As always, change is unavoidable.
One of the truisms perpetuated by the despised traditional publishing industry is that once you’re “branded”—i.e., once you’re known for a certain product lines—breaking out into other products is difficult, in not outright impossible. I’d always thought that was a load of crap, but after several years of plugging away and finding that some of my richer fare doesn’t sell very well…hmm, maybe those “taste makers” in the traditional industry might be onto something.
Yeah, just one thing, so let’s not all get excited. Apparently, every dog really does have his day and a broken clock is right every twelve hours.
This observation isn’t particularly new to me. I have some great product out there under the name Stephen Knight that doesn’t sell at all, like White Tiger and Charges. Both generally have good reviews, but after three or four people buy them, that’s it. I’ve been trying to breathe new life into Charges with a fully immersive audio book, and while that seems to be coming along nicely, it’s also a brand-new release—I need more time to evaluate how successful this very expensive addition to the product line will pan out.
And Stephen Knight is known primarily as a zombie apocalypse guy. It was never meant to be that way, of course—The Gathering Dead was done on a lark. It was just going to be a one-shot deal, done for fun, without a great deal of deliberation behind it. Instead, it spawned a franchise. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. There are worse things a guy can do than provide some high-octane zompoc adventure every now and then. And Earthfall was the single best standalone work I’ve released, so that’s a bright ray of sunshine all by itself. If I released one of those every year, I’d buy the Playboy empire and restore it to its former glory.
Unfortunately for Knight? I’m bored shitless writing about zombies.
After The Last Town and even These Dead Lands: Immolation, I feel that I’m really just writing the same thing over and over and over again. While I do my best to people the stories with different characters, the story line is almost identical: zombies, fear, build, defend, collapse, retreat. Purists complain when you introduce new elements, even though what they complain about is the province of motion picture zombies, not literary. Thank God I have Earthfall 2 on the rack, because otherwise I’d be spending more time browsing vintage collectible tequilas online than I would be writing.
And it comes down to this: I want to write other stuff.
Enter Stephen Moore and Stephen Garrett.
Moore is my real surname; Knight is the professional alias I boosted from my father, as astute followers might have divined by now. Garrett is a family name from my mother’s side of the ancestral tree. For the longest time, I eschewed using my real name, as I a) don’t have an ego that needs to be fed with that kind of exposure, and b) I’m not sure I want to surrender my usual real-life anonymity in meatspace. (And also, Moore just isn’t as cool a moniker as Knight.) But Moore will be the guy who writes the police procedurals and techno-thrillers, and the odd dramatic work that parallels those worlds but doesn’t cross over into them, such as the still-nascent Hackett series. Moore’s first foray, aside from rebranding White Tiger with a new cover to kick things off, will be a police procedural about NYPD Detective Nick Avvento. Been wanting to do this one for years, and I have some great characters and a blood-chilling story line to go with it. There’s also some potential to release an upcoming work, Tribes, under this name; it’s a techno-thriller adventure story that was originally slotted for Knight, but I might change it up.
Garrett will be the hard, clanking science fiction guy. This is my native territory, writing stories about exploration, faraway places, bug-eyed aliens, and the thrill of adventure splashed across a canvas as wide as the universe itself. I’ve touched on it in past works under Knight, but only just barely. I’m itching to get into this. I have a huge series planned here, called The Reaches. Also some more free-booting military SF stuff which I have done, though it’s a bit dated and will need to be refreshed. Most of these are in my Continuum of Conflict story line which I’ve not revealed previously, and will be more “consumer-friendly” than The Reaches. Consider CoC will be more like the works of Robert Heinlein, while TR will be more like those by David Brin.
But it’s far from curtains for Knight. I—he?—still has to finish the next edition of The Retreat, and of course These Dead Lands will need to be completed. Then there’s the final installments of The Gathering Dead series, with the prequel Whispers of the Dead and the finale, Echoes of the Dead. And Earthfall 2, of course, along with the continuation of the Charges trilogy. So that’s like eight books, right there.
Does this sound confusing? It probably does, but it’s out of necessity, not preference. I’ve spent a lot of time getting Stephen Knight established; spinning off into new names doesn’t exactly thrill me.
Hopefully some of you will come along for the ride. I’ll keep you updated here as things begin to manifest themselves, but for the short term, don’t be alarmed.
