“Whistlin Pete” Published Online

I’m thrilled to be back in the saddle over at the Flash Fiction Offensive with a nasty little tale called “They’ll Call Me Whistlin Pete.”  My latest piece of “western noir” went live last Friday and remains the featured story for the duration while they go through some minor transitions.  If you haven’t had a chance yet, mosey on over and check it out:

“They’ll Call Me Whistlin Pete” at Flash Fiction Offensive

David Barber does a hell of a job as editor there, and I’m very grateful that my stories can find homes at his wonderful publication.

For those of you who keeping score at home, this is the second story to see light of day from my forthcoming Tales of Perseverance collection.  A series of interlinked western noir tales set in and around Perseverance, Oregon, in the 1880’s.  Founded at the end of a wrong turn off the Oregon Trail, Perseverance is in the words of one resident, “A town named after the dubious virtue of steadfastly moving in the wrong direction.”

Watch for more Tales of Perseverance in the coming weeks and months!


How to Jump Start Your Writing

I recently taught a two-hour session on how to jump start your writing.  In preparing for this, I put together a one-page handout of all the best writing advice I know in a collection of bullet points under the acronym WRITE.  (Yeah, I know it’s corny.)

In any case, I thought  others might find this list helpful, so here it is.

If you use it, great!  We need better writing in the world.  If you share it, just give me credit.  Thanks!

How to Get It Done: WRITE

By Chuck Caruso

“W” is for Writing

  • “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.” –Ray Bradbury
  • Find the tools and the location that work best for you so you can focus on being productive.  Consider longhand versus typing and home versus writing in cafes — your tone and style will change with each of these.
  • Start with action and always use action to reveal character.
  • Show; don’t tell!  If you have to give background information, at least hide your exposition in action scenes.

“R” is for Reading and Research

  • Read a lot!  You need to see how other people do it in order to get the voices going inside your own head and practice verbalizing.
  • Read broadly but make sure at least some of your reading is in the genre and sub-genre you want to write.
  • Pick apart books you like to see how they work.  Then steal their plotting structures, character development tricks, and pacing devices.  No, don’t plagiarize, but borrow the tools that work.
  • Readers keep turning pages for three reasons:
  1. Human interest.  Because they like the characters.
  2. Suspense.  Because they want to find out what happens next.
  3. Puzzles.  Because they want to know the solution.
  • Most successful novels combine only two of the above elements, using on as primary and another as secondary.  Don’t mess with the mix during your novel or your story will seem to sag in the middle and the reader will lose interest.

“I” is for Ideas

  • Develop your ideas on paper.  Thinking about your ideas is valuable, but at the end of the day it doesn’t count.  Get a notebook and start jotting things down.
  • Outline!  Make a list of chapters and write down the two or three things that need to happen in each chapter to advance your plot.
  • Remember that you need to know how the story ends before you start writing it.  Otherwise you can’t plant clues or build up to the finish.

“T” is for Tenacity

  • To make yourself write, commit to writing for at least 15 minutes every day.  Of course you’ll need to do more in the long run, but this will help you build the habit.
  • Don’t believe in writer’s block.
  • Once you start, don’t circle back and revise until you have a full draft.  Most unfinished novels die at about page 50.  An outline and good writing habits will help you push past this common breaking point.
  • You can’t finish your novel if you’re not getting your butt into the chair and doing it.
  • Don’t give up!

“E” is for Editing

  • Once you finish your first draft, let it sit for a while.  In the meantime, start outlining and doing character sketches for your next novel.
  • After a few weeks or a month, go back and clean up your draft.  When you’ve gotten rid of the typos and the “embarrassing” missteps, have a trusted friend or two read it for you and give you feedback.
  • Listen to your readers and don’t defend yourself.  If you have to explain what you meant to do, then you didn’t do it well enough.  Take note of what you need to change to make things clearer for the reader when you’re not there to explain it.

Devilbox

Well, it’s official.  The end is nigh.  At least that’s how it felt when I plunked down my cash and bought a dreaded devilbox.  This step into the brave new world of electronic publishing was one I had put off for a long time, and when I did finally venture into the world of digital texts I certainly didn’t think I’d be getting a Kindle.  I don’t relish the idea of having to buy everything for this electronic reader through a single source and the inability to borrow electronic books from libraries and other readers strikes me as a near-fatal flaw; however, for an easy on the eyes (read, non-backlit) reader that’s also easy on the pocketbook, the temptations of this devil we all know are damn hard to resist.

