Lennon led the men past an open warehouse. Beyond it was a parking lot, then Teal Club Road, if Norton remembered correctly. He heard a dry moan and saw a zombie emerge from a pile of what seemed to be masonry materials. It had dusty coveralls and a bloodied jaw. He slowed momentarily, trying to figure out if he should shoot it. Garcia tapped him on the shoulder.
“Keep going, sir. No shooting unless you have to. Gotta practice noise discipline.”
“We just crashed a very loud jet airplane,” Norton said. “I think they know we’re here.”
In this excerpt, Single Tree patrolman Mike Hailey and his better half, Suzy Kuruk of the Tribal Police, give the dead what-for from atop the secondary walls surrounding Single Tree. Also: final cover material, which has more fire, more zombies, and even more zombies on fire. You can pre-order The Last Town #6: Surviving the Dead by clicking on the linked text.
Hailey couldn’t believe the amount of zombies pouring over the walls. They were everywhere, and they showed no sign of stopping for anything. In the kill zone between the first and secondary walls, thousands of bodies lay motionless on the ground, while thousands more thrashed and struggled against grievous injuries that had halted their forward momentum. Those that could crawl over the bodies of their terminated brethren did just that, but they didn’t get far. They were eventually trampled into goo by the rising herd that followed them, roiling over the first walls and collapsing into the kill zone. Hailey fired as quickly and as accurately as he could, taking out one zombie every couple of seconds. There were less skilled shooters on the wall beside him, and they burned through their magazines at an alarming rate without racking up even a quarter of the kills Hailey had. That was going to be a problem, because unless they calmed down and started shooting straight, the stenches would form another mound. And if they penetrated the second wall, then it would only be a matter of time before they managed to overwhelm the deeper defenses, many of which were still being erected by Corbett’s work teams.
Yeah, a little late for that.
So Hailey kept at it, hammering the dead in the kill zone as efficiently as he could. Beside him, Suzy did the same, leaning into her rifle, sending projectiles into the kill zone in a controlled manner. Every shot resulted in a kill. Well, most of them, anyway. The kill zone was beginning to look more like a zombie mosh pit, and the targeting was complex as the zombies tripped and stumbled their way across the field of fallen dead. Even Hailey missed a few shots every now and then, just because his target suddenly fell right as he pulled the rifle’s trigger. And despite his best efforts, it was becoming a more regular occurrence.
The miniguns in the towers had fallen silent, and he wondered what would happen to the crews there. They had their personal weapons, but no means of resupply. If they used up their combat loads trying to help stem the tide, they’d be shit out of luck for the rest of the fight. And if the stenches somehow managed to start climbing the ladders that led to the towers, then it would be hand-to-hand combat. No one in their right mind would want to fight the dead mano y mano. That was their game, and they always won, especially since their kind didn’t seem to get tired. They just kept coming, until there was nothing left to come for.
“Mike, they’re mounding up to your right!” Suzy shouted over the gunfire. Hailey didn’t quite understand what she said at first—Did she just say, “Mike, they’re pounding up a fight”?—he leaned forward a bit and looked down the length of the wall. Sure enough, there were enough stenches over there to coalesce into a mound if they allowed it to happen. He slant-fired across the kill zone and took out several, and the nascent mound collapsed in a flurry of flailing pale limbs and tattered clothing. It wouldn’t be long before they reorganized and made another attempt. And it would eventually be successful; the available firepower on the secondary wall was much less than what had been stationed on the primary walls. Even though they had copious reserves, there were only so many fighting positions. And with all the targets vying for attention, the defenders on the wall couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes.
Deciding the best thing he could do was to keep it up, Hailey tuned out anything else but shooting stenches in the face. He burned through magazines like water, and runners kept dropping off fresh ones right behind each shooter. It seemed that every time Hailey turned to pick up a full mag, there were another thousand or so zombies in the shooting gallery below. More mounds were forming, and they were forming quickly. Down below, dirty, dusty faces leered up at him, mouths open wide, teeth glinting in the sun. Hailey stopped trying to shoot the zombies tottering toward the wall, and instead leaned forward and began popping off the ones at the base. They were the threat now. There was no stemming the tide coming across the primary walls, so the only thing left to do was try and prevent them from mounding over the secondaries.
Hailey continued firing. His ears rang, and his eyes burned. Every now and then, one of the cartridges from Suzy’s rifle would bounce off him, and he prayed to God that one of the hot projectiles didn’t find its way down the collar of his uniform shirt.
