The Secret to Successful Writing Part 2

In four years of college, I learned a few things about writing.  In the years following college, I learned everything else.

What I learned in college

First of all, only one of my professors actually wrote outside of academia.  He was a poet. The thing that struck me most about him was how he had no front teeth and wore sweatpants to class.  But the first night, he showed up and memorized the names of 30 students.  He came into the Barnes and Noble where I was working years later and remembered my name.  Asked me how the writing was going.  I’ll never forget that.

In my creative writing courses, I learned that a bunch of kids can sit around and pat each other on the back for whatever crap they churn out.  Their teacher can grade them, encourage them to submit to literary magazines, and steeple their fingers, look thoughtful, and really have no fucking idea what they are talking about.

But in college, we built a community of writers in that class that encouraged each other to write.  That was a good thing to take away from it.

What else I learned

I decided I wanted to be a writer in college when an art class revealed how much my drawing skills sucked (I wanted to be an illustrator like Michael Whelan or Ted Nasmith).  I was self-taught, but art does require talent.  Then I started playing music with some friends from high school.  We had a garage band.  We made an album.  It was then that I realized that being a professional drummer does require some talent.  So, I started working on a book.

Turns out, I actually had some talent for that.  Writing does require talent.  I was blessed with a big brain, a bigger mouth, and a masochistic quality I didn’t know about myself that the word “No” just makes me try harder.  From an editor, that is.  No means no, kids.  Remember that.  From an editor it means “Fix your goddamned grammar, do more than a second draft, and try harder next time.”

In spite of not being very well-read, I did know my way around a story, and I loved descriptive language.  (I was a shit English major, having only read about 10% of the assigned work and never having taken notes throughout my academic career–I was a B+ student).

When the book was finished, I expected instant fame and success.  To be honest, I had two drafts down on the manuscript, but I had entire reams that were rubberbanded together that I would ship off to a publisher or editor once in awhile.  I did actually get back a signed rejection letter a few times.  Little did I know back then, but that was actually a good sign.

I decided to start writing short stories.

I thought this would be easier than writing novels.  Did I mention I was young and stupid?

Short stories are like the crucible of testing your worth as a writer.  They test your true talent, which isn’t dazzling people with dialog or description or poetry.  The true talents of being a writer are as follows:

  • Resilience: You will be told “no.”  Your college prof might have blown smoke up your ass, but in reality, you are competing with some amazing writers.  Most of you won’t ever be published.  If you can’t take “no” then stop writing, stop submitting your writing, and just be a reader.  Because you will be told NO.
  • Perseverance: Being told No is the best thing you can hear, because it gives you room to improve.  It also should spur you on to say “fuck you!” and keep your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keys where they belong, writing more stuff.  By the way, that is the other piece of perseverance.  No matter how bored you get, how lonely you are, or how you would rather be binge-watching Ozark, you have to keep writing.
  • Memory: Sure writers read a lot.  But they also remember.  Snippets of dialog overheard at diners, family reunions, sunsets and long deep kisses, all the sensory memories get put back onto the page.  Otherwise, none of that research means anything. If you can’t remember, carry a notepad around with you and write shit down.
  • Adaptation: The story you are writing has probably been written by someone else.  They were better, smarter, and more connected too.  So adapt.  Adapt to shifting markets. Adapt to new trends.  Learn how to catch a wave and ride it in.  Keep tabs on trends and try not to be the guy who writes what is popular now, because that trend already started dying two years ago when the big deal ms started going through the publishing houses.
  • Stepping outside of yourself: Your work needs to marinate, grow, evolve, whatever.  But you are biased.  Read it critically. If you can’t, sucker somebody else to read it and allow them to be brutal.  Don’t take it personally.
  • Knowing when to shut up: Not only when knowing when to stop your story, but also within your community of writers.  I have seen careers torpedoed when someone expressed their opinions on gun control, abortion, socialism, gay marriage, feminism, and any other socio-political movement out there.  Unless you are a political writer, keep your writer persona OUT of politics.
  • Procrastination/Inspiration: Take those moments when the muse strikes (for example, I have written two blog posts on the subject of writing in about an hour).  But get over the procrastination that is keeping you from writing $10 a pop articles about clamps. One is fun.  The other will let you buy fish and chips on your upcoming trip to London.  TODAY is the day you need to get started on your novel.  Not “tomorrow.”  Jeez, haven’t you ever seen Annie?
  • Writing books and short stories is as different as running marathons and the 100 meter.  Both involve vaguely the same activity. But the two are vastly different.  Practice BOTH of them if you can.
  • Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and read that shit.  If I had done that, I could have saved my dad thousands of dollars in tuition for my English major.
  • True talent is knowing how to stick all of these together.
  • Iron sharpens iron.  Bad writing that is encouraged will result in more bad writing.  I’m looking at you Season 8 of Game of Thrones!