A month into having the thing, I’ve got to admit that I actually really enjoy having it.  While I still refuse to purchase things for the Kindle that I can buy in hard-copy, there are enough electronic-only publications that I keep the thing in my go-bag and always have something to read.  Without this transition, I never would have discovered Noir Nation, Beat to a Pulp or Crimespree, not to mention the excellent books published by up-and-coming new Snubnose Press, nor any number of deserving electronic-only self-published authors like Anthony Neil Smith and Nigel Bird.

I know I’ve previously expressed my skepticism about the DIY world of self-publishing and I still maintain that electronic publishers with actual editors are necessary to help separate the wheat from the chaff and help readers find quality work rather than sifting through the massive sea of poor-quality products; however, as digital publishing continues to find its way I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing.

Stay tuned to this blog for more in-depth reviews of some of these electronic publications.

I’ll also keep you posted on my own adventures into publishing at electronic magazines and journals.

 


The Perils of Self-Publishing

Now that electronic publishing is cheap and easy, and places like Amazon make online sales as simple as one-two-three, a lot of early-career writers are thumbing their noses at established agents and publishing houses as they surrender to the blandishments of self-publishing; however, before anyone rushes headlong into this utopian paradise of 21st-century authorship, prudence dictates first examining some of the rather treacherous perils along the way.

Scrutinize the Pros:

Avoiding Editors – Finding a publisher for your novel can be a daunting, soul-taxing task.  Editors seeming to love to say no, and you hear the statistic batted around that only 1 in 2,000 novels written is ever published.  I know, as the gate-keepers of the literary marketplace, editors can seem like the enemy of writers – after all, they’re the ones keeping you outside the gates.  But editors are trained professional with a highly acute sense of the readership they serve, and that vast readership (which writers eye so eagerly) rely on those gate-keepers to ensure they don’t spend time and hard-earned money on books that don’t meet their expectation.  For all the faults you can find with many a published book (and there are often faults), books that pass through an editorial process tend to be well-crafted and entertaining in the right ways.  Those books are also coherent, free of typos and grammar problems, and generally, well, better than the original manuscript our hopeful writer sent to the editor.  This is an important, even vital process for readers.  I’d also suggest it’s important for writers.  (See “No Rejection” under Consider the Cons).

Avoiding Agents – Getting an agent seems impossible.  Here’s why, as I see it: if finding an editor who wants to publish your novel is like trying to date a high school cheerleader, then finding an agent who wants to represent you is like trying to date the friend of a high school cheerleader.  The high school cheerleader won’t go out with you unless she really likes you or you’re the captain of the football team or your dad is the mayor or something along those lines, but the friend of the high school cheerleader won’t go out with you even if she does like you unless she also believes the high school cheerleader would approve.  But, like editors, agents provide a valuable step along the way to publication because they also act as a way to filter out things that (they believe editors would find are) not ready for presentation to mass reading audiences.  But agents are also important because they know the ways to help writers ramp up their careers – selling movie rights, tackling foreign markets, etc.  These are all things that most writers will have no clue how to do on their own.  Self-publish and you lose out on all that expertise.

Better Royalties – Self-publishing advocates like to cite the vastly improved royalty rates they expect.  Selling your own e-book on Amazon nets you seventy-percent of the sales price.  That’s great until you start doing the math.  For the first thousand copies at $2.99, you could expect to make about $2000.  Subtract from that your initial publishing and preparation costs and you just might break even.  Except that very few self-publishers have enough friends and family to sell that first thousand copies, which means you’re probably looking at more like 300 copies if all your Facebook friends come through to buy a copy.  300 copies nets you a little over $600.  You can’t rent an apartment for that any more.  And meanwhile all the time and energy you’ve put into the publishing efforts is time and energy you have not spent writing that next book your little readership are (perhaps) eagerly awaiting.  Okay, okay, no need to beat this dead horse.  You’re not doing this for the money anyway, right?  Then why did you bring up better royalties?

Success Stories – At the last Willamette Writer’s conference, one of the early sessions presented the success story of a writer who self-published her first three novels electronically and sold them through Amazon.  She not only spent over $50,000 of her own money getting this undertaking off the ground, but she really worked her ass off – personally emailing every person who bought her book and asking them to give the book a rating and write a brief review.  And over the course of several years, she broke into the list of top-sellers on Amazon.  Her reward?  Her success attracted the attention of a fancy NY agent who was able to get her a three-book deal with a major NY publishing house.  Am I the only one who finds this story sadly ironic?  And stories of big-fish authors who were originally published by major houses and then jumped ship to self-publish and rake in the profits are an entirely different kettle of fish than the newbie minnows who will be struggling to keep from starving or being eaten by the other bigger minnows.

