why I’m overjoyed to see it laid low in my series The Last Town.)

It was a turn-off, obviously. That a Big Name Author™ would respond to one of his readers in such a mercenary way kind of pissed me off. But of course, the fault is my own. What was I expecting, really? To a lot of authors, readers are just a means to an end. To this day, whenever I see an author hocking his wares on FB, or just posing holding his book out front, it sends a subliminal signal that at the end of the day, his/her target audience is just a series of dollar signs that need to be cultivated.

Lesson one: don’t do that shit.

Just kidding. We all have to mix in sales with our correspondence, because that’s part of doing business. Especially when you’re selling the fantasy of fiction; you need to lean forward in the foxhole and push yourself, otherwise you’ll be lost in the jumble. That was all Brin was doing back in 2002, trying to maintain some degree of awareness with his readership with the status of his work. While it pissed me off then, it doesn’t now.

Lesson two: Ignore Lesson One, but you need to be cool about it.

I get approached by incubating authors quite often. Taking time to read the work of others is a dicey thing; they invariably think they’re professional caliber, and you invariably think they’re not. This is an exercise in skipping across Occam’s Razor. You want to help, but in doing so you delay your own work. Sometimes, this is a gesture you should freely offer. Other times, it isn’t. Which is which I’ll leave to you to decide, but I’ll offer some tips—if the requestor’s Facebook posts are frequently misspelled, beg off. If the requestor is a fanboi who you suspect is going to offer a tired pastiche of other genres with Star Trek technology thrown in…pass. If the author is offering work that seems replicated from your own—oh sweet Jesus, find a way out of it. Legal reasons aside, you do not want to start reading stuff that’s like your own, because you never know what your wetware is going to recall years down the road, and the last thing you want is for someone to come after you for “ripping them off”. (By the way, plagiarism is only a real thing when you do what Stephen Ambrose did, and present another author’s work word-for-word as your own. Ripping off someone else’s intellectual property, such as retelling another story with different words and with different details, is a dicier proposition, but still capable of summoning legal injunction. Avoid this.)

Sidebar, yer Honor: I have about four point zillion story ideas already, yet people always approach me with “an idea” that could be a big hit if I were to write it. Sometimes, that works out, such as when Craig DiLouie came up with the idea for The Retreat series. In the most cunning of ways, he pitched the premise to me at Spark’s Steak House in New York City one summer evening, and waited to get to the pulse of the matter until after I’d consumed several glasses of wine while miserly sipping from his glass of home-brew rosé. Obviously, when a writer of Craig’s distinction comes to you with a request for a meeting, you should take it seriously. Regrettably, most of the folks vying for your attention don’t have his marquee value. So unless someone like Shawn Chesser or Hugh Howey or Scott Wolf (?) approaches you, go shields up and wait it out. Maybe they’re not nutters just looking to hitch their wagon to whatever star you might be in possession of, but be tough and analytical. This is a business. Be a businessperson, not just a glorified typist.

Continuing the sidebar, and this leads to some deep waters: I honestly write maybe nine hours a week. If I’m dedicated to it, that nine hours a week translates to six figures in writing income. In my normal daytime life, I work 40 hours a week and still make six figures, which sounds like a lot until you become familiar with New York City economics, and then you discover that makes you a near-transient member of the middle class (something New York politicians are desperately trying to stamp out; they envision a city populated by both the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, so they can lobby the former for funds to support the latter). Now listen kids, nine hours a week isn’t a lot of time to spend on something so profitable. If my personal life didn’t include a foreign-born wife who can’t really integrate into American society and a child who wasn’t scoring a ten-point-zero on the special needs scale, I could so do that in my sleep. At my best, when I know where a story is going and I know what I need to do to get there, I crank 2,000 words an hour. In nine hours, that’s 18,000 words. In two months, that’s a long book. In theory, I should be able to pump out a minimum of six really fat books a year.

Damn me, but life just doesn’t work that way.

The boss needs you to go all in on a three million dollar project, and surprise, you’re the only smart guy on the team. The wife can’t get up before two in the afternoon for weeks on end. The kid gets sick. The truck throws a rod even though you change the oil religiously, and your mom goes into the hospital. The dog needs its shots, and the kid needs someone to drive him to therapy, and you’re the only one with a driver’s license. Then you get sick, because you’re exhausted from running full throttle for weeks at end. But sleep eludes you, because your bank has just encountered a severity one emergency, and remember, you’re the only smart guy. Your father dies, and he was penniless but somehow managed to amass a mountain of debt. The second car, the troop carrier you use for shopping and daily family errands, gets a critical recall but the dealership doesn’t have the parts in stock, and won’t for the next three weeks—so you can’t really drive it with your kid, and remember, the truck is getting repaired. You don’t own a bicycle, so it’s time to break out the Mark 1 running shoes and get busy in this thankfully pedestrian-oriented place you live.