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.
Here’s the first chapter:
I wasn’t born a cripple. That’s something I did to myself two days shy of my sixteenth birthday. Drunk diving, I tell people when they ask, although technically speaking there was no real diving involved. Just a lot of drunk. I remember the day like it happened last week, even though it’s been twenty-one years.
July in Mississippi is a godawful thing. The day starts heating up before seven in the morning, and by early afternoon the temperature is kissing-close to a hundred degrees. Humidity stays above eighty percent more often than not, and the still, hot air feels like a damp blanket draped over you. The pale blue sky is empty save the almost-white sun, glaring down like the eye of an angry god. The day I broke my back was one of those days.
Just a couple of miles outside of Starkville, where I grew up, the Old South Quarry cuts into the red clay cotton fields like an old battle scar. During the Great Depression the quarry did a booming business, harvesting limestone out of the bedrock to be crushed into gravel and powder for the concrete used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of structures all across the south. My grandfather was a down-on-his-luck welder and part-time farmer in those days, and spent two years building bridges for the Corps. It seemed like every time I went to church with them on a summer Sunday morning as a child, riding high in the front seat between them in their old green and white farm truck but still barely able to see over the dash, he had a new story to share about someone losing a finger or toe, hand or foot, during the construction of whatever bridge we happened to be crossing. Once he told me about a man buried alive in cement who, as far as he knew, was still encased down there at the base of the pylon holding up the bridge. He would’ve told me more, I think, but my grandmother shushed him up.
When the Depression ended and most people—my grandfather included—found permanent work, business fell off for the Old South Quarry. Limestone was cheaper coming out of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and even though demand was up because of all the post-war construction, the supply from the more mountainous states far exceeded need. By the time I was tugged from my mother’s womb, red-faced and screaming from the gross insult of birth, the quarry had been closed for nearly eighteen years and Starkville teenagers had been swimming there for ten.
On that sunny July day there were four of us piled into Kenny Wilcott’s piece of shit Chevy Nova, roaring down the dirt road that circled around to the back of the quarry where the hole in the security fence was. Trigger Foster—his given name was Jonathan but he’d been Trigger to us ever since he shot himself in the foot on a duck hunt with his older brother when he was twelve—had filched a case of Milwaukee’s Best from the stash his old man kept in the garage, and we were ready for a party. As much of a party four guys can have with twenty-four piss-warm beers and no girls, anyway.
Russ Howard pulled the first beer out of the plastic ring and handed it over to me. It felt like a mug of the Russian tea my mom made for me whenever I was sick. Even with the windows down, the car was an oven, but that didn’t matter. We’d be cool soon enough.
The car hit a pothole and the four of us bounced as one.
“Goddammit, man, watch the road!” Trigger cried. He was sitting up front with Kenny, gripping the dash with both hands. Not long after the duck hunting incident, his older brother had been killed when he thought he could pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane road and lost control of his Trans-Am. The car rolled six times, throwing Trigger’s brother some thirty feet headfirst into a sweet gum tree. Trigger told us later that his head had been split in half right down the middle and most of his brain ended up in the crook of two branches, almost fifteen feet off the ground. He’d been jumpy in cars ever since, not that anyone could blame him.
“Relax, princess,” Kenny said, but he eased up on the gas a little. He rubbed at the top of his head, which had banged into the roof when the car dipped. Kenny was on the junior varsity basketball team with me, and played center because he was so tall. Being several inches shorter—but not short, mind you—I played shooting guard. Between the two of us, we helped the team make it to the quarter-finals the previous year.
Ahead, I could see the rusted chain-link fence surrounding the quarry, and beyond it, the emerald lake sparkling in the summer sun, its color undiluted by the heat haze clinging to the ground. Limestone dust in the water gave it the unique color, reminiscent of exotic Caribbean locations. As we drew closer, I saw schools of bream and sunfish swimming lazily around the shallow edge. The quarry had been carved into the side of a small hillock, and toward the far end where the deep water darkened to near-black, a white stone cliff towered almost fifty feet above the surface. All that was visible of the old office at the top was a glint of glass through the kudzu overgrowth.