Consider the Cons:

No Rejection – Believe me, I dislike a rejection notice as much as the next guy.  But I’ve learned to appreciate them.  Not form rejections – nobody appreciates those – but a personal rejection can provide you with valuable information and can spur you to do better and better work.  When you get personal rejection from an editor, that’s code to try them again.  They noticed you.  It’s also a way to learn how to revise your manuscript or at least adjust your pitch before you submit your work to the next editor.  Literary history is rich with stories of rejected authors who tried and tried again.  James M. Cain’s first novel was supposedly rejected so many times that he titled it The Postman Always Rings Twice in reference to the code ring his mailman gave when he was returning the damn thing yet again.  But eventually Cain did get that novel published, along with many more novels.  But ask yourself if it would be considered an American masterpiece if he’d self-published it as print-on-demand and sold 300 copies to his friends and family.

No Market Placement – Publishing through a reputable house generally automatically gets you in the loop as far as market placement.  The publisher will send out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs in the biz) to bookstores and newspaper reviewers.  Do this on your own and you’re cutting even further in to that $600 you made.  And you’re wasting your time as well because (fairly or not) most bookstores and newspaper reviewers can’t be bothered with self-published works.  Okay, maybe they haven’t gotten the word that self-publishing no longer has the same stigma attached to it.  You go ahead and have that discussion with them.  While you’re at it, think of yourself as an overwhelmed reader trying to find a good book to read in a world where instead of only 1 in 2,000 novels being published, all 2,000 of those un-edit manuscripts are available to you.  Not to be an elitist fuddy-duddy, but yikes!  Where does the democratization of the process end and where do the virtues of a juried meritocracy start?  Maybe it’s just because as an English teacher I’ve read too many badly written papers in freshman comp classes, but I don’t want to wade through everything that everybody writes ever in order to find something decent to read during a weekend at the beach.  Do you?

No Publicity – Okay, sadly, very few first time authors get much out and out publicity from their publishers any more.  Gone are the days of the full page add in the New York Times for someone’s debut novel.  But by going through a publishing house you still get all sorts of indirect publicity.  You show up in their catalogs for one thing.  That means you’re also automatically available through Ingram Books, etc.  Don’t know who Ingram is and you’re still set on self-publishing?  Well, you better stop reading this and get cracking.  You’ve got a lot of work to do.


The Electronic Tides of Change

A couple months ago, news sources reported that for the first time ever monthly sales figures for electronic books (or ebooks) had outpaced sales of hardbacks.  Of course, most books are sold in paperback and sales of these continue to far surpass both ebooks and hardbacks.  At least for the moment, but some say that ebooks beating hardbacks signals once and for all that the future of reading is ultimately digital.  This reversal had been building for some time so it didn’t come as a surprise, but the significance of the change stimulated a lot of discussion among publishers and retailers, who for the most part had already been heatedly discussing this and related topics for quite some time.

This tipping-point shift in the media market caused much less excitement among those more intimately (and perhaps somewhat less fiscally) involved with the stuff being bought and sold.  That is to say, readers and writers.  Part of that lack of excitement stems from the fact we’ve been hearing about the death of the paperback for so long that we’ve become jaded to the idea and don’t really take it very seriously anymore, but part of the writerly and readerly disinterest in the changing media would seem to come from the underlying truth that we don’t really care that much about the mechanics of delivery.  Writers gotta write.  Readers gotta read.  Whether that business happens via paper or an electronic screen is ultimately irrelevant.

Let’s think about this for a moment.  For now, it would seem that most of us write electronically but still read physical books.

As a writer, although I was born in the dark ages before the advent of the personal computer, I’ve still done the majority of my writing on an electronic device of some sort or other for most of my life.  At first, yes, it was weird getting used to the idea that my stories existed first as virtual files on the 40MB hard drive of my Macintosh rather than as sheets of paper stacking up next to my old Smith-Corona manual typewriter.  But I got used to this fairly quickly.  And I learned to appreciate – indeed, to rely upon – the absolute ease with which I could edit drafts in all sorts of large and small ways.  Want to rewrite the opening paragraph without having to retype the whole story?  Done.  Want to change the name of a character everywhere it appears?  Done.  Want to share a draft of something with your writing group without having to go to a copy shop and pay for a dozen copies?  Done and done.  I know we take these things for granted these days, but I’m here to tell you, it wasn’t always so.  And there were a lot of annoying missteps along the way.  I’ve lost lots of my earlier stories because of abandoned technology.  How could I ever find a machine capable of reading my old floppy discs?  I can’t – those drafts are gone forever.  Ironically, my stories from the Smith-Corona days are the ones I still have in a desk drawer.  It’s the ones from the early days of word processing that are lost.  Thing is, the conveniences are great, but they came at a price and we shouldn’t forget that.  Going electronic puts us at the mercy of the medium and subject to the whims of the corporate giants selling us hardware and software.  That said, most of the writer-editor interaction seems to take place electronically these days.  Most publishers want things emailed to them as an attachment.  It’s easier all the way around.  And that means most writers compose on the computer rather than any other way – it saves time and headache.  Ultimately, I don’t know hardly anybody who writes in longhand anymore.