Knowing your shit when it comes to writing that sells

On the internet forums, I got a Masters/PhD course in creative writing from some of the greatest minds in the SF/F genre.  I’m going to name drop.  Gardner Dozois was one of them.  He was extremely generous in what he shared.  He was good friends with Isaac Asimov, George RR Martin, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, etc. etc. effing etc.  He wasn’t the only one on those forums who had info to share either.

A bunch of us would just pester the hell out of them as to what worked and what didn’t.  Some of this I learned from hundreds of rejections too.  After a while, you just get it.  Here’s some gems I wish my creative writing teacher in college would have known.

  • Show, don’t tell:  Unless you need to tell.  Then tell. It’s okay.
  • Start as close to the action as possible: Nobody needs a bunch of backstory to enjoy a story.  All of that can be whittled away with a good enough description or turn of phrase
  • Create likable characters:  this is called Pathos.  The reader needs to identify with characters in order to become invested in them.
  • Muddy characters: Nobody likes a Mary Sue.  Give your characters some grit as well as vulnerabilities.
  • Hooks to catch their interest: How many damned John Joseph Adams rejection letters I got with the dreaded “Alas, this didn’t catch my interest” was due to a lack of a decent hook.
  • Pacing to hold your readers’ interest:  See the JJA rejection letter above.
  • Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end:  Start strong/Finish strong.  The middle should be good too.
  • Connections: Treat everyone with respect.  Don’t make enemies.  One day, the person you helped out might become an editor and say, “Hey, I know somebody who writes this stuff!” and they might invite you to contribute to an anthology. At the very least, they won’t blackball you for calling them a bad word online.
  • Also, the writer is NOT the same as the stuff they write:  I have a lot of writer friends who I know only as friends who share the same obsession and I am impressed by their character, not their works.  I guess that is why they are friends and I’m not necessarily a fan.  They also pick their nose in traffic and cheat at Monopoly.
  • Just dumb luck: A lot of people out there can’t write their way out of a paper bag.  But they have three book deals, seven figure advances, and sold their soul to HBO for a series.  It happens.  Just be grateful if it happens to you, and try not to be an asshole about it.  Luck is a one shot deal, but putting in the work is real.
  • TAKE ALL ADVICE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

But try to keep the words of W. Somerset Maugham in mind:

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 

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Writing More, Living More

While I work on the blog, I realize there are a lot of things about it I don’t like.  It has a certain voice.  I find myself pulling punches to appeal to a type of audience, branding myself as a neutral traveler, when really this whole experience is about learning more about myself, making observations about the world and the people I encounter.  That’s hard to do when you are hoping one day to get money from affiliate links, writing about backpacks and water bottles.

So, as I write the blog, I am also writing a book.  Semi-fictional.  Semi-autobiographical in the vein of Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

On one level, the blog is frustrating because a lot of it is fluffy travel writing, which fewer than 20 people are even reading.  It’s almost like writing for yourself since nobody even gives enough of a shit to comment or even like what they say.  One person from a writers forum said she liked the way I wrote, comparing the blog to a book.  I wonder if that didn’t make me think of the voice a little differently.  I’ve been writing books and stories for a long time now.  That is my predominant voice.  I found myself pulling my punches as I wrote, only being on the surface when I really wanted to get my hands dirty.

Writers take risks.  They cut the story down through the meat and to the bone.  It’s like what combat photographer Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”  I admire Capa and his work.  The man died stepping on a mine in 1963 in a rice paddy in Vietnam while on patrol photographing American soldiers during a policing operation.  His photographs are iconic.  They spanned from the Spanish Civil War to the Invasion of Normandy and beyond until one day he got too close.

I think my writing could be better if I got closer.  The travel blog is a lot of fun, but something inside of me wants to go to that next level.  Dance like nobody is watching, sing like nobody is around to hear you, and write like nobody is reading.  Because chances are nobody is anyway.

Might as well pluck the story from the sky, the way Steven Pressfield talks about, since all stories already exist, it’s just up to the writers to pull them out of the aether and show them to the world.