The first mound of stenches to overwhelm the wall occurred ten minutes later. Hailey was slipping and sliding on a virtual sea of expended cartridges, his nostrils ablaze from the expended gun powder, when he saw a panicked flurry of movement to his left. Several defenders were firing point-blank into the growing mound, sending ghoul after ghoul tumbling from its apex. Another mound had formed right below Hailey’s position, and its undulating peak was less than ten feet from his fighting position. Hailey had no choice but to keep pounding it; besides, he was too far away from the action downrange to do anything about it.
“Suzy!” he shouted over the din of combat. “Check your left!”
“Check left! Check left!”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her turn and look in the indicated direction. She suddenly stepped back from the wall and began firing down the walkway—an unexpected turn of events. Hailey looked up from his work and saw several zombies were in the process of pulling themselves over the ledge, and one of the defenders was unceremoniously yanked into the mosh pit by several pale, filthy arms as he continued to fire. If the man screamed, Hailey didn’t hear it. He watched in abject horror as the man slowly slid down the mound, being torn apart bit by bit as his body passed dozens of hungry mouths. His blood was brilliant in the bright light of the day.
The incursion caused a break in the line of defenders as they responded to the sudden threat. Hailey was torn; should he assist in fighting off the incursion, or return to pounding away at the mound forming right below his feet?
The decision was made for him when one of the defenders down the line went right off the walkway, taken down by two stenches that tore into him. Pallid figures hauled themselves over the wall, jerking and staggering as bullets tore at them. When ashen hands reached for Suzy, that’s when Hailey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed the collar of her tribal reservation police uniform and yanked her back, but not before she shot one of the ghouls right through the teeth, snapping its head back and sending it tumbling back over the wall. It was buoyed up again an instant later as the rising geyser of stenches continued boiling upward. Hailey didn’t bother to stare at it. There wasn’t any time.
“We gotta get down from here!” he shouted at Suzy. All around them, hands were reaching up over the wall’s lip. The mounds were everywhere, and the dead were about to overrun the secondary wall. Hailey couldn’t believe it. The dead generally moved slow as shit, but they were taking down the town fast, so fast that the defenders couldn’t keep up.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” Suzy responded as she ejected a spent mag from her rifle. “You lead, I’ll hold them back!” Hailey saw there were no fighters left at the far end of the wall. They’d been overcome by the tide of zombies, and pale faces turned toward them with a deep, ceaseless hunger in their dim, dust-coated eyes.
He led Suzy toward the ladder, blasting away at corpses as they slowly heaved themselves over the top of the wall. They grunted and groaned and reached for them as they ran past, but they were still too slow. One zombie managed to plant itself right in his path, and Hailey raised his rifle. The ghoul’s head suddenly deflated as a bullet tore through it, and Hailey glanced at the ground below. Victor Kuruk stood there, his rifle shouldered. He waved Hailey on frantically, then pivoted and fired up at the wall again. There were already several writhing bodies on the ground below, bones shattered from the fall… but they still dragged themselves toward Victor and the others, trailing crushed and mutilated legs behind them.
They made it to one of the ladders, and Hailey stepped aside, making room for Suzy.
“Go on, take it!” he said. Several zombies shuffled toward them. He raised his rifle, stuck the barrel right over Suzy’s right shoulder, and fired right over her head. She winced and cried out. Hailey mentally apologized in advance for any tinnitus his shot might cause.
“Go on! Get down!” Hailey released her and continued dropping the stenches as fast as he could. Bodies rolled off the walkway and tumbled to the ground below. Hailey took a quick glance over his shoulder, where another ladder had been place, built into the side of the wall. More people were gathered there, other defenders who were being pushed back. The incursions at that end weren’t as many, so they had enough time to attempt an orderly retreat. Hailey and those few around him weren’t so lucky. They were sandwiched between several groups of zombies that were hauling themselves over the wall like clockwork. Their movements were slow and uncoordinated, but hardly without zeal. When their flat, dead eyes locked onto Hailey, they moaned and flailed about, trying to reach him. In many instances, they knocked fellow stenches right off either side of the wall. The effect would have been almost comical, if Hailey didn’t already know firsthand from his experience with the zombie in the pharmacy just how incredibly disturbing it actually was.
Grunting, another zombie hauled itself over the wall virtually right beside him. Hailey turned and fired a bullet into its head, then snapped back and continued covering Suzy’s descent. Below, gunners were opening up, taking out zombies that shuffled toward him. More bodies fell, and the walkway at the top of the wall was becoming slick with black gore.
“Mike, come down!” Suzy shouted from below. She was halfway down now, only twenty feet or so from the ground. Her voice captured the attention of a zombie, and it launched itself right off the wall, reaching for her as it fell. Its fingertips barely brushed her as it dropped past. It wound up spiking itself straight into the ground at the base of the ladder, forcing several townspeople there to scatter. It didn’t move.