By the same token, I still don’t know hardly anybody who does more than a very small amount of their reading on an e-reader.  Personally, I don’t own one yet.  In fact, four out of the five members of Portland Mayhem Company still read books made out of paper and ink.  That’s not to say I won’t someday switch over to an e-reader, but I’m not there yet.  And it’s not that I’m a luddite.  Far from it, but I’ve shifted to a place where I don’t want to be an early adopter anymore.  The growing pains along the way are too great.  I can’t bear the thought of taking the plunge and expanding my personal library into the electronic realm only to have to re-purchase the same works four and five times over the next couple decades while the media continues to evolve.  Seriously, I have music on my iPod now that I’ve purchased four times – first on vinyl, then on cassette tape, then on CD, and finally in a purely digital format.  I’m not doing this with my books.  Not until they solve some of the remaining issues with e-readers.

First off, I don’t want a device that limits me to buying all my books from a single source.  So the Kindle is out.  Amazon is fine for some things, like tracking down rare and out-of-print books, but I won’t buy newer titles from them because I prefer to support small, independent booksellers.

Secondly, I want a device that supports multiple reading formats and allows me to borrow books from public and academic libraries.  I’d also like to be able to exchange books with friends.

Thirdly, I need to be able to mark up the books I’m reading, making marginal notes, underlining key passages, marking pages, and copying excerpts for quotation into word processing documents.

So, for me, the e-readers haven’t arrived yet.  Old fashioned paper-and-ink books are still better and more convenient for the type of reading I do.  That doesn’t mean I won’t ever change, it just means that I can’t make the transition until I’m completely satisfied I’ll gain more than I lose.  Yes, I know some houses are shifting entirely to electronic publishing, but so far I haven’t run across any titles I need to read that I can’t still obtain in hard copy.  We can talk again when that changes.  For now I’m sticking with paper and ink.


Finding Time

Last time I wrote about overcoming writer’s block and learning to “vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”  If you missed this post, scroll on down and find “On Writing the Bradbury Way.”  Or you if you click on my name to the left under the heading “Sort by Posts” you can find that and everything else I’ve written for Portland Mayhem Company.  That sort feature is a new one for us, by the way.  We’re still making improvements to the blog, so we welcome any feedback you have.  We’re also happy to tackle whatever topics you might be interest in, so send us a comment and we’ll see what we can do.

This time around, I thought I should discuss the other big problem that seems to plague most aspiring writers – finding time.

Believe me, I grapple with this one too.  Since I’m currently working three different gigs – as cubicle-jockey from Monday to Thursday, as an adjunct professor one night a week, and as a clerk at an indie bookstore just for the love of it one weekend afternoon – my time is always at a premium.  Besides earning my daily bread, I’m married and like to spend quality time with my wife.  And we’ve got two high-energy herding dogs that need frequent exercise.  Add in the two or three TV shows I follow (Castle, Sherlock, and the Thursday night comedy line-up on NBC – except for Outsourced which I find racist and offensively un-funny) and whatever the latest hot videogame title is this month (CoD: Black Ops).  Oh, yeah, and I’m always in the middle of reading a book or two because I love reading and I need to keep up on what other people are writing and what’s getting published and because, you know, I’m trying to make it as a writer.

Funny how in life, just as in the preceding paragraph, being a writer always seems to come last.  And I think that may be the crux of the problem.  Making time for all those other things seems to happen as a matter of course, but carving out an hour or so for my creative work remains a daily struggle, and one I don’t always win.

But there’s hope.  There must be.

Considering that most successful writers also have families and full-time day jobs and other outside interests, clearly the challenge to find time to write while having a busy life is one that can be conquered.