Suddenly, that time-intensive thing called writing needs to be deferred.

Lesson three: Take care of life. The writing can and should wait.

Okay, okay. All of this should make common sense, at least to most people. If you’re already lost, you’re not one of the “most people”, so the following might be difficult for you. But if you’re made it this far, by all means–press on! The primer is over! (Warning: Mucho Foul Lingo approaches!)

THE REAL DEAL: WHAT IT TAKES TO WRITE SUCCESSFULLY (and if you disagree, blow me)

Ah, the business of writing! So much to say, so much experience to impart! These are where the real nuggets of knowledge exist, or at least those which I can present. Take note, class. Quiz later!

Listen, let me make it really, really simple. Pay attention, lads and lasses…this is a 54-year-old son of a bitch telling you what he knows. If you’re older than me, piss off, and let me know how your 401(K) is doing, because mine never included tending to a special needs kid who will outlive me by 50 years. So you think YOU have problems?

Bullet list, in my personal pecking order:

Write a fucking book. Sounds easy, but isn’t. Takes weeks, months, years. Be dedicated. Be thorough. Be able to push on past the fallacy of “writer’s block”, which is the code name assigned to your circumstances when you think you want to write, but instead want to watch America’s Got Talent or maybe check out PornHub and see what’s new. Nothing autobiographical in that last example, I guarantee. And if that isn’t sufficient, I plead the Fifth. I never knew about that rogue porn server, honest!

Get your work edited. Seriously, if you can afford to hire an editor but don’t, you’re fist-fucking yourself in the ass without lube. I learned this the hard way with The Gathering Dead, where I depended on my own editorial skills to see me through. I got very, very lucky here—the story I told was apparently strong enough to make most folks see through the maze of typos, illogic, and general asshattery that went on in the early drafts. Yes, a full-on edit of this morass of gonzo wordology cost me a thousand or so dollars, but in the end…it was worth it. Now recall, I make six figures at the outset. This means I can afford to piss away money on editorial expenses. For those who can’t, don’t release your work right away. Have it read. Not by your mother or your boy/girlfriend, but by people you trust to give you honest-to-God feedback. In the days of CompuServe, which my dear friend and occasional co-author Derek Paterson will recall most fondly, these were called “That’s Nice Dear” critiques. Meaning, these were offered by people who were afraid of offending you. Avoid these, they only prolong the agony.

And keep in mind that just because D.J. Molles managed to put out works that were ridden with typos, inaccuracies, and a Special Forces Hero™ who always got his ass beat and made the worst calls in history but still managed to score big sales, doesn’t mean that you will. More likely than not, you’ll be wondering why you make $3.42 every month.

Just ask my pal Jarret Liotta. Even my name on the cover of Dead in the City of Angels wasn’t enough. Sometimes, the story sucks, and you need to know about that before you release it. Personal experience here, folks…personal experience.

Get a real cover. Listen, I pay over a thousand bucks for most of my covers. My wife shrieks at that, but this is the first thing that people will see. Make an impression. And that impression doesn’t include whipping something up in PowerPoint using some image from the web and calling it a day. Sometimes, you have to pay it forward, and with covers? Dudes…pay it forward. Please. Because while no surveys have been conducted about home-brew covers, I’m operating under the presumption that they’re about as well received as Hillary Clinton’s home-brew email server. Which was probably running Exchange Server 5.5 in plain vanilla format, without even the benefit of ESMTP/TLS. (Though due to Bryan Pagliano’s limited immunity to prosecution, we’ll never know which best practices table was followed.)

When you think it’s ready for release…it isn’t. I came into this with a backlog of stories. City of the Damned was accepted and paid for by two publishers before ranks changed, new editors and marketing people came on board, and it was eventually tossed from the slots. I got to keep the advance money (Oh, an amazing 5,000 bucks!) because I wasn’t the defaulting party, but it still left me high and dry. My agent(s) got to keep their commissions, and after taxes, I was about $3,000 ahead per sale. But the book wasn’t published, meaning my champagne dreams and caviar wishes were once again deferred. But COTD had already been edited, so it truly was ready to do. The Gathering Dead? Not so much. I uncaged that one early, and have the poor reviews for it. Don’t be a dick like I was. Sit on your multimillion dollar, sure-fire best seller for a month or so and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. You’ll be amazed at what shakes out after a couple of rereads. “What, you don’t like that Hansel and Gretel go down on each other? You think there’s a problem there?”