Kenny brought the car to a stop just outside the fence and shut it down. Drifts of red dust swirled around us, stirred up by our jostling drive. The air smelled of honeysuckle and the pesticide farmers soaked their cotton plants in to keep the boll weevils down to manageable levels. Out in the open green field, a symphony of grasshoppers crackled and rattled. Trigger relaxed visibly and held his hand over the seat for a beer.
I popped the tab on my own and got it to my mouth before it foamed all over the car, then gulped it down as fast as possible. We didn’t bring it to sit around and sip it like the people in beer ads, after all. Pitching the can through the window into the tall grass, I opened the door to get out, but before I could, I let loose a massive belch. The sound rolled across the water like the crack of gunfire.
“Danny Mac sounds off!” Russ cawed, and pitched me another beer.
Danny Mac. It’s been years since anyone called me that, except for my old buddy Jake Conrad—more on him in a bit—who did it occasionally when he was worked up about something. Usually the government. Maybe the nickname was kind of lame, no pun intended, but hell, who isn’t lame at that age? No matter how pitiful it sounds now, it was far better than my given name of Daniel Edward Mackenzie. Doesn’t that sound stuffy and pretentious? Even now, as forty looms not too far around the corner, I’ll take being called Danny over Daniel any day, though I prefer Dan. Nice, short, and simple.
But then? Then I was Danny Mac.
I drained the second beer almost as quickly as the first, and by the time we scrambled through the hole in the fence and down to the water’s edge, my third was half empty. I was already starting to feel light-headed. We’d been down at the mall all morning, feeding quarters into games in the arcade and hanging out at Camelot Music, and hadn’t bothered with lunch.
The dirt road we drove in on ended at a chained and padlocked gate, and turned to gravel inside the fence. It was the same one the loaded trucks used back when the quarry was in business, and it led right down into the water. Standing at the lake’s edge, you could see the road continuing under the surface as it descended into the depths. To be honest, it always creeped me out a little to float over it and look down through my mask. It seemed so out of place down there, stretching into the murky darkness. A path to nowhere.
The pulverized gravel at the edge of the lake formed something of a beach, and that’s where we spread out our towels. Trigger tied the remaining six-packs together with a piece of old clothesline from the trunk of the Nova and lowered them into the cool green water. We waded out four abreast, hissing reflexively first when the water touched our balls, then our armpits.
An hour later, snorkeling in the middle of the lake, I was as far from sober as I was from the shore. Through my mask I watched the fish and turtles glide far below me, dim dark shapes against the midnight green. From time to time I drifted over underwater meadows of some tall grass, gently swaying in the convection created by the sun’s rays. Pale lime-colored tendrils reached for me out of the darkness like questing fingers, and I thought of dead things slowly rotting down there, just out of sight.
A scream yanked me from my quiet and morbid reflection, and I looked up in time to see Trigger twisting through the air halfway down the cliff. Though he grinned like a fool, his eyes were wide with terror. At the last second, he pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, hitting the water butt-first in a perfect cannonball. The plume must have shot thirty feet.
Even as the displaced water rained back to the lake Kenny sailed over the edge. He jackknifed and greased in with barely any disturbance at all. Behind me, Russ hooted, and I turned to see him swimming back toward the beach in an awkward stroke somewhere between a dog paddle and a butterfly.
“Wait up!” I called, and started after him.
Trigger surfaced in the distance, sputtering and flailing and bellowing, “My ass! I broke my ass!”
Kenny’s peal of laughter bounced off the vertical walls and doubled, then tripled, until it sounded like a mocking crowd. At the shore, Russ veered over and pulled two beers from the last six-pack, and we drank them as we picked and stumbled our way around the lake to the upper end. From the top of the hill we could see for miles, nothing but verdant green cotton plants against the carmine soil stretching out in every direction. I set my snorkel and mask on a chunk of limestone the size of a suitcase near the precipice. M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” thundered from the boombox sitting with our towels, the sound surprisingly clear outside the enclosing rock sides. A gentle breeze blew in our faces, cooled by the water below. It carried a slightly metallic, clean smell. I gave Russ a dopey smile that was part indescribable happiness, part cheap beer.
“Last one in is queer,” he shouted, and ran for the edge with me hot on his heels.
He sprung away from the drop, twisting around to look at me as he fell, a look of triumph on his face, an image frozen in my memory as the pure essence of summer and youth. I jumped after him, but just as I pushed off, my foot slid in the loose gravel, kicking out behind me like some kind of satirical ballet move, and I tumbled gracelessly over the edge.