Here are the five things I’ve found to be most helpful:

Books – Specifically, reading them.  If you want to write, you should read as much and as broadly as you can.  Okay, I know I mentioned reading above as one of the things that can seem to limit the time you have available for writing, but the more you read the more you will write.  If you want to write, presumably the thing that sparked that desire inside you was a love of the books and stories you read.  Reading continues to fuel that fire.  What’s more, you need to live in the world of words, constantly thinking of how to phrase things and describe actions.  The world of writing is like a giant conversation.  Imagine yourself sitting at a giant table with all the other authors who have ever lived.  In order to have something meaningful to say to this table filled with all the people you admire (and even those you don’t), you need to first get up to speed with the conversation.  That means reading books and lots of them.

Deadlines – Sad but true (cue the Metallica).  Nothing gets me to leave dishes unwashed and errands un-run like the pending deadline for some anthology or other.  While I have (mostly) taken to heart Lawrence Block’s injunction to write novels instead of short stories, I still love the form and will jump at any opportunity to find a home for some pet idea I’ve had collecting dust in a notebook.  And this works!  Just this month I’ve placed two recent works – a brief piece called “Awakened by the Taste of Blood” in an anthology of flash horror and a short story called “Everybody, Do the Apocalypse” in a collection of post-apocalyptic science fiction.  Seriously, there’s nothing like a narrowly-focused call for submissions to provide a prompt and get you writing to a deadline.  You won’t make much money doing this, but it’s pretty easy to see things into print and every short piece you sell also finds a home on the happily growing list of your writing credits.  For more on this idea, see Jim Ehmann’s excellent posts (“Duotrope is Your New Best Friend” and “The Anthology Game”) about websites that can help you find markets for your work.

Habits – Some habits aren’t your friends.  Smoking cigarettes, shooting heroin, hitting on other men’s wives – none of these things are likely to improve your life.  On the other hand, good writing habits can make a huge positive impact on your career as a writer.  Whether your goal is the merely-mortal 500 words, the industry-standard 1000 words, or the truly masterful 2500 words that Jack London claimed, writing every day will keep your mind nimble and strong and ensure that the words are flowing well enough that you’re getting something accomplished and you’re in shape enough to ramp up your output when you learn of a deadline just a few days out (see above).  If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you know that he claims the secret to his success is writing every day.  King writes every every day – birthdays, holidays, days when it’s a family vacation at the beach, every day.  Yeah, I know he’s Stephen King, one of the most successful and prolific writers in the entire history of writing, and neither of us is Stephen King.  But riddle me this… how do you think he got to be Stephen King?  Set yourself a word-count goal and write every day.  As a side note, emails to friends, posts to your Facebook account, and entries in your journal do not count towards your daily word total.

Rewards – Want to dive into that fat new tome by your favorite author or treat yourself to a big slice of chocolate cake covered in vanilla ice cream?  Do your daily writing first.  Your personal budget and your waistline are your own concerns, but I’m here to tell you that you’ll be able to enjoy both that delicious novel and the thrilling dessert a lot more when you can come to them with a prior sense of accomplishment.  Another little trick in the rewards category that you might find useful is to reward yourself while you do your writing.  Pick up that new music CD you’ve been wanting on the way to your favorite café and order yourself a decaf non-fat mocha.  Then do your daily 1000 words while you’re grooving to the new tunes and sipping your tasty beverage.  This one really works, but remember to use it in reverse as well.  Deny yourself rewards when you haven’t been doing your writing.  No ice cream for you till you’ve done 1000 words every day for the next week.  See how fast you grab that laptop and find yourself a chair.  Speaking of chairs, that brings us to our last help in finding time to write.

Chairs – Yes, chairs.  As in somewhere to park your busy posterior so it won’t be moving around town while you’re supposed to be getting your daily writing done.  Seriously, you need to just sit in a chair and let yourself write.  It’s not always about being inspired or having the muse whisper sweet nothings in your ear.  But it is always about getting the work done.  The very successful mystery writer Craig Johnson, a much droller man than I, says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block because he treats his writing like digging a ditch and he’s never heard of anybody suffering from digger’s block and complaining, “You know, I’m just not feeling the ditch today.”  When Johnson’s non-writing workday on the ranch is done, he sits himself down and does his daily writing.  Oh, and another good thing about chairs is that when you’re sitting down, it’s much harder for someone who knows you’re supposed to be writing to come along and kick you in the ass.


On Writing the Bradbury Way

While attending school in Los Angeles some years ago, I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to spend an entire afternoon with one of my writer heroes, Ray Bradbury, author of The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451.  If you don’t know Bradbury’s work, you’re really missing out.  I would suggest that immediately upon reading this post you rush out and buy at least two of the books I named – you won’t be sorry.  You may also want to pick up a copy of his book Zen and the Art of Writing, which contains some of the writing advice I’ll be discussing here (and much more).  Along with Stephen King’s On Writing, Bradbury’s book is one of the best books about writing that I know.  Both of these prolific authors have a knack for stoking the fires of inspiration when your passion for the work has been reduced to smoldering embers.  So if you need a serious kick in the pants to get you back into your home office (or wherever you write), you need look no further than these two.  In the meantime, I’ll do what I can here to get you past that slow patch, or what sometimes gets referred to as the dreaded “writer’s block.”