Yeah, things like that.

Writer’s Block Doesn’t Really Exist. This is, like, the biggest whiny-bitch excuse to get around writing. Yeah, as I type this, I should be finishing up These Dead Lands: Desolation. Or Earthfall 2. Or the prequel to The Gathering Dead, titled Whispers of the Dead. But I’m not, so is this writer’s block at work? No, writer’s block is actually the sissy millennial’s way of getting out of work. But here I am, actually writing something as opposed to watching Magnum P.I. on NetFlix. Writing is a solitary profession, and it involves periods of the long, hard slog through your own mind and the desolate landscapes it presents. This is part and parcel of the job. Just do it, and save the excuses for another time.

Sometimes the story you came up with sucks/isn’t that awesome. Listen, this happens to all of us. I’d hoped for a major career change with Charges, a story about a guy with no special skills who manages to survive a mass EMP event. I happen to think it’s a damn fine story, because it’s one that average folks might be able to relate to…if they happened to be emerging from a skyscraper on Billionaire’s Row after the lights went out forever. While I still have enough hope for Charges to continue on with the series (next book is called Marauders and the third is called Ravagers), I’m smart enough to correct past mistakes going forward. (Look for an emphasis on action, and less on Navel Gazing, which I cover below.) And the fact of the matter is, I shot myself in the ass the moment I decided on the storyline. As someone who’s read his fair share of post-apoc stories, I know instinctively what the readers want to see: the maligned survivalist who’s at long last proven right when the hammer falls, and has to lead/defend/establish his new community in the next age of mankind. It doesn’t matter if the hero is a sixteen year old who suddenly, inexplicably, has all the depth and experience of a Marine with 35 years of service as a senior NCO or if he’s just a Joe with a bunch of guns and a gut full of fortitude down Fort Sam Houston way—at the end of the day, people don’t want to read about some New York City liberal who manages to get lucky, even if his back story is well-rounded and plausible. They want a hero who’s prepared to take on the new America.

Reread the above paragraph and learn from it, my erstwhile padawans. Sometimes, genre determines the outcome, not the author. You might actually be adroit enough to spin a tall tale that runs counter to consumer expectation, but unless your name is Cormac McCarthy not only will you be spurned, people will hate the fact you forgot what an apostrophe is.

Enough with the navel-gazing—get on with it! Sometimes, we as authors find ourselves confronted with a set of circumstances that require a lot of back story. Back story that, in the end, never becomes meaningful in the context of the story we want to tell. This results in boring text. And boring text has been typified by the oracle of writing, Elmore Leonard, thusly:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Yes. This. If you’ve written something long and convoluted and oh so priceless to your character’s development which he/she doesn’t actually do but only recalls in reverie, get rid of it. Then go see your doctor for a shot of antibiotics to ensure you aren’t carrying boredomitis with you for the rest of your life.

Now, if this can be sketched in a paragraph or two, then drop it in. A couple of paragraphs becomes motivation. If it waxes on for page after page—my personal standard is two, unless it’s a gritty flashback like the Afghanistan scene in The Gathering Dead, which illustrates the gulf between McDaniels and Gartell—then cut it out, or figure a way to distill it down to its bare essence. This is one of two areas where legacy publishing beats the tar out of self-publishing. The legacy guys know how to get a story moving. Well, mostly. Unless they’re editing a story by already-mentioned literary lion Cormac McCarthy, then they have to wrestle with the whole apostrophe-versus-Chicago-Style-Guide checklist maelstrom, which I’m sure had a lot of heads hitting desks over at Knopf-Doubleday.

This item ties in neatly with the following one, which is:

Get to the fucking point. You have a lean, mean story to tell, but you keep slowing it down because you’ve been infected by that disorder known as Purple Prose. Listen, really…who gives a good God damn that the draperies in the New York City penthouse apartment are wrought with actual gold filament? Who lives here, Hugh Hefner? And if so, what the hell is that crusty old fossil doing in New York City anyway, do they allow 8,000 year old Viagra patients to travel? Here’s a great example of what not to do:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

That’s, like, one fucking sentence. Even Roger Zelazny wouldn’t have churned that out (or would he?). Become close friends with Our Pal The Period and his slutty sister, The Comma. And at least check in every now and then with their dumb cousins, The Ellipsis and The Em-Dash. You never know, they might actually prevent someone from returning your book and cursing your name in their final epitaph.