The fall is imprinted in the archives of my mind as a series of snapshots taken as I somersaulted toward the water. White rock, speckled with black, far too close. The sky, impossibly blue. The lake, stretching off in the distance. Russ looking up at me, his mouth opening in a scream, Kenny and Trigger blurry smudges in the water beyond him. White rock. Blue sky.
When the workers carved away the hillside to harvest all that stone, they cut it away into a giant series of steps so that each one made a simple path across the face of the rock for them to use. One of those steps jutted out of the face of the cliff two feet below the waterline, forming a shelf six or seven feet wide. It’s pure luck I didn’t plunge headfirst into it and chum up the water with my fool brain. Instead, I hit the water on my back, part of me over the shelf and part over the abyss. Even through the roar in my ears I heard the brittle crack! of my spine as I impacted the edge just below my shoulder blades.
My eyes were open. I could see the disc of the sun through churning water turned cloudy by the lime silt, white and brilliant and uncaring. Even though I must have been going into shock, my mind was preternaturally alert and screamed for me to get to the surface before I drowned. It felt like someone had cinched a nail-studded belt around my midsection and was pulling it ever tighter, but compared to the pain that came later, it was nothing. I had a dim awareness that I no longer felt anything below that fiery circle.
I teetered there on the edge of the shelf for a second, then slipped over, pulled down by the weight of my dead legs. I sank in a dreamy kind of slow motion, desperately trying to use my arms to swim upward, but they didn’t want to obey and merely flapped ineffectually. I grabbed at the rocky wall as it slid by, searching for purchase, but my fingers were twisted into claws and wouldn’t open. I succeeded only in pulling loose a thick rubbery sheet of the pinkish fungal growth we called quarry skin. That stuff seemed to coat everything under the water, soft and slick like the sodden flesh of a bloated corpse.
Pressure built in my ears and lungs as I descended. I fell through a deepening green haze, no longer able to see the sun. No longer able to see much of anything but that single color, slowly bleeding away and leaving only blackness behind. I knew I was dying, but despite it all I felt a calming sense of peace build within me. I don’t know if it was the beer, or God, or just my body starting to give up and shut down, but I found that I wasn’t so concerned about making the transition. Even though I was technically still a virgin.
I saw something gliding toward me through the gloom, one of God’s angels coming with open arms to lead me home to heaven. Hot joy rose in my heart. They told me later it was just Russ, swimming down to catch me by the hair and drag me back up to the shelf.
My recollection of what happened next is hazy. I remember bits and pieces, little snippets of memory spliced together like a movie trailer made with only the worst parts. Lying in the cold water on the shelf, cradled in Russ’s arms, shivering and telling him to stop crying like a little girl, then crying myself when the belt of pain twisted a little tighter. The sun as it slipped out of sight over the cliffs. The flat whupwhupwhup of the LifeFlight helicopter sent all the way from Jackson to get me after a pell-mell drive back to Starkville by Kenny and Trigger to find help. Dizziness from the rotation of the basket as they winched me up, and the feel of the warm rotor wash on my face, upper chest, and arms. Wonderment over why I couldn’t feel it anywhere else.
The next solid memory is of waking up in a recovery room in Jackson General Hospital with my parents on one side of the bed and a strange man dressed in white on the other. Mom’s eyes were red and watery, and Dad kept clearing his throat. That was the first time they ever looked old to me.
“Welcome back, Danny,” the stranger said. “My name is Dr. Feinbaum. Do you know where you are?”
My throat hurt like hell, dry and scratchy like someone took a steel wool pad to it, so I whispered, “Hospital.”
“That’s right, you’re down in Jackson, in the intensive care unit. Do you remember what happened?”
“Good,” he told me, and looked up at my parents. “Very good. Short term memory loss is always a concern in cases like this.”
Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he plucked out a pen and held it in front of my face. “Follow this with your eyes, please.”
I tracked the movement of the pen and wondered why I wasn’t in more pain.
Especially below that spot near my shoulder blades, where I landed.
Good stuff here, folks. I hope you’ll check it out!
Heh… McDaniels, Gartrell, and a few million dudes named Zed are gaining some (small) notice internationally. After all, it’s not often that I would expect a German reviewer to proclaim the works are “Exciting, exciting, exciting.” (“Spannend, spannend, spannend.”)