After showing me and my friend Zac around his office, pointing out memorabilia and knick-knacks from all aspects of his amazing writing career, Bradbury sat us down in his writing space and waved his hands significantly over the IBM Selectric II typewriter that had served as his workhorse through many books and countless short stories.  He told us he’d never used a computer and didn’t imagine he ever would.  His typewriter did the job for him because he knew the one essential secret to being a successful writer.  We scooted forward to the edge of our chairs, eager to hear the secret.  Here’s what he told us:  “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”

There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously, but basically this means that when you sit down to write you need to get out of your own way and let the writing flow out of you as quickly and as naturally as it can.  Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.  Hell, don’t even worry if it’s coherent.  Yeah, it might suck.  It might be embarrassing stuff you don’t want your Aunt Ethel to read.  It might not be something you can ever sell to a publisher.  That doesn’t matter.  You can’t worry about any of those things when you’re in the creative mode.  Just write.  Vomit the words out on to the page (or the screen).  Later you can go back and clean it up, re-crafting into whatever your conscious mind thinks it ought to be.  But when you’re in the mode of drafting something for the first time, you need to get out of your own way and let the magic happen.

Stephen J. Cannell, another hugely successful author best known for his creation of The Rockford Files and many other TV detective series, puts it this way, “Writer’s block comes from the desire to be perfect.”  It’s another angle at the same central principle.  Creativity happens best when you just let it happen.  At its best, writing is more play than work.

When Bradbury started his career and hit upon his vomit method, his goal was to write a short story a week.  He figured that if he wrote 52 stories a year, at least a few of them would have to be good.  No kidding.  He turned out to be Ray Bradbury, one of the best and most respected science fiction writers of the twentieth-century.  But when he started, he was just a kid with thick glasses, unruly hair, and a big dream.  Putting himself in the chair and making himself vomit words on the page over and over again is what made his dreams come true.

This is the method.  Bradbury gave it to me and Zac, and we’ve followed it as our holy gospel ever since.  Now I’m passing it on to you.

Follow this advice and you’ll never go wrong.  Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.

As a footnote to this story, I’d like to add that a few years later, shortly after my first professional sale to a national magazine, I got a postcard in the mail from Ray.  It said simply, “Congratulations!  You’re on your way.”  God bless you, Mr. Bradbury.


The Waiting Game

In some ways, this should be a very exciting time for me.  At a one-on-one meeting at the Willamette Writers Conference in August, an editor (who shall for now remain nameless) at a major publishing house (also nameless for now) requested the full manuscript of my noir novel, The Lawn Man.  After the conference, I sent it off per his request – the whole thing plus a short synopsis.  He also wanted to hear about the next book I have in the works, so I wrote him a pitch for that as well.

Just telling you about my current situation, the thrill comes bubbling back up inside of me.  An actual editor is looking at my novel.  Wow!  That’s amazing.

But, to tell you the truth, mostly I try not to think about it.  After all, that novel is written and done – at least until somebody offers to publish it and asks for revisions.  For now, there’s nothing more I can do to improve the chances of that novel seeing the light of day.  And it’s been two months.  The editor warned me up front that it would likely be as long as two or three months, so I’m practicing my patience, playing the waiting game.  And of course there’s no way I can maintain such a high level of anxiousness anyway.  I’d drive myself crazy for no good reason.  Instead, I try not to think about it.

Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of other things to distract me.  There’s this new blog for one thing.  For another, I’ve always got a few short stories in the works.  What can I say?  I love the form, even though Lawrence Block convinced me in one of his excellent writing books that the early-career writer these days should focus his efforts on composing novels.  Which brings us to my real work at the moment – I’ve got that new novel to write.  And it’s coming along.  Breaking new ground never happens as smoothly as I’d like, but I’m getting the new novel written.  My goal is to complete the first draft before the end of December, and I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.  So far, so good.