Research is fun, but it’s not writing. This actually ties in to #1, but I’ve been drinking and didn’t think to add it up there. However, in a last-ditch bid to put off going to Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s also important enough to call out on its own. While I know and follow this rule, others don’t. There’s a guy I know, smart fellow, very up on what’s happening in the world, who wants to write a book. He keeps sending me fiery bon mots about what this character backgrounds are, what this plot point would be, how awesome that scene could play out. And mostly, he’s right—he’s got some solid stuff going on, stuff that I’d be writing right now. Literally, everything is laid out except for some bargain-basement mechanics that could be straightened out in twenty-four hours.

But instead of writing it, he keeps sending me more little tidbits about the book that still hasn’t happened. “Hey, did you know that X in this circumstance could result in Y? I should put that in my book!”

Why, yes. Yes, you should, you fucking jerkoff, except you’re apparently too lazy to get to writing that book you’re talking about.

In this instance, I transcribed one of his scenes to my Blackberry (My Blackberry! Oh, the humanity!) and showed it to him. He read it and said, “Hey, that’s my stuff! I mean, it’s written pretty well and the words are all different, but that’s like, my stuff! Right?”

My response: “Yeah, it was six months ago. Guess what, it goes in my next book, and you don’t get shit. I figured since it’s been all talk up to now, that it’s free for the taking. So, really man, thanks for giving me $25,000 in first-month royalties for free. Love you, bye.”

Now listen, I’m actually not going to do this. Like I said, I have roughly eleventy-billion ideas already—I don’t really need to crib from someone else. But my aside had the desired effect. The dude is now writing, as opposed to researching and playing a bunch of “what-if” games. And I wish him well, he has some dynamite scenes out there in his head, I hope he can distill them down to a linear format that eventually finds its way to one kick-ass post-apocalypse book.

Don’t do this, people. Don’t sit around thinking about something and never making it happen—this obviously has a larger context in life than writing a damn novel. Know a hot girl/guy you want to ask out? Plan the approach, then execute. Have a few grand in a bank account but are waiting for just the right moment to enter the equities market? Listen, Brexit was your cue, so if you missed it, get in now anyway. Saw a job opening but your resume isn’t fresh enough to make an impression? Get that stuff squared away RIGHT NOW, and that means stop reading this page.

Because really…research, plotting, contemplating? None of that is writing, and writing is where the money is.

Oh my God, this book sucks—I can’t release this!

Ah, the bane of every writer. At least, every writer who has managed to progress past #4.

So you’ve written 30,000 40,000 100,000 130,000 words over many months and many revisions. It’s been read, reread, proofed, edited, and proofed again. The prose is tight, the story is dynamite, and the characters and their motivations are solid. But you’re ridden by fear. What if it tanks? What if no one likes it? What if I get bad reviews? What if it charts at #4,389,000 like that shitty zombie novel Dead in the City of Angels by Stephen Knight and Jarret Liotta?

There’s a line in a famous novel that I like to quote in circumstances like this:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Written by Frank Herbert in his science fiction masterpiece, Dune.

Alternately, I could offer up this sage advice from Scott Wolf, who in Army Special Forces was given one of Herbert’s honorifics from the same novel—Muad’Dib:

“Stop being a fucking pussy.”

It should be noted for those unaware, that Muad’Dib was described by Herbert thusly:

“Muad’Dib is wise in the ways of the desert. Muad’Dib creates his own water. Muad’Dib hides from the sun and travels in the cool night. Muad’Dib is fruitful and multiplies over the land. Muad’Dib we call ‘instructor-of-boys.’ That is a powerful base on which to build your life, Paul Muad’Dib, who is Usul among us.”

(The above should be read in the terse, husky voice of Stilgar.)

Both quotes basically take you to the same place. You’ve done the work, now let it run free. If it loves you, it will come back. If you’re lucky, it will come back towing a huge duffel bag full of money and the admiration of thousands, including pictures of nubile Tennessee girls flaunting their wares delivered directly to your email account. More possibly, it will just come back smelling really shitty like it’s rolled around in an open sewer outside of Shenzhen, China, and you should examine it for used condoms clinging to its matted fur before allowing it in the house. But either way, you’ll have to own up to it. Writing has never come with a warranty or a guarantee of any kind. If it did, we’d all be making millions.