Nice to see! Now all I need to do is sell the foreign rights. 😉
I wrote a few days ago how novelist Sue Grafton, she of the Letter Mysteries, dropped a few depth charges on us self-pubbers who should apparently remain confined to the deep, cold depths of obscurity. Her comments not only annoyed me, but actually left me in a condition that could certainly be coined as “approaching anger.” I felt her words were needlessly snobby and, more importantly, were perhaps crafted to intentionally insult. It’s as if she actually wanted to take one in the snot locker and be left with a mouthful of bloody Chiclets…
…or maybe, she’s just not as precise in selecting her words as she might have us believe. A shame her publicist wasn’t on hand to help her out, no? Authors say the strangest things when they think no one is listening.
Apparently, Forbes Magazine feels this may be the case. I present to you herewith the article, Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing.
Some select quotes, cherry-picked by You-Know-Who:
Indie Success and The Publishing Lottery
Another reality that goes against the establishment view of Indie authors is that some of them have, in fact, gone on to sign very significant contracts with major publishing houses. A few examples:
- Amanda Hockingwrote 17 teen supernatural suspense novels in her spare time and then self-published them, becoming the first Indie sensation before she signed a $2mm deal with St. Martins Press.
- John Lockesold over two million copies of his Indie books before signing a limited deal with Simon & Schuster to get physical distribution for some of his novels.
- E.L. James wrote the precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey online as fan fiction and self-published it on her own website before Vintage acquired it. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2012.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and these examples don’t necessarily prove that publishing is broken. But the conceit that Indie authors are merely a bunch of lazy hacks unwilling to face rejection ignores the fact that even the biggest proponents of the old publishing system admit that there are many talented published authors nobody has ever heard of. Have you read The Lion’s Eye?
And this line of thinking also ignores mid-list authors. These men and women have talent and persistence but write for small market segments. The economics of traditional publishing makes it very hard for either publisher or author to profit from a pool of only 10,000 to 30,000 readers, no matter how devoted. Amazon, on the other hand, allows Indie authors to keep up to 70% of their e-book royalties, compared to the 15-20% royalties that conventional book publishers offer authors on printed books – and mainstream publishing royalties are much worse for ebooks. Publishing independently can allow mid-list authors to make a reasonable living on writing.
There is something very odd about this war of words between successful authors on different sides of a tectonic shift in the publishing world: it doesn’t exist in many similar industries facing the same sort of technological upheaval. You don’t hear Christina Aguilera or Adam Levine knocking indie bands. Instead they joined a show called “The Voice” which aims to capitalize on the credibility of indie artists by finding journeyman artists and giving them a shot at major label contracts. Indie filmmakers are revered, not reviled, partly because they eschew the studio system and its constraints on artistic expression. And the art world seems keenly attuned to the idea that the next Georgia O’Keeffe might be producing revolutionary work somewhere out of their sight until she turns 30.
Bold by me.
This is what’s perhaps the most puzzling part of this entire I’m-Gonna-Bust-Up-Your-Rice-Bowl paradigm exhibited by trade-published writers: their incessant need to come out swinging, when by all accounts they’ve “made it.” I guess it’s kind of like the medical profession, where young doctors are put on shifts that last for days by their superiors, despite the potential that critical misdiagnoses are more apt to occur when the attending physician is suffering from utter exhaustion–the old guard had to go through it, so the same must hold true for the new one. As such, it seems writers aren’t really professional writers until they’ve been rejected a million times and managed to somehow, some way, sail into a perfect storm of opportunity where their work is picked up by an agent or a publisher (or any other select circumstance which results in trade publication).
Well yeah, in 2009, that’s pretty much how it worked.
Grafton, Thor, the incredibly out-of-touch Author’s Guild–all of them orbit around the celestial body called trade publishing (aka “traditional publishing,” a designation which drives people in the trade business crazy), and it certainly appears they haven’t quite figured out that their industry is going through some seriously tumultuous change. It’s a shame they’re more interested in circling the wagons and manning the battlements to prevent upstart self-publishers from elbowing them away from the trough; it does seem like an opportunity to practice some inclusiveness, and thereby make an attempt to shape the coming changes, as opposed to being overwhelmed by them.