While the manuscript of The Lawn Man is with the editor, I’ve also been querying agents more actively than ever.  I figure that whatever the publisher decides, this is my moment to be able to tell an agent my work is being actively considered.  You’ve got to use whatever little trick you have to up the ante and make yourself seem more tantalizing to an agent.  So far, no agents have signed on, though I’ve gotten some truly kind rejections.  I’ve found that with most agents, you hear nothing from a query.  A few, the polite ones, at least send you a “not for me-thanks anyway” (true quote, and yes, that was the entirety of the reply).  The really wonderful ones give you a glimmer of hope even as they turn you down.  You can tell they’ve actually read the query letter and the sample materials.  They’ll say the story seems interesting or the writing is good, but that it’s just not for them.  These are valuable responses because they keep your spirits up.  Of course if you’re anything like me, you also comb through the few sentences of any scraps of added significance, but this activity is probably more the neurotic energy of a compulsive over-reader than any valuable lesson for an aspiring professional writer.

The real lesson, and the one that was driven home for me at the Willamette Writers Conference this year, remains: you can’t take rejection personally.

As an avid lifelong reader, a busy and prolific writer, a long-term bookstore employee, and a literary scholar, I’m used to hanging around readers and writers.  We love books for the magic they contain, the power to connect you with another mind, transport you to another place, allow you live a strange and exotic life while you wander among the pages.  Agents and editors are a different breed.  I’m sure most of them came to their careers because from a deep love of reading, but for them books are a serious business.  Yes, they can seem to make snap judgments, but in the business world time is money, and you can’t waste either on things that don’t serve you, things that don’t meet your immediate needs.  It can sting to be on the receiving end of a quick brush-off, but ultimately everyone is better off.  It’s like speed-dating.  You can’t agree to see everyone again just to be polite.  You need to focus on the one or two that seem like they might be what you’re looking for.  That doesn’t mean the others aren’t perfectly wonderful, lovable people.  But you can’t marry them all.  Or to put it more directly and less metaphorically, when you go to a bookstore you look for something you want to read and you take a few things home, maybe half a dozen selections from a store full of thousands of books.  That doesn’t mean all the other books at the store are worthless.  It simply means you have limited time to read, and you want to read what strikes  your own personal fancy.  Same goes for agents and editors.

Ultimately, all you can do is get out of your own way and write the best novels and stories you can.  That’s the best thing about playing this waiting game.  It reminds me that being a professional writer boils down to one thing: writing.  Not “being a writer” with whatever social cache you imagine that entails, but actually sitting down at your desk and doing the work, writing.


An Ordinary Decent Criminal

I recently read An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy.  It has a great cover — dark, dark blue with the title in somewhat flawed white block letters, the author’s name in also somewhat flawed red block letters, and the distant outlines of a little night-lit town along the bottom.  Presumably the photo shows us the sleepy berg the novel’s title character will be menacing.  Winnipeg.  Yeah, that seems about right.  I’ve never been to Winnipeg, and probably you haven’t either, but we’d both guess that it would look like this.  And Winnipeg seems like exactly the quiet type of place a violent ex-con might settle down if he was trying to clean up his act, make his marriage work, and raise his infant son in peace and safety.  Which, it turns out, is exactly what our eponymous narrator Montgomery Haaviko has decided to do, and Monty really does seem like an ordinary decent criminal, though the local sheriff labels him with that sobriquet somewhat facetiously.  As a narrator, Monty is charming and instantly likable.  You care about him and want him to do well.

The trouble, as the jacket blurb from Michael Koryta suggests, presents itself on the very first page.  Despite our hero’s stated desire for a nice boring life, this novel (in Koryta’s words) “would have Quentin Tarantino smiling from page one.”  Regardless of how you feel about Michael Koryta and Quentin Tarantino, the blurb gives you a good idea of whether this book will suit your tastes.  Other reviewers have also drawn the comparison between Van Rooy’s novel and Tarantino’s films, though I would suggest that ultimately a better comparison might be to an Elmore Leonard character attempting to live on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane.  Monty has an undeniably troubled past and he still harbors dark impulses and an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal skills, but he’s a thoroughly sympathetic character who really seems like he’s trying to be good.  But Winnipeg (in Van Rooy’s version of it) proves to be full of nasty nosy neighbors and corrupt cops.  Monty has to turn bad again just to survive on these Canadian mean streets.

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it with four (out of five) stars.  The narrative voice works.  You care about Monty and want to hear him tell his story, even when you’re not sure if you should entirely believe him.  In the first half of the book, the pacing can be uneven – it drifts into too much detail about the Haaviko home and Monty’s attempt at domestic bliss – but things pick up in the second half and the climax of the tale delivers the goods (with just a couple minor false moves in the storytelling).  I was very pleasantly surprised that ODC turned out to be one of those debut novels capable of getting you very excited not only about the book you’ve just read but also quite eager to see more from the novelist.  Luckily, although this first novel just came out in the US, Van Rooy turns out to be a Canadian author with three books under his belt so there are already two more books waiting to be published in this country.  Of course if you have more money than patience, like one reader I know, you can track down the next two novels down and pony up for shipping to get them sent to your door from their Canadian publisher.  There are worse ways to spend your hard-earned money, and you can bet Monty’s continuing adventures will keep us well entertained.