Hailey needed no further prompting. He dropped the zombies that were closest to him, then dropped down onto the ladder. But there wasn’t enough time; the zombies were too close, and even though they were uncoordinated as hell, reaching for a guy trying to mount a ladder while simultaneously trying to shoot them while not falling himself was an easy play. Hailey had to stop with his feet on the ladder’s top rung and fire again, drilling two stenches right through their chins. The rounds traveled through the soft tissues of their dry sinuses and exploded out the crowns of their skulls. One of the ghouls collapsed virtually right on top of him, and Hailey half-stepped, half-fell to the next rung. His rifle got hung up beneath the motionless corpse, and for an instant, he was trapped where he was, held in place by the rifle’s strap. He pulled the strap over his head and left the weapon were it was. He figured he could get another one easily enough. He put his feet on the ladder’s side rails, he used his hands to lower himself down, in essence using the ladder like a fireman’s pole. He came down so quickly that he almost ran right into Suzy as she stepped off at the bottom, forcing her to duck to one side. She stumbled over one of the dead corpses lying there, and fell right on her small ass with a squawk. Hailey alighted an instant later and started to apologize, but Victor grabbed his arm and yanked him away from her.
“Look out!” he shouted.
Zombies began crashing to the ground all around them.
Just a quick note to let y’all know The Last Town #6: Surviving the Dead is now available for pre-order. I don’t have a final cover yet, so what’s up is totally bogus and will be replaced once a suitable version becomes handy.
Over the intervening weeks until release, I’ll be sure to post some bits wherein you might catch a glimpse of what’s about to happen to the fair folks of Single Tree, as well as the cops out of Los Angeles. Everything does come together, and in a way that’s not a hundred percent downer. Well… maybe that’s a lie.
Now available on Amazon for your Kindle…The Last Town #5: Fleeing the Dead!
This installment is the longest one yet, standing in at just under 65,000 words/160 pages or so. Corbett and Company have their hands full with a million or so uninvited guests who are coming for dinner, and Reese and the LAPD have to figure out how the hell they’re going to get out of Los Angeles. All good, clean, fun. Well…not really.
The horde kept growing.
Over the course of several days, Single Tree was literally surrounded by a pulsing mass of the dead. All the razor wire had been trampled flat, and the trenches had been filled to capacity with squirming dead bodies. A great number of the zombies trudged back out into the desert after finding nothing that piqued their interest, walking past the fortified town as they continued their search for living prey. But several thousand managed to cross over the HESCO barriers and push against the unyielding steel walls the surrounded the town, as if trying to find a way in. It was almost as if they could sense the presence of the living on the other side, but they weren’t coordinated enough to try and develop a mound that could threaten to overcome the tall partitions.
Despite this, they lingered. Moving along the long expanse of the walls, they rubbed against it with their shoulders, as if trying to discover a way past them. Even when faced with the open expanse of the desert, they still turned and paralleled the walls, rubbing and scuffing against them in a bid to discover some variant or irregularity they could exploit.
Time was on the side of the dead.
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.
As the fair desert hamlet of Single Tree, California completes its fortifications and the townspeople await the legions of the dead, Detective III Reese and his LAPD and National Guard comrades still have to find a way out of Hell Angeles. To set up this excerpt, the group has been forced out of hiding and are trying to make to the Santa Monica Pier. In the middle of the day. While driving around in a very noisy but durable National Guard five-ton truck.
Not the most stylish of rides…but it does get the job done.
As the civvies took their positions, Reese got up and turned, facing outward, his rifle already shouldered. Plosser had been right. Ahead, a gaggle of several dozen stenches lurched toward the truck, drawn to it like bees to honey. Bates was apparently eager to hasten the meeting, and he pushed down on the throttle. The five-ton truck obliged by accelerating toward the stenches. Even though they were facing down an object whose flight they hadn’t a chance in Hell of altering, the zombies surged forward. The faster ones picked up the pace, hurrying to their own end.
The truck didn’t even slow down when it hit the first wave, plowing right through the six or seven runners that charged the vehicle. When it hit the main body of the dead herd, it began to rock from side to side; not because of the mass of dead bodies braining themselves against the truck’s extended bumper and winch, but because of the squirming corpses that were being crushed beneath the truck’s forty-something inch tires. Reese had to hold on tight to prevent himself from being hurled over the side.
“Oh my God,” Marsh moaned, before vomiting over the side of the railing.
“Crap, Detective—you gonna be like this on the boat?” Thanh asked.
Marsh made to respond, but his reply was transformed into a gurgling roar as he vomited again.
“Attaboy, Marsh!” Plosser said. “Give them just what they’re looking for: a nice, hot lunch!”
The Last Town 5: Fleeing the Dead, the second to final entry in the serial, should be out at the end of the month or in early July. Stay tuned, as always.