Did horse breeders try to shoot up Henry Ford when he began manufacturing automobiles? Did any of the major aviation manufacturers get all nervous and jittery when Igor Sikorsky started experimenting with helicopters? Damn, did Kodak go on the warpath when digital media came into being, even though they had to know the technology would lead to their death knell?
I’ve written millions of words in my quest to become a writer. Most of them were bad, some were merely adequate, a precious few bordered on being good. But the distant success of my works had little to do with my ability to tell a story–while my detractors are legion, it does seem I’ve proven at least that much–it had everything to do with them landing in front of the right person, at the right time, on the right day, on the right side of the slush pile.
Folks, those are incredibly steep odds to overcome.
The self-publish “movement,” such as it is, seems to only be growing, gathering more momentum as each day comes to a close. Trade publishers, while perhaps not on the ropes, are feeling it in the bottom line. And when they start to bleed, they of course spread the wealth, which means folks like Grafton, Thor, Turow, et al, might not find themselves in the positions of advantage they’ve grown accustomed to. The publishing industry is changing, and while no one has a firm bead on what the end game might be, I don’t think anyone reading this post has to be related to The Amazing Kreskin to figure that change is gonna hurt.
And comments like the ones being cast off by trade-published writers like those already named aren’t likely to increase my sympathy for them when they wake up one day and find their new contracts are suddenly less rewarding than they had been in the past. And for sure, they’re not about to make me fold up my self-publishing tent and go home.
An example: in 2009, I didn’t make jack writing. Not a single penny.
At the end of 2012, I’ll likely realize around $80,000…in profit. (And my accountant hates it when I tell people how much I make, so for those of you who might have been curious why I haven’t been posting my sales data this year, there is your explanation.)
So yeah, waiting a year or so for an agent to read my query letter and then request a partial or a full submission, and then take a year or more to accept or reject? Sorry, it’s just not worth my time any longer. Because I can earn now, and be judged by the readers, the people both self-pubbers and trade pubber rely upon. The readers are the ones forcing this change, not Amazon, not self-publishers, not the fact that some company in Taiwan makes chips that go into iPads, or that a couple of guys named Jacobsen and Comiskey invented E-Ink.
My middle name isn’t Copernicus, so if I can understand this, I’m amazed that a bunch of self-reverential smarty-pants in the publishing industry can’t figure it out for themselves.
But hey, greater minds than mine have articulated all the above with far fewer words: check out the musings of David Gaughran or, for something a little more pointed, Hugh Howey’s epic rejoinder, complete with super-cool graphic that I wish I’d thought of. (I remember well when HH was trounced by the loving souls over at AbsoluteWrite, and I rejoice that his fame and fortune doubtless has many a trade published poster there writhing in AbsoluteJealousy, if nothing else.)
At the end of the day, all this asshattery is going to hurt a lot of folks, and it might be beneficial to all if perhaps some of the Big Name Authors might be a tad more selective with their words. Because while it’s amusing to watch them make asses of themselves, it’s also going to make their eventual comeuppance even more of a train wreck. (And I don’t know about you, but watching trains wreck sounds kind of fun.)
The upshot of all this is, there will be winners, and there will be losers. And I don’t think I’m on the losing team.
Regrettably, my previous analysis stands.
Wow, what an honor… The Gathering Dead stands at 99 reviews on Amazon! And even better, most of them are positive.
Who will write #100? I hope it’s a good one, but even if it’s not, it’s surprising to make it this far. I swear, sometimes I think I’m dreaming!
EDIT: And the 100th reviewer is: Steve Green! And it was a five star review, too. Thanks so much!
Happy 2012, everyone. I’m a bit behind in things these days (such as updating this blog), but hey, life is tough and then you die. Hopefully not this year, though. Clearly, I don’t buy into any of that “the world ends in 2012” nonsense that’s going on.
I will tell you that I just entered Left With The Dead into the KDP program, and it will be available for FREE starting tomorrow. So if you don’t yet have it, grab it! Nook and Smashwords customers, don’t fret that it’s disappeared–it’ll be back in 90 days.
Keep cool, y’all…or if you’re in my sector of the world, keep warm! In the meantime, enjoy the pic. Zombies…so cute and cuddly, once you get past the bad smell and their desire to eat you…