If you like your crime novels hard-boiled with plenty of wry, dark humor and unpredictable twists, you should read Van Rooy.  You won’t be disappointed.


How I Got Here

I don’t remember learning to read.  I’m sure it I did at some point, but I don’t remember it any more than I remember learning to walk or talk.  I do remember that my first favorite book was Stuart Little, so presumably I was born with good taste.  E.B. White continues to be an influence and role model.  I also remember that when I was about five or so my mother was startled to discover that I could read upside down as easily as right side up.  The position of the text seemed irrelevant as long as you could orient yourself and follow the same basic rules.  In fact, I can still read upside down pretty well to this day, though I’m not quite a fluent as I used to be since by this point I’ve had a lot more experience reading things right side up.  Still, it’s a fun trick and handy snooping device to be able to read things people are writing at a quick glance.  It’s a very useful writer’s trick when you’re trying to be very observant about the people and things around you.  But I’ve learned you’ve got to watch out for this.  Sherlock Holmes makes it seem cool to make casual observations and surprise people with easy deductions and insights.  However, in the age of stalkers and identity thieves, people tend to be more alarmed than impressed if you notice too much about them.  These days I keep it all to myself and save the details to feed my fiction.

In addition to always being a reader, I’ve always been a writer.  My first creative piece that I still have around was screenplay of sorts.  In first grade, we built television screens out of construction paper and created a long sheet of paper with frames containing pictures, dialogue, and narrative.  The sheet could be fed through this makeshift idiot box and the frames told a story.  My story was called “Lost in a Tuba,” and it was about a guy who fell into a sousaphone and couldn’t find his way out.  Okay, I didn’t know that style of tuba was called a “sousaphone” when I was six.  I wasn’t quite that precocious.  But I did start thinking of myself as a writer.  It seemed to go hand in hand with reading, and reading and writing were always the things I did best at in school and enjoyed the most when I wasn’t in school and had the freedom to do whatever I wanted.  Around this time, I also started reading more grown-up books.  Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson kept me up late at night, reading under the covers with my flashlight long after my prescribed bedtime.

I soon learned that apparently if you ignore one prescription, you’ll be given another because it wasn’t much after these late-night reading habits started that I met my first optometrist.  Combined with my tendency to wear my shirts buttoned all the way to the top, my department store glasses helped me bring geek chic to grade school with a vengeance.  Throughout junior high and high school, my bookish demeanor kept me from being especially distracted by girls or sports.  Instead, I got a lot of reading done.  The writers who influenced my adolescence are too many to name, but two stand out above the rest in my memory.  William Styron and F. Scott Fitzgerald cemented my ambition to become a writer.  When I was fourteen, The Great Gatsby became the greatest novel I had ever read, a stature it maintains to this day though it shares the podium with a few other works I’ve encountered since.  At sixteen, I read Sophie’s Choice and first glimpsed the path one takes to become a novelist.

Turns out the path to being a successful writer isn’t so neat and narrow.  In fact, my life has been a long, bumpy ride since those days.  But through it all, reading and writing have been my constant companions.  In fact, I can’t imagine my daily life without both activities.  For a while, studying literature (and literary theory) in graduate school burned the joy of books out of me.  But it came back.  It returned slowly and in the way it first began in my life.  After a few years of only spotty and infrequent reading, I dove back into reading mysteries and crime fiction.  I read the things that felt fun.  And gradually, I realized that instead of trying to write the Great American Novel (which I had done three times without success), I ought to write the type of stuff I read for fun.  So, I did, and very quickly I started publishing short stories in magazines and anthologies.

Now I’ve written a new novel.  This one isn’t the Great American Novel.  It’s a short crime novel, a noir piece, the type of nasty little thing that Jim Thompson or James M. Cain might write if they were still around today.  If it’s not a masterpiece that will find its way onto the college syllabus of the late 21st century, it’s still the type of book that says something about who we are and how we live now.  And, more importantly, it’s the type of book people like to pick up and read.  Because it’s fun.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a lot of fun writing it too.  It’s called The Lawn Man, and I’m shopping it around to publishers and agents right now.  I have a feeling somebody’s going to pick it up because the fun shows through.  I can’t wait till you have a chance to read it.