Anyway, I have found that writing paid blogs, working on the travel blog and website, and even journaling doesn’t mean that I run out of things to write anymore.  If anything, I’m more concerned I won’t want to stop writing.  It’s like a small crack has formed in a dam and rather than the water running dry, it just makes the crack bigger and bigger until…

The travel writing won’t be a substitute for my day job.  The site is bullshit.  I can’t monetize it.  I made a mistake with the hosting and should have just gone through WordPress and gotten my URL.  Now I’m limping around with a lame site that isn’t even secure and I’m a couple hundred dollars poorer as a result.  I wish I could scrap it all and start over, but I got sold a bill of goods.  Now I’m stuck with it.

In a year, I won’t be working at my day job.  Either I will be fired because my supervisor doesn’t like me, or the university will be doing more layoffs so upper Administrators can take trips to conferences in Kuala Lumpur, while the rest of us fight for scraps.  I am disheartened and disillusioned.  Talk about zigging when I should have zagged.  My pension will be worthless if they fire me or lay me off too.  So much for nearly 20 years in the Academy.

But one good thing the blog is doing is getting me out, making me find things to write about, and the more I write, the more stories I have to tell and the easier it is to tell them.  I’m going to work with that at least.

Last night I wrote two posts to publish at future dates and did some journaling. I have written a chapter in the fantasy novel and tonight I wrote a chapter in the new project.  I haven’t been on facebook much at all because I have other things to do which challenge my mind.  Something that hasn’t been done right in a long time.

What have I got to lose?  Nothing much these days.  Maybe I have everything to gain.

Watch The Leftovers (the HBO series)

This is an older series on HBO I thought I would review because it is just such a good show and in a world where most television these days just sucks, this one is worth watching.  A lot of people have discussed this show already, and it has long-since gone to pasture in the rotation on HBO streaming and on-demand.  The Leftovers is about a post-apocalyptic world–quite possibly the literal Apocalypse–and a myriad of characters all surviving in a time shortly after 144 million people around the planet just vanished in their tracks.

There will be spoilers.

From weird religious cults (the Silent Remnant, the Holy Wayne guy who hugs people to take away their pain, and others), to people just completely unable to cope in life.  Nora is a woman who works for an organization that investigates disappearances and validates who has actually been taken away in a Rapture-like event.  Kevin is a small town police chief whose life always seems to be just on this side of running off the rails.  Then there is his wife, Laurie, who has joined a cult of people trying to smoke themselves to death, and all they do is stand around in white sweatsuits, chainsmoking, and annoying people.  There is Nora’s brother, a minister, whose wife is in a catatonic state.  Various family members who are their own special blend of crazy, and everyone in between.

Each has their own weird way of showing that things are no longer right with the world.  Nora hires people to shoot her while wearing a bulletproof vest.  Her loss is significant because the event took her entire family.  Kids, husband, everyone.  Kevin’s loss was during the act of cheating on his wife, and then there is a subplot about his own father dealing with mental illness, which may be hereditary.

There are three seasons of this show, which are too hard to summarize.  Characters come and go.  There is even a move to a town that was unaffected by the event, and the third season is more or less an exploration of Kevin’s mind and the possibility that he may be some kind of messianic character.  Nora’s brother, thinks so anyway, and starts a chronology of his life and experiences.  Which mostly just pisses Kevin off.

The reason I want to talk about the series is to paint a broad brush about what it is about.  I’ve heard YouTube channel reviews about how it’s the typical literary trope about everything being imagined by Kevin or Nora, and there was no Rapture.  Which is pretty standard in theory and criticism since freakin’ Freudian psychology got introduced to English majors back in the 80s and 90s.  It’s exhausting. It’s annoying.  It’s one way of looking at it, but it’s also lazy.

The nice thing about fiction is when you write it, you can take an idea and run with it.  I think in the case of the Leftovers, the premise was “What if this Rapture happened and what would it mean to everyone left behind?”  I think that’s fairly easy to imagine.  If you have ever read the comics and pamphlets some churches distribute about airplanes suddenly being without pilots or cars without their drivers.  Children.  Teachers.  Everything else, where people are taken at seemingly random and the spaces they leave behind, and the chaos which ensues.

But that’s only the surface.  The Rapture event is just the device to bring the story on a universal level that gets our attention.  The truth of the matter is that the world of the Leftovers isn’t much different than the real world.  This is because the events of this story are happening every day.  The theme of the Leftovers is simple: loss.