And we’re not.

Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. Write, and keep writing. Success may not find you, but if it does, it will have done so only if you provide the world with the gift of your words. If not, if you only think about writing but never do it, then I can only offer the following (paraphrased from Sydney Poitier in the flick A Piece of the Action which I saw in 1977 in a theater in a black neighborhood of Akron, Ohio):

“What you’re talking about here is masturbation. It feels good, but generates nothing.”

So at least keep your happy sock handy. And use far less parentheticals than I did in this missive.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to SFC Ballantine trying to figure out how he’s going to handle Diana Li in These Dead Lands: Desolation.

  1. Alex
    July 4, 2016 at 2:51 am

    Cool

  2. July 4, 2016 at 10:34 am

    I’ve always wondered about the dilemma of writing the story (and characters) you want to write as opposed to what readers want. I think I may have gotten caught in that with my series. Instead of being a battle hardened bad-ass, my lead is a slacker, in over his head, facing down the z-poc and growing up in the process. Maybe that’s why sales are so crappy.

    • July 5, 2016 at 8:42 am

      In my case, I knew I was going against the grain and thought I could pull it off. But “Supplies!” said the Chinese man at the surprise birthday party, I didn’t.

  3. William Allen
    July 4, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Food for thought here. Guilty of the 16 year old Boy Scout of the Apocalypse, Mr. Knight. I personally enjoyed Charges and left a raving 5 star review but I know what you mean by the bias.

    Would write more but my next book calls. Can’t be a pussy and claim writer’s block!

    Will

    • July 5, 2016 at 8:41 am

      Will, why the hell are you calling me mister? Now your little brother, HE should call me mister!

  4. Ken Baldwin
    July 20, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    Mr. Stephen (haha)

    I read through your above vitriol and it energized me to finish the three or seven that I have started. I hope I don’t puss out and make more excuses for not publishing.
    Perhaps in the next year I will have something out that you can give an honest review on. If not, screw you anyway for being successful and not making weak ass excuses like me!
    I hope I still find time to read your latest, but ideally I won’t ever read another book of yours again because I will be too busy writing and rolling in the ducats!

    Thanks again for the insight and sage advice.

    Ken

  5. Alex
    July 28, 2016 at 11:48 pm

    Hey sorry to go off topic I just read both Earthfalls recently and I have to ask did NORAD survive as I think about it is it worth wasting nukes on I mean yeah seeing coming and all but after the fact now ever thought what kinda upgrades and changes you make to Harmony Base considering viable population growth in the bunkers and stockpiling not that I’m wondering about a wasteland war and all. Kinda US Kanas underground vs Russia hidden Siberia sub pin bunker got inspired by last Res Evil film.

    But hypothetical side what would you do aka a story on a elite US and UN Security Council Unit from the Great War consisiting of monsters werewolves, vampires and others maybe frank was playing this game thought hmmm but anyhow a US unit of monsters led likely by a human commander even if the other guy should be the General given but the world not ready or ever will be fighting a shadow war when force to expose themselves to the world and saving the world leaders and stopping WWIII.

  6. philchalky
    September 7, 2016 at 2:25 am

    Stephen…i really enjoyed you Gathering dead series and now These Dead Lands. After many years of reading quite alot in the zombie horror genre i now have the itch to write. The past few months ive beeb scribbling ideas down changing things about etc and decided to start small and then go big. Im planning on writing a few Novellas and tie them into my main book/story. Ive typed up 940 words so far but im struck with fear of the what if they hate it etc. My plan was to release the novellas onto my website, update frequently so readers can read as i write (free of course). Im hoping this will help with my confidence and improve my writing with the feedback. Should i just upload it and wait for the pitchforks? Haha
    Phil

    • philchalky
      September 7, 2016 at 2:26 am

      Sorry for typos….im nearing the end of my nightshift and typing on my phone (fat thumb syndrome)

      • September 7, 2016 at 11:09 pm

        Heh, not a problem…typos are just another obstacle to overcome! With regards to your own works, put ’em out there and let what happens, happen. Try and get everything proofed if not edited first, just to ensure that the reader will get as enjoyable an experience as possible. And try to approach the work critically, in a bid to make it as best as you can. After that, though…let ’em rip.

      • philchalky
        September 8, 2016 at 3:09 am

        Thank you for your reply and help. When typing from written to laptop ive changed so much and constantly try to improve. It will not be a rushed job for sure and will take your advice.
        Thanks again

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