A Long, Long Way to Go

 

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The writing has been stalled a little bit on the book.  I have big ambitions to get it going again.  I feel like I have probably 80% of the plot worked out, 66% of the structure and over half of the chapters written or at least outlined.  I was feeling overconfident of course, because this weekend I had a chance to read some chapters to a friend of mine.  Like actually sit down and read them out loud.  Do you do this in your writing?  You might not. Odds are you don’t.  In my mind, the words were all great, the story was compelling, but when I read them, it was like I was reading a newspaper printed on a piece of Swiss cheese.  The holes and gaps were distracting.  The reaction I got from my audience was more than enough praise to continue with the project, which really is the point, isn’t it? Say what you will about the artist’s drive to produce something they value themselves, but seriously, don’t we all secretly, in our heart of hearts want someone else to enjoy our stories too?

I don’t think there is any shame in that.  At least know the kind of monster you are.  Some people write because it is a compulsion and some people write for attention.  I just want to be honest here and break it down to what it really is:  a performance.  You don’t see actors performing entire plays on their own in their homes do you?  Then why would any writer want anyone to read their work when they could just as comfortably write a book, put it on a shelf or leave it on their hard-drive, indifferent as to whether or not anyone would ever read it?  It is silly and pretentious to say you, as an author, don’t write for your audience.  Don’t play to the audience, but at least be honest with yourself and say you would get a thrill seeing that book on a shelf.  Otherwise, you are either lying or crazy.

Having had my work heard and received well, I realized that the audience it failed to impress was me.  I know I’m a better writer than that.  Granted this was first draft stuff, but I found myself frustrated with the quality of my work.  It resonated with my daughter’s honest review of my book, Song of the Cinder.  She’s 14.  Which means she has no filter when it comes to cutting dear old dad down to size.  She liked the book.  Said it had all sorts of excellent things about it, but I killed her favorite character, almost predictably and the ending felt rushed.

She was right.  The ending was rushed.  I had spent five years on the story from the first short story I had written to the novel it eventually became.  Not saying it wasn’t fun to write, and well-received, but also she was right.  At some point I told myself I needed to just finish the damned thing.  I needed to move on creatively from that story and it was a make or break situation.  Sorta like that old car restoration project your uncle has had up on blocks in his yard for the last twenty years.  Either finish the damned thing or sell it to someone who will!

However, no matter how perfect and well-centered teenaged daughters might be I thought of her advice when I was cleaning her room the other day.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I badgered her all summer long to clean her closet.  She wouldn’t even break stride while she texted her friends and she would simply say, “Okay, I’ll do it tomorrow.”  Well, shortly after sending her back to her mom’s house for the week, I decided enough I-will-do-it-tomorrows had passed.  I chucked two large garbage bags of crumpled up drawings, half-finished projects, and clothes that hadn’t fit for years that had accumulated at the bottom of her closet like some sort of sludge, ideal for the preservation of organic material that could be fossilized for later study by scientists long after humanity has wiped itself out.

I couldn’t even blame her.  She had emotional attachment to a lot of these drawings, though they were treated like garbage, ultimately.  The task must have been completely overwhelming.  That two foot by five foot area may as well have been the Marianas Trench.  She needed someone impartial, cold and unfeeling towards the sentiment of the accumulated crap she had collected there over the years.  She was too close to it to even know where to begin.

Maybe that’s my problem with the book.  Scrivener is an awesome tool for writing, but in some ways I think it makes it too easy to start something, lose it, and never finish it or have to keep restarting it because you can’t find it.  I wrote Cinder on Word, one chapter at a time, rather than one scene or segment at a time.  I compiled it in Scrivener and dumped it into a PDF file for publication.  I have been no better off with it as a writing tool, because it isn’t much help in letting me do the job.  So either I need to figure out a way to stop struggling with the tool, or ditch it outright and go back to what has worked.

Anyway, one thing I do need to do is continue to focus on chiseling away at the novel.  Jumping around might be attractive, but really it’s a matter of getting the words down.  If I write all the fun scenes right off, then what motivation have I got to write the meat and potatoes of it later?  None, really.

So, maybe for your writing, consider reading it outloud to someone else.  Even if they love it, they might just be impressed that you can put words down on paper, or maybe they are jealous and cut your writing down because you finished something that wasn’t a text about how dismal and dark existence is and how High School has no meaning.  I don’t know.  But I do know that maybe at some point I really need to rip and tear, chuck things I haven’t looked at in forever, and just clean out the closet.

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I haven’t left off yet!

Sorry, but due to life stuff, I had to take a few days off from the blog.  Luckily it was writing.  Unfortunately, it was writing copy and not working on the book.  I plan on dedicating more time to the book in the next few days, since I am actually pretty sick of writing copy for company blogs right now.

I think this might be a good moment to talk about writing for fun and profit.

The phenomenon known as writing SEO copy or “blogging for dollars” is relatively new, but fairly ubiquitous as far as the internet stands now.  If you have ever clicked on a link, some poor schmuck probably wrote that copy.  Complete with clickbait titles about how Mind-blowing, earth-shaking, unbelievable, shocking, ball-shriveling shit the cameraman saw and kept filming you will never believe!  Yes, clickbait.  I swear the same person that creates porn titles makes these.  Yet we keep on clicking on them.  Now they are tucked into our news feeds on CNN and Yahoo like the heartworm medicine you are trying to sneak into your golden retriever’s food.

Very little of the stuff you read nowadays online is written by writers earning a living wage or editors, fact checkers, etc. that make sure any of this is true.  Even in the early days of online content, there was a buyer beware statement that became kind of a running joke.  “Don’t believe everything you read online.  Including this.”  Then memes appealed to the basest of our insta-gratification monkey on cocaine needs.  Content, regardless of its truthfullness, sorta became optional.  As long as it generated hits.

The way SEO works is Google looks through the content of your “blog” which is really now just a business model for creating random words that string Search Engine Optimization keywords together.  It doesn’t really matter what you say, just as long as Google picks up on those words and when people do a search for them, they bring your page for your business to the first page of search results.  Nobody ever clicks beyond the first page.

The words you put in there might be accurate or helpful or ipsum blahty blah blah blah.  It’s more of a “made you look!” method of advertising.  So when you do a search for “Why do I have white patches on my tongue?” it will probably bring up a dozen or so medical offices in your area, enticing you into their appointment calendar.  Then they can convince you that it’s probably just something you ate instead of what WebMD told you, which is always cancer.

How much do you get paid to generate content?  Well, back in the day, you used to get around $.30 per word.  Which is scale for technical writing. But content mills such as HuffPost changed all of that.  Rather than paying anyone scale, they dropped it down to sweatshop rates.  Some places offer “exposure” which is also the leading cause of death among hikers in Death Valley.

I sometimes get paid anywhere between $2 and $40 per blog.  It varies based on customer or word count.  The article I wrote for Cracked got $100 for a 1500 word article.  Which got heavily edited and I had to share the money and the byline with someone who put almost no effort into it.  By the end of it, the whole process was probably about 30 hours of work.  So that’s minimum wage.  Blogs are more lucrative, but keeping up that kind of pace sucks because they also mean expending writing brain power for informative articles about anything from Alpaca sweaters to painless root canals.  You have to shift gears.  Research.  It’s taxing and trying.  Nobody reads it.  There’s no byline.  The content is owned exclusively by the client, so there’s not even a portfolio I can put them in.  But hey, forty bucks is forty bucks.

Don’t hate the player.  Hate the game.

Writing the book…well, lets just say even if you sell a book to a publisher, in the SF genre, you probably get around $6,000 as an advance.  That drops with each book.  It’s not enough to live on.  Royalties aren’t all that great either unless the book does well.  I have friends who struggle to market their fiction and this is stuff that big deal publishers should be promoting! Self-publishing (which is what I did with Cinder) is even less (unless you recommend it to tons of your friends!)  The bottom line is there is a lot of work going into a labor of love that might not even get you coffee for the month.  I’m not talking a month of coffee. I’m talking about one coffee per month.

So, sure, writing content is selling out a little.  But it allows me to make a little money on the side for a god-given talent and convince myself I’m less of a fraud whenever people hear that I am a writer.

I can answer with confidence.  Yes.  Yes I am. I get paid to write.

Not Quitting Your Day Job and How to Sell Out for Fun and Profit!

You will never get rich writing short stories and submitting them to magazines.

Out of the online communities and couple dozen or so writers, editors, etc. that I have shared words with over the last ten years, they will all tell you the same thing.  This isn’t the 1930s anymore, where the great pulp writers like Howard or Lovecraft could earn a living off the checks from Weird Tales, and it’s not even the 1970s where you probably read about Stephen King’s first big sale to Playboy in his book On Writing that inspired you to say, “Hey!  If I sell this story, I won’t starve at least!”

No, you are going to starve.

For one thing, writing takes a long time.  Not only the start to finish of it all, from concept to the polished manuscript (which is hilarious, because you will always be able to polish a manuscript even more), but considering the submission/editing process, and if they buy it (which odds are, they won’t) you are going to be missing a lot of meals between you acceptance letter and the arrival of your check if you go that route.

The vast majority of magazines pay a pittance.  Compared to the hours of work you soaked into that story, you are better off working at a Taco Bell.  Most publications pay in exposure or just a token amount nowadays.  The big magazines are limited to space and they are also used to selling the writers they already know are popular, which means that the same people who inspired you to write and submit to that magazine are likely your biggest competition and the promise of them submitting a trunk story for a check that will cover their car payment or their kid’s braces that month will edge your 3,000 word short story of epic brilliance to the deleted items file in your slush-reader’s laptop.

You are currently starving.

I really, really hope you didn’t quit your day job.  Even if magazines like Playboy still bought fiction, they aren’t paying out four figure amounts to writers for their brilliance anymore.  Unless the writer holds a prominent place on the NYT Bestseller list or just sold their soul to a movie production company for a cool million bucks so you can watch whatever the scriptwriters have butchered into so much dogmeat for a summer movie in a couple years.

The truth is I love to write.  I love how language is a maleable medium, like clay is to a sculptor, metal is to a welder, or mashed potatoes is to a guy who has been abducted by aliens.  I could go on with the metaphors for days. I’m a writer.  Metaphors are to me what Thalo-blue and a fan brush was to Bob Ross.  I fucking love them!

What do I like almost as much?  Getting paid to write.  The satisfaction of a job well-done is unparalleled, unless you are putting an actual dollar amount to it.  This means that not only did someone like what you wrote, but now you can pay the bills, maybe buy a sandwich, or a new pair of shoes so you can write some more stuff!

In fiction, my total royalties and paychecks is probably under $1000 after ten years of effort.  My biggest paycheck was $100 for a 10,000 word short story at a penny a word.  The publication is no longer around.  The shoes I bought with the check I cashed wore out less than a year later.  Keens.  They were pretty nice.  My first paycheck was for a 3,000 word fiction story.  It was $10.  A year went by until the next $10 sale came.  I probably sent that ms out to a dozen places.  Around $3 a pop for postage.  It’s actually costing me money to write at this point.  That is why I have a full-time job with insurance and everything.  Even when it sucks, I know it’s going to make sure I don’t die.

So, what do you do when your best talent is putting words together but in this culture, you’ll starve to death if you try to do what you love?  You sell out.  That’s what.

I write SEO content for business blogs.  I made more money selling one blog about heavy equipment truck tires than I did the first three short story sales I made combined.  I have written all sorts of things, from product descriptions about dry-aged beef that can be shipped to your door, to gas-permeable membranes and cladding used in construction.  All sorts of shit.  And the sad thing is writing this stuff actually supplements my income.  It makes sure my checks don’t bounce, even with the day job, even with a divorce and child support payments, and insurance and car payments. Oh the glamorous life of a writer!  It’s probably no different than yours, is it?

If you have read this far, that means you are a writer yourself. You are interested in that calling.  You might be a little depressed right now or are telling yourself that my failures don’t mean you won’t sell your space opera to Harper Collins and Ridley Scott will send you the seven figure check tomorrow!  If that happens, then I lost the bet.  Congratulations.  Or you might consider the lucrative world of selling out.  Because hey, you are still writing, and you are getting paid.  It’s actually a good way to sharpen your skills.  And feel like less of an impostor when you tell people you are a writer.  Because that’s all anyone really gives a shit about when they ask what you do.  They aren’t asking what you LOVE, they are asking what keeps you from starvation.  In my case, writing is a big part of that.  It keeps me from giving up on the writing I love doing too: The fiction.

Right now, I’m not getting paid to blog this stuff.  I’m writing it to get your attention in the hopes that you like what you see here enough to buy a copy of my book.  I’m not getting rich doing it, but I hope that you read my book and get something out of it.  I might get a couple bucks.  I can make more money writing about plantar fasciitus or alpaca sweaters than I will make off the royalties of my book.

I wrote a book!  Buy it.  Give it a review on Amazon once you read it! That is the kind of stuff that keeps me wanting to write more fiction and less blogs about root canals.  Which are nearly as painful to write as getting a root canal.  But, the money flows to the author.  Even if it’s only like $10.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get asked this a lot. If you write fiction, chances are, you do too.

The answer is simpler to say where DON’T I get my ideas. I would like to say that I read a lot. I don’t. I have kids. A full-time job outside of writing. Various writing oriented side jobs that help pay the bills. And the need to actually get out and have fun. I live close to the mountains in Colorado, so if a nice day goes by and I wasn’t out in it, I start to get a little cranky.

I glean a lot of my ideas from my own experiences. Little details can inspire me. A snippet of conversation overheard at a park or restaurant. Things that take me out of the real world, such as a Renaissance fair, or a bookstore, or just walking alone in the woods. Horrible people at the store, failed relationship, unrequited loves, random people you meet on the bus. A big part of writing is the characters. Collect experiences with interesting people and use them for your own nefarious purposes. Settings are next. Then the plot will come.

When I read, I tend to throw myself into reading until that book is done. I don’t get a lot of writing done when I’m reading. Sometimes I get ideas from arguments on the internet. Sometimes it’s from something as wonderful as a truly, awesomely shitty movie.

Bad movies often have more imagination than their production value was able to afford. They have a lot of heart. They have great characters…its just they couldn’t pay actors who were good enough to play them. And they sure as hell couldn’t afford better set designs.

The worst part about being inspired by bad movies is the ego trip involved, since you are telling yourself “I could write something better than this!” You are probably right. But the key here is actually getting on your butt and doing it!

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% staying off the internet.

You’ll never write your novel just by making whitty comments on facebook. You’ll get instant gratification that somebody “liked” it within ten seconds of your posting, but that’s like trying to live off M&Ms for your life. When what you really need is a steak and a salad and a glass of good red wine. Facebook is the bag of candy. It’s just going to rot your teeth.

I’m on Facebook a lot. I’m lucky I have any motivation to write anything at all.

Also, social media doesn’t give you ideas like the good old forums used to. Some of Cinder was inspired by a science fiction magazine webforum. I don’t remember which bits. The forum is long gone now. I still keep in touch with some of the patrons.

Honestly, hanging out with those people in a virtual environment taught me more about writing and trying to publish fiction than a four year degree at a University which got me a degree in English and nothing much else to show for it.

More on that at another time. Here’s the obligatory link to my book!

What’s the Best Way to Learn How to Write?

Simple answer: By writing. A lot. But really, if you want to sell stories. If you want to hone your craft, you have to start getting used to hearing the word “No” a lot.

You’ll hear it more than you ever heard it as a Freshman asking someone out on a date. You’ll hear it more than you’ve heard it asking a boss for a promotion. You’ll hear it more than you have heard it asking a highway patrolman if you could just get off with a warning this time. You’ll hear it and like those events, in the beginning, you’ll hear it with laughter.

If you got published on your first try, congratulations. I hate you. But if you were like the rest of us who live in the real world, it stung. You probably thought your concept and delivery was better than the latest Nebula or Hugo winner. Certainly better than that movie you watched on Netflix the other night.

It probably wasn’t. Or maybe it was and it just wasn’t for that publisher?

Put some organizational skills to work. Make a list of magazines/editors/publishers/agents you want to send your work to. Make sure they can or can’t take simultaneous or multiple submissions. Also use the spreadsheet to figure out what their return times are like. There are a number of websites that can help you with this.

Oddly enough an agent or publisher, for you aspiring novelists out there, will get back to you probably within a month to just a few weeks. They will be curt. Blunt. They will expect a finished copy to read if they like what you send. If they don’t, they will just say no. Magazine publishers will sit on that rejection notice for upwards of a year. Most sales I have made were sold within three months.

The problem with agents/publishers is the slushpile is run by interns, and they get traded to other agencies that spring up worse than a freeagency. When they leave, they usually leave a big slushpile for the next sucker…er, intern to go through. More often than not, they just purge the whole pile. That’s why you didn’t hear back. It’s nothing personal.

Now, as far as learning the process on how to write, take my college creative writing class. Out of the 30 or so students in there, everything we wrote was amazing. Our professor gave us the same kind of praise that parents and grandparents given when they stick a crappy drawing a kid has given them onto the fridge. Only the kid actually might go somewhere.

A class like that isn’t doing you any favors. You aren’t hearing “No” you are just wallowing in reports of your own genius. Well, genius, how do you explain how you have an A in the class, but nobody will buy your story? What does that say? Is it something about your story or the way it was graded? Maybe both. Maybe neither. EIther way, it’s frustrating to hear about how great your story and writing is, only to have a recent MFA graduate send you an email saying “Thank you for your submission to our publication. Unfortunately were are going to have to pass on this. It just didn’t hold my attention. We look forward to seeing more work from you in the future. Best of luck in your writing endeavors!”

It took me about ten seconds to type that up. I have the cadence and the structure memorized because I’ve seen it so many times. Yet the words still sting when you read them about your own stuff. They should. They mean very little, but what they should mean is this: I lived through the experience and I’m not going to let it stop me.

Because rejection letters can be a death of a thousand cuts. Don’t take them to heart. They didn’t mean much when they were written. They shouldn’t mean much when you read them. Be like a duck and let them roll off your back. But keep submitting your work. Reread it. Rewrite it. Leave it in a file for a month, go back to it and make adjustments. Write something else. Because everytime you finish something, your writing will improve.

You can’t learn how to write in a classroom. You can get practice doing it because of that grade. Then you can get used to doing it even when someone isn’t looking.

Reading is important, sure. Just be sure you aren’t just emulating your favorite author and you are actually developing your own voice. The word out there is you won’t even accomplish this until after your first million words. Better get started!

How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: It took about five years to write Song of the Cinder. From the first novella I came up with about fighter pilots who tangle with a dragon to the finished product you can buy on Amazon.com or Createspace.

The story itself took about three years. Then two years of editing. Lots of late nights. Lots of rewrites. Lots of procrastination. A year of shopping it out to publishers and agents. Out of 30 of these queries I sent out, I got six partial manuscript requests. Three of those were full ms requests. Unfortunately all of those were a pass, but not because they didn’t like the writing or the story, it’s just they couldn’t figure out an angle to market the damn thing!

So, I decided to self-publish. It became more important for me to let people read the book than it did to rake in that JK Rowling green or sell a treatment to HBO.

Self-publishing is a lot of work. It isn’t just your kooky uncle wanting to write his memoirs or your great aunt wanting to share recipes. With a novel you become your own editor, publisher, art-director, marketer, etc. etc. ad infinitum. You have to change hats completely. It really messes with the creative process. Editors can be writers and vice versa, but never at the same time.

So, then it was a month of just messing with formatting and the cover. I took the picture myself. Formatted everything myself. Took care of widows and orphans and wacky page breaks. There are still a few typos in the book. You will see them.

You can buy my book here, here, and here. Enjoy!

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Welcome to the Cinderverse

The somewhat cryptic persona and voice in the other posts is from a world close to, similar, and familiar with our own.  Only about a hundred years in the past.  This post is from myself, Clinton A. Harris, writer, dad, a working schlub most of the time kinda like you.

This is the voice of the author.  I’m here to tell you about the process.  Where the stories come from.  Various meanderings and thoughts that contribute to make the novels I hope you will be enjoying soon.

I see the world in a weird way and I like to tell stories about what I see.  To be honest, a lot of the reason I started writing Song of the Cinder was because there weren’t a lot of books that I could get into.  I was tired of the high fantasy books of farmer boys who became kings and I was frustrated with fantasy tropes where the names contained lots and lots of apostrophes.

For a while, I was writing lots of short stories.  I was even publishing a few of them every now and then.  Nobody gets rich off selling short stories anymore.  That’s a writerly tip. You’ll see those every now and then, interspersed with glimpses into the world my writerly friends and first-readers have nicknamed the Cinderverse.

It’s in the writerly bits that you’ll see how the sausage gets made.  In the other stuff, you might find snippets of chapters, things I have scrapped, standalone stories, or just things that have inspired me here and there.

I liked steampunk because of the imagery.  The juxaposition of low-tech and high.  The Victorian aesthetic which was all about form and status.  Details that we no longer see.  There was a level of craftsmanship in the Victorian world that died out shortly after the rise and fall of Art Deco style.  When people could just have a company in China or Japan stamp out things that were built to fall apart en masse, we lost a lot of cool stuff.

This world isn’t quite steampunk though.  I learned that writing short stories.  Editors got picky about the aesthetic.  They wouldn’t publish stories if one or more elements wasn’t just so.  I guess my stuff is more like dieselpunk.  Or maybe even what they would have called Weird Fiction in the 1930s.  I like blending things.  Magic.  Fairy tales.  Cosmic horror.  Heroic fiction.  High fantasy.  Folklore.

In short, I like writing stories I would love to read.

I hope you enjoy them too.

More will follow.  Here are some links to get your own copy of Song of the Cinder.

A good deal on Createspace.

Or if you prefer Kindle and Amazon.com.

Fiction by Clinton A. Harris: Song of the Cinder

If you’ve found this site, you are probably thinking you are in the wrong place.  That’s the first thing you’ve been right about all day.  There’s no going back for you.  There’s only one thing you can do about it.  Have I got your attention?

Good.

Let’s begin.

My name is Clinton A. Harris.  I tell stories.  Not much else I could tell you about myself is of consequence.  But in my writing, there is a place that haunts me.  World not unlike our own.  What if I told you that in a not-so-different place, there was a time where creatures of the Other world, known in some circles as the Sidhe, Faerie, the Shadowlands, or a dozen other names.

This story, Song of the Cinder, takes place in the year 1918.  The world is at war.  On the border of Gaul and the Holy Roman Empire, armies of the undead rise from the trenches to fight against clockwork automatons. Storms are summoned against artillery and aircraft instilled with the souls of warhorses rule the skies over Europe.

In this world, the Americas were never conquered by the royal houses of Europe.  Colonies are held in trust by the Seven Nations, a confederacy of tribal states, which lease the lands of the New World to European immigrants.  Instead of mastery of the horse, these indigenous people became masters of the sky.  In Europe, the purging of the Other during a bloody war of 30 years spawned an industrial revolution, placing mechanization over the Folk, all but driving them out of the world.  But there are remnants.  Magic and automation are fused into terrifying machines of war.  Ancient beings and curses are used in the theatre of war alongside bombs and bullets.  Poisonous gas that brings the dead to life and nations to their knees.  Witchcraft, legend, and heroes vying for power in a world turned upside down.  A crossroads of myth and industry at the dawn of the 20th Century.

The first story takes place in the middle of the Great War.  American ace, John Lightfoot, witnesses an airship materialize and explode over no-man’s-land. As cities fall to ash, he and his comrades must stop a madman from severing the ties binding the Beast at the Center of Five Worlds before it can return and create Hell on earth.

This is only the first in a series of tales about this world.  The settings and players might be familiar as all worlds echo and resonate in the spaces between them.