Each of us has experienced or will experience loss in some way in our lives.  The loss the characters experience are just ways to investigate a different element of loss.  For Nora, it’s sudden loss of her husband and children.  For Kevin, it’s the loss of his family because the trauma fractured everyone and pulled each of them apart, even though they all still exist somewhere in the world.  Laurie abandons her family and clings onto a cult, creating a new family, who doesn’t necessarily want her for altruistic reasons.  Their children spiral out of control, the center no longer able to hold together.

Matt the reverend loses his wife to a catatonic state, to where he has to become her full-time caretaker.  It is what happens to everyone, every day in the real world, but the story strips it down to its skeleton and forces us to examine an entire world that is reeling from loss, openly.  Even to the point to where each year, they relive the event in their minds with a festival, where many people expect the event to happen again and take even more people.  The Event becomes something everyone fixates upon.

Some have a need to make sense of it.  Others demand that it be ruminated upon to the point of a cult focus, begrudging any who refuse to obsess over it.  Terrorizing them.  Harming others for their need to hold on to this trauma (the Smokers).

Our world, like the world of Kevin, Nora, Matt, and Laurie is filled with loss.  And like a game of Tetris, when blocks are taken away, the order of things changes.  Everything falls to the next level, affecting that place as well.  A chain reaction of how people deal with loss is happening all around us.

Whether it is the loss of a loved one to death, there is confusion, regret.  Maybe that last moment of arguing with someone, only to realize that anger and sour words were the last things you shared with that person.  Or maybe it was just something as simple as dropping a child off at school and never seeing them alive again.  Maybe it was someone you expected to lose, but it hurts no less than something that was sudden.  Loss isn’t always death.  Sometimes it is something like divorce or estrangement.  Abandonment.  Retirement.  A loss of a job.  Moving from one town to another and feeling like a stranger.  A brief stint in prison or jail.  A tour of duty in a war zone.  Or just the inevitable act of a child growing up and leaving home. It’s any experience that leaves you feeling changed.  Unable to connect with the life you once knew.

We make choices in how we deal with loss.  Some handle it stoically, pragmatically.  Others turn to vices.  Affairs.  Risky behavior to overcome the feeling of numbness or depression.  And others might just shut everything out and pretend that nothing has changed. Others might choose to take their own lives or harm themselves in other way, unable to process the grief.

The emotions are the same.  Guilt.  Anger.  Sadness. Regret.  Isolation. Relief (and even guilt associated with that).  Depression.  Numbness.  Anxiety.  Euphoria.  Religious/emotional catharsis/crisis.  The pieces that once fit together so well are like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing pieces.  The picture can never be complete. Those of us who remain…are the Leftovers.  What do we do with a world that is broken?  A life that is shattered?  What can we do?

I think the characters, complete train-wrecks in their own right, personify literally every way we deal with this every day.  It just puts a name and a face to it.  Sometimes they handle it, sometimes they don’t.  They yell, they fight, they weep, they exist.  Some are haunted by their deeds, or those they have hurt.  Some reach out to God or some other higher calling.  Some just fade out of the story.  There are characters who just want to be left alone.  Some make a point to never give up.  Others that take drastic measures to make sure they never risk losing their loved ones again.

Of course some of them join death cults, some of them shoot stray dogs, some take Aboriginal hallucinogens, some drown themselves in a lake and come back from the dead, some sing karaoke in Purgatory, and some find each other and do whatever they can to fill the gaping holes in each other’s lives.

But the event has also broken up the fabric of the norm. New connections, new relationships, new beginnings are all starting over again.  Dynamics between parents and children, old lovers, family, community are all forced to shift.  People in the Leftovers are getting on with their lives after the Event.  They are coping.  They are finding each other amid this chaos and confusion, just like real people do.

At the end of the series, Nora actually travels to the place where everyone was taken and the realization that in her world, they lost 1% of the world’s population, but in this parallel world, the people she encounters lost 99% of everyone they knew.  And they still come together and start anew. She comes back and drops off the grid.  The final episodes where this is explained give closure to everything.

In our own way, we are all leftovers.  We each suffer loss.  Our world is always changing.  Loss continues to pick the keystones out of our lives.  Maybe not necessarily in the dramatic way of Kevin and Nora’s world, but significant nonetheless.  But we manage to continue on as well as we can.

And with that, comes hope.

Anyway, watch the show.  Stick with it through all three seasons and remind yourself, this story is about all of us.  It’s about loss.  And yes, sometimes when the characters do something completely asinine, that’